November 2007

The New Job, Day 1: A Very Quick Update

by Joey deVilla on November 26, 2007

Very cool here at the new workplace. More later.

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Assrockets and Opportunities (or: Why I Changed Jobs)

by Joey deVilla on November 25, 2007

Why I Changed Jobs: The Best Guess

A number of people have approached me — both online and in person — and attempted to guess what it was that made me consider leaving my Technical Evangelist job at Tucows, a job that I enjoyed and to which I was well-suited.

The person who came closest, a “long-time reader, first-time caller”, emailed me, asking if the the photo below, which recently made the rounds on a number of tech sites, was the reason:

Photo of a Y Combinator newspaper ad whose headline is “Larry and Sergey won’t respect you in the morning”.
Photo by Martin Davidsson. Click the photo to see the original.

It’s an ad placed in Stanford University’s independent newspaper, the Stanford Daily by Y Combinator, a Boston-based venture group who specialize in investing in small tech starttups. One of their better-known beneficiaries is Reddit, which ended up being acquired by Conde Nast Publications last year. One of its principals, Paul Graham, made his fortune with a web application that eventually got bought out by Yahoo!, which turned it into Yahoo! Store. The “Larry and Sergey” referred to in the ad are Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

Although seeing this photo helped crystallize my thoughts, it wasn’t what made me consider switching jobs. The credit has to go to the video below.

Why I Changed Jobs: The Video

Please be advised that it’s not safe for work because it features a guy lying on the ground with his pants dropped to expose his derriere, into which he inserts a bottle rocket.

The Video, Described

For those of you who’d rather not play the video, here’s what happens: A bunch of guys, who look to be about high school age, are hanging around in a driveway. The central guy in the video is lying on the ground with his legs in the air and the pants pulled down. He inserts the bottle rocket’s stick into the expected orifice and one of the other guys lights the bottle rocket’s fuse.

What makes this film wonderfully comic in that Three Stooges way that we boys love so much is that this bottle rocket is too tightly attached to the stick. It ignites and shoots flames out its rear, but stays in place. The result is that the guy in the video ends up effectively blowtorching his own ass. It appears painful, but in the end (heh), it’s mostly harmless.

The poor guy wriggles in pain for the duration of the bottle rocket’s “burn”, after which he leaps to his feet. At that point, the rocket’s last bit of gunpowder goes off with a comically satisfying bang, with equally comically satisfying effects. I have watched this video at least a few dozen times and it always makes me laugh out loud.

As you, the astute reader, have probably guessed, the rest of this essay is devoted to explaining why this video convinced me that I should take a chance on a new job.

Brilliant Idea, My Ass

First, I need to take you back to the year 1993. I was in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, the location of Crazy Go Nuts University. In addition to being a computer science student, I was also, among other things, the keyboardist in a band called Volume, whose other members were George on bass, Drew on drums, Chris on guitar and Mike as lead vocalist.

One day, while relaxing after a rehearsal, Mike decided that it was time to share his brilliant idea with the rest of the band. “Guys,” he said, “I have a brilliant idea.”

George put his head in his hands. It was a generally accepted fact in our band that brilliant idea in the Mike’s own parallel universe usually translated into harebrained scheme in our own reality.

“Oh, this oughta be good,” said Drew, leaning forward. “What is it?”

We had a high nerd factor in the band: Chris and I were in computer science (him as a masters student, I was an undergrad in my sixth year), Drew was working on his masters in biology and George had finished his liberal arts bachelor degree and was working in the marketing department of a company that made a graphical database query tool.

Out of all of us, only Mike would’ve been a character in a Richard Linklater film. He was a scruffy philosophy major with a scant number of hours of classes a week who often woke up close to noon. His house was straight out of a college “stoner” movie: from the “smoking lounge” complete with dark wall, model train and jury-rigged disco ball (a hemispherical lump of clay covered in tiny pieces of mirror glopped onto an old turntable) to the fireman’s pole that let you descend from the upstairs bathroom to the kitchen in a flash, it seemed primarily set up for partying and only coincidentally set up for living in.

“I was thinking that we should close with a bang,” said Mike. “At the end of the show, I want to drop my pants, bend over, stick a Roman candle up my ass and shoot it out towards the audience.”

“You’re right,” I said, “that is brilliant.”

Roman candle

“Seriously, dude! I’ll drop my pants, stick the Roman cable up my ass, one of you will light it…”

“You see,” said George, “there’s already a flaw in your plan.”

The discussion went on for a little while longer, but even though some of us might have been convinced to let Mike try out his idea — even just to see if he’d actually go through with it — we never closed a show with Mike’s “Roman candle up the ass” finale.

Mike went on to bigger and better things: these days, he’s doing quite well as a lawyer on Bay Street (Toronto’s answer to Wall Street), with an office schedule that sometimes starts at 7 a.m.. If I could go back in time to show a picture of present-day Mike to the band back in 1993, none of us would have believed it.

I am beginning to suspect that Mike’s success comes from rather than in spite of his willingness to stuff an explosive device in his nether regions.

A Little Perspective

You must recall that this was almost fifteen years ago — a more innocent time, before the mainstreaming of the world wide web, before CollegeHumor.com, before Jackass and before a surprising number of people started posting videos on YouTube featuring Roman candles up their asses. [All these links are videos featuring people with Roman candles up their bums. Consider yourself warned.]

Guy with roman candle up his butt

Stories about idiotic things that university students did were spread by word of mouth; only the fatal ones were covered by the media. Simply put, in those days, ideas like Mike’s weren’t copycat inspirations; more often than not, they came from your own stoned head.

Gordon Ramsay Wants to Put a Rocket Up Your Ass

Gordon Ramsay and a flaming pan

On celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay’s show, Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares (the original British version, not the new American one), whenever the chef of the restaurant he’s trying to save appears to have lost the passion for cooking, he almost always says “I need to put a rocket up his ass”.

While the rocket insertion of which Chef Ramsay speaks is merely figurative, I have come to the conclusion that the metaphor is even more apt than Ramsay himself realizes.

“Why White People Run This Age”

Okay, I’ll fess up. What really got me thinking about making changes to my career path wasn’t the bottle rocket video, but some commentary on the video made in a blog called The War on Folly, written by Charles T. Duggleson and Charles H. Follymacher. The article is titled why White people run this age, and here’s the relevant excerpt:

…I’m once again reminded why White people rule the globe. It’s not a new idea, just feeling compelled to state it once more, this time without feeling: they run the world because they have a much (much) higher percentage of folk who will do absolutely *anything.* any bloody, assinine [sic] thing at all. if you can name it, guaranteed it will be tried, if it hasn’t been already.

it is out of these absolutely stark, raving, barking mad experiments that new discoveries are made, which in turn lead to a fresh new batch of shit to fuck with. new answers urge new questions and all that, right?

us colored peoples of the world tend to leave well enough alone a lot more, not much for forcing Mother Nature’s hand. our ancient sciences are lost. that’s our bad. who knew? we didn’t ask. and now it may be too late to churn up that kind of insatiable hunger for knowledge.

a lot of White folk die off in these quests to discover and experience the unknowns, large or wtf. but some small percentage do manage to live to tell the tale and, wherever possible, wreak [sic] the profits.

Ass plus rockets equals success

A quick aside: I don’t want my story to get derailed into a discussion of race, culture and achievement — it’s not relevant to this article — but it is notable that if you do a search on YouTube using the keywords roman candle ass or bottle rocket ass, you will discover two things:

  • A surprising number of people have decided that it might be a good idea to launch fireworks from their behinds. Remember that the YouTube search results comprise only those people who had video recording equipment handy and decided to post it on YouTube.
  • Most — if not all — of the asses into which the fireworks were inserted are white.

Salada’s Advice

“What we see,” goes the advice that used to be printed on the tags of bags of Salada tea, “depends mainly on what we are looking for.”

Messrs. Duggleson and Follymacher, often write about issues of race, so when they saw the bottle rocket video, they made the leap from “white kid rectal pyrotechnics” to “whitey takes chances and sometimes comes up big”.

I saw the bottle rocket video by way of their essay, so I had both the original incident and Duggleson and Follymacher’s commentary in mind when I made my logical leap: If I want to move forward in my career, it’s time to take a few chances.

Or more simply: I needed to put a rocket up my ass.

Around the time I saw the video, I attended Albert Lai’s breakfast seminar, which was held in the heart of Toronto’s financial district. In his presentation, Albert suggested that Canadian investors need to be less timid and more willing to take a chance on start-ups, which were more likely to produce innovation than larger, more established organizations. This was a point made again in a roundtable discussion that followed, where several people also asserted that you learn more at a start-up, especially if you follow an iterative process and “fail fast”.

The other factor was the restlessness I’d started to feel at my Technical Evangelist position. As I’ve written before, it was a job well-suited to me, as it allowed me to do a mix of the things I loved: technology, writing, communicating with people and even a little graphic design and accordion playing. The only problem with the job was that failure wasn’t an option, and for the wrong reason: there simply wasn’t that much opportunity to fail.

My coding work was largely limited to example code in articles and small one-afternoon projects such as the Duke of URL. The rest of the job was looking at better ways of explaining how to use Tucows’ services and getting out in front of developers and people interested in technology and acting as the company’s ambassador. It’s all stuff that I find fairly easy to do.

There’s a certain comfort in not having to program a large project that would serve thousands of paying customers a day. It’s far easier beat a deadline when writing technical articles than it is to beat a deadline to produce a working, useful program. The development team did all the heavy lifting, after which I’d simply write and talk about it.

When I started the job, I found this arrangement relaxing, having come from a dot-com where we often ended up writing code that never saw the light of day, since it had been scrapped after the investors and other powers that be changed the company’s direction (which at one point, happened every three weeks).

But after a while, I found myself looking for challenges. Luckily, I was given the mandate of writing a developer blog in which I could write about programming in general, which gave me all sorts of new topics to explore. In some ways, it felt like the “Google 20%” — the fraction of work time that any Google tech employee can devote to personal projects. I began to worry when it occurred to me that the most influential writing on the Tucows Developer Blog that I’d done this year had nothing at all to do with Tucows or its services — it was my series of articles on writing Facebook applications.

I am reminded of an old Twilight Zone episode in which a gambler believes he’s died and gone to Heaven. He finds Heaven to be like a giant Atlantic City with plenty of casinos, except that the games are rigged so that he always wins. In the beginning, this makes him happy, but as time goes on, he realizes that it’s just no fun if there’s no possibility for him to lose. At the end of the episode, he begs the angel in charge to “send me to the other place!” (back then, you couldn’t say “Hell” on TV). The angel, who turns out not to be an angel at all, says “You fool! This is the other place!”

Man surrounded by women at a casino, winning
A scene from the Twilight Zone episode A Nice Place to Visit.

Opportunity Knocks

I was thinking about all this when my cousin Dino emailed out of the blue to tell me about a Craigslist “help wanted” ad. It was for developers to work on a Ruby on Rails application in a downtown office for a very competitive salary. Although my experience with Ruby on Rails was minimal, I have seven years’ worth of development under my belt, backed by six years of blogging and almost five years of tech evangelism. Even though it was a bit of a long shot, my curiosity was piqued enough for me to give them a call.

A couple of meetings with the CEO and one hearty recommendation from Brent Ashley later, I was offered a job. After mulling it over a weekend, I accepted. A grand total of five weeks has passed between my first hearing about the job and my first day on the job, which happens to be tomorrow.

This new job — Senior Developer — is a riskier proposition that my old Tech Evangelist one. Even though they have a working product, a go-getter sales team, funding and customers, it’s still a start-up. I’ll be working on my first sizable program in a while, using a framework that’s still pretty new to me. I will be without the safety net of a large company — it’s just over a dozen people at the new place, which means that everyone has to really pull their weight to get the job done. There will be many opportunities to fail.

Still, as the saying goes, nothing ventured, nothing gained. I’m excited. So excited, in fact, that I’ve been tossing and turning in bed for the past couple of nights. It’s not out of fear, but excitement, and why not? After all, I’ve got a rocket up my ass.

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Harmonix’ Pros and Cons for Making “Guitar Hero”

by Joey deVilla on November 22, 2007

Here are a couple of shots from a presentation made by Harmonix founder and CEO Alex Rigopoulos in which he talks about the pros and cons they considered when trying to decide whether or not to make a guitar game:

Alex Rigopoulos on the pros and cons of making a guitar game
Photo courtesy of Miss Fipi Lele.

The “pro” argument is all you’d need to convince me!

Update: It looks as though Jeff “Coding Horror” Atwood beat me to the punch and has even more details. Damn you, Atwoooooood!

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Jeff Atwood on Pair Programming vs. Code Reviews

by Joey deVilla on November 19, 2007

Guy pair programming with his cat. Cat: “You forgot a semicolon.” Guy:”Shizzle, my kizzle, I’m coding Ruby!”
Photo courtesy of Dav Yakinuma. Click to see it on its original page.

Jeff “Coding Horror” Atwood can’t help wondering if pair programming is nothing more than code review on steroids. Like me, he’s only tried code review and found it useful, but hasn’t given it a shot yet. I’ve done what you might call pair design, where another programmer and I sketched out how to tackle a problem, divvied the work between the two of us and then each went to our own machines to implement, but I haven’t done actual pair programming since Crazy Go Nuts University (and then, it was a matter of a shortage of terminals, not technique).

I understand the expounded benefits of pair programming on an intellectual level. If you view code reviews as being similar in spirit to using a compiler, then pair programming is analogous to working in an interpreting language with an interactive mode or REPL: the feedback comes at you, pronto!

It’s a harder sell on the emotional level. I consider myself a social and outgoing guy — something only reinforced by my work as a technical evangelist and from accordion busking — and even I like to “lower the cone of silence” and zone out when I’m coding. I think I could do a couple of hours’ worth of pair programming a day, but all day, day in, day out? I’ve got my doubts.

There’s also the matter of who you’d get paired up with. Would I have the patience to work with someone with less skill than me, or worse, who could code circles around me?

Jesus and secretary working together at a terminal
An unlikely pair programming team-up. But remember this: He died for your segfaults!
Click to see the site from which this image came.

Theory and practice being two different things, I should give pair programming a try.

Jeff concludes his article with a request to his readers for their experiences with both code reviews and pair programming, followed by this:

In the end, I don’t think it’s a matter of picking one over the other so much as ensuring you have more than one pair of eyes looking at the code you’ve written, however you choose to do it. When your code is reviewed by another human being — whether that person is sitting right next to you, or thousands of miles away — you will produce better software. That I can guarantee.

Links

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Not Yet!

by Joey deVilla on November 19, 2007

Squishy cows

A number of people have been emailing me and asking when I’m going to write about my new job. If you really need to know now, feel free to ask me offline and I’ll tell you. If you can wait, I’ll start posting about it next week — my first day is Monday, November 26th.

Although tomorrow is my last day at the office (I’ve taken time off to go down to the States for Thanksgiving), I am officially Tucows‘ Tech Evangelist until 5 p.m. on Friday. I wouldn’t feel right writing about the new place until then.

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An MVC Framework for ASP.NET

by Joey deVilla on November 19, 2007

Screenshot of example app written in the new ASP.NET-based MVC framework
Screenshot from an example app written using the upcoming MVC franework for ASP.NET.

Ruby has Rails, Python has Django and Turbo Gears and PHP has Symfony, Cake and the Zend Framework. Where is the MVC framework for ASP.NET? Scott “ScottGu” Guthrie has an answer

Two weeks ago I blogged about a new MVC (Model View Controller) framework for ASP.NET that we are going to be supporting as an optional feature soon. It provides a structured model that enforces a clear separation of concerns within applications, and makes it easier to unit test your code and support a TDD workflow. It also helps provide more control over the URLs you publish in your applications, and can optionally provide more control over the HTML that is emitted from them.

You’ll be able to start a new MVC web app in Visual Studio by selecting File -> New Project and then selecting ASP.NET MVC Web Application template to create a new web application using it. It’s compatible with any .NET unit-testing system (such as NUnit, MBUnit, MSTest and XUnit) and its deafult directory structure features three main directories named /Models, /Views and /Controllers — you get three guesses as to what goes in them. Easy setup of new projects, support for testing, a directory structure that gives you Rails deja vu — this should be an interesting project to follow.

Screenshot of example app written in the new ASP.NET-based MVC framework

Take a close look at the screenshot below and note the URL: it’s of the form /localhost/controller/action/id, an URL routing scheme that Rails coders should find very, very familiar:

Screenshot of example app written in the new ASP.NET-based MVC framework

I’m just skimming the surface here; Scott goes into considerably greater detail. I’ll be following the project with great interest and taking it for a spin once it becomes available to Visual Studio users.

Links

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Leaving Tucows

by Joey deVilla on November 15, 2007

Box of squishy cows at the Tucows office

It’s official: I handed my two weeks’ notice to Tucows on Monday. After four and a half years as their developer relations guy, during which time I held two titles (Technical Evangelist, and before that, the less wieldy Technical Community Development Coordinator), worked in two departments and occupied 5 different desks spread across two floors, I have decided to move on to a new job and with it, new challenges.

Me playing accordion for BloggerCon attendees taking a break on Mass Ave.
Networking accordion-style during a break at BloggerCon II in Boston (that’s Mass Ave. in the background, and yes, I’m wearing a cow-print vest).
Photo courtesy of Julie Leung.

Maybe it’s the whole “turning 40″ thing, or maybe it’s the programming itch, but I feel that I need a change of scenery. Life at Tucows was pretty sweet, but I came across one of those rare — if a little bit risky — opportunities that life doesn’t hand you too often. As much as I loved my job at Tucows, I’d be have to be a fool and a coward to pass up the opportunity I’m about to take on.

My desk at the Tucows office in Fall 2003.
My first desk at the Tucows office, taken Fall 2003.


Me at my second desk at the Tucows office, taken Winter 2004.

My desk at the Tucows office in Spring 2006.
My third desk at the Tucows office, taken Spring 2006.

View from my desk, Fall 2007.
The view from my fifth desk at the Tucows office, taken Fall 2007.

The decision to leave Tucows was not an easy one. In many ways, the Technical Evangelist position was a dream job. It combined a number of things I love to do: programming, writing, schmoozing, graphic design and I even got to work in a little accordion playing. I’ve worked with some of the finest colleagues I have known, I’ve reported to some excellent bosses — first Ross Rader, then Ken Schafer, and finally Leona Hobbs, and for a CEO who is admired and respected throughout high tech, Elliot Noss.


A still from the webcam broadcast (no audio) of my first annual review, Spring 2004.


A still from the webcam broadcast (no audio) of my first annual review, Spring 2004. Those are Ross Rader’s hands.


A still from the webcam broadcast (no audio) of my first annual review, Spring 2004. That’s Ross Rader on the right.

One of the best things about my job was having the privilege of wearing the mantle of Tucows, a company that’s well-regarded in the world of high-tech. Walking into a room of techies and saying “I’m with Tucows” is like traveling through Europe with a Canadian flag sewn on your backpack, walking through Boston with a Red Sox cap or being able to play Take Me Home Country Roads on accordion in front a room of West Virginians — it establishes your bona fides and marks you as one of the good guys. I hope that Tucows has benefited equally from having the “Accordion Guy” as its head tech cheerleader.

Me playing at No Regrets
Representing Tucows at a geek function at No Regrets with the accordion.

Joey deVilla speaking at CASCON 2005
Speaking at the “Business of Blogging” seminar at IBM’s CASCON 2005.

Joey deVilla in an interview on CTV News
A still from a CTV News piece on Google.

I’d like to thank my first Tucows boss, “Boss Ross” Rader, and his boss Elliot Noss for believing in me enough to hire me, and the two bosses who followed, Ken Schafer and Leona Hobbs, for being equally terrific. I’d also like to apologize to Leona for handing in my notice while she was on vacation (you know how it is with “windows of opportunity”). I also have to thank my teammates in Communications, Hasdeep Kharaud, Kari Dykes and James “Yes, that’s my real surname” Koole; it’s been a blast working (and lunching at Pho Asia 21) with you guys. Hell, I’m just going to thank the everyone in the company for making my four and a half years there an enjoyable experience.

Joey devilla playing accordion at RailsConf 2007
Playing accordion at the evening keynote at RailsConf 2007 in Portland, Oregon.

Accordion Guy and Amber Mac
At DemoCamp. “Amber’s being unprofessional again, isn’t she?”

Me on CityTV news
Talking about Windows Vista on CityTV News, early 2007.

Accordion Guy playing at php|works
Flying the Tucows flag at the php|works conference, 2006.

My final day at the office will be next Tuesday, the 20th. I leave Tucows with mixed feelings: happy and excited about my new position (which I’ll talk about later) but sad to leave a great workplace and the company for whom I’ve worked the longest in my entire career. It’s been a great ride, guys — thanks!

Front door of Tucows’ offices

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