What kitchen do you work in?

I often have trouble explaining what I do to someone outside of IT, especially for the first time. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not embarrassed to be a Software Developer (certainly not a Software Engineer, but that’s another topic for another time), but more getting across all the nuances of what I do across. Anyone who’s worked in say databases or devops knows what I mean, just saying you work in IT is much easier than explaining what is it you do.

One analogy I’ve used in the past is a kitchen in a restaurant. Most people have some idea of how a restaurant works, even if they haven’t worked at one. There’s a difference between a small mom-and-pop operation and a michelin star restaurant though, from the food itself right down to where the ingredients come from. The supply chain and the processes involved in turning the raw ingredients into an amazing dish are quite different. The interesting part is how far you can really stretch the analogy, and get across the nuances of your workplace 😉 An interesting exercise is to compare what you do to the appropriate area of the restaurant.

Imagine a restaurant where customers walk in, and they tell the waiter what they’d like to eat. Most of the time they’re familiar with the menu, and they want the same thing, but with a little twist. “Can I have this but vegetarian?” “Can I have truffles on the side?” “Can I have the pecan pie, but no nuts?”

Now the customer has no idea how hard their request actually is. They think they have an idea of how hard it is, but without actually having worked in a kitchen, they haven’t got a clue. Of course they might have been chefs before, or formed their estimate based on visits to other restaurants, but that’s kind of irrelevant because it’s now the responsibility of the waiter.

Most of the time the waiter says “sure we can do that”, sometimes he says “that is impossible Madam”, but it’s really up to how well he understands what’s being asked. Often he has other agendas. Maybe he would like to please a really important customer, sometimes he is wildly optimistic about what his kitchen can produce. Whatever the case, he converts a customer request, into a slip for the kitchen.

Every kitchen is different. I work in a small kitchen where I have to share my tools, ingredients and space with other cooks. Everyone chips in for a dish, someone does the chopping, someone does the tasting and someone does the frying. Mostly. Some kitchens cook without tasting. Some kitchens have only one cook. Some kitchens have the best tools. Some kitchens have the best cooks. Sometimes the best cooks are overwhelmed and overworked. Sometimes the cooks are from the pizzeria across the road.

The slip arrives at the kitchen and everyone scrambles. In many software kitchens, particularly the small ones, everyone is pretty good at making the dish, but no one wants to know how to put the dish together. It’s often seen as “not interesting” or “not as glamorous” as doing the actual cooking. Consequently, the dish assembly is usually thrown together in a rather haphazard manner. Sometimes it’s so bad the waiter simply rejects it outright.

Assuming that it’s decent enough to be served, and the waiter has written the slip correctly (certainly not taken for granted in many places!), you eventually receive your dish. Sometimes when you see it on the plate it looks delicious, but you bite into it and you find an eggshell or bits of plastic (remember the haphazard assembly?). Sometimes it tastes fantastic but when you arrive home, you spend the next week camped out in front of the toilet.

You might think there are food inspectors that go around restaurants, making sure something like this doesn’t happen, or that offenders get punished and blacklisted…. but there are areas where the analogy becomes a little more absurd. That, and how developers aren’t really cooks in the next instalment…

Scheduling canned spam

Suppose your friend’s birthday is coming up. You see it in your calendar, and you’d like to congratulate him/her on the day itself, but you know you have a horrible memory. Or perhaps you’ll be travelling and won’t have access to a phone or the internet. So instead you write a nice message in advance and schedule it using something like Mixmax or Boomerang to be sent on the day itself. Joy and appreciation ensues, and you gain brownie points and goodwill in spades.

This is so effective that you decide to do the same thing for every single friend in your address book. In a fit of exuberance you schedule the same email to be sent to every friend on facebook, helped largely thanks to mail merge features.

One day you’re telling a friend about Mixmax and the penny drops. She asks you if the email she got for her birthday was scheduled. Question is, should she be angry?

I’ve been on both the giving and receiving end. I help run a local Toastmasters club and send copious amounts of canned emails to new guests. I also receive my fair share of canned spam, and I really doubt there’s someone writing and sending each of those personalised marketing emails!

Phrased one way, it seems absurd. Does planning for something in advance cheapen its value? More emotively, is the quality or meaningfulness of a message reduced.

I was trying to figure out why the idea of someone sending canned emails annoyed me so much, and I’ve come to the conclusion it’s the relative ease which gets my goat. It takes me ages to write a simple email, so much so that sometimes I just give up and say I’ll make a mental note to catch up next time instead… which I never do. So hearing someone else barely lifting a finger to do it doesn’t sit so well.

But there’s more to it. If Martha sent me a scheduled email on my birthday, I think I’d be pretty uncomfortable, even if I could rationalise why she did it. I’d be doubly pissed if I recognised the contents from other canned emails she’d sent out.

Who it’s from, and how personal the message is makes a big difference. Not to mention how efficient you are at dealing with birthday cards yourself.

But if getting annoyed at something like this really means not being able to stay in touch with as many people, setting up a system doesn’t seem that bad after all. Just maybe not to everyone and a little less canned…

Piano Lessons

Growing up in Singapore with typical asian parents meant that my sister and I were forced coerced encouraged to learn how to play the piano. We had a piano teacher who would come over every week, giving us pieces to practice. I remember this one time where she gave us some bars and told us to compose melodies. Ten minutes before she arrived, I was hastily stringing random notes together on the sheets she gave us. Worst part of it was I had to sit through her trying to play each bar of music, wishing the ground would open and swallow me up there and then.

As much as I hated playing the piano, it’s probably the only reason I can read musical notes or string a melody together. It’s not the most useful skill as a developer, but something I am thankful that I have the opportunity to know. I don’t think I could have ever picked that up if I was handed a piano and told go learn this yourself. I had to be forced to.

Years later, I think the tyranny of choice is still just as relevant. My most productive days are the ones where I have to work through so much stuff that I don’t have time to think about what task to pick next. If it’s not ordered in a nice neat stack and I’m instead given the option to choose which task to do next, half the battle is lost for me.

So I want to be a dictator of my time once more. Not an absolute, iron-fisted maniac yet, but certainly with grand aspirations. I can only decree that these are the things I will do this week for now, but soon, these are the only things I will do today.

It’s not to say I want to cut out spontaneity in my life. There’s always time for spontaneous things I want to do. It’s the things that aren’t spontaneous that need to be forced into submission.

And I know some days I know I am going to wake up, smell the coffee and wonder wtf. Maybe I should go out and meet some friends instead, rather than sticking to this. But it’s precisely those days I need to come down hard on choice. There should be no other option available to pick from, just one.

Which is why the post made it out at all this week 🙂

IT stand up anyone?

So Martha did a humorous speech yesterday based off one of Michael McIntyre’s gigs. It was about how convoluted the process of buying tickets online had become, involving indecipherable captchas, countless fields to fill in and confirmations and legalese to read through if you really wanted to make sure your ass is covered and you haven’t actually signed / checkbox-ed away your firstborn child.

As she was talking about how strange it was that you have to confirm your email (they just want to make sure you really know your email!), all I could think of was the technical reasons behind it. It sucks when your system captures the wrong email address and keeps sending to a dead lead. Which then got me thinking. Why aren’t there any stand up comedians that work solely in professions. I’d think a stand-up comedian in IT would make a crazy killing in say San Fran, kind of like Dilbert but hardcore tech. Heck, even the word stand up means something different in IT than in comedy ~ta-dunk~.

So obviously the first thing you do when you have an idea like that is Google. And there really arent’t that many hits. For one there’s http://geekcomedytour.com/, which doesn’t seem like it’s been updated for about a decade. A whole tour of geeks doing comedy, who would have thought? It turn out that there’s quite some geek specific comedy like nerdist and even something like http://www.wcgeeksversusnerds.com/, where debates about the obscurest of topics in pop culture happen, like DOROTHY vs ALICE – “who is the best at navigating bizarre new lands?”. Random collection at http://www.giantbomb.com/forums/off-topic-31/nerdy-comedians-477293/ too which I have to go through at some point to figure out if they’re actually worth my while 🙂

But the bottom line is, I can’t seem to find any comedy specific to the IT industry. Something that will touch the soul of a tech person like http://devopsreactions.tumblr.com/ does. Anybody who codes or has to maintain systems can identify with that. But why not bring that to life? Why not make it living and breathing?

Apart from the lack of mass appeal, I think a big question is time. More than any other industry, the face of the landscape changes in the blink of an eye. And you can show your age and affect your appeal based solely on the choice of tech stack you choose to make fun of. And desensitisation. I’ve only started working at the new place for 3 months now and I can already tell some people have well and truly drank the koolaid. And when you drink the koolaid and something just ridiculously crazy to an outsider or someone coming in for the first time happens, you just go – yeah, that’s normal, nothing to see here, just move on, even when your hair is on fire, the sprinklers are on and people are running around screaming.

So let’s try and make it happen. I’ll give my next speech from the humorous manual, and make it something about IT. Let’s see how that works out.