1 September 2022

Tips for Remote Work

newly setup outdoor home office (licensed CC BY by Blake Patterson)During COVID lockdown, I worked remotely. I did all my Code Cop things, e.g. pair programming, code reviews, coding workshops, just in a remote way. All these tasks involved other people and I was severely affected by my "remoteness". After one year of remote work, one of my clients ran an in-house knowledge sharing on how to do that successfully. They invited me and I thought about the advice I would give. What would be my top three tips for remote work?

1. Check-in
When working remotely, the first and foremost thing I use are check-ins. During a check-in everybody says a few words how he or she is here - as a human being. The check-in is not about your role, your expectations or current work. It is about how you feel. When we work separately, I miss your face and body language and we need to be explicit how we are. In a face to face situation I might be able to recognise if you are tired or distracted or upset. I am unable to identify the little hints when you are just a small image on my screen. Now I place more emphasis on the human and emotional side of my peers because it is missing in a remote setting. Some people always reply with "I am OK" and I am fine with that. Nobody has to share. Some people keep talking and I have to remind them what the check-in is about and stop them from taking all the space. Conversation, arguing or discussion break the check-in. And at the end of the meeting I ask everybody to check-out, which is the opposite, asking how they are leaving as human beings.

2. Be Professional
I preach being professional. After all "I help development teams with Professionalism" (as written on the second introduction slide of all of my decks). Professionalism is an attitude, it is how you do your job. This includes also your appearance. In a remote setting, your appearance is the image of your face, the sound of your voice and the background behind your head. There are several implications: Your camera is always on. You are in the centre of your camera's focus and the camera is ideally placed on top of your screen where you are looking at from time to time. On the other hand, when only half of your face is visible, or your face is distorted in some way, it is hard to see and to connect. In communication theory, as the initiator if the exchange, the sender is responsible for the message to be received. Much of your message is conveyed by your voice. For the best audio, use a headset with a microphone so your team mates have a change of hearing you. Next I recommend a professional background. Best is a uniform wall or board. In the beginning of remote work, I hung a blanket between two window handles to provide a uniform, non distracting background during my video calls. Non uniform backgrounds are distracting and make it harder to focus on the face of the person speaking. A Green Screen background helps if you have no option to work in front of a wall or door. Please choose a neutral image with soft colours. Most Green Screen backgrounds are unsuitable.

2VHvy07 (licensed CC BY-NC-ND by Princeton University Rowing)3. Strive for the same Level of Collaboration
It is harder to collaborate under remote working conditions. For example pair programming is more complicated. Now I do not accept less collaboration than before remote work. There are options and tools to overcome the barrier. Ten years ago, in 2012, I already used tools as TeamViewer or AnyDesk to control the machine of my remote pairing partner. I spent many hours working like that and it worked well. Modern tools I have used include Code With Me, which works with the JetBrains family of IDEs, Visual Studio Live Share, which you can even join with a browser, Floobits, CodeTogether and mob.sh. If you are blocked by remote work, push for some solution to keep in touch and do what you used to do. Do not accept less collaboration than in face to face situations.

We need to keep in touch
After I had put together my three tips, I was surprised. I had expected some technology or tool but all three tips are about connecting. Then it is not a surprise after all, because remote work first and foremost affects collaboration. Most advice of the other presenters was aligned with that. Here are some examples: When working closely with a team you need to keep in touch. You should speak with your team members often, probably talk daily. You should also meet outside work, e.g. remote game events like online escape room. Meeting in person is even better, e.g. visiting each other or visiting the office once in a while.

Video Conference All Day
A team lead shared his story how they had managed transition to remote work. The team used to talk a lot during the day. When remote work started, they kept a video call running. Whenever people would work, they would be in the call, unless they were in a meeting with someone. Many team members used a second device, e.g. a tablet, for this ongoing call. They felt like being in the office and whenever someone wanted to talk, she could talk to the people in the room. Using the video conference open all day, the team kept up the good vibe while fully working remotely.

I am curious about your tips to improve remote collaboration. If you have any, I invite you to comment.

25 August 2022

Practice Speed

Several years ago I co-facilitated the Global Day of Coderetreat with Houssam Fakih. It was a nice Coderetreat. During the introduction Houssam presented the concept of practice and three levels of competence. The first level is that you are able to do a certain thing from time to time. The second level is that you are able to do it all the time. The third level is, and that was new to me, that you perform the thing consistently well and fast at the same time. In this short video there are three guys throwing balls at a boot at a fair. The guy on the right is on level one. He is able to throw the ball into the basket most of the time. The guy in the middle is competent and always hits the target. But the guy on the left is on another level. Besides hitting the basket consistently, he is using both hands alternating and is two to three times faster.

The Walk to Save Great Danes (licensed CC BY-NC-ND by Warchild)Deliberate Practice
In Coding Dojos and Coderetreats we practice all kind of coding techniques like Test Driven Development, software design and pair programming, but we rarely practice speed. The Coding Dojo mindset is explicit about going slow. There are a few exercises which have a timing aspect, e.g. Elephant Carpaccio or Baby Steps. Some people try to master the Baby Steps constraint by typing faster and using more shortcuts. While these are good things to practice by themselves, they bypass the exercise. Both exercises focus on taking smaller steps. The speed of typing is not the bottleneck.

Side Note: Speed of Typing
If the speed of typing is not the bottleneck in writing software, why do we focus on shortcuts and touch typing? The idea is, while coding, to stay in the flow and work on a higher level of abstraction. For example, when I want to move a method, and I can do it with a few keystrokes, I keep the current thoughts in my mind. But if I have to navigate, modify blocks of text, change method invocations, and so on, I think in more low level concepts like text editing or file navigation, and this breaks my focus.

One of my recent Coding Dojos became a Hackathon. A misunderstanding with the sponsor, who cared for food during the event, caused this. The sponsor wanted to run some challenge to make people think outside of the box, and make them try something new and innovative. They had prepared an assignment in Hackathon style. A Hackathon is an event that brings together experts and creates a collaborative environment for solving a certain problem. I avoid Hackathon because the format is competitive and people try to go as fast as possible to create some prototype or try to prove some idea or deliver some working code. Going fast above all else, e.g. skipping preliminary design or tests due time pressure is the startup trap. Obviously I dislike this way of working. (I see value in Hackathon as a tool for innovation and maybe team building.)

First I was unsure how to proceed. On one hand I wanted to please the sponsor, paying real money for the crafters community is a real contribution and separates the "talking" from the "doing" companies. On the other hand I wanted to stay true to the Coding Dojo experience. I thought of Houssam and remembered that going fast is a skill, one we need and rarely practice. In fact it is a skill we developers are often asked to apply, e.g. when the deadline is coming up or marketing has some new urgent idea. Like the guy on the left in Houssam's video, working fast and clean at the same time is hard. I made it a mix: I ran a Coding Dojo where the challenge was to finish some basic code in a given time frame. All Coding Dojo rules applied, the goal of the evening was to learn, to collaborate and to be nice. Even under pressure I reminded the participants to write tests because "your best code does not help you if it is broken". I encouraged them to work in small batches as "the most clever algorithm loses if it is unfinished". As facilitator I focused on helping people to create small, working increments. It worked well and after 90 minutes most teams had a working solution and three of them won a price.

Speed (licensed CC BY by Gabriel)How to Practice Speed
Considering my own, personal practice, I go in the same direction. I am practising a lot on old and new exercises, in various programming languages, some I have much experience and some I just learned. Working these exercises, adding hard or even brutal constraints is boring. I even tried contradicting constraints like Tell Don't Ask and Immutability. To try something new I started working against the clock. Maybe I can be the guy on the left.

Roman Numerals
My colleagues tell me that I am very fast in perceiving, reading and understanding code, as well as typing with shortcuts. When working against the clock my first exercise was Roman Numerals. I chose a small exercise because I expected to retry it a lot. I set a timer to five minutes and worked on the kata. When the timer rang I stopped and analysed my progress. Of course I failed to finish but I kept trying. Some rarely used editing shortcuts would have helped, and I learned some more of them. I did use TDD and three to four tests were the most I was able to get, which was enough. The test for Roman I created the method arabicToRoman, II added a recursive call, VI introduced a lookup for the literal by its value and 388 introduced all the remaining literals. When using Ruby for the same exercise I thought I would be able to beat my Java time, because Ruby is more expressive and there is less code to write. Unfortunately I am not as familiar with Ruby as I am with Java and the missing code completion slowed me down. Currently I need five minutes for a fully working Arabic to Roman Numerals conversion including subtractive forms. I am able to create good names and small methods in the given time, but I am unable to create more elaborate structures for holding the Roman literals and their values. Java is just too clunky. In short: the code is good, but the design is bad.

What Next
Then I tried the Coin Changer kata and after several tries I was able to beat four minutes. Coin Changer and Roman Numerals are much alike and Coin Changer is simpler as it has no literals, the coin value is also the returned value. I knew both katas well, and the exercise was in fact only about my typing supported by tests to avoid mistakes. Maybe I should try a larger assignment. Running through many repetitions would be tedious. Maybe I should try unknown exercises. At least they would be unknown for the first run. I need a large number of little TDD exercises of similar size and complexity. Time to do some searching.

14 July 2022

Moving away from SlideShare

lost playground (licensed CC BY-SA by liebeslakritze)One of my learning activities is watching recordings of conference presentations, especially ones which have been recommended by trusted colleagues and peers. (You can find presentations which I recommend myself on YouTube and Vimeo.) After watching I usually download the slides and store them in my knowledge base, together with notes I might have taken during the presentation. At the moment my software development knowledge base is around 6G text files and PDFs, but that is a topic for another time.

From time to time I present at conferences or run a Coding Dojo. Afterwards I want to share my slides and I want you to be able to download them. In 2013 I started using SlideShare for that. I liked it and it worked well. It organised my slides and added the social aspect on top, e.g. I connected with other people sharing slides and kept track of favourites. Since Scribd acquired SlideShare I am not satisfied any more. I am facing technical problems uploading new slides again and again which is frustrating. Additionally downloading slides seems to require a paid membership. While I understand that free services need money to operate, I really want my slides to be available for download.

So I am moving away from SlideShare, or at least I am duplicating it. I did not follow my own advice to avoid third party SaaS - and as in the past I have to deal with the consequences now. I uploaded all slides I had shared on SlideShare to my own folder on my web space. It is just a folder and not as fancy as SlideShare, but you can download! Enjoy my slides.

26 February 2022

Porting RLE8

I am going back in time (again) and playing with some of my old source code: In the days of MS-DOS, 16 bit operating systems and 640 kB of RAM, I created a whole bunch of MS-DOS utilities and tools, mostly written in Turbo Pascal. In the last 20 years I have only ported a few of them. From time to time I miss one of these old tools - but never miss it enough to invest the time to write it from scratch. Last year I came across p2c, a Pascal to C translator by Dave Gillespie. Oh such joy - and I used it to port my old tools. One tool I used - which I had not created myself - was RLE8 by Shaun Case, Public Domain 1991.

art Moderne (licensed CC BY-NC-ND by Nadine)RLE8
RLE stands for run-length encoding compression. It is a form of data compression in which repeated values are represented by a count and a single instance of the value. It is a very simple form of compression and in the nineties it sometimes reduced disk and memory space significantly. It was used in early versions of Windows BMP for bitmap compression named BI_RLE8: An RGB format that used run-length encoding (RLE) compression for bitmaps with 8 bits per pixel. The compression used a 2-byte format consisting of a count byte followed by a byte containing a colour index. There were versions for 4 and 8 bit image data, RLE4 and RLE8 respectively. "RLE compression was used in the stone-age" as one forum comment reads and today there not much interest in it. The only reference I found was for benchmarking highly optimised code.

Finding the Original Source
Finding the original source code was difficult. It is in the nature of the modern WWW that new pages appear and old ones disappear. Fortunately the RLE8.EXE printed the name of its author and its license: Shaun Case 1991 Public Domain. After some googling I found an article about it, which later turned out to be the contents of the Readme someone had reposted almost ten years later on GameDev. Eventually I found the Retro Computing Archive with its collection of CD-ROMs containing shareware and Public Domain software from the late 80's and 90's. RLE8_SC. Win! (The Retro Computing Archive is great, many of its ZIP files are unpacked and therefore crawled by Google which helped me find it.)

Porting from Turbo C
The code compiled without issues, but included a header I did not have, dir.h, a header from Borland's Turbo C. I guess this is the biggest issue when porting old code - calls to non-standard library functions. I missed fnsplit, a function which split file specifications into component parts. While I could have created the function myself - an excellent opportunity to practice my C - I searched more and luckily someone had created it already. Thank you Robert B. Stout. Robert granted license to use his source files to create royalty-free programs, which RLE8 is. After adding some more of Robert's code, and removing code which was not needed, RLE8 compiled and linked, even with my pedantic settings of gcc -std=c99 -pedantic -pedantic-errors -Wall -Wextra. I loved it. Witness the power of C, a 50 years old programming language, still moving forward.

Download original and modified sources together with binaries for DOS and Windows x86.