Running in Circles is Basecamp’s view of agile product management. They acknowledge the value of working in cycles, but add three pieces: having the time to focus, being able to modify the original plan, and tackle the core unknowns of the feature first.
The first two are enablers that are provided to the makers by management. The last part is how the maker make the most of those powers. Together, they form a process that is nicely captured with the uphill / downhill metaphor. Uphill you are discovering the unknowns and making decisions about what goes in, downhill everything is clear and you are implementing it at warp factor 10:
I came across Module Counts, which tracks the number of published modules for major language package managers. At this point, npm has 600k packages published, which is 3 to 4 times what any other package manager has. I’m not aware of download statistic across different package managers, but npm has surpassed the 2 billions downloads a week mark.
Software architecture failing: tech writing is biased towards what the big ones do, which usually doesn’t fit most other contexts – but, who got fired for choosing IBM, right? Although I feel connected to this rant at an emotional level, I do think it’s necessary to elaborate more and make a positive contribution: help to create and spread that alternate history of software development. How do you do it? Hat tip: Fran.
On November 2016 I had a free month between jobs. Apart from some resting, reading, and general preparations for my new adventure, I still had quite a bit of free time to do new things or build good habits. It was while cleaning my office that I found a keyboard I had bought a couple of years back:
Its layout was a beautiful matrix -which is good for your fingers- and came with Dvorak by default. So it struck me: how about improving my typing during the coming weeks?
As a programmer, typing is an essential skill for me. I had been doing it for more than 15 years in a learn-by-doing way, and I plan to keep typing for years to come. I thought it would be fun to spend a couple of hours a day training in touch-typing and give Dvorak a second try. And so I did.
Before I switched, I recorded about 15 typing sessions at TypeRacer using the QWERTY layout, which logs typing speed (words per minute) and accuracy (% characters right over the total). I was at 67 wpm and about 95% accuracy at the time.
Progress was very humbling at the beginning; it felt like learning to walk again, and I swear that, sometimes, I could even hear my brain circuits being reconfigured! After a few weeks, though, I was under 40 wpm and, by the end of the month, I was under 50 wpm. I stopped quantifying myself by then: as I started working, I had a lot of typing to do anyway.
During the first months, the only moments I struggled and felt like perhaps the switch wasn’t a good idea after all was during real-time communication: chats, slack, etc. I don’t know what people thought of me, but my velocity at the time was typing-bounded – I was certainly a very slow touch-typist by my own standards.
But time passed and I improved.
Spáñish Dvorak and symbols
Throughout the process I changed my setup quite a bit: I started my journey using the Programmer Dvorak layout with a TypeMatrix keyboard. After a few months, I switched back to my good old ThinkPad keyboard because having to use a mouse again after years not using it was a pain. A few months later, I switched to the Dvorak international, because the Programmers Dvorak layout didn’t quite suit me. Then, I tweaked the common symbols I use for programming so they were better positioned. Besides, although the bulk of my typing is in English, I still need to write decent Spáñish, which basically means using tildes on vowels and ñ. TLDR: the Spanish Dvorak version made things more difficult, so I’ve just tweaked the Dvorak international to accommodate tildes and ñ as I see fit.
At this point, I believe I can patent my own layout:
All the changes I did to the symbol positions have affected my ability to build muscle memory for them – sometimes I still need to look at some specific symbol on the keyboard. However, the current version has been unchanged for months, so I only need a bit more time for them to stick.
Given that I was a QWERTY user for 15 years, I thought I would give the new layout a year before comparing any statistics. The fair thing to do would be comparing after 15 years, but I’m a bit impatient for that. I went to TypeRacer again and noted down the results for about 20 races. These are the numbers of this totally unscientific experiment:
A few remarks:
In terms of speed, it seems that I’m mostly there. My median speed now is 65 wpm, 2 words per minute less than before. I had a higher peak (83 vs 79) in one of the current typing sessions, but I was under 60wpm in more sessions this time.
In terms of accuracy, I’ve improved a bit. My median accuracy has increased by 1,5 points, and I had only 2 sessions below 95% of accuracy this time.
Overall, I’m very happy with the switch to Dvorak. My accuracy has improved, meaning that I can maintain a longer typing rhythm. Not having to correct mistakes makes me a faster typist as well, and by learning to touch-type I also have grown more endurance.
This experiment was very humbling but fun. I believe it increased my brain plasticity by an order of magnitude, and I’m hoping to improve my numbers as years pass as well. However that turns out, though, I think of this as a gift to the elder me, a way to prevent typing pain in the future and promote a healthy use of the tools I heavily depend upon.
I spent the weekend reorganizing things, including my blog. I’ve got a new WordPress theme (independent publisher) which looks a lot more lightweight. I’ve consolidated the essays section with stuff that grew out of individual posts (I keep thinking that someday I’ll have the time to publish them as independent e-books), polished the about, fixed some links in the glossary, and started to reorganize the archives.
I’m also going to try a different approach in the following months: instead of having separate blogs for music, lifestream, thoughts, etc I’m going to publish everything here – I do not publish that much anyway, and I like the idea of this having a more personal touch.
When we want to acquire a new skill, we are faced with two choices: trial-error, or instruction. One is experience-driven or practice-based, the other is concept-driven or theory-based.
Trial-error is the built-in mechanism humans come with to acquire knowledge and skills – our thinking processes are optimized for that. However, it may be expensive and impractical in some situations. For instance, learning to pilot an aircraft by trial-error is risky should you want to keep the chances of learning in the future high. We have developed systems that lower the cost of trial-error, though, such as pilot simulators. It can also be time-consuming: we just don’t have the time to trial-error every piece of knowledge our society is based upon!
Learning by instruction appears to be more efficient: we are presented with models and recipes that work, saving us a lot of time that we can use to advance our knowledge further. Nevertheless, the instruction is not always possible; sometimes the map of knowledge of a certain domain isn’t built yet, so we need to rely on the trial-error approach. Even most important is the fact that internalizing abstract knowledge not based on direct experience seems to be more difficult for humans.
What they said is 1) we should recognize the role of the first-hand experience in acquiring knowledge and 2) to become an expert it is necessary to learn the rules, guidelines, and maxims of the particular skill we are interested in.
The rules are the principles that always apply, they don’t depend on anything so they are context-free or non-situational. Examples of rules are the valid movements of a piece in the go game, the set of instructions in programming, the techniques in the Aikido martial art.
The guidelines are the principles that only apply in specifics contexts, so they are context-bound or situational. Things like josekis in the go game (sequences of moves in a specific part of the board), the design patterns in programming, or the katas in Aikido.
The maxims are principles that guide us towards achieving our long-term goal, they help us by assigning a value to guidelines: is this joseki worth it if I’m playing for territory in go? Is the ability to grow new features necessary for this specific part of the application? What specific throw should I use if I want to face the next adversary?
For one to become an expert, rules, guidelines, and maxims should be second nature.
Dreyfuss defines a 5-step process someone goes through to gain knowledge: novice, competence, proficiency, expertise, mastery. Others outline different systems that include three stages. What’s important is to realize that the learning process is at its best when we take a practical approach and theory is presented to the learner as they are prepared to assimilate the next artifact – rules, guidelines, maxims.
Learning to learn is probably one of the more important skills when we no longer know what’s coming next. The real world TM tends to be more chaotic and intertwined than the sequential process outlined by Dreyfuss. Realizing where are you at a particular skill will help you in making decisions about what focus on. For instance, am I a novice at skill X? Well, at this point, I’m better off focusing on learning the rules and imitate what others have done. And so on.
Learning also takes a lot of time – someone has even published a number, about 10.000 hours to become an expert in anything. It’s a lot! It may be discouraging. Luckily, a practice-based approach makes things more rewarding, and time flies when we are enjoying the process.
Past Saturday, AMC aired Halt and Catch Fire season finale. I saw this tv-show grow over 4 seasons and I’m sad it’s over.
HACF resonated with me because it was about the pleasure of making things work and the cost of pursuing your dreams. We need a whole lot more stories about the woes and joys of creation to learn how to navigate that world and to inspire us. We need more builders and dreamers capable of not burning themselves out.
Bonus points for using the evolution of computers as the McGuffin. But, as much as I liked the history of computers being the central plot of a well done period drama, HACF wasn’t about computers. The computers aren’t the thing. They are the thing that get us to the thing.