Archive for April, 2014

Spending Good Fridays with the Country Club Christians

“We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” – Jonathan Swift

“I don’t remember learning how to hate in Sunday School” – Steve Earle’s Jerusalem

I don’t know why we expect institutions to be more noble than the people that comprise them, but we do. And no loftier are those expectations than for churches and organized religion. Yet, it seems that organized religion can disappoint almost as often as it can inspire. I experienced such disappointment first hand over several recent Good Fridays.

Several years ago I was helping out as an usher with a Good Friday church service. During this particular church service an intense young man (who was not a regular member, or had never even been to the church to my knowledge) sat in the front pew looking seriously and intently at the pastor, and nodding away in agreement as he gave a traditional Good Friday sermon (such mild expressions would have gone quite unnoticed at an AME church service I can assure you). Rather than appreciate that a member of the flock was actually awake, alert, and following the sermon, the pastor apparently became concerned that the man was unhinged. After the service was over, the pastor asked several of us ushers to keep an eye on the this apparently erratic young man.

Now, while it was obvious that this young man was indeed intense and concerned about something, it did not seem to rise to the level of a safety concern. And I found it extremely odd that a pastor would even notice, let alone be concerned about such a person. I guess I expected that pastors by the very nature of their training and experience would be accustomed, maybe even desensitized, to dealing with folks in crises, especially since those crises such as death, disease, divorce, prison, and the like seem to be their bread and butter.

Anyway after the service, under the pastor’s guidance, that young man was lead out and away from the church unassisted so he wouldn’t be a problem. Someone who just wanted to talk about a particular problem and experience some love and encouragement was instead turned away by the church – and I was indeed part of that group, too busy at the time trying to get my own kids home and in bed. But it did made me feel bad and wonder if I shouldn’t have set a better example and maybe try to be part of a different sort of group. I eventually left that church and strived be better at helping those in need, especially when they most needed it.

A couple of Easters later, I met Tom Armstrong, a former Pennsylvania state lawmaker who had caused considerable angst in his community by taken three homeless sex offenders into his comfortable home in Marietta, PA (a suburb of Harrisburg). – I was truly amazed – here was a person who was surely living up to the true words and ideals of Christ, and perhaps not unlike Christ in some respects, he was quite persecuted for those ideals – ironically enough by folks who most claimed to be highly religious and supportive of “Christian Values.”  Now, if you were truly Christian and really wanted to find a modern analog to healing Lepers, you could hardly find a better candidate than much-reviled sex-offenders. Yet he was totally and absolutely persecuted and even hated by those so-called Christians who are supposed to be the same very champions of unconditional forgiveness and love.

It is extremely odd that few would see the inconsistency in such a belief system of persecution. The analogs to the recipients of Christ’s love are everywhere in today’s world – take your pick of combinations: women being stoned (convicts), prostitutes (homosexuals, drug addicts), tax collectors (abortion doctors), Lepers (sex offenders), and the lists goes on and on.

Last Good Friday was unfortunately another disappointment, the state was debating gun law changes in the wake of the Newtown massacre and there was a long and sternly worded Letter to the Editor from the pastor of our largest local church. This letter espoused the bizarre belief that in order to be true Christians, that true followers of Christ must own guns and be prepared to take up arms at any moment to support “Christian Values.” So much for turning the other cheek I guess – and it sounded a bit too much like that line from Mean Girls where “…on the third day God invented the Gun….” It too seems that if you wanted a modern analog to the cruel Roman guards and their spears – it is people who love their guns and their associated culture of death.

Those “Churches of Good Fridays Past” seem like they are not Christian churches at all, but more like the Temples of the Romans or the Pharisees. These so called “Christians” with their “Christian Values(do they even know what that means?)” don’t believe in helping the downtrodden, there are the oppressors. They don’t believe in unconditional love and forgiveness, they are the ones setting the conditions and making forgiveness unobtainable. They are not the Apostles or the Disciples, they are the crowd demanding Christ’s Crucifixion. They don’t have a consistent belief system – they have a club – a Country Club. They long ago forgot their guiding principles and turned into self-promoting social clubs full of Comfortable Christians – with followers who are so far removed from Christ’s original principles as to be almost indistinguishable caricatures of Christ.

So if you want to truly learn something about Jesus and Christian Values – you might do better this year to just skip the church service and simply watch Johnie Cash’s Gospel Road. But please remember to check your fear, hate, and guns at the door of this church.

Amen on Good Friday to those simple Gospel messages of true Christian Values – simple and timeless values of unconditional forgiveness and true love.

 

Brogrammers Making the World Better Through…

In just the sort of Web 2.0, Hacktivist, Hipster, Social Media, viral-video launch you could expect from a hungry start-up, Mike Judge’s HBO Series Silicon Valley Episode 1 was posted to YouTube this week: http://youtu.be/VvkmsI54ss4 and is wonderful.

Much like Judge’s other well-known (if under-appreciated) efforts and cult-culture hits, Office Space and Idiocracy, Silicon Valley is acidic, hyper-real, and both simultaneously painful and hilarious to watch.

2 minutes into the first episode I was laughing so hard I was grabbing a pencil to record the many memorable lines/scenes/scenarios – here are just a few:

  • Tech companies making the world better through…
    • “Constructing hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility”
    • “Through minimum message-oriented transport layers”
    • “Claiming to make the world better all the time”
  • Spot-on depictions of…
    • Brogrammers, stereotypical party-of-5 developers, nap-pods, “hacker hostels/incubators,” launch parties, tech T-shirts (H.T.M.L), the Google-bus, TED-talks : e.g. “College is Snake Oil,” vapid VPs, supposed tech gurus/visionaries throwing money at any silly idea, and many more.
  • Frighteningly realistic and hilarious developer quotes such as
    • “I put the prototype up on Github”
    • “I memorized my hexadecimal time tables when I was like 14” – “go ahead ask me what 9xF is?” “fleventy-flive”
  • Miscellaneous biting indictments of Silicon Valley and the culture at large
    • “Kid Rock is the poorest person here”
    • “Inferior products win out all the time”

Keep up the good work & maybe there will be at least a few people who can appreciate and understand such good humor and perhaps more importantly who are actually still willing to reward such efforts & quality by actually paying for something (full disclosure – I am too cheap to pay for HBO – but I *will* watch it when it comes to Netflix).

 

The Pragmatic and Practical Design Template (Discussion)

Discussion

(Just Jump to Design Template)

We are all designers at heart. When we are little we construct models with play-doh and virtual worlds with crayons. But somewhere along the way, particularly in engineering domains, we lose this view of design as a simple model of reality and instead insist that a model must be as close to reality a possible. A design is a plan -or probably more correctly “a guess”- for something you want to create. Its only purpose is to get you from the “thinking about” to the “building” stage as quickly-and reasonably-as possible. For some domains, space travel and nuclear power for instance, you need this stage to be much more precise and deliberate, but fortunately few domains require this level of fidelity/reliability. Particularly in quick-to-release and prototype software, you need the design stage to be quick yet useful and add value. You don’t want to invest a bunch of effort in a model that isn’t the final thing you are going to use, but you do want to show that you have at least thought about that thing in advance.

I’ve been thinking about Software Design lately because I need people to do (and want to do) this activity, i.e. show that they have thought about and planned things beforehand, but even after many years I’m still not sure the best means to achieve this end. I’ve read lots and lots of design documents and rarely are they instructive or useful. These things can cost a lot of money and time to produce, but rarely do they return tangible benefits – mainly because most of the software designs/plans/guesses are out of date as soon as they are written. In fact, the only designs I even remember actually reading and using are the ones that defined some type of data interface contract, and that was because this contract didn’t change (or change much).

So maybe it is time for a different approach to the standard “Design Document.” Perhaps a better approach is just a couple back-of-the-napkin, top-level diagrams + a simple FAQ that answers some of the most important questions. The top-level diagrams show that you have thought about this at some level of abstraction and that you can show the major parts. The FAQ is used to make a convincing argument for building this thing and the approach used. The right set of questions might even be applicable to a wide range of projects, from remodeling your bathroom, or having a medical procedure, to multi-million dollar software projects.  This FAQ answers the basic and paramount questions of “Would you do this yourself? And spend your own money on this?”

For any design or other explanatory write-up, the FAQ questions you should be able to answer (and answer clearly and concisely) if what you are planning to work on is useful and worthwhile are:

(Jump to Design Template)

 

Design Tools

Design Tools (CC2 – Paul Stein – Original Image: https://flic.kr/p/qhsUF)

The Pragmatic and Practical Design Template

The Pragmatic and Practical Design Template

For discussion/background see this post.

Note: any answer here should be less than 3 sentences, the shorter/clearer/more concise the better – 1 sentence even being optimal. If it requires more, then you probably aren’t using understandable & clear user-focused language. Avoid references to specific technology as much as possible –e.g. instead saying “XML” just say “a file” or “a format” – terms everyone is going to understand. Not all of these questions below are applicable to every case, so don’t try to answer if they don’t fit/apply.

1.           What problem are you solving?

a.            Was something not possible before that should be possible now? Or that you couldn’t do another way? What do you hope to gain?

b.            What is it for? Who benefits? What is the motivation behind it?

2.            What is your high-level plan for solving the problem?

a.            What is your plan?

b.            Commitment: When (what specific date) are you committing to do this by?

c.             Show your high level diagram (typical Level of Detail expected: whiteboard/back-of-envelope/napkin)

3.            Why are you doing things this way?

a.            What are the primary drivers?

4.            Is what you are creating adding value?

a.            Can someone get more out of this approach/thing than they could before?

5.            Will this change behavior?

a.            Is what you are working on really going to change anything? Will someone *want* to use this because it makes their life simpler/easier/more productive?

6.            Is there any alternative or easier way?

a.            What are the alternatives? Are they easier? Cheaper? Quicker?

b.            Does something similar already exist?

c.             How are you able to get more value out of this design than you could with something simpler/easier/quicker?

d.            If this is something hard-to-understand or explain above: What is driving the complexity of this design and is this really the simplest way? Are you using customer-focused language? Have some steps been over-complicated?

7.            Is this actually useful?

a.            Are you making something useful or just making something?

8.            Is what you are doing really worth it?
Remember: don’t go throwing good time after bad work and you can’t get back the money/effort you already expended, so don’t necessarily consider the resources already invested (“sunk costs”).

a.            Is the time, energy, effort, cost, etc. worth what you hope to gain?

b.            What do you hope to gain?

9.            Are there any other dependencies or risks to consider?

a.            Does what you are doing depend on anyone/anything else at all? What are these dependencies / risks? Can they be minimized (by isolating some part of the system)?

10.          Is what you are doing usable in different environments? Is so, what are these things that won’t change in this new environment?

a.            Note: This is the lowest priority for getting work done quickly, but remember to focus on what won’t change as this project matures/ages: good workflow, data model design, portable data – these don’t change & can be useful and used anywhere.

b.            For example, if you do something in .NET, is the design still solid/applicable and is the back-end data still useful if I have to implement this in Python or JavaScript? Code itself is actually fairly useless, but good design, data, and concepts apply anywhere.

 

These questions together add up to what is frequently referred to as a “Concept” or “Design” Document – but really it is just a set of questions that people have about any endeavor. Put even more simply what they usually want to know is

Global:

  • “Would you spend your own money on this?”
  • “Would you do this yourself?”

Specific:

  • “What are you doing?”
  • “Why are you doing it?”
  • “How much is it going to cost?”
  • “How will I benefit?”
  • “How are you going to do it?”
  • “When are you going to be done?”
  • “What is going to stop you from getting it done on time?”
  • “If you have problems when are we going to know whether we should stop trying to do it”
  • and so forth.

Keeping the language clear, concise, simple, and universally understandable is the hardest part. Avoid technical terms and instead remember to write from the perspective of someone who knows very little about that thing and wants to quickly and easily learn. That is your audience. Especially don’t write from your own perspective, or from someone who is like you and already knows the subject, that person doesn’t even need such a doc.

For discussion/background see this post.

References: heavily adapted from, but inspired by, 37 Signal’s Book Rework “When to Quit” Chapter. Great set of graphics from this book here.

 

Design Tools

Design Tools (CC2 – Paul Stein – Original Image: https://flic.kr/p/qhsUF)