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Allen Pike

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Top Banana

Permalink - Posted on 2017-11-01 03:00

Being a generalist is great fun. There is much joy to be had in jumping between programmer and artist, project manager and product designer, bug finder and bug maker. You can also be a musician and athlete, parent and world traveller, superfan, superstar, and whatever else strikes your fancy if you invest the time. The world is your bivalve!

Generalists are ideal team members for startups and small product teams. Product teams that are themselves generalists – they are capable of working on many kinds of products – are also primed for success in a tech industry that walks ever randomly. Heinlein said “Specialization is for insects”, and he was mostly right.

There’s one problem though: it’s hard to sell somebody a mixed bag.

“So tell me, what are you good at?”

“Well sir, I’m okay at everything.”

“Sure, but what’s an example of a really exceptional project you’ve worked on?”

“Uh, well, I made a proof-of-concept Rails app, I designed some reasonable labels for a craft brewery, I wrote a pretty okay musical…”

“Right fine, let’s switch gears. How many times have you written a realtime video app?”

“Well, I haven’t yet, but… I’m a fast learner?”

This is kind of shitty, since a lifelong learner with broad skills is actually a great addition to most teams – it’s just hard to stand out in a crowd of other self-proclaimed fast learners.

Whether you’re trying to get hired as an individual or as a company, there’s a trick to getting work: start by becoming a world expert.

Insert training montage

In some industries and some eras, becoming a world expert was a Herculean undertaking. After decades of training to become a master sushi chef like his father, Jiro Ono’s son was still working in the back, making the rice and toasting the seaweed. I mean, I bet he toasted some damn good seaweed, but… damn.

In modern software development, on the other hand, becoming an expert is just a thing you do. Part of the fun of software is that the tools and methodologies change at least yearly – or if you’re using JavaScript, they change every 16 minutes.

And thanks to the wonder of the Information Superhighway, you can typically experiment with and learn new technologies before they’re even formally released. You just need to play with some beta releases, read a couple mailing lists, and otherwise gather knowledge from sources that are just inconvenient enough that most people don’t bother. Next thing you know, you’re top banana at an exciting new technology.

Of course, nobody can be an early adopter like this for every technology – in fact, most developers, especially ones at larger companies, won’t be early adopters for any technology. They’re content to let the indies and enthusiasts research, experiment, and occasionally blow themselves up due to some dire documentation or dubious dependency.

In return though, the experimenters benefit from great demand for the lessons they’ve learned. As the bleeding edge becomes just the cutting edge, bigger teams and companies start investing in the latest new-fangled wizardry and need folks to help.

I learned the value of this by accident when we started Steamclock. At my previous job, I’d become pretty experienced with a relatively obscure web framework called SproutCore. When I struck out on my own, I started getting inquiries out of the blue from big businesses that needed help with their SproutCore apps. It turned out that as a young open source project, very few people outside Apple knew the framework, so when companies wanted to experiment with it, Steamclock’s site popped up in the search results. This got us a couple of our big early clients, and taught us the value in specialization – intentional or not.

Each time new technology debuts, new experts emerge. Erica Sadun jumped into Swift on day one, and has now authored more Swift language proposals than anybody in the world. When Angelina Fabbro worked at Steamclock, she went from checking out a draft spec for Web Components to touring the world giving talks how to implement them before I could blink. And of course, friend of the show James Thomson – under the guise of developing a calculator app – has rapidly remade his career as a world expert in ARKit bananas. Which is bananas. But also, wonderful.

Back in the day, there was an interview show on 5by5 called CMD-Space. Each episode, the first question host Myke asked was:

“What do you like to be known for?”

While it served its intended purpose of kicking off many a good interview, it also slowly worked itself slowly into the audience’s brains – a question worth having an answer to. “What am I known for? What do I want to be known for?”

As a product studio, Steamclock does client work in order to fund our own product work, so having a good answer to these questions is critical. If we’re not known for anything in particular, we’re stuck knocking on people’s doors, trying to get in the lowest bid on Tinder for Bananas. On the other hand, if we’re known for doing great work of a certain kind, leads will knock on our proverbial door. Almost all of our work comes from this kind of lead today, and it makes for a far healthier business.

The thing is, it’s not enough to be able to say you’re good at building apps for companies – you need to be great at something specific. Maybe you’re great at building beautiful apps for ecommerce companies. Maybe you’re great at building secure apps for enterprise companies. Maybe you’re great at building dumb blockchain apps for excessively funded companies. You can stay a generalist – generalists are great. Just be sure to specialize in something too.

Seek out the surprisingly attainable goal of becoming a world expert.

If you don’t, you’re bananas.


Do Not Disturb While Living

Permalink - Posted on 2017-10-01 03:00

The modern world is filled with notifications. Our days hum with little vibrations, each requesting little attentions. Now, they come straight to your wrist.

In some ways, notifications can be great. Messages from friends and family are welcome. Knowing you’re reachable can make being a parent or a manager a less anxious experience. At their best, notifications free us from checking for status on the things that matter.

Other times, notifications are the worst. Nobody needs their watch to tell them about yet another geopolitical garbage fire, the arrival of their 437th unread email, or anything to do with LinkedIn. Thus, we clamp down on what notifications get through.

Even with a fairly strict notifications policy though, sometimes you’ll be in the middle of something that matters to you, receiving a barrage of notifications that are Not Important Right Now™.

Maybe co-workers are mentioning you in Slack. Maybe you’re unnecessarily being cc’ed on a Twitter argument. Maybe you just got sucked into the inky maw of a giant group Messages conversation. In any case, your phone is now going off like Hector Salamanca in the middle of your critical presentation to the Wisconsin Board of Cheese.

Turn It Off

Do Not Disturb to the rescue! Since iOS 6, we’ve had a handy toggle for situations like this. All you need to do is pull up Control Center, tap the little moon icon, and voila: you will no longer get notifications – until you remember to toggle it again, later that evening, when you’re the only person left at work, wondering why your wife still hasn’t texted you, and you have the dreaded realization that Do Not Disturb has been on for seven hours, so you finally toggle it and the notifications pour in, oh man how did I not notice this sooner, oh geez Rick this is bad.

It turns out, you usually only want Do Not Disturb on for a little while. An hour perhaps, or maybe until the end of the work day or the next morning. Unfortunately, it’s very easy to switch on and accidentally stay on. Admittedly, the feature does put a little moon icon up in the status bar – which is displayed when you look at your phone, which you’re not going to do much, because DND is on.

Put another way, future me is an idiot, and I don’t trust him to turn Do Not Disturb off.

Thankfully, a lot of notification-heavy apps provide a “snooze” feature with an appropriate timer. Slack makes it easy to squelch pings for an hour or two, letting you focus on the task at hand. Facebook Messenger, whose runaway group conversations have brought down many a DND hammer, also lets you mute notifications for a set time. Your friends are still your friends, even if they somehow inexplicably prefer Facebook as their means of communication.

As nice as these features are, it’s not exactly practical to hunt through your apps and dig up their snooze functions every time you need to focus on something. “You’re right, I apologize, those notification vibrations are a distraction – just give me a few minutes to go toggle a variety of snooze functions in various apps and then you’ll have my undivided attention.”

Advanced DND

This month, Apple augmented DND by adding Do Not Disturb While Driving. Now, you can have it mute notifications while you drive, without having to remember to toggle them back on when you’re done. This joins the longstanding Quiet Hours feature, which lets you mute notifications over night: Do Not Disturb While Sleeping. WatchOS 4 also added another contextual DND: Do Not Disturb While Working Out.

So that’s a start, but they have a long way to go. We also need:

  • Do Not Disturb While Having This 1:1 Meeting
  • Do Not Disturb While Presenting This Talk
  • Do Not Disturb While Vacation Planning With My Wife
  • Do Not Disturb While Reading My Daughter a Bedtime Story
  • Do Not Disturb While Watching This Totally Awesome But Very Serious Scene That Finally Explains The Main Character’s Mysterious Origin

Basically, we need a way to tell our phones to leave us alone for an hour.

“Well Allen,” you might say, “since you’re so great at accurately predicting the future of Apple’s UI, where would the iOS team even put this supposed DND timer control?”

Well rhetorical internet person, luckily for me, I don’t really need to speculate: iOS 11 already has an alternate mode for Control Center widgets. Most Control Center widgets have a 3D Touch action now, but not Do Not Disturb. In exactly the way you can now 3D Touch the Timer button to set a countdown, you should be able to Go Deep on Do Not Disturb.

You should be able to push firmly, set “1 hour”, and tap “Start”.

Then kick back, focus, and be truly present – in manageable one hour chunks.


Bright Side of the Moon

Permalink - Posted on 2017-09-01 03:00

Most things in our world are continuums: you can have none, a little, a lot, or the whole thing. A few things are binary – it’s either there or it isn’t. A total solar eclipse is one of those binary things. Even when the the moon has covered 99% of the sun, our star is still blindingly bright and indistinctly shaped. When you get to 100%, then bam: you can behold the sun’s corona with the naked eye, one of the most beautiful things there is to see.

We often think of life as one of those binary things – either somebody is alive, or they aren’t. Terribly, many illnesses don’t really work that way. Symptoms appear, they’re eventually diagnosed, and over time they wear a person away. The processes can be long, disrupting and eventually ruling lives, before they actually run their course.

That’s been my fear since last April, when my mother-in-law, Ann, was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer. There is always grief when you learn you’ll lose somebody you love, but once you absorb that and come to accept it, there’s the second round of grief about how much somebody you love is going to suffer.

While that is where a lot of our minds went, Ann was smarter than that. She knew that a life is better spent looking at the bright side. She took her diagnosis as a challenge: what can I do with the time I’ve been given? She travelled the world with my father-in-law Brian, going on one new adventure after another. They saw New York, Louisiana, the Shetland Islands, and more.

One adventure they were looking forward to was seeing the total solar eclipse in Oregon. Brian has long been an astronomy and photography enthusiast, and this year’s eclipse was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Even when her condition’s progress made it clear she wouldn’t be well enough to make the trip, Ann insisted he go. He was hardly keen to be away from her, but protesting would surely elicit the response, “Och away, don’t be daft” – which roughly translated from Scottish means “Stop arguing, you’re going to go see a total eclipse”.

Doing that trip in one night is almost possible, but the drive from Vancouver is more than 7 hours each way – a bit too much for for one driver over one night. So, I offered my assistance. Brian and I would head down, take turns driving, and be back the next day.

That Sunday morning, we filled the car with snacks and camping supplies, and headed for the town of Madras in the high desert of central Oregon – arguably the best place in the world to see the eclipse. The trip was long and traffic was slow, but late that night we made it to our makeshift campsite, in a makeshift parking lot in a dusty field. It wasn’t much, but surrounded by thousands of other eclipse-chasers, it felt like something special.

The next morning we set up our tripods to take some photos, commiserated with the crowd, and watched the desert grow dark. Then, all at once, the sun was gone – replaced by the blackest black you’ve ever seen, surrounded by an otherworldly crown. The crowd cheered, the stars twinkled, we both cried, and some smart-ass a few rows over played Dark Side of the Moon.

Photo: Brian Ferguson.

As breathtaking as it was, we wanted to beat the rush getting back. You see, Madras has a population of 6,000 people. In the preceding days 100,000 tourists had filtered into town for the eclipse, and were all now considering how much longer they wanted to hang out in the middle of nowhere. Once the sun burst through on the other side, we finished packing up and started our journey back home. We drove roughly 100 feet before the parking lot came to a standstill.

And there we remained for the next seven hours.

Yes, I spent seven hours of my life waiting in line to leave a parking lot. I’ve been in bad traffic before, but I don’t think I’ve ever been in traffic so bad that people actually pulled out camping chairs and set them up in the shade of their car.

When you’re stuck in a desert parking lot for 7 hours, a lot of questions go through your mind. Early on, there are logistics. Did we bring enough water? How long can we run the AC before we run out of gas?

Then, worrying. Is Karen okay taking care of both the baby and her mom? What if something happens to Ann while we’re stuck here?

Then, desperation. Could we tape a road map to the windshield to create some shade? (Turns out, yes.) Would restarting my phone again get me a reliable signal? (Turns out, no.)

Around dinner time we made it out of the parking lot, and eventually we made it to the back roads of Washington State, following a long line of Google Maps devotees down the least-bad route home. After 1300km of driving and a rest stop in Tacoma, we finally made it home the following day, photos in hand and memories in heart.

In life, one constant is that you never know. While Ann had recently received a prognosis of months, later that night she passed away – peacefully, and surrounded by family. We like to think she was holding out for us to get one last trip under our belts – a gift to us.

Thanks Ann.