It is hard to write a book, and other whining.

Posted by amy on March 08, 2008

Dear Internets,

I have been neglecting you. That’s because I started a new job last month, at a place called Smartleaf, doing Ruby on Rails development for 20 hours a week. It is fantastic. It is a lot of fun. It’s great people, good food, easy commute, and coding. I haven’t been an employee for years, so it’s quite a change for me, and in a good way. (It turns out that you can write better code without children yelling in your ear.)

But I’ve got these kids and this life and this job and I’m kinda busy.

Also, I’m supposed to be writing a book about computer science for practicing programmers. It’s meant to be an overview and sourcebook for people who didn’t get CS degrees but are working as programmers. Which, it turns out, is most of us. And when I signed on to write it, I hadn’t actually anticipated that a great job opportunity would drop into my lap, the way this one did, so I thought I’d have four or five hours a day to work on it. But suddenly I have about three minutes a day to work on it, and I’m having a really hard time. The subject matter is not easy. It is not just something I can write in my sleep. I don’t know the stuff I plan to write about. And even though I’ve lately become a big believer in the idea that you can accomplish an awful lot in just fifteen minutes, I fear that it is turning out not to be the case that you can write a book about computer science in just fifteen minutes a day.

Actually I emailed Steve Yegge about the book (partly because he was an inspiration for my wanting to write it, and partly because I wanted to use some quotes from his blog in it and wanted his approval) and he wrote back and said something like (I’m paraphrasing here): Hah, good luck. Many have tried, all have failed to write such a book. Which was a little bit depressing and discouraging, but honestly, what do you expect from Stevey?

Still, my editor is getting restive (hi Daniel!) and with good reason. Maybe we should put the book on hold, he asked, and see if it’s actually going to happen? Ick, I said. That is a terrible idea. I am going to write the damn book. Of course I can do it.

But I don’t know how. I don’t know how to do it, internets. I need your help, hive mind. I asked my friend John if he wanted to write the book with me, and he was like “hah, no.” All he does is send me links to stuff that I should read for the book, and recommend books that would be helpful, and talk about how much he wants to read the book. I asked Max to make me work on it for an hour every morning before the kids wake up, but the kids somehow magically sense when I am awake and wake up with me. And I have never been a morning person and I just can’t think at 6:30 a.m. And I have two hours on Saturday morning to myself when the kids go out to the French library with Max, so today I managed to clean the bedroom, set the robot to vacuum, and dump all the clean laundry on the bed in an enormous mountain so that I am forced to fold it before bedtime. I also went for a short walk and stopped in at the bookstore. And finally started typing this and as I am writing the family is returning, and a baby is running down the hall crying for me. So that was my morning.

And I realize how obnoxious it is that, out of amazing good fortune, I have a book contract, an actual book contract, with people who are my programming heroes, and here I am complaining about it, and basically just screwing it up.

So this is what happens: i get some bursts of energy to work on the book — like I spent two weeks reading and learning a bunch of stuff about C, and figuring out all the different ways to get segfaults, and I wrote a few pages of notes for a chapter on C, and I found awesome documents like the ANSI C Rationale on the internet, and I also read a bunch of stuff about machine architecture and cache memory and pipelining and bitwise operations and analog computing and I took a bunch of notes, and I thought a lot, and I wrote some stuff, and I made what progress I made by basically doing nothing but that, work, and cooking dinner. I mean, I basically ignored my children. I’d be like “uh huh, that’s great, but I’m really trying to understand the semantics of arrays in C right now, sweetie pie.” Oh, and I didn’t get quite enough sleep. After a couple of weeks of that I needed to do things like make plans for our trip to Europe in May (for my oldest friend’s wedding, not just because we’re decadent francophilic wine-and-cheese freaks, although we are that too, but man, that Euro is PAINFUL now) and get the taxes ready to send off to the accountant, and fight with the insurance company about various claims they refuse to pay for various ridiculous reasons. And read to my kids, and spend ten minutes alone with my husband, and parent help at Ari’s preschool, and everything else. And honestly, our lives aren’t even that busy. Our kids are not in a ton of activities. We don’t schlep around to baby music and movement classes. Ari is in no organized sports. He goes to preschool three mornings a week. Max and I each work 20 hours a week, and we have about 18 hours of babysitting.

But somehow I just can’t manage it.

What this tells me, first of all, is that nobody out there is managing it. We have far, far more time than most other parents with two children under five, and it’s still not ‘enough’. There’s an endless pile of stuff that I think should be getting done that isn’t getting done. This tells me that my ideas about what has to actually get done are just wrong, because I’m not getting a lot of these things done but things go on just the same. So I should probably just drop that stuff off my list. Like “inventory our crap for insurance purposes.” And “clean out the basement storage room”. And “start tomato seeds.”

But honestly, I’ve already dropped all that off my list. I’ve even dropped baking bread off my list, for the time being, and I’m someone who has an actual grain mill sitting on her counter. I grind my own damn wheat to make my own damn bread, and I haven’t done it in a couple of months.

I don’t watch TV or movies. The entire season 3 of Lost is sitting on my dresser waiting to be watched, but it’s an enormous commitment and I just don’t see how I can make the time. I’ve cut my newsfeeds down. I do no recreational reading except that I sometimes give an hour to the New Yorker.

Look, internets, I really want to write this book. It’s a lot of fun, except when it’s so painful I want to die or puke or something. I’m learning a lot. I think I could help other programmers figure out how to learn the stuff about computer science that they want to learn, and help them figure out why they should care. But it turns out, unsurprisingly, to be really, really, really hard to write a book. At least this kind of book. Well, I’m sure any book, really.

But am I just a big lazy whiner? I honestly don’t know. I thought maybe the book would be a year-long project, and it looks to be more like a five-year-project, especially at the pace I’m going. Now it’s true that Don Knuth is still working on his opus, but I’m not Don Knuth. Does the world need what I have to offer, or am I torturing myself and my family for an unnecessary project?

I keep thinking, okay, well, I didn’t make much progress that way, I’ll try some other way. And so I try all the hacks I know of to motivate, and make time, and make progress. And I keep trying in different ways. And when I drop it for a few days and fall off the wagon and stop meeting my goals, I just try again. So I’m sorta impressed with myself about this, that I keep trying, even in the face of basically constant failure and what feels like a pathetic lack of progress. But boy does it take an emotional toll. Writing this book (or mostly not managing to write it, as the case may be) is incredibly emotionally and intellectually taxing. Not to mention time-consuming.

I know we don’t have a ton of blog readers out there, really. But if anyone out there wants to offer some encouragement, or has any suggestions, I’d love to hear from you.

Popularity: 72% [?]

Fearless Play. Or, What We Did in 2007

Posted by amy on January 01, 2008

This morning I just rediscovered a year-old post on James Gray’s (of Textmate: Power Editing for the Mac fame) blog, in which he answers the question “How do you get so much done?”

I can’t tell you how often I see people say things like, “I’m not really qualified to do that,” or similar excuses. Oh hell, neither am I, but I wouldn’t let a little thing like that stop me! You learn as you go, you drag in the help you need, or whatever. Passion will conquer so care enough to have some. Be the driving force and the rest will take care of itself.

He fingers both fearlessness and passion as important to getting things done.
Me, I don’t much care for passion. I distrust passion. Except, as I pointed out in August, as regards cheese:

I still think passion is overrated, though. Except where cheese is concerned. I am passionate about cheese. For example, this Vermont Brie is really fantastic. If only someone would make a truly artisan domestic parm…! But I digress…

I like interest, friendship, love, playfulness, curiosity, satisfaction, absorption, and joy. Maybe that’s because passion implies a kind of singlemindedness that I’ve finally accepted that I just don’t have, and don’t want. Maybe it’s because I find that I cannot be passionate and fearless at the same time: passion makes me cautious. My best work, my best ideas, and my best productivity come when I am playing with something that is not excruciatingly important to me. It’s a spirit of fearless play, not passion, that drives what I do.

Not, note, that I am claiming to actually accomplish an awful lot. I’m just pointing out that, to the extent that I accomplish anything, it’s because I don’t take it too seriously. The second I start taking something seriously, I completely freeze up.

For example, this time last year, I’d just had a baby. I hadn’t worked for pay in about three years, and I had no plans for that to change anytime soon. Then Max had a contract end and decided he wanted to learn Ruby on Rails (this was back when he thought he really wanted to be an app developer, before he realized that his sweet spot is all the technical stuff that has to do with app development that isn’t actually about writing application code.) Anyway, so he was having a hard time motivating himself to do the AWDR tutorial. Fine, I said, I’ll do it too, maybe we can motivate each other.

Then I convinced him that we should try to start consulting together, and we started the blog. Hey, I thought, no one is reading this thing, I can write whatever I want. For example, here’s a quote from my very first blog post, in March:

Someday soon we’ll be able to say “yep, we know Ruby on Rails” and we’ll have our fantastic contributions to the open source world to prove it. “Right,” you’ll say, after reading this blog. “We’re looking for someone with five years experience with Ruby on Rails. You have three months.” And we’ll say “That’s the way it goes, suckas. You want to hire people who don’t actually exist. We, on the other hand, exist.” About Ruby. We’d originally decided that Max would pick up Ruby on Rails, and I would freshen up my Java skills with STRUTS, which was just coming out last time I did serious Java coding and which I am, by all rights, long past due for learning. This felt very serious and sensible. Also not fun.

And then, later that day, the key to it all:

How are we able to be so marvelously decisive? We just pretend that everything we’re doing is fake, and therefore of no consequence.

If we’d been really passionate about the whole thing, and utterly convinced that this was our calling in life, that our business absolutely had to succeed, that everything had to be done right, we would never have gotten anywhere. But we started out not caring. We did not know ruby on rails. We did not know any ruby on rails developers. We had no idea where we would find clients. I hadn’t done any programming whatsoever for nigh on three years, having devoted my time instead to recovering from the nervous breakdown I had when I was pregnant with Ari, learning to garden, grinding my own wheat for baking bread, writing a political blog, rediscovering my love of painting, visiting and eventually applying for and receiving visas for permanent New Zealand residency and, finally, being bedridden and anemic and puking during most of my second pregnancy. So hey, why not try something new? Who knows if we’ll like it? Who knows if we’ll be any good at it? Who knows if it’ll work out? Who cares?

Here’s me a month after we started the blog, in April:

I don’t know where this all is going, exactly. I’m not ready to work full-time right now. I’d rather Max not work full-time either. I want us to find a way to work together, and not all the time. I want everything — the perfect setup! I am not sure how we’ll get to our dream work from where we are right now. Will we find a job to share, or will we be laughed out of any company we tried to convince to hire us for one? Will we do some consulting, or will it turn out that we can’t stand all the self-promotion required to consult? Will blog.thirdbit.net end up going to that great bloggie graveyard in the sky? Will I work for pay again, or spend my days sitting in the park snickering at the bugaboo strollers? Is the final cylon really who we think it is, or was this year’s season finale a red herring?

In May, we got our first clients. In July, I saw a post on the Boston Ruby Group that someone needed a TA for a Ruby on Rails class at Harvard Extension. Hey, I thought, I’ve been a TA at extension before, maybe I could do that. I went to the interview and was like “yeah, I’ve been using RoR since, uh, March.” And John, bless his heart, was like “oh that’s cool, whatever.” He wanted a TA who already knew how very much work it was to grade all those programming projects, and how very little money Harvard thought all that work was worth.

In August I wrote a blog entry about method_missing which somehow got Reddited and then mentioned on Ruby Inside, which resulted in a huge spike in blog traffic.

And I ended up TA’ing this class. And it’s been absolutely a blast, and John hired Max to do some systems consulting work (migrating his company over to a new bug database).

And after John introduced me to Steve Yegge’s blog I started feeling I was just a completely crap developer who knew nothing about anything, and that gave me an idea for a book one night when I was up with Aya who was teething, and wrote up a proposal the next morning, and sent out the proposal, and got a book contract. So now I am writing a book, about which more soon.

And since I was TA’ing the RoR class I made sure to show up to the Boston Ruby Group meetings and eventually everyone got used to me being there and started to know who I was, and I started corresponding a bit with Greg Brown over email so when he came up to speak at the December Ruby Group meetingI was like, what the hell, and invited him to dinner, which was a lot of fun.

And Max and I each got more clients doing exactly the kind of thing we each like most to do right now. ( Obligatory self-promotion: Look here for more info if you might want to hire one or both of us!)

Anyway, it has worked out for us. Not exactly the way we imagined it might, but nothing ever does. And since we weren’t all that invested in what we’d imagined in the first place, it didn’t bother us that much to change it.

I don’t know what will happen next. But I do know that everything great that we’re getting to do, all the good stuff happens when we treat our lives like a game, and play, fearlessly.

Popularity: 46% [?]

Ari invents recursion

Posted by amy on December 28, 2007

“Mom, let’s play the wishbone game!”

“Okay, here we go. Pull! … Oh, look, you won!”

“You know what I wished for, mom?”

“No, what?”

“I wished for the bigger piece of the wishbone!”

Popularity: 28% [?]

Why I’m Not at Ruby East Today

Posted by amy on September 28, 2007

I am supposed to be at Ruby East right now, but, coincidentally, just like the other, more well-known Amy in the Rails world, I’m not there.

I had hoped to go to learn some new Ruby and Rails tricks, and to meet some people I’ve only met online, like Gregory Brown, and generally schmooze. Several-day conferences are not feasible for nursing moms (at least, not for this nursing mom, although I’m sure there are some moms somewhere who’ve done it), so there was no hope of going to RailsConf in May, or to RubyConf in November. I thought a one-day conference not too far away might be do-able.

I am sure that some people could have managed it; for me, it turned out to be logistically impossible. The four-year-old was going to stay at his grandparents’ house for two nights; they would have had to take him to preschool this morning, to which he is still adjusting, and to French class on Saturday morning. Max and I and the baby were to drive six hours to the outskirts of Philly yesterday afternoon, spend the night, and then I was to go to the conference, armed with a breast pump, and Max was to entertain Aya tooling around Philly all day, giving her bottles of milk I’d already pumped and frozen. Then he’d pick me up, we’d both go to Ales and Rails with Aya, and drive 6 hours home on Saturday.

Wednesday night came and I was out till 10 pm at the Ruby and Rails course I am helping to teach at Harvard Extension School. Aya had gone on a bottle-feeding strike and was hungry. I was tired; the course is great, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it, but being out at night is not my favorite thing in the whole wide world. There had been no packing of anyone’s things; I did not have much of a milk reserve in the freezer, and what I had I didn’t know if Aya would take, Ari has needed extra attention lately to help him with his preschool transition, and Max and I both hate, hate, hate long drives. So we called the whole thing off.

I keep thinking there should have been some way I could have managed it anyway. If it had been more crucial I’m sure I could have. We all would have survived. But in the end the schmooze and learning opportunity was not enough for me to make the extra push to get there. There will be other conferences in other years when my kids are older.

Every so often the Ruby community wonders where all the women are: why aren’t more women coming to conferences and user group meetings? And lots of reasons get tossed around, some (though definitely a minority) of them incredibly offensive and people argue about how many women are really out there in the community, and some people point out that most women, even those working full-time jobs outside their homes, are still the primary caregiver in their households. This means that getting to evening and out-of-town events outside of work, things that are a little bit more optional, is going to be harder for them. I’m not even working outside of my home full-time right now, and I would definitely say that Max and I are in the rare and enviable position of actually sharing childcare pretty much equally (though the balance has been different in the past, and will doubtless be again sometime). Still, I’m the one with the mammary glands, so there are some commitments I just can’t (and don’t want to) get out of. I am lucky not to have had to go to court, like this woman in my town did, to meet those commitments.

So there are women in the community (the Ruby and Rails course, for example, appears to be about 20% women, though course numbers haven’t stabilized yet because of Harvard’s complicated add/drop policies), but they’re not necessarily visible at community events. Like the Ruby East conference, at which I am not, currently, visible.

Popularity: 12% [?]

On tape, kids, and clients

Posted by amy on August 08, 2007

First, a parent hack. Got kids? You should be reading Parent Hacks. Not got kids? Read on anyway, I relate the whole thing to user requirements at the end.

The hack: As soon as your kid is old enough not to eat it, buy a multipack of store-brand magic tape. Provide your child with the tape, scissors, the contents of your recycle bin (purged of dangerous items), and a box of broken toys and other small household items. Now leave your kid alone with the stuff.

The most important part of the hack: do not ration the tape.

Discussion

Ari loves tape. We used to ration it. We value conservation, and using up gobs and gobs of tape seemed useless, expensive, and just plain wasteful. We didn’t understand the things he did with it. They were incomprehensible and often ugly. He used too much of it. It all seemed pointless. Three things made us change our minds:

First, we realized that tape is so cheap it’s essentially free, even when used in quantity like Ari uses it. Ari can easily spend an hour on a taping project, without needing, wanting, or even acknowledging parental attention. A babysitter costs us at least $12/hour. So not rationing tape actually saves us money.

Second, we realized that the tape served the goal of conservation by enabling the transformation of, basically, garbage, into toys and games and arts and crafts. Yes, eventually the stuff did end up on the curb anyway, but it enjoyed a (sometimes very long) second life as a more-or-less elaborate Ari contraption.

Third, we realized that tape is a non-toxic, easy to clean up, and remarkably versatile project supply that allows both two- and three-dimensional constructions. Glue is also versatile, but much, much messier.

Finally, we realized that while the things Ari made with the tape seemed senseless to us, they were valuable, important, and even beautiful to him. This is often the case with our childrens’ projects. We’ve come to realize how often we say no to kids, just reflexively, for no other reason than that what they want doesn’t make any sense to us, the grownups. (“No, don’t use up all that tape. What do you need all that tape for? Why do you have to tape the giraffe to a stick and hang rubber bands off him? What’s so important about putting those toy people in a cardboard-reinforced tape shell and carrying them around in an old purse? What the hell for???”)

When we find ourselves saying no, we stop and ask if there’s really a good reason for the ‘no’. We try to say yes, when we can. And so, we say yes to as much tape as he wants, whenever he wants.

What this has to do with clients:

Clients, like kids, often want, do, and care about things we don’t understand. It’s our job to try to understand them, and it’s difficult, exhausting work. It’s much, much easier to dismiss them. “No, what do you want to be able to download spreadsheets for? Who cares about what color that dumb little button is? That’s a ridiculous process anyway, why should I make the software conform to it?”

We want to build software that we care about, and that we understand. But that’s not our job. Our job is to help our clients do what is important for them.

“How can you compare clients to kids?” you may ask. “What kind of whupped parent are you that you treat your kids like they’re your clients?” or conversely “Isn’t it a little insulting to treat your clients like they’re children?” I’m not arguing for not setting limits for your children. I’m arguing for respecting them as people whose values we do not always understand, just as we respect our clients as people whose values we do not always understand. (Software development is just like anthropology, only better paid, I’ve always said.) We have broad and deep expertise in many areas that our kids don’t, and in order to help them do what is important for them, we’ll have to draw on that. But the same goes for clients. We don’t let our kids go without brushing their teeth, even though it’s not important to them, because we understand that toothbrushing is part of the infrastructure of living. We don’t let our clients’ projects go without version control, even though they don’t care about version control, because version control is part of the infrastructure of software development. We should not be slavishly trying to meet our clients’ every needs any more than we should do that with our kids, and even when our kids are at their most infuriating and most incomprehensible, we should remember that to them, the things they care about are every bit as important as the things we care about are to us.

We’re not the boss of our kids, and we’re not the slaves of our clients. We’re just the consultants.

Popularity: 13% [?]

Choking on all the attention! And, Career Advice from Cary Tennis

Posted by amy on August 05, 2007

So we got some really nice links this week, and with the links, a bunch of click-throughs. And some wonderful comments, all of which we deeply appreciate. And now of course, I’m choking . I have about 20 posts in various states of readiness, from “just an idea” to “nearly done but I suddenly think it sucks and wasn’t a good idea for a post in the first place”, but nothing ready to go.

Oh wait, here’s something to keep you from dumping us off your feedreader (or dumping us faster, who knows?!). A snippet of a column by Cary Tennis, Salon’s advice columnist , responding to someone who can’t decide whether to give up a career opportunity for his girlfriend, whom he loves passionately:

You say one cannot calculate the value of a job or a relationship, but I do not think that is true. I think one must calculate it. Courts are called upon to do so. Moreover, intuitively we do it anyway. For instance, suppose that you and she settle down and have a good relationship and good jobs. Say that one day a supernatural being comes to the door and says that you must give up either the job or the relationship. Which would you choose? Which would you consider expendable? Which would you consider replaceable?

While in science many problems are difficult because they are complex, in life many problems are difficult because they are simple, but we are human and we want everything. While in the conduct of science we would never suspend physical laws to get the result we seek, in life we try that all the time: Can one person be in two places at the same time? Well, people say no, but maybe in this case … I don’t know … if I accumulate enough free miles maybe I could fly from Toronto to Oakland enough times that I could appear to be in two places at once …

I don’t think so.

If you’re reading this blog and wondering why Max and I have this crazy idea that we’ll somehow each work part-time, or consult together, or work out of the house, or do something weird and web-worker-daily-ish, and we don’t want to travel much for work and we don’t want long commutes and we don’t want to be these people, toiling away in the “Silicon Valley salt mines” — that’s why: We’ve got one life to live here, people, and we can’t be in two places at once.

Popularity: 14% [?]

Faster than a Daily Scrum

Posted by amy on May 25, 2007

and more efficient than a stand-up meeting:

Meeting about the day’s work over breakfast with a four-year-old.

“I need a grownup to play with me!”

“We’re meeting, hon, wait 15 minutes.”

“Okay, then I just need a box cutter and some tape.”

“Right. Max, you do the migrations, I’ll modify the controller. Meeting adjourned.”

Popularity: 4% [?]

Life-UML

Posted by max on May 24, 2007

The other day, Amy needed to explain to our son Ari why we had to work for money, why we had to hire babysitters sometimes, why we couldn’t be interrupted during business phone calls. The approach that seemed to work extremely well was a hand-sketched diagram, more or less a UML use case, that described the flow of cash to and from us for goods and services.

Life-UML diagram

Popularity: 4% [?]

Boston Ruby Group May meeting

Posted by amy on May 10, 2007

Tuesday night we went to the boston ruby group which was having a presentation on Hackety Hack. We took Aya (five month old) with us. The place was packed. Someone gave up his Aeron chair so I could sit down with the baby, and then I turned around and saw I was sitting right in front of a guy I went to college with and haven’t seen since the turn of the millennium. So that was pretty fun. Brian DeLacey introduced the project, Kevin Driscoll told us all about the joys of teaching CS to high school students, and Eric Mill showed us how we could use Hackety Hack to view Youtube video of a guy catching a pair of glasses with his face. A kitty burrito photo was also involved, but that was not Eric’s fault.

After the break Brian Guthrie gave a presentation about Handshake, which I wish we could have stayed for. Design-by-contract is one of those things we feel we should know more about, like aspects. But Aya started looking restless, and since she’d been quiet for an hour and a half, we thought we’d better not press our luck. So we left and went to Toscanini’sfor ice cream. (I am sorry to say I believe Toscanini’s ice cream has declined in quality. I used to think it was some of the best ice cream in the world. But last night it seemed a bit gummy and muted in flavor. And expensive. )

When we got home, Aya decided to do some coding on her own, based on what she’d learned about Hackety Hack.

There were more women at the meeting than I’d been led to expect I might see. At least five, I’d say. And everyone seemed perfectly nice about the baby. I hope we get the chance to go again soon, without the baby. Maybe Max and I will take turns going.

Popularity: 5% [?]

hackety hack baby

Posted by amy on May 09, 2007

Hackety hack baby

Popularity: 7% [?]