Saturday, May 18, 2024

Just because

It was a fine Friday afternoon. I was one comment on my neat technical design from a getaway weekend. And the comment read "Why Firebase?". My mind answered with questions. What answer is expected from me? Is it about cost because Firebase is a managed service? Is it about the latency between data update and data retrieval? Is it about alternatives such as self-hosted web sockets? I tried to read between the lines so I could be helpful but with 2 words and a question mark, there wasn't a lot of space to work with. I let out a sigh and attempted a carpet-bombing of an answer - a remark for every reason crossing my mind. And from the pit of my stomach, an irritation was growing.

That reminded me of a psychology experiment in the 1970s. Psychologist Ellen Langer walked up to the first in a line at a photocopier and said: "Excuse me. I have five pages. May I use the machine?" Her success rate was 60 percent. When she ran the experiment again, this time providing a reason "Excuse me. I have five pages. May I use the machine because I'm in a rush?" The success rate went to 94 percent. That is understandable, after all the most common reason to cut in is to be in a hurry, or be a jerk. I believed prof Langer asked nicely. She tried yet another approach: "Excuse me. I have five pages. May I go before you, because I have to make some copies?" Even though the reason was... oxymoron because why else standing in front of a photocopier, she was allowed to pass with a similar stellar success rate (93 percent).

My situation with the comment would have improved had it come with a reason. "Why Firebase? Because Google might shut it down tomorrow." Ah, the classic Google move when things don't work out.

The human mind craves causal effects for it wants to make sense of the world. When we justify our behavior (or, in my case, question), we will encounter more tolerance and helpfulness. The level of reason is in direct proportion to the stake of the situation. It seems to matter very little if the excuse is good or not in daily ordinaries. Using a simple validation "because" is sufficient. But if someone's direction is in the blast zone, the reasons provide the course of navigation and they better be sound. Regardless, the knowledge of a justification reassures and calms our minds. After all, nothing is more frustrating than being kept in the dark.

"Because" is an unassuming little word that dutifully greases the wheels of human interaction. Don't be a narcissistic asshole. Use it to your heart's content, because it provides reasons ;)


I was introduced to the "because justification" by Rolf Dobelli's The Art of Thinking Clearly. It is a good book. The illustration was from Google Image and I wouldn't recommend saying so.

Tuesday, April 30, 2024

The Book Series - Peopleware

Peopleware is simply an amazing piece of writing that despite its age (published in 1987) still rings true to this date. The message of the book is crystal. When a tech team is put together, it is common to believe they will face and solve primarily technical problems. But before they are developers, architects, or managers, they are people and they will have people problems more often than process or technical ones. The work of a manager is to first and foremost understand these sociological challenges. Agile methodologies, cutting-edge technologies, and whatnot are built on the foundation of people enjoying working with each other. Thinking any differently is akin to building a castle on sand.

Building a team is not a great analogy because building implies a strong level of control over the shape and form of the final delivery. Whereas how a team goes through its formation stages depends much more on its goals, the environment, and the team itself than what any manager gets to say. Creating a team in that sense is much closer to growing a tree. One can be diligent in choosing the right tree for his spot of land, controlling the soil pH, and watering adequately without spoiling the root but much of the actual growing is done by the tree. Similarly, one cannot make a team perform, he can only remove all malicious elements that harm the development of the team, and give the team the time it needs to form its identity and culture. This is essentially the thought model DeMarco and Lister came up with and spent the rest of the book to propagate.

The Mythical Man-Month established that a software project was fundamentally different from a typical manufacturing - "9 women cannot deliver a baby in 1 month". Peopleware laid out the elements that made a team great and a project successful. Management 3.0 explained how these elements work with the modern understanding of complex systems. There are certainly more profound books that I haven't known, but I think these three books make a great example of standing on the shoulders of giants in management methodology. Over 35 years, management has gone from a myth to a well-studied field.

I came across Peopleware when I was an intern. I was too junior to make any immediate use of the book, but it gave me thoughts. The thoughts made me see that every project was more than just an application of technologies and it took more than professionalism to make people work well together. Thoughts and experiences then became opinions. Today I am quite opinionated when it comes to running a tech company. All because of a little book I picked up in the office some 15 years ago.

The Book Series is a collection of books that in one way or another affects the person I am today. The books are not necessarily good or popular, though some of them certainly are, they simply came to my life at the right time and left a dent. The books are listed in the order I skim through my bookshelves, which is completely and utterly whimsical.

Tuesday, April 16, 2024

The Book Series - Ý tưởng này là của chúng mình


"Ý Tưởng Này Là Của Chúng Mình" is a Vietnamese book. As far as I can tell, there is no English translation. It's a collection of blog posts from a renowned copywriter about his career. It conveys stories of one who is dedicated to his career. It could have been a heavy topic but in contrast, the book is devoid of all formal language and academic knowledge. It's funny, casual, and vulgar, like listening to a close friend ranting over weekend coffee. That makes it very entertaining and a great testimonial to the author and his craft - you wouldn't want to see a moody ad, would you.

But dude, you are a software engineer, the worst kind of engineer, why do you have anything to do with stories from ad agencies, you ask. Firstly, it is just a really good piece of writing and thoroughly enjoyable. Turn out, there is nothing special about software engineering. Copywriters and the rest of the ad industry seem to have the exact same concerns: you are in because you love what you do, or because it is a trendy career choice; you need both dedication and passion if you want to go far; you have to be conscious of keeping your job from eroding your personal life; etc.

However, those alone would not cut it for this series, because you likely find those empty sayings in just about every self-help book available. But the author makes a good case of show-don't-tell. Paired with his humor, the book, to me, is a giant reminder of the joy of doing the thing you love. Yes, the work you do every day is supposed to be fun. In return, you are supposed to invest in knowledge, health, and time so you can continue doing what you love in the long run. Work can be fun if it is what you love, and you do it right.

P/S I re-read this book from time to time for the sheer entertainment element. I wasn't good enough to write this vividly about the tech scene. I tried. I hope someone better than me will do some day. You should give "Ý Tưởng Này Là Của Chúng Mình" a try. Provided that you know Vietnamese, I don't think you will regret it.

The Book Series is a collection of books that in one way or another affects the person I am today. The books are not necessarily good or popular, though some of them certainly are, they simply came to my life at the right time and left a dent. The books are listed in the order I skim through my bookshelves, which is completely and utterly whimsical.

Monday, April 1, 2024

The Book Series - The Unwritten Laws Of Business

The book is small, tiny even. You can call it a booklet and still be technically correct. I mean, it is the size of my hand and composed of less than a hundred pages. The title is oxymoron. Now that the book has been published, the laws are no longer unwritten, aren't they? The title should have been just The Laws Of Business. Yet that wouldn't be very faithful to its content.

See, the book is not about doing business. I don't mean it in a rhetorical sense like "Animal Farm is not about either animal or husbandry". No, the book literally didn't bother to state which field of business law it was. For a law book, it is pretty shitty if I am being honest.

Alright alright, I am not fooling around anymore. These unwritten laws are actually a code of workplace conduct that remains as concise, timeless, and practical today as it was 80 years ago. In a calm and refreshingly free of modern business jargon and abbreviations manner, the author described how one should carry himself at work, the importance of a can-do attitude and the ability to get things done, what a professional working relationship with his boss looks like, and in the occasion he becomes a manager, what his duty is.

To the well-adjusted among us, the book could have been just a collection of reasonable common sense rules. But I wasn't one of those. I came across the book when I was finding my way back on track after a total meltdown and being a professional couch potato for 6 months. Something about the book, its language from another age, its no-bullshit precision, its uncanny ability to shed light on my unknown unknown, or perhaps all of them, gave me the mentorship I didn't know I needed in a trying time.

The book's original title back in 1944 was actually The Unwritten Laws Of Engineering. Despite being yet another shitty title - again, not about engineering at all - it is a strong reminder that regardless of our job, the business we're in is more sociological than technological, more dependent on workers' abilities to communicate with each other than their abilities to communicate with machines. That, probably, is the unwritten part.

The Book Series is a collection of books that in one way or another affects the person I am today. The books are not necessarily good or popular, though some of them certainly are, they simply came to my life at the right time and left a dent. The books are listed in the order I skim through my bookshelves, which is completely and utterly whimsical.