Today is a good day to code

The Corporate Disconnect : Millenials Against the World

Posted: July 6th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Companies, Lifestyle, Programming, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

Disclaimer, I am not a millennial, I am in that strange area between generation X and generation Y, being closer to the Y. What does that have to do with the topic, you ask? It puts me in a unique place to watch the struggle of ideas unfolding between the engineers coming into companies, and the engineers / businesspeople running corporations.  This is not to say that all current executives are outdated, but in many companies, they have failed to update their model of the world to match increasing numbers of their customers, and the incoming flock of engineers.

The fundamental issue is that people who have had success in the past have a hard time considering that what gave them the success in the first place is not likely to continue producing success.  As an example, existing business processes for tracking hours is typically to have each individual estimate ( after the fact ) how many hours they have worked on a specific project on a given day.  The current method, as best as I can tell, is for engineers to estimate via points how much time it takes to perform a given programming task and do a post-mortem if the task takes more points.  But this daily reporting is eliminated, which is a better, more efficient process.  It is also one that revolves around trusting the engineer.

Another example is that it is not uncommon for developers working on a project to push out information about that project to the public via Twitter.  Even down to the level of code commits.  For the users of that product, they can choose to follow the official company feed or they can decide to follow their favorite engineers.  The concept of privacy has been diminished to a large degree in modern companies.  The benefit of this is that users become partners, not only in the debugging and troubleshooting process, but also in the development and planning phases.  You can find, for just about any startup, engineers posting what features they are thinking about and feedback from engaged consumers, either providing amplifications, their own feature suggestions, or strong negations about where the company should be spending its precious resources.  In such an environment, extreme secrecy is a huge liability.  Likewise, within corporations, keeping the status of the company, and what the customers are saying about the products from the engineers is disastrous to engineers’ morale, as well as harmful to the level of understanding of the executives as to what is happening within the company.  In more modern companies, the developers are treated like the partners of the product managers and the executives.

I think most of the fallacy in this regard comes from the manufacturing metaphors that have dominated the majority of the corporate worlds’ view of software development.  When I look at the waterfall method, and some of the organizational structures around engineering departments, what I believe is being attempted is to reduce development to an assembly line with shift managers and the like.  This can’t really work for software engineering  for many obvious reasons, but probably the most obvious is that programmers, even self taught ones have more in common with lawyers than they do with assembly line workers.  Assembly line workers can highly optimize their tasks due to the extremely specific level of requirements, as well as the consistency in their tasks.  Developers, and the product people working with the developers, almost never have requirements detailed enough to complete the given task.  Similarly, developers have a wide latitude to perform tasks in different ways as tools, managerial practices and or technology change, which is nearly daily at this point.  While most manufacturing systems change once every 20 years or so, a particular manufacturing worker can master their skills and have that be applicable for their entire career.

Attorneys are typically highly specialized, and operate with a widely varying set of rules, like software engineers, they need to parse and execute on sets of specifications ( laws ) to the benefit of the person contracting or paying them.  Their interpretation of a given law may not always be standard, but if it achieves the intended goal, then they are considered successful.  This interpretation in law as in software engineering is more of an art than a science.  This variability in going about the job from day to day creates odd management challenges that are being exacerbated for software engineering management as the millennials come into the workforce.  To a large degree, having fewer, more productive, empowered engineers is obviating the need for traditional engineering management.  Of course someone needs to be accountable, but if you have small groups of developers, the group can be accountable for a specific feature.  Small groups of engineers make it easier for them to triage why something went wrong and prevent it from happening again.  Failure is part of the software development process, but it doesn’t have to be a destructive part.

Millennials, and their immediate predecessors appear to be very comfortable with dealing with this sort of environment, they do not seem to need clear guidelines or even a clear goal.  Many software projects that utilized the “agile” philosophy, which even itself is becoming dated, typically manage the process with smaller tasks that everyone in a company seem to be involved in creating.  The new crop of engineers seem to be more comfortable with the self-taught, with it being more about what you can show than what you have done.  Resume’s appear to be losing their value relative to a solid portfolio of open source work and products.  My advice to people in high-school and college about to enter the work force is to work on a portfolio of applications first, or contribute to some open source projects, even more than attempting to get an internship at some big company.  If they can make some money off their portfolio, all the better.  The teams appear to be more distributed, with wide acceptance that each individual is working on their own business ideas not related directly to the company’s goals, or product portfolio.

All of these things fly in the face of the traditional command an control structure, however I believe that it will speed the pace of innovation, and improve the overall level of developers.  Smart companies will harness this multitasking and openness and provide avenues for their developers to contribute new products under a “labs” or a “demo” banner, even if they have nothing to do with the products that the company makes.  These companies will not mind as one of their “labs” projects earns more than their flagship product, and will provide the creator of that product a team and budget to see how far they can go.  That will rapidly become the only way to retain talent as the cost of starting a business online continues to drop.  Executives at these companies will treat their developers as peers in strategy as well as in the software development lifecycle.  It will become clear that this method of structuring a business is correct when not the one, but the many startups offering services begin to completely demolish the incumbents.  It is going to be an interesting ride… are you ready?

Losing Weight With Technology

Posted: February 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Lifestyle, Programming | Tags: , , , , , , , | No Comments »

About 8 months ago I started running because I noticed that Nike+ was built into my iPhone 3GS.  I had run in the past, but never very seriously.  I started to lose a bit of weight, but it wasn’t coming off like I felt it should.  I’ve always been heavy, except for the couple of times in my life when I went on a crash diet.  Once I lost nearly 100 lbs, way back when I was 16 by eating every other day.  Recently I think I have found something that works so A few days ago I felt motivated to indulge in telling my story on my blog since perhaps someone would find it helpful.  Since my weight kept going up, and I kept exercising harder and harder, I thought that something must be wrong with me.  At one point I was riding my bike to work, totaling over 200 miles a week and I didn’t lose an ounce.

Over the years, the lifestyle of a software engineer and a literature nerd took its toll on me and I gained back all of the weight that I had lost when I was 16, and then some.  I signed up for one of Nike’s virtual running plans and started to run more and more.  I was really enjoying analyzing the data that was coming out of my nike plus, that combined with the weather data from slowgeek.  But I wasn’t really losing any weight.  I just sort of settled into the fact that maybe I was just one of those people who were meant to be fat.

My wife wanted me to go to the doctor and ask for statins, which I did, because she was worried about my blood pressure and cholesterol, which I hadn’t checked in forever.  My doctor agreed with me that something wasn’t right about the fact that I wasn’t losing weight, even though I was working out like a demon, that my blood pressure was so high, and that I was having allergy and miscellaneous immune issues.  She didn’t want to give me any drugs, she is an awesome doctor, so she sent me over to get a lab done.

The cool thing about my doctor is that, much like a software engineer tracking a problem, she was able to string together a bunch of seemingly random data, anecdotal and otherwise, mix it with empirical data from the labs and quickly come to a working theory of what was going on.  I had a chronic vitamin D deficiency.  I know it sounds like a joke, and I thought it was pretty silly when she prescribed me high-dose vitamins, but my laughter in ridicule quickly turned into joyous laughter once the weight started dropping off.  My cholesterol was fine, so that was the only thing.  My doctor told me that a) everyone has a vitamin D deficiency, and b) since I was African American it was worse for me, especially living in the Bay Area.  She said that vitamin D plays a role in, get this, metabolizing sugar.  That without it your body has a hard time using the energy from sugar.  Well most of everything we eat is sugar ( high-fructose corn syrup ), so this would explain why I couldn’t lose weight.

That wasn’t all either, I had been moody for quite some time, but the Vitamin D mellowed my moods and helped me to concentrate.  About the same time I had been reading a book called The Omnivore’s Dilemma.  I was becoming more conscious of what I was eating.  I figured that since the iPhone was so awesome at capturing data with the Nike+ and that I always have it with me, if I could find something that would track my nutrients and calories on the iPhone I’d be able to see what was going on with my diet.

When I first started using LoseIt! (ITMS Link) I was shocked that almost all of my calories, between 4,000 and 6,000 a day were coming from carbohydrates.  I was running at something like 90% carbs 2% fat and the rest was protein.  Prior to using the program I was under the assumption that all I had to do was keep my fat down.  With my Vitamin D deficiency preventing me from actually burning the massive carbohydrate load I was putting in, my body was just storing everything.  Once I finally got the Vitamin D levels evened out with supplements, I started cutting down the calories.

Almost immediately I noticed that I started choosing the lower calorie foods with high protein such as eating a chicken breast, with no bread or rice, and a salad, instead of a salad and a horde of pretzels.  The pretzels had an insane amount of calories, so did bread, and rice, so I stopped eating so much of those almost immediately.  I started eating way more fat, and when I say way more, I mean that between 12% and 20% of my calories were from fat.  I still eat way more fat than people say is good for you, all the while losing weight at between 1 and 3 lbs a week, with little to no ravenous hunger that doesn’t occur at mealtimes.  Of course I avoid trans-fats and saturated fats, but I am not afraid to eat a steak or dark chicken meat.  Once you get into training for endurance sports your needs will change, but at the beginning it is really good advice to follow Chris Carmichael’s : Eat Right to Train Right foundation percentages.

All this data was making me giddy, I could actually see what was happening to my body as I changed the mixture and quantity of what I was eating.  As I fixed my diet, the constant hunger went away.  LoseIt had me at around 2800 calories when I was at about 260 lbs, but now it has me at about 2060 at 200.

LoseIt works on a very simple assumption, that 3500 calories a week equals 1 lbs, so short 3500 calories a week, you should lose 1 lbs per week.  With all the data I can now see, based on what I am eating, what is happening to me during races, long rides, etc… I have a much better understanding of why I am cramping up on rides, or during swims, or why I bonk, or can’t crank up the output on some days.  I am learning which foods burn best for what.

Everyone thinks that the government has BMI and the diet guidelines all wrong, and to be fair, it is a bit off, but not as much as people think.  People want to believe that they are just the way they are, and that they don’t need to, or can’t change.  Many people think that they can be healthy while being seriously overweight, or that they are somehow special and the laws of thermodynamics don’t apply to them.  Everyone is so focused on eating more “good calories”, etc… That is all bullshit.  A calorie is a calorie.  If you don’t burn it you will gain weight.  Unless you are a triathlete, marathoner, etc… 3500 calories = 1 lbs period.  First you have to fix any chemical or other issues in your way, but aside from physical biochemical issues, it is possible for everyone to be at a healthy weight, and it isn’t hard as long as you can be anal about tracking calories.

I would have lost 1 lbs per week had I not been running, picked up swimming, and started cycling more.  Instead I was losing around 3 to 3 and 1/2 lbs per week.  While doing all of this I was building my CycleMetrics application for the iPhone.  Testing it was a monster, I had to do intervals to test the power output on the bike even when I wasn’t riding simply for fun.  All the while aggregating my exercise data on Google Docs, and using LoseIt to count calories.  Some people may think it is rude when I pull out my phone at dinner and start tallying up the damage before I eat it, but it helps me with portion control, and screw them if they don’t like it.

At the moment I have lost 60 lbs.  I still have a bit to go to hit my ultimate goal, which is to hit the top end of the normal BMI range for my height and shoulder width, but now that I have a framework with which to control my weight and keep myself at peak physical and mental performance I am not concerned that I will hit them.

I would like to editorialize a bit and rant about the food industry.  It is absolutely insane that I need this much technology to figure out what is in the foods that I am eating.  I shouldn’t have to track every calorie this way, corn shouldn’t be in everything in the quantities that it is.  The government shouldn’t tax fossil fuels, they should tax high-fructose corn syrup.  Also, eating out is inordinately hard.  I needed The Daily Plate ( Livestrong ) (ITMS Link) Application just to figure out how to approximate what I was eating and what the calories are in stuff at restaurants.  They should really consider putting this on their menus voluntarily, and if they won’t the government should make them do it.  Only because if they don’t everyone’s health care bills will rise.

With all of the money that we are looking at spending to improve health-care, I can’t believe that we don’t do something about the sugar / corn intake of people.  Unless you look at what you are eating, the amount of calories that you can consume is really absurd.  The bag of pretzels next to your desk that you munch on while coding and listening to glitch music is about 1400 calories, you’d be better off with two butterfinger bars.  Better than that would be to eat a balanced lunch with fat, carbohydrates, and protein.

If I was reading this, and I was still where I was, I’d be saying to myself, yeah its all well and good that you found religion, but you are working out, eating right, and got quality medical care.  It worked for you, but how can I know that it will work for me?  Its a good question.  I don’t know that it will work for everyone.  However, what I do know is that for each of the people that I have given this app to who have seriously tracked what they ate, their results are the same as mine.  Think about it this way, development without a framework is hard, it is tough to know where to start, and even harder to know when you have built enough.

LoseIt is like a framework, it makes the hard decisions about how much and what to eat.  It lets you think about that fancy Lisp project that you want to build, instead of feeling guilty about eating too much, or wondering whether to eat this or that.  Really it doesn’t matter much what you eat, if your goal is to lose or maintain a healthy weight.  I still eat McDonalds, although I get a happy meal, I eat dominoes and drink copious amounts of beer.  The difference is that either I work out to get rid of the excess calories or I stop eating and drinking when I hit my limit.  That is not to say that you won’t have any health problems eating this stuff, it is just to say that your weight won’t be one of them if you stay within your calorie boundary.

As far as the exercise goes, there are so many different types of sports out there, even people who say they hate sports admit to not trying them all, who knows, you could have a desire to be a curling champion, or to do pole vault, etc…  There is something for everyone.

If you capture the data, imagine the awesome analysis software you can write to find trends.  Right now I am cross referencing my diet with the weather, and speed with altitude to see at which humidity and carb levels I perform best at with altitude.  It isn’t so much that I care, it is mostly about the fun with analyzing the data.  I never thought I would have so much access to the inner life of my body.  Anyway, I this is about wrapped up.  If you are having trouble losing weight look into Vitamin D, and if you haven’t already, grab LoseIt (free) and a copy of Omnivore’s dilemma, it will change your life for the better.

*UPDATE: 2/19/2010*

I forgot to write an additional thing that I am doing to control my weight.  Since my father died a little over a year ago, I have been trying to get 100% of my fiber each day, somewhere between 25 and 30 grams.  Coincidentally, I learned later that fiber plays an important role in helping you to feel full after meals, as well as helping your body dissipate excess calories.  I would recommend that anyone increasing their fiber, however do it gradually or you might have some uncomfortable results.