My Management Philosophy

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This is the start of my Manager README. If you’re just starting out in management, or looking for help managing a remote team, hopefully my experience can help.

Why should you listen to what I say?

I currently manage the Front-end and QA teams at Measurabl. I recently helped launch Kingston Lane while at Native Axis, a fully remote startup where I was the head of engineering for two and a half years. For over ten years I have been a Front-end Developer and at almost every position I have been the lead developer; responsible for mentoring junior developers, performing code review, defining the tech stack, establishing code design pattens based on best practices, etc.

During my career I have conducted hundreds of technical screens and interviews. I have helped design the hiring process at multiple startups. I have had regular 1:1s with direct reports on a weekly basis for the last three years. I’ve worked with great and terrible managers throughout my career and I’ve learned from all of them.

Lessons Learned

One of the most important lessons I have learned is that software development is 20% coding, 80% communication with other people. Even the code we write is mostly for other developers. The computers break it down into ones and zeros anyway. All of our organization, patterns, and variable names are only for our peers and future selves. The better you can be at communicating through code, pull requests, email, Slack, video chat, and in-person, the more successful you will be.

Indeed, the ratio of time spent reading versus writing is well over 10 to 1. We are constantly reading old code as part of the effort to write new code. …[Therefore,] making it easy to read makes it easier to write.
– Robert C. Martin, Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship

What do I value?

When I started at Native Axis, I wanted to create a remote software development company that embraced flexibility and trust in it’s employees to enable huge productivity gains. By removing the physical requirements of being colocated, everyone on the team was able focus on doing their best work instead of being distracted and stressed by commuting and sharing office space.

My philosophy on management aligns very well with how remote companies have to function: on trust. I want to work with people that I can trust.

[Y]ou need to learn to manage by expectations rather than by “butts in seat,” so make sure you can show trust in those you hire.
Wade Foster, CEO of Zapier

My goal as am anager is to enable them to do their best work without micromanagement. I really like how Help Scout prioritizes “players” (relative to management “coaches”) and follows “servant leadership”. This aligns well with how I tend to manage my own teams. I believe it is my job to improve the health and productivity of their team through optimism, empathy, and leverage-based thinking.

Although clear communication is key for any company, I think it’s the most important aspect of a remote company. Without the nuance and context of body language and tone of voice, it’s easy to misread any Slack message. I always assume the best of intentions from everyone else and infuse my communication with optimism to avoid negative conclusions by anyone else.

Empathy is equally important for communication. With every pull request comment I use language like “what do you think about”, “have you tried”, and “you could also” instead of “you should” or “this is wrong”. I think these simple techniques keep people open to receiving feedback.

Leverage-based thinking (thanks for the term Edmond Lau), means focusing on improvements to the development process that allow everyone on the team to iterate faster. These may or may not involve some actual coding. For example:

  • Adding automated unit test coverage thresholds to every build.
  • Upgrading dependencies and picking tools that have quicker build times to remove downtime for developers.
  • Staying on top of blockers and distractions that take developers out of their flow. This translates to scheduling meetings in blocks instead of throughout the day and responding to questions or feedback from QA, product, or upper management so that developers don’t have to.
  • Streamlining CI/CD integration.
  • Adding automatic error tracking (Sentry), type checking (TypeScript), and style guide enforcement (ESLint).
  • Facilitating mob programming (like pair programming, except with the entire team).

How do I deal with different levels of experience?

I have worked with and managed junior engineers fresh from code school, as well as senior engineers with over twenty years of experience. Engineers from either side of that spectrum can be overly confident and inflexible. I would prefer engineers more like myself that are positive, confident but humble, and willing to change their mind or their habits for the betterment of the team and company.

Do I still still code?

Sometimes I do miss being an individual contributor, but I believe that as a manager you have to give up on many of the “fun” projects to allow your team to enjoy their work and learn from those new experiences. I also do several things to stay close to the code. For one, I review every pull request, so that I’m up to date on the codebase and can share my knowledge with the rest of the team on a daily basis. When I do have time to code, I tend to focus on changes that will boost productivity for the entire team (see “leverage-based thinking” above).

Front-End Engineer / Developer Interview Questions

Throughout my career, I have interviewed lots of front-end developers, possibly in the hundreds. Below are some of my favorite questions to ask and why. Most of these have been taken from this excellent GitHub repo. These are pretty basic concepts, but you can adjust your expectations and follow up questions based on the experience you need for the role. These can be all be asked in about 20 minutes (perfect for a phone screen).

Warm Up

  • Tell me about the last project you worked on.
    I have their resume, so I don’t need their entire career history. I’d rather hear about what they have been doing most recently.
  • Which part are you most proud of?
    This usually gets people to talk about the specific parts they built rather than the overall project. It’s also a positive way to start the interview.
  • What would you do differently next time?
    Hopefully candidates will have learned something since they started their most recent project and would like to apply that to their next one. I like to hear how pragmatic they can be about choices that may have seemed correct at the time and only look bad in hindsight.

HTML / CSS

  • What is CSS selector specificity and how does it work?
    It is amazing how many senior level front-end engineers cannot answer this correctly. Really I’m just looking for someone to talk about how an ID is more specific than a class, or that the ordering of style definitions matters, or how you can add more selectors to get more specific. I often follow up with a specific example, like if you have two styles that change the color of the text, but one is an ID and one is a class, which one will take precedence? Sometimes this helps people understand the initial question more but sometimes it just proves how much they depend on Twitter Bootstrap to do all the styling for them.
  • What’s the difference between display: inline and display: block?
    To me this is very basic, but again I’m amazed how many people struggle to define this. If someone can’t remember or isn’t understanding the question, I usually follow up with an easier question: can you name some HTML tags that are inline by default? If they struggle with that, then I’ll ask if they think a <span> is inline or block.

JavaScript

  • Compare and contrast Angular with React.
    I will replace React with Vue/Backbone/Ember based on their experience. The goal is to find out how much time they’ve spent working with multiple libraries and learning the pros/cons and best use cases of each. This is also a good way to find out if someone is too dogmatic about any one particular framework.
  • What is the difference between “==” and “===”?
    Few people miss this one. It’s pretty basic, but it’s always nice to have people mention type conversion and get a small win, especially if they’ve been failing the CSS questions.
  • What are the differences between variables created using “var”, “let”, and “const”?
    I usually ask this if I’ve seen them mention ES6 on their resume. If not I will first ask them if they’ve used ES6. Even if someone has not used ES6 yet, I would hope they’ve at least heard of “let” and “const”.
  • Describe event bubbling.
    Many people get this confused with the event loop, or something else that they struggle to describe. I know React, Angular, and even jQuery to some extent have removed the need to deal with event bubbling and the weird side effects it can cause. But I like when people are at least aware of the concept. If they can talk intelligently about it, they obviously have a decent understanding of the DOM as well.
  • Explain how (the keyword) “this” works in JavaScript.
    Most people inherently get this (pun intended) and use it all the time, but it’s a difficult concept to verbalize. I think being able to describe programming concepts to other people is just as important as knowing them.

Testing

  • What tools would you use to test your code’s functionality?
    Not everyone writes unit tests. But almost everyone says they do. An easy way to see if they are bullshitting is to ask them to name their favorite tools. Hopefully they quickly respond with Mocha, Karma, QUnit, or something similar. If it sounds like they know what they are talking about I might delve deeper and see how passionate they are about TDD or code coverage.
  • What is the purpose of a code style linting tool?
    More recently I have simply asked: “Do you lint?”, but the end result is the same. People either use a linting tool and understand it’s purpose or they don’t. I personally would not want to work with someone who did not use a linting tool on a regular basis, but obviously there are people who do not.

Performance

  • Explain what a single page app is and how to make one SEO-friendly.
    These are great to see how well a person is able to communicate concepts like SPAs and how well they actually understand how they work and what their shortcomings are. Not everyone has done SEO optimization for their job, but I expect every mid to senior level engineer to at least know where to start. I expect them to mention meta tags, server-side rendering, semantic links, etc.
  • Name 3 ways to decrease page load (perceived or actual load time).
    This one is kind of a gimme, but it’s telling if a person rattles off a bunch or they just barely get to three. Much like SEO, I don’t expect everyone to have experience with performance optimization, but they should know the basics. Answers like “compress your images” or “caching” are fine, but I’m hoping a candidate will talk about minifying, gzip, code splitting, or other more advanced techniques.
  • What does CORS stand for and what issue does it address?
    Please at least say “Cross Origin” and mention “security” and you’ll get a pass. I have definitely heard candidates that say “oh yeah I work with this all the time” but then can’t describe why it exists. It’s one of those things that they just do, but they don’t know why.
  • Describe the difference between a cookie, sessionStorage and localStorage.
    Most people struggle with at least one of these. Cookies are a given, but depending on whether your experience is more back-end or more mobile, you may have never worked with session or local storage. But again, I’m hoping senior level candidates are at least aware of them as concepts and can describe what they are at a high level.

Hopefully these are helpful for anyone else who is interviewing front-end candidates or someone who is a front-end candidate. This is not an exhaustive list of everyone question I can or would ask, but it’s a good place to start. I will usually follow these up with a coding project and a more culture based interview with the rest of the team.

What I’ve Been Working On (Ionic and Angular Resources)

As you can see by my stale timeline, I haven’t updated this blog in awhile. I’ve been busy building the HomDNA app for iOS and Android using Cordova, Ionic, and Angular. Here’s what I’ve learned (more detailed posts to come):

AngularJS Architecture

AngularJS Plugins

AngularJS Optimizations

AngularJS Unit Testing

Cordova Plugins

Build Process with Gulp

Prefab and Modular Home Builders

For the first time home buyer in San Diego (as I am), it can be hard to find a modern, energy efficient, single family home for less than $500k. Especially when you also want some acreage (as I do). So I’m considering having a house built, in a year or two. I want it to be energy efficient, possibly net zero, possibly passive, and possibly capable of being off the grid. I also want it to be somewhat modern, to look good, and be high quality. All of that is hard to find at a decent price. Which is why I started looking at prefab and modular homes.

My search started with Prefabulous + Almost Off the Grid, which includes lots of beautiful examples and plenty of references. Combined with my own research, I’ve put together a list of the prefab/modular home builders in the United States. I’ve included the location and year founded, when it was easy to find.

All of these are “affordable” to some extent. All of them have floor plans of at least 1,200+ square feet and I’m not including cabin kits or anything else that’s too small to be livable for a family of three.

This is a pretty exhaustive list, but if there are any I’m missing, please let me know. I plan to investigate these further, starting with their price per square foot and which options that have available.

Install Homebrew for OS X

After more than a decade of Windows use, I finally made the switch to an Apple. I started using a Macbook Pro at Rapid7 last year and although I was mostly using Ubuntu in a VM, I got addicted to the simplicity and power of these sleek machines. Since I had to give the company property back when I switched jobs, I had to buy my own. I figured it was a good investment, since I work from home.

One of the first things I did, in order to easily download applications like Node.js, MongoDB, etc. was to install Homebrew, the Mac version of apt-get (package manager). Here’s how to do it:

Open a terminal (use spotlight search to find it) and enter:

ruby -e "$(curl -fsSL https://raw.github.com/Homebrew/homebrew/go/install)"

from http://brew.sh/

7 Failures and 2 Reasons I’m Moving to Southern California

Before you read any further, I have a warning for you: this is a post about New Year’s Resolutions. Yes, in March. I failed spectacularly at following last years goals, only achieving 2 of 9. Fortunately, the two I did accomplish are huge because they allow my family and I to move back to California, San Diego to be specific. In order to understand why I failed the other 7 goals, and figure out how to do better in 2014, I’m going to review each one in detail.

1. read a book a month

Reason #1 I failed: I didn’t bother to keep track. Looking back at my Amazon.com orders, I only bought 4 books, which were all reference books that I certainly didn’t read cover to cover. I got a couple books for Christmas that I read and I bought a handful of computer books through work that again, I didn’t read cover to cover. This year, I’m keeping a strict budget (with the help of YNAB), including a line item each month for books at $30/month. That’s 2-3 books a month, so even though I failed to read just 1 book a month last year, I’m setting even higher standards this year at 2 books a month. So far I’ve done just that. Here’s what I’ve read:

  • The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need
  • The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
  • Early Retirement Extreme: A philosophical and practical guide to financial independence
  • The Dog Stars
  • Remote: Office Not Required

Revised 2014 goal: read 2 books a month

2. create a $50/month income stream

When I wrote the goal, I know I was considering this as a “passive” income stream like a niche blog or eCommerce site. I definitely did not do that, despite doing lots of research. However I think I blew this goal out of the water with a combination of raises and freelance work.

I did a freelance gig for $2,400. Spread over 12 months that’s $150 more than my goal. Success! The much bigger win though, is that I switched jobs and increased my salary by $40k (not including a bonus). That was in June, so in those 6 months I added $20k of income. Spread over the entire year that’s $1,666/month in extra income. Since I didn’t officially list “passive” in the goal, I’m going to call this a major success.

For 2014, instead of focusing on earning more, I’m going to try to spend less and save more money. More on this in a future post, but here’s my revised 2014 financial goals:

  • max out IRA
  • 6 month emergency fund
  • full month buffer in budget
  • increase net worth
  • decrease spending to 50% of take home pay

3. increase fiat500abarth.us income to $200/month

Major fail here. I didn’t really even try until late 2014 and it was a fairly feable attempt. I wrote up a post for hiring another writer but never posted it. My AdSense revenue and traffic has continued to decline. I might try selling this website in 2014, but I’m not setting any specific goals. Mostly I just don’t want to worry about it.

4. do push ups and sit-ups before every shower

Started off strong here but at some point I just stopped, probably after I sprained an ankle playing basketball. I never picked it up again. I’ve realized that I just don’t have the motivation to do strength training of any kind and frankly, I don’t need to. Sure it would impress my wife if I had bigger arms. It certainly would make some things in life a little easier. But, I’m realistic with myself so I’m not going to set a goal that I can’t accomplish.

5. stretch every night

Fell off the wagon here pretty quickly as well. My wife still stretches just about every night and it would be easy to join her. But I’m lazy and I’ve never noticed a benefit so it’s hard to keep at it. Dropping this from 2014 because again, I know I won’t keep at it so I’m not going to set myself up for failure.

6. exercise every day (run, walk, or play basketball)

I definitely didn’t do this everyday, but on average I would say I did something 3 days a week. Pretty good, but that’s over 200 days over the course of a year that I sat on my butt and did nothing. Common excuses: too sore from basketball, too hot/cold outside, and too late (it’s dark). Since I’m now permanently working from home, this should be easy to accomplish.

7. figure out how to move to San Diego in 2014

This is a big one and probably the most important thing I did all year. My wife and I have been wanting to move back to California for the past couple years. Texas just isn’t for us. While I was sure I could get a job in San Diego, I wasn’t sure if I could get the same salary. The “sunshine tax” is a common phrase in southern California that for employment, basically means companies can afford to pay less, despite the higher cost of living, because so many people just want to live there. Through a handful of interviews, I confirmed this to be true. Given another couple months I probably could have found something with at least equal pay, but late in the year I decided to up the ante by also making working from home a requirement. That opened up the job search to companies located pretty much anywhere in the world and in February of this year, I started work for RebelMouse as a full time remote employee.

This was perfect because now we’re able to live just about anywhere we want. Once our lease is up in May, we’re moving to San Diego. We’re not sure exactly where yet, but we’re leaning towards somewhere more rural like Fallbrook, Romona, or Alpine. It’s only been a few weeks, but I’m loving working from home. I can’t wait to do it in sunny southern California weather!

8. write 300 words every day

I gave up on this pretty quickly. I know I should write, I just never figured out how to make it a habit. It’s hard to write while drinking coffee and wrestling with a toddler, so first thing in the morning wasn’t working. After she goes to bed I usually try to spend time with my wife and get some reading in, so this is a hard task to find time for. Overall, it’s not important for my life and once again, to be realistic for myself I’m dropping it from my 2014 goals. I’d rather stay focused on other things.

9. publish a blog article every week

Since I didn’t write, it was hard to publish anything either. I only managed to publish a couple articles from freelance writers for my Abarth blog, well below my weekly goal. I’d like to setup an editorial calendar for my own blog, but I also don’t want to set myself up for failure here. I’m keeping a soft distance from blogging for 2014 so I can focus on saving more, spending time with my family, and reading. I think this is something I may come back to at a later point, maybe next year.

Full list of 2014 goals:

  • max out IRA
  • 6 month emergency fund
  • full month buffer in budget
  • decrease spending to 50% of take home pay
  • read 2 books per month
  • exercise every day (run, walk, or play basketball)

Removing Distractions and Automating Production

It is amazing how much you can accomplish in 15-25 minutes. I have used writeordie.com to help me focus on slamming out 300-500 words at a time. It provides a distraction free page that will flash red when you stop writing for a few seconds and eventually will play horribly obnoxious sounds after 30 seconds or so. The only other interface elements it has is a countdown timer and word count. This allows me to focus on one goal: finish writing 300 words. Once I pick a topic and start the timer, it’s easy to just sort of open my brain and let the words flow out. Continue reading

Choosing a JavaScript Framework

I’ve been trying to convert IPOFest (a pet project started by Kyle and I) from all PHP to JavaScript that interfaces with a PHP API. At work we use Backbone.js and since I had never used it before, I practiced on IPOFest. First I started with Backbone and Knockout.js, with Knockback.js as a bridge. I didn’t go too far down that path, but it did feel a bit awkward and the Knockback documentation didn’t help very much. At work we use Handlebars for templates, so I started changing over to that. Continue reading