Renovating Your House

Of all the weird and wonderful analogies to building software that I’ve heard, the one that sticks with me is building a house. No analogy is perfect, and I’d love to see the Pub/Sub aisle at Home Depot, but it works well enough. The general contractor picks the right tools and frameworks for a solid foundation, skilled craftsman frame the necessary modules and services, some great trades wire and pipe everything together, and then a designer works to make it look and feel like home. At this point the projects are usually well scoped, and even if most projects feel agile, they’re still waterfall-ish in nature. The goal is still to have a house at the end of those iterations. What interests me is what comes after.

Technical debt is a concept that is often cited and often poorly understood. Many definitions try to oversimplify the meaning of technical debt, limiting to just a handful of causes. However the reality is technical debt accumulates even while doing nothing. Frameworks age and fall out of popularity, industry-standard techniques are replaced or refined, deficits in the original design are discovered, the list goes on. On top of general age and rot, poor communication and planning can leave systems tightly coupled, and not up to standards. Time pressure only adds to the list, including cutting corners, writing poor or limited documentation, and skipping testing. All of these in various capacities contribute to the accumulation of debt over time.

How do you combat this kind of entropic chaos? Some lesser experienced technical leaders might try to pay debt all at once, or even worse not at all. Some project leads call for extreme system decomposition into dozens of microservices. The idea is that each one can be independently rewritten over time, but this introduces a whole host of new engineering complexity. Some try to intersperse improvements as independent tasks, but then which debts get paid and which continue to acrue interest? The truth lies somewhere in the midst of all of these options.

Leaning back into the house analogy, I think there is some good concepts to borrow from the general contracting industry. There are two basic principles that I have seen good builders apply over the years: structure first, and bring things up to code. The first concept is easy – don’t invest in anything relating to finishing until the structure is sound. This means that foundational upgrades such as critical security issues, framework upgrades, and tooling changes should be addressed first. Otherwise any other debt or even improvement tasks that get completed are just begging to be redone. The second concept is driven from a regulatory perspective, but I think applies as well. When a contractor opens up a wall, they need to bring whatever is behind that wall up to code before the inspector signs off on the finished changes. As a result, the estimated cost of bringing things up to code is budgeted as part of the renovation itself. When dealing with a reasonably well built newer house, the renovation cost is likely going to be low. When renovating an ancient DIY house, the contractor is going to be pulling asbestos and lead out of the walls, so it gets planned for with a contingency.

No reasonable individual or contractor would spend thousands of dollars renovating a kitchen in a house with no roof, so why invest in a new jQuery-based theme when a project goal may be to migrate to React or Svelte? Similar to the concept of bringing things up to code, I feel the key to successful technical debt management is to be continuously tackling technical debt. Larger foundational items such as changes in frameworks, languages, and tools should be discussed as major projects, but upgrading and patching should part of a healthy development and maintenance lifecycle. When a service has some major rennovation going on, such as adding new features, the developer should take the time to bring things around that new feature up to code. Migrating from class components to functional components in React? Rarely will it make sense to do that migration all at once, but while a developer is already rewriting and redefining classes in a service? It makes sense to bring that up to code before shipping it off.

I’m not advocating for free-for-all rewrites, every developer for themselves. What I am saying is every feature, every major bug, should take the time to consider current best practices and team standards. If the team decides that classes are just fine and never decide to adopt functional components, that’s not debt, that’s a decision. But a developer going into a module finding a major defect like unsanitized inputs, or a straightforward performance improvement should be empowered to bring the code up to current standards, and document the debt that they paid while working on the original feature.

For me, a great feature of this is the code base is continually improving, no single developer feels burdened doing nothing but paying technical debt, and the cost is negligible. Chances are your developers are paying in some form for debt right now – either quietly making improvements, or being burdened with the need to work around debt, potentially incurring even more debt. When planning we typically ask for an estimate for the task, which often gets padded out quietly. Instead, explicitly build in a contingency for bringing things up to code. An additional advantage is over time, the effort for a task versus the debt paid during that task can be monitored. If the debt ratio is rising, it can be an early indicator that it may be time to look at structual or systemic issues.

In short, these house renovation analogies can fit the software lifecycle well. It offers developers a deeper level of ownership, and it offers an early warning system for uncontrolled debt growth. A software system, much like a house, needs regular and thorough maintenance on its components. Budgeting for these issues, and correcting them early, ensures that the code base remains in peak performance.

Did (A)I Write This?

This is the first in a series of posts where I will explore the interaction between human creativity and artificially intelligent algorithms. For this post I explored the use of GPT-3, a deep learning model that is capable of producing human-like text. I produced the prompt (in bold), and provided a human touch through editing, but overall the content in this article is artifically generated.

In the past few years, we have seen the rapid adoption of artificial intelligence into our daily lives. This has been driven by the development of powerful algorithms, but also by the availability of large datasets to train those algorithms. I believe throughout the next decade this technology will both revolutionize and threaten modern society. Already we are working in symbiosis with intelligent algorithms – from simple autocorrect to complex interactions with voice assistants. As this technology matures, our role will be continuously revised and redefined, in some cases disappearing entirely.

The question is not whether we will accept this change, but rather how we will react to it. I want to believe that the technology we create will be used for the benefit of humanity, but history tells a different story. We are a species that is more than willing to use our tools to cause harm to others. I want to believe that we will be able to control the technology we create, but history tells a different story. We are a species that is more than willing to use our tools to exert our will on others. The question is not whether we will accept this change, but rather how we will react to it. If we react by giving up, we will be left behind. If we react by working together, we will be able to shape the future.

Looking at the work above, it’s incredible to see think that this response was AI generated. With a rich enough initial prompt it is possible to generate large amounts of content, which can then be selectively edited into a cohesive narrative. It could become a powerful tool for generating novel concepts, combining concepts that are linguistically sensible, but perhaps different from typical human thought. This technology will only continue to improve and infiltrate more of our lives, let’s hope that the AI is right and we do work together to shape the future positively for humankind.

The Big Squeeze

We are living in one of the most prosperous times in history, empowered by fantastic tools, well thought out processes, and connectivity that civilization has never enjoyed previously through the Internet. Yet with all of this unprecedented wealth and productivity, society seems to be suffering. Poor paying jobs, effective inflation that is far outpacing income, and unaffordable housing.

The Rise of 5 To 9

Rather than tackle the underlying issue of the divergence of employee value versus compensation, an insidious alternative has appeared over the decade. The rise of the gig economy and side hustle as a means to patch over the compensation issue in our primary jobs is a corporate dream. Workers (and governments) aren’t pushing for fair wages, so many workers take on additional underpaid, high risk work just to make ends meet. The glorification of working culture in North America takes this to toxic levels: a sort of self-imposed 9-9-6 work life. Work your normal 9am to 5pm then go home and work a 5pm to 9pm job, likely also working on the weekends.

Nothing demonstrated this symptom of late-stage capitalism better than the latest commercial from Squarespace, which features a rewrite of Dolly Parton’s 9 To 5. The song is a critical look at the abuse that workers suffer under capitalism. It was then perversely rewritten as a “modern rallying cry for all the dreamers working to turn an after-hours passion or project into a career” and packaged as the solution to feeling underwhelmed and unfulfilled in your primary job. Rather than look at the lack of fulfillment and compensation as a symptoms of a sick system, it encourages to you continue to sacrifice yourself on the altar of capitalismin the name of self-fulfillment.

As the world continues to automate jobs, there will be a growing segment of the working population who will no longer have meaningful jobs. And it seems that the best capitalism has to offer is the opportunity to work soul-crushing bullshit jobs, jobs that provide little value for your employer, and provide little satisfaction for yourself.


Governments could work to correct the inequality in the current system by significantly increasing the minimum wage and indexing it to a realistic inflation portfolio. This would lift a significant number of people who rely on the gig economy to have an acceptable quality of life. The main issue here would be the gradually reducing number of jobs available in a post-automation society. It also continues to rely on individuals, who have a decreasing share of overall wealth, to fund social and societal obligations. Rather, it should be those that hold wealth such as property, and means of production who contribute a larger share into the society from which they reap their benefits.

I think that Universal Basic Income (UBI) is inevitable – people should not have to toil away on meainingless tasks for the right to survive, and we should be able to claim back our days for creative and personal pursuits. It would shift the tax curve to the right, allowing for a typical individual to enjoy a simple condition-free stipend with no tax implications. For those who choose to work, the tax curve would be steeper with the introduction of additional tax brackets. This would promote a healthy common baseline, while allowing individuals to still compete and produce value. It would greatly simplify government program administration as there would be limited need to review, amend, and approve programs.

Leaving Facebook Forever

After some long thought on the matter, literally years at this point, I have decided to no longer support or participate in any Facebook-owned property including: Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Instagram, and Oculus VR. The evidence of psychological tampering and abuse at this point is irrefutable. The damage that Zuckerberg has done to society I feel is past the tipping point. Divides are deeper than ever, conspiracy theories run rampant and unchecked, while normal people and ideas are demoted out of timelines as they don’t generate enough attention for the algorithm.

Beyond the subliminal borderline torture that Facebook encourages, their platforms simultaneously siphon off all of your private data. Whether it was explicit with their Onavo VPN product (delisted due to privacy abuses by Google and Apple), the now-defunct relationship with Cambridge Analytica, or implicit from mining all of your contacts and conversations over the years, Facebook has become a real threat to privacy and safety. Other companies are not blameless, for sure. Amazon is marching down the path of the auth-right, enabling police access to your Ring doorbells around-the-clock in some juristictions, to enabling identification and machine learning en-masse. This is a specific battle I am picking, the battle for my mind. I don’t need the hate and misinformation that Facebook hopes will live rent-free in my mind, encouraging me to come back for another taste.

It’s not going to be easy to leave – and that’s by design. Whenever it came to software I always design with vendor lock-in as a concern, making sure that whatever I write could be ported out. But I didn’t do that with my social life. I am aiming to change that, I will be rebuilding my website and opening up my alternative methods of communication. I will share what I accomplish as I go, and the end goal will be to leave Facebook properties forever.