Hiltmon

On walkabout in life and technology

Hiltmonism - Talk to Drivers, Not Mechanics

How many people really know how their motor vehicle works, or even care to. Very few.

But they all drive.

And when their car breaks down or makes a noise or that ridiculous engine light comes on, they need mechanics. Nobody, except other mechanics, understands the explanation of whats wrong with the car. And therein lies the problem.

Mechanics need to learn to talk to drivers, not mechanics.

Techs are the Mechanics

Technology people are perceived to be painfully shy. I guess its a movie meme. They are not. Just observe a bunch of technology folks get into it on a topic they understand. You’ll never get them to stop talking, arguing, jousting and challenging. Mechanics are speaking to mechanics.

Technology people are also perceived as disconnected, strange, different, hard to speak to and harder to understand.

Unfortunately, this is not a meme. It’s true.

But not because techs are disconnected, strange, unintelligible folks. Or painfully shy for that matter.

Its because techs simply communicate differently to the way their audience does. And since techs do not speak to people the way they normally prefer and understand, this perception is supported by the evidence. Which makes it real.

Mechanics are speaking to drivers as if they were mechanics.

In business, successful technology teams understand this disconnect and learn to speak to their audience, to talk and relate the way their audience in the business does.

Successful mechanics speak driver-to-driver as fellow drivers .

Mechanics vs Drivers

Lets take a look closer at tech talk (the language of the mechanic) vs audience talk (the language of the driver) to see why this disconnect exists:

1. Techs talk in details, the audience talks in generalities. As a result, techs talk too much about the detail of what they are explaining and either confuse or bore the audience. Who cares that brakes have linings that soften, wear out and burr; but we all know when they squeak. Techs need to adopt necessary generalizations to address their clients properly and to have a shot at understanding them.

2. Techs also get lost in being accurate and pedantic, something the audience never does — they have better things to do. Whether there are N items or N+M items makes a difference to techs yet makes no difference to the audience. For a mechanic, the engine timing, tuning, air flow and seals are critical, for the driver, having a working car is all that matters. Techs need to loosen up and focus on how it will be used and not how it works. The tech and the client can always come back and drill down into the details later.

3. Techs use specific language to communicate, our audience uses common language and relies on context or experience to share what they are taking about — and understand that the right terminology does not matter as long as the core points of the conversation are understood. To a driver the doohickey is rattling, to a mechanic, that could be anything and the rattle a symptom, a result or something else! We techs get confused when the language is not our own, missing the gist of the conversation, which is what the audience wants us to understand. Techs need to learn their language patterns, and to focus on the gist of what is being said, on what the client is trying to say, not to imagine what the client may mean or what may be happening and what they just missed the client saying while doing all that imagining.

4. Techs explicitly express assumptions, the audience barely registers that they are making assumptions in conversation. Mechanics feel the need to explain the purpose of tappets and push-rods and how they react to different octane fuels which have different explosive properties, and that is why the car pings and feels sluggish. The driver wants the car to just go well. This one is hard for techs learning to speak to their audiences because they need to know what assumptions the audience usually makes. Working with your audience, listening to them interact, and asking them questions is a good start.

5. Finally, techs seek rigid exacting perfection, its necessary to make correct digital programs. The audience thinks and lives differently in an analog world where things change, move, shift, adjust and make — or fail to make — sense in unusual ways. Techs need to understand their audience’s analogue nature, senses, rate of change and direction, finding ways to communicate and adjust in analog while still operating in digital space.

Seeing the Signs

Its easy to spot the signs when this communication breaks down. If the audience starts to repeat itself, if the eyes glaze over or slow-blink, or they start pacing or making impatient motions, then the communication has failed. Just picture a frustrated driver trying to explain to a mechanic what is wrong with the car.

It works both ways. If the tech rambles on too long, finds themselves needing to say somethings, stops listening, or says “I understand” just to get rid of the audience, that too is bad. Just picture a mechanic detailing all the possible moving parts that could be the rattling doohickey to a puzzled driver!

Keep in mind that, unlike mechanics, techs do deal with different audiences. Each audience is vague or detailed in its own way, uses its own terminology, has its own assumptions and its own measures of success or failure. Each different audience has its own norms. Yet none of these audiences has the time or patience to discuss or learn all the dark details. They may seem different, but they are all essentially drivers.

The tech team needs to understand this about their audience to become part of it. They need to know how to speak to each audience in the language they understand, using the terms and levels of accuracy the audience expects.

To talk like drivers to drivers.

Mechanics can be Drivers too

The tech team needs to know what to tell their audience, and most importantly, what not to tell them . Explaining how a program or technology works, what an error message means, why something cannot or does not work, why this one case in 100 is possible and needs to be solved now, is interesting to techs, and not at all interesting to the audience. Drivers want a working vehicle, they do not need an explanation why it’s not working.

The tech team needs to know when to shut up. To the audience, perception being reality means they build their own mind-model of how a thing works. Letting them live in their own model is hard for techs because we need to deeply understand our own models and assume, incorrectly, that others do too. The driver does not need a lesson on internal combustion engine thermodynamics when knowing it turns on and makes a “vroom” sound is good enough.

And finally, the tech team needs to know when to speak up. Especially when the audience draws the wrong conclusions. If the driver is operating the vehicle incorrectly or using the wrong fuel, the mechanic needs to find a way to reach them in a way the driver can understand. The tech team needs to know how to effectively communicate the issue without going into boring details or terms, and draw the audience back in, regain their trust and understanding.

Talk to Drivers, not Mechanics

Finding that balance, the balance between detail and vagueness, between the correct term and the common one, between enough information and too much information, between saying more and shutting up is hard for tech teams.

But a good team can find this balance as long as it knows what the communication issues are.

And how to deal with them.

To talk to Drivers as Drivers, not Mechanics.

I use this Hiltmonism, “Talk to Drivers, not Mechanics”, to remind me and my team how to listen and communicate with those we design software for and how to build better product in the future. After all, great product is what they want and need too. We all need to be somewhere.

Oh, and to make the tech team seem a little less weird, strange and alien.

Click to see other Hiltmonisms in the ongoing series.

Follow the author as @hiltmon on Twitter.

Minimal Project Management

With my team starting to grow at work, its time to add some Project Management to our process. However, I do not want this to add any additional time, meetings or burden on them (or myself) and so all of the popular formal processes are no good for my needs.

In this post, I will outline the Minimal Project Management process, its steps and how it works. I will also cover the issues of change and interruptions. This process only works, however, because of the quality of my team.

The Team

My team is a group of experienced, smart folks who know how to design, program and ship product. Most of all, they understand the business, its priorities (our one weekly meeting covers that) and how their deliverables will impact. And they know how to manage their own time, interruptions and schedules.

They do not need to be micro- or even macro-level managed, they do not need systems and tools to tell them what to do when, they do not need someone else creating stories, setting tasks and getting on their cases when things slip. They know how to manage themselves, how to figure out what is needed, how to communicate effectively, and how to get it done.

That’s why I hired them.

I can assign work and know it will get done, done right, done on time with minimal overhead. And I know they will communicate progress and issues as needed. They need almost no project management from me.

Minimal Project Management

But as the team grows, so the number of projects and tasks that can be performed grows. When it was two of us, a quick conversation could cover all topics. When we grew to three, a weekly meeting and a single live-document sufficed.

Now we are five. Capacity is up. And the list of tasks and projects that can be tackled in parallel grows rapidly. I, as manager, need to stay on top of a growing mountain of this stuff.

This is when I level-up to Minimal Project Management as I have done on so many previous occasions.

Minimal Project Management consists of only a few steps (and one change process):

  • Assignment and prioritization of work.
  • A Statement of Work to define the task or project.
  • A single weekly review of progress.
  • A Management of Change process.

That’s all there is to it. The team gets to manage their own time. They know the priority and impact of the work, the dependencies, the business needs and their key deliverables as its discussed in the meeting. They know the standards expected of their work, the tests to run to be sure their deliverables are correct and the pressure we are all under.

That is, again, why I hired them.

Lets look at each component.

Assignment and Prioritization of Work

As the manager of the group, it is my responsibility to determine what work is needed, what the priority of that work is and who will do it.

I do not do this alone.

The Management Team of the business meets weekly to discuss issues, plans, challenges and review strategy. It is at these meetings where I contribute that which tech is bringing to the flow. The Management Team agrees on business priorities, and I convert that into prioritized work for my team to perform.

My team meets weekly too, and one part of this meeting is a review of the current business and work to be done — so they see the big picture. They too advise on dependencies and priorities.

With all this advice and help, I can easily determine what work needs to be done first, what next, what can remain on-hold, and can assign work to the team.

It’s not hard to determine what work implies a large, complex project and what work is small and easy. And there is no need for complex estimations or deadlines, we all know what’s at stake.

Each team member gets at least one large project and several smaller ones. This is intentional. There is much downtime on a single project as developers wait for data, people or dependencies. By loading each developer with several projects, they can work on another while waiting on one. Not only that, they can schedule their time to switch between projects to keep their work fun and interesting. It is my experience that developers with several projects “on the go” tend to mix-and-match their time and yet deliver and ship great code on time. Developers with nothing to do become disruptive or lazy.

Once work is assigned, each assignee is responsible for getting that work done. And they start with a Statement of Work.

The Statement of Work

A Statement of Work (SOW) is a short document that defines the objective, tasks and deliverables of a task or project. It can optionally contain assumptions and dependencies, and it may have details added later (designs, appendices, sample data, notes). But in essence, it’s a document that defines what needs to be done and how we know when it has been done.

My Statement of Work template is a simple Markdown text document as follows:

Kind: Statement of Work
Title: <Task or Project Name>
Author: Hilton Lipschitz
Affiliation: <Company Name>
Date: 2016-03-04
Version: 0.1

# SOW: [%Title]

## Overview

<What is the objective/goal is of this work>

## Tasks

<A list of the tasks to be performed — very high level, clearly written>

## Deliverables

<The deliverables of the project, so we know when it is complete>

Optional additional sections are

## Dependencies

<SOWs that need to be done first for this to be viable>

## Assumptions

<Any assumption made in why this work needs to be done>

That’s all there is to it.

A good Statement of Work is less than one (1) page long, complex ones get to a massive 2 pages, never more. It limits the scope of work and defines the tasks to be performed and deliverables to create. It does not detail each task, merely adds them as simple checklist items to be sure they get completed along the way. It does not say how, when or who will do the work. The how is up to the developer, the when and who is up to me, the Project Manager.

Most importantly, the person tasked to do the work writes the Statement of Work, not the Project Manager, not the user, not some Business Analyst.

There are many reasons for this:

  • The person doing the work needs to understand what needs to be done, what needs to be delivered, to whom and what is going on if they are to do it right. The best way for others to know if they have this knowledge and understanding is to get them to write the Statement of Work themselves and then review it.
  • The writer of the document also takes ownership of the project. It’s their scope, their tasks, their deliverables to make, their problems to solve.
  • The writer of the document usually starts with no assumptions. Asking an analyst or a user to write it leads to information missing because they assume the developer will know things. If the developer is writing it, they assume nothing.
  • And honestly, it frees me up to advise, coach, discuss, approve and work on other things, taking on my own Statements of Work. I’d rather be programming too.

Once the Statement of Work is completed (and reviewed, filed and approved by me), the person starts executing the tasks and we move into a work and review phase.

Weekly Review

Once a week, the team meets.

More than that and we’ll be interrupting their ability to get into the zone and work on projects, reducing their productivity.

The weekly meeting never goes beyond an hour. In it, we:

  • Each update the rest of the team on the projects we are doing and their progress.
  • Discuss new potential work that has come up.
  • Discuss any issues, ideas and changes that apply.
  • Discuss any key interruptions and bugs found.
  • Completed projects are closed.
  • Any new assignments are handed out.
  • And with the remaining time, we talk general technology and ideas, this being the part we like the best.

A weekly, semi-formal meeting does not mean we do not talk about work during the week. On the contrary, we are always discussing what tasks, documents and deliverables we are working on. If any issues arise, the team member goes to the people they need (especially me) to discuss, plan and resolve. While this is going on, the rest of the team is free to remain in the zone and continue to deliver on their work.

Dealing with Change

One thing you can always be sure of is that things change. The business changes, priorities change, even small project scopes change. Whether the change is external (Management, User) or internal (Tech Issues, Dependencies), the Minimal Project Management process needs to deal with it.

And I boil it down to two basic change types: Scopes change and Priorities change.

Scope Change

In scope change, the tasks and deliverables of a project as documented in a Statement of Work change. Users may ask for more features “while you are at it”, or, as the developer learns more about a topic, the nature of the tasks and deliverables change — what we thought we needed when writing the Statement of Work does not match what we actually need.

Scope change is managed by versioning the Statement of Work. A new version is generated by the developer and reviewed by me. If the scope change fits priorities, I will approve it, and the programmer will start working off the changed SOW. If not, or if the work should be a separate task or project, then a new task is generated and put aside for the next weekly prioritization and assignment.

If the scope change stops work on that project, no problem, because each programmer in the team always has several “on the go”, and can switch to working on another in the mean time.

Priorities Change

Like all programmers, I prefer to finish what I start. Given the limited scope of Statements of Work, this is usually and regularly achievable. But in the real world, priorities change.

This is where the manager needs to step in. Projects may need to be stopped mid-stream, with deliverables incomplete and undelivered, so that other projects can get some time and resource. Partial code branches need to be committed in case we return to this task. That’s all the team member needs to do, they then move on to other work.

I, on the other hand, need to track what was not done and why. I need to archive the SOW, with a note as to why it was stopped, by whom and when, and I need to be sure the partial work is safe. I usually add this information as a notes appendix to the document.

And, when the time comes, I can later assign this work back to the original programmer to continue and complete. Note that I rarely assign a SOW to anyone other than the writer of the SOW as they know best.

Interruptions

One thing that does ruin the simplicity of Minimal Project Management is interruptions. Users find bugs and interrupt, folks ask questions and interrupt, systems fail and interrupt, or some urgent, must be done now, yes bloody now, the place is on fire, task interrupts.

This is where the caliber of the team kicks in and where, as manager, I need to be patient and understanding (and occasionally a hard case). The people I hire and work with expect interruptions, they are realists and are experienced enough. In most cases, they deal with the interruption and move on, managing their own time and getting back to their work, without anyone being the wiser or anyone else being interrupted (until the weekly meeting where these are discussed).

If the interruption is a bigger thing, or happening to frequently, they make a judgment call and bring me in. Between the causer of the interruption, the programmer and myself, we’ll quickly discuss the issue. If it is something urgent, we’ll agree to perform the interruption, knowing work will be delayed, to get the interruption resolved. But if the interruption is a bigger issue, and it is up to me to determine that, then its also up to me to get the programmer back to work and the cause documented, scheduled for later resolution and interrupter satisfied — which means I need to be a hard case.

Mostly though, the team can and does deal with interruptions all day, and can still get their work done in spite of them.

Delivery

When a task is completed and the deliverables shipped, I archive the Statement of Work. Often, I will add a Notes section at the bottom to discuss how the task went, who did it and any issues that we faced.

This library of archived projects helps me to assign work in the future. I can see who is good at what, and who needs to learn what. We as a team can learn from the issues of past projects how better to think about, document and plan future ones.

Summary

So, as my team is growing, I am moving from a semi-formal weekly meeting to a semi-formal weekly meeting and Statement of Work Minimal Project Management model.

I will use the same task recording and prioritization tools as before. I will hold the same weekly meeting as before. But now each team member will be responsible for managing their formal Statements of Work and more formally communicating, managing and tracking change.

Yet we’ll remain the fast, nimble, and exceptionally productive tech team as always, doing what we do best, delivering systems that multiply our firm’s capabilities and competitive edges.

Follow the author as @hiltmon on Twitter.

Build Only What You Need

A note as a result of a discussion with a colleague.

I had quickly assembled a simple class that triggers periodic function calls from a timer on to a single worker thread. I need this class to ensure that periodic functions get called regularly. Since each call is quick to run (takes under a second), only needs to run every few minutes and can happily be queued behind another quick function, the simple single worker model is perfectly fine for this task.

I then reviewed the code with a colleague.

The colleague immediately declared that someone would abuse this class. They may create additional threads in the called function, he argued, they may trigger long running tasks in the called function, they may create hundreds of competing calls, they may abuse this class for all sorts of non-canonical use cases. He felt the code was therefore too basic, open to abuse and therefore a bad design.

I could build a fully featured, multi-threaded, load limited, time limited, repeating event trigger class architecture. It would take me days to do. And it could easily be coded to prevent the above potential abuse cases. One could successfully argue for this architecture.

But there is no point in developing that if the use-case is as documented in the class for short, periodic tasks. Adding worker threads adds complexity that is unnecessary (and the scope of work is OK with a slight delay on calls). Adding limiters increases complexity further and are only needed under abuse circumstances.

I believe you need to build what you need and no more.

If the use-case changes, you need to review whether to extend and expand an existing class or create a new architecture for the new case.

Coding based on possible, potential or abuse use-cases of code is silly and a waste of time.

Code what you need, design it well, and if a new use-case ever emerges, deal with it then.

Aside: He and I are the only two folks with access to this code, and so only he and I could abuse the class anyways.

“Keep It Simple Stupid”, all day long.

Follow the author as @hiltmon on Twitter.

Now in HTTPS

My host, Dreamhost, is offering free web site certificates through Let’s Encrypt, a new initative to make encrypted connections the default standard through the internet. They started with free SSL certificates.

So I turned it on.

Most browsers will be warning against unecrypted web sites real soon now, so I thought it best to do this now.

The only change I seem to need was to change the Google Fonts URLs to https as well.

Note: Since the Let’s Encrypt root certificates have not yet been deployed to all browsers (especially older ones), you may get a browser message that this site cannot be trusted or verified. Hang in there, and let me know via the comments (with screenshot and date).

Follow the author as @hiltmon on Twitter.

We're Better Than This

My thoughts on the toxic hell-stew that my Twitter feed is becoming. I follow (and occasionally interact with) a bunch of intelligent, opinionated, sensible tech folks whom I respect immensely and whose timelines and lives are being ruined by an impersonator, a gang of misogynists and their flock of followers.

We’re better than ganging up, taking sides and judging or expressing negative public opinions on people we do not know personally. Topical constructive disagreement is great, we thrive on that, personal attacks are not.

We’re better than letting one arsehole impersonating someone else from disrupting our sense of community, discourse and expression. You know who I mean.

We’re better than sniping at each-other over made-up shit, clickbait, snark and snide remarks created intentionally to sow discord in our community.

We’re better than those who treat women, LGBT folks and minorities as second class citizens. Because we do not.

We’re better than those who dox, swat, spread hate and discord. Because we do not.

We’re better than to give attention where it is not owed or deserved. We have more important things to do with our time.

We’re better than to get angry over insignificant stupid things where war, refugees, child killings, racism, guns, insane politics, a slow slide into the dark ages, climate change and a hundred other real issues deserve our attention and intellect.

We’re better than letting a few bad people ruin our community, one we have built over years of communication, trust and honesty.

We can and should unfollow, muffle, mute or block. We can shut them down together, as only a community can. Then ignore them.

Lets get back to being who we are, to the real discussion, to sharing our interests, to discussing tech topics, and to making Twitter enjoyable again.

Lets tweet a namaste (🙏🏽) to each other and put this behind us.

Maybe, just maybe, if we set a better example, as we have done in the past, they will find us implacable, unruffled, united and not worth messing with.

Follow the author as @hiltmon on Twitter.

Dangerware

Dangerware is common in business and government. Dangerware is just ordinary software, but the way it comes into being creates the danger.

  • It starts with a basic prototype written in a hurry.
  • This is quickly put into production to run the business.
  • The prototype screws up repeatedly when faced with new scenarios.
  • Resources are tasked to add (not update or correct) the prototype to deal with the latest screwup.
  • This process repeats until the resource (or original business person) is tasked to a new project, or the cost of screwup is less than the cost of resources to mitigate.

I call this software dangerware.

And sadly, it runs most businesses and agencies. Dangerware is software written without requirements, design, tests, validation, checks and balances or even an understanding of the business, the big picture or the nature of the problems being solved.

Its software without responsibility.

Shocked?

You should be.

But its as common as desk chairs in the real world.

Think about it: the Excel models, VBA projects, Access databases, SQL queries, built by non-professional programmers, hobbyists, interns, outsourced programmers and juniors that control and manage your business are all dangerware. Where the need to ‘get something out’ completely outweighed the risks, both financial and professional. And where its was easier to blame someone else for the the screwups (or for not recovering from them).

Dangerware is everywhere in business and government. Every single finance person has a horror story of a bad Excel formula that cost someone else their business. And yet they still trust in their own dangerware.

Can you imagine if your MRI machine or autonomous car’s software was created this way? You’d be dead.

The evolution of dangerware into bigger projects and the rush to start larger projects is a fair explanation as to why the vast majority of corporate and government software projects go so horrendously over budget and fail so badly.

Dangerware is easy to detect and prevent.

Detection is simple:

  • If the user is the programmer and not a professional full-time programer, you will get dangerware.
  • If the programmer does not understand the business problem to be solved within the bigger picture, you will get dangerware.

Solving the first is easy. Get a professional to develop the application. Trust them, listen to them and allow them to do it right.

The second is a lot harder, but not as hard as you think. It boils down to process and communication. And it was taught to me when I was a cocky kid by a middle-aged man with thick glasses and a cane. Sadly, I do not remember his name.

He taught me a simple process to gain an understanding of the business. It was the first step in what used to be called Business Process Engineering and it is all about finding and following the workflows.

To understand a business or a business problem, you need to know that it exists and understand what it is. To do so, you need to learn the workflow, how it starts, how it does (or should) flow and where it ends up. And the first step is to walk through the first one you identify, and then each one it exposes. Follow the existing paperwork, see who gets involved, centrally and peripherally. See which flows depend on this flow and are triggered by it. Follow each variant of the flow, run scenarios on each, both success and failure, to understand the nuances.

And do this with real people. Not the managers and consultants, but with the actual people involved. Work with them to find out what you do not know. Assume nothing. Ask lots of questions, listen to them talk (and complain), ask about what happens before and after, ask why they do what they do to see if they even know. Its amazing what you will find and just how much you did not know to start with.

What will emerge is a picture, often confusing to start, of intertwined people and processes, of contradictory and seemingly irrelevant steps, and a huge pile of exceptions to the rules.

And a lot more questions.

Unravel this picture to understand the flow.

You are not trying to reproduce the flow. Nor blame or replace the folks running it. Pull out what needs to be done, why it needs to be done, where it works and where it fails. And it always shows up what you would have missed had you not gone through this process.

Then, and only then, design software to help.

That will protect you from dangerware. Because you understand the business problem and environment before solving for it and coding it up, you reduce the risks of failure, screwups and blame games.

The counter argument for this is that there is never enough time to execute this process. “We’ll get something out and then, if we have time, we’ll figure it later” is the bat-signal of dangerware. Even a single walkthrough and a few conversations with the folks involved that takes less than a few hours will show up just how much you do not know. And the time and cost spent learning is insignificant compared to the time to add more danger to dangerware and the cost of screwups.

You’ll never know everything, but at least the big nasty dangers will be identified early, exposed and can be solved for in design before releasing dangerware.

A professional programmer will check their code. A professional programmer who understands the business flow will generate product that is not dangerware.

And you, you can focus on building a better business instead of being distracted by the huge number of problems dangerware causes.

Follow the author as @hiltmon on Twitter.

A Yosemite Markdown Spotlight Importer

All my text and writing is in Markdown formatted files and I would like to search them using Spotlight. The editors I use do not have an importer (they have Quicklook only), so this is not available directly.

Changing the RichText Spotlight importer trick worked in previous versions of OS X (see how in A Simple Markdown Spotlight Importer), but since System Integrity Protection in OS X El Capitan, this no longer works.

Never fear, there is another way.

The great Brett Terpstra to the rescue, again! Read about it at Fixing Spotlight indexing of Markdown content on his amazing site.

What I did was the following:

  • Downloaded this Zip file from his site and uncompressed it
  • Moved the Markdown.mdimporter file to ~/Library/Spotlight. I had to create the folder under my User’s Library folder. To find this folder in Finder, hold the Option key when pressing the Go menu to see the Library folder option.
  • Started a terminal shell

In the command prompt, I executed the following to activate the importer:

mdimport -r ~/Library/Spotlight/Markdown.mdimporter

And then, when nothing seemed to have happened, I recreated the entire Spotlight index on my computer.

There are two ways to do this.

The GUI way is to open System Preferences, select Spotlight and the Privacy tab. Drag and drop your Macintosh HD onto the big open space. Wait 20 seconds or so, then click the minus sign to delete it. OS X will start to recreate your Spotlight index.

Or use the following command:

sudo mdutil -E /

To see if this is working, run

mdimport -L

I get

2015-11-17 12:40:40.400 mdimport[53046:588670] Paths: id(501) (
    "/Users/Hiltmon/Library/Spotlight/Markdown.mdimporter",
    "/Library/Spotlight/iBooksAuthor.mdimporter",
    "/Library/Spotlight/iWork.mdimporter",
    ...

After a long while, all my Markdown files were once again searchable in Spotlight. Thanks Brett!

Follow the author as @hiltmon on Twitter.

Making and Maintaining High Resolution Charts for Indesign CC

One of the biggest headaches I have using Adobe Indesign is the creation and especially maintenance of charts and graphs. In my case, my fund publishes several high quality books and one-pagers monthly and I need to update a bunch of charts and graphs. I also need to print these at a very high DPI, hence Indesign.

I used to use Adobe Illustrator graphs. They are rudimentary, but very customizable. Every month I had to load an Illustrator file for each image, update the graph data and then spend time tweaking the results. Only then could I open Indesign, update links and move on. This took a lot of time.

The ideal solution would probably be embedded Excel charts in Powerpoint or Keynote. But these products are screen focussed, low DPI, and are no good for high quality print output. And unfortunately, Excel produces graphs as bitmapped images, not vector art, so that is no good too.

But it turns out that Apple’s Numbers application (part of iWork on the Mac) does something special when exporting to PDF: it generates all charts as magnificent PDF vector art. And these include the new typography features and hairlines I need.

So here is how I work now.

I have a Numbers spreadsheet with a bunch of tabs. On the far right is the tab containing the source data tables. To the left are tabs containing one and only one graph per tab. The source data for each graph is in the data tab.

The reason the data is in the right-hand tabs is to ensure that the graphs are always published to PDF in the correct order and present on the same page number every time (see linking below).

Each graph has been created individually, designed to match the book or page theme, the necessary fonts and colors set, even the sizing is preset. All I need to do every month is update the data and let Numbers take care of graph changes.

I then export the entire document to PDF (File / Export / PDF…). I set the image quality to Best which seems to produce nice, clean hairlines, and save the output into my Indesign Assets folder, overwriting the previous period’s PDF.

In Indesign, I created the frames for each chart. When placing the chart, I check Show Import Options and select the PDF file. This brings up the below dialog where I select the PDF page (the linking trick) containing the graph I want in that frame. A bit of resizing and repositioning and the graph is linked and placed in the document.

On update days, things cannot be easier, I:

  • Open the spreadsheet and update the data.
  • I save it, then export to PDF as above, replacing the previous PDF asset file.
  • I open Indesign and update links. Since the PDF pages and charts are in the same place and remain the same size, they all update perfectly.
  • After changing the monthly numbers and text, I save and prepare for print.

Since Numbers produces high-resolution vector PDF art, I am able to generate quality high-DPI charts in no time and get the books and pages out on time without losing fidelity.

Follow the author as @hiltmon on Twitter.

Brown M&Ms: A Quick Way to Determine Code Quality

My business runs on code. Every day, my team and I deploy new systems, patches and add new features to our mission-critical code base. And we rarely have a problem.

That’s because we have a quick way to determine if the programmer attended to the details of the product and code, and whether we then need to hold the deploy for a deeper check and test or can run a lighter test and confidently push it out.

We run a quick quality check.

We look for the presence of brown M&Ms.

Back in the day, the legendary band Van Halen put on complex live shows involving lots of equipment, lighting and expensive sensitive sound equipment. The setup for the show was documented in great detail in their standard concert contract which dictated what the venue needed to do to set up and run a Van Halen Concert.

One of the more unusual requests, under the “Munchies” section hidden in the middle of the contract, was a line requesting a bowl of M&M’s with the brown ones removed.

One would assume that they were just being prima-donna rock stars in requiring each venue to task a person to remove the brown M&Ms from the bowl.

But that was not the intent.

This requirement served a very practical purpose: to provide a simple way of determining whether the technical specifications of the contract had been thoroughly read and complied with.

In short, if there was a bowl of M&Ms with the brown ones removed, chances are the venue had read all the details of the contract, followed them all and had set up the concert properly and correctly. If not, Van Halen knew to run a detailed check, line by line, to find out what the venue had failed to set up properly and could put the concert at risk. Empirically, they usually found problems when the M&Ms requirement was not met, and rarely found problems when the bowl was properly prepared.

In our case, we don’t ask programmers to provide bowls of chocolate (although that would make me a lot happier). Instead, one of their requirements is to code to our quite capricious coding standards, where tech arguments on spacing, naming and formatting have been, in many cases, arbitrarily decided. You may not like our standards. Heck, even I don’t agree with parts of them and I designed them. They are there to help the team read each-others' code, and also there as our coal-mine canary.

When new code is delivered to us, the first thing we do is scan it for standards compliance. We can see, at a glance, if the code is to standard or not: are the headers present, are the files named correctly, is the spacing and layout right and does the code look ‘clean’. So, if the programmer has not followed the coding standards, we know to drill further. If they have followed the standards to the letter, chances are the code is better.

The programmer who takes the time to code to all our needs (the standards being just one) is more likely to have thought through the code, structured and tested it properly and produced a more reliable and maintainable product. If a programmer has been lazy, copy/pasted code and ignored the coding standard, its more likely that they have not fully examined the problem space, designed an elegant solution, tested it and made it maintainable.

Its all about attention to detail. If the code layout detail has been adhered to, so too have all the other details.

We’ve seen this time and time again. Code to standard is usually more reliable and correct. And because of that, adherence to standards has become our bowl of M&Ms test.

To be clear, we do not just take the pretty code and push it out. Code still gets reviewed, tested, challenged and examined before it goes out to run the business. If the attention to detail was applied to standardizing the code, then the likelihood of the same level of attention being paid to the functionality and feature set of the code is very high.

Empirically, we see fewer bugs and problems, have an easier time in review, better tests run with better coverage, and maintenance by the team is easier.

Code written to our standards is our brown M&M check, our way to get a quick feel for the quality of work we’re dealing with.

Ironically, I am one of the few people who actually likes the brown M&Ms. Feel free to remove the blue ones from my bowl.

Follow the author as @hiltmon on Twitter.

Why I Subscribed to Apple Music

Just over 3 months ago, Apple released Apple Music and I signed up for the free trial as we all did. My expectation was that I would play with it for a few days, get over it and never use it again. I expected the same experience I got from Spotify and Pandora before and I never subscribed to them. I expected the same old same old and no reason to use it.

I did not expect to actually pay for it or even want to pay for it.

Five days ago, I happily paid and will do so from now on.

Here are the main reasons why.

The Human Curated Playlists

These are magnificent. They contain the best mixes created by people who know, live and understand music, and have led, time and time again, to me discovering artists and music I had never heard of before.

In fact, 90% of the time, I find myself listening to one of these mixes. I launch the Music app, scroll to one that looks interesting (and there are lots of these) and start playing. When it ends, I find another, and another, and another. Three months later, and I am still finding more. I am often surprised by what comes up next in a mix.

With Pandora and Spotify, I found the mixes to be boring, generic and pedestrian, when they were not purely amateur. Having been a reasonable mixtape maker myself in the good old days of cassette tapes and big hair, a mix needs to tell a story, have a mood, comfort and surprise the listener at the same time. Apple Music mixes have this heart, Pandora and Spotify’s don’t.

Apple Music has a plethora of human created playlists containing magnificent music melding old favorites and new artists in thoughtful, expert, moving ways.

Access to high-quality Everything

I have not been a music buyer for quite a while (excluding the few albums I picked up on iTunes). I do have a massive 500+ CD collection taking up space in boxes below my bed. I ripped them - quite badly - years ago and have listened to these rips for years.

I think I stopped buying music in general because

  • I stopped listening to the radio and therefore stopped discovering new music.
  • The music I do hear seems so generic, the same songs by the same few artists over and over again. We used to call it the Stock Aitken Waterman effect back in my day, where everything seemed to be bubblegum pop.
  • I’m getting older and according to the research, we stop keeping up.
  • I now live in a small apartment in New York, there’s no space for a music collection or a large sound system.
  • And lets be fair, there’s no need to own music anymore when you can stream it anytime anywhere.

My collection of terrible rips has been replaced by instant, anywhere access to Apple’s high quality versions of the same songs I know and love. And when I do discover a new talent, I can listen immediately to their high-quality albums. No need to remember their name, go to the record store and hope to buy their good album.

Apple Music provides full access to the entire record store anytime anywhere.

No Ads or Interruptions, Easy to Use

My wife listens to Pandora all day. When the music is on, things are pleasant. Then an extra-loud ad comes up next. It destroys the mood. I have always found that to be a problem with radio too. Which is why I used to listen to student radio stations.

Apple Music is music and nothing else. No ads, no interruptions, no mood breakers. Yes, I know about Beats 1, and it contains talk and ads and all the usual radio interruptions. I do not care for nor listen to Beats 1.

The user interface also works for me. It’s not perfect, but Spotify and Pandora’s are so horrible. We both find it difficult to work through the mountains of data, the long scrolling lists and the awful search on the alternate platforms. I find it easy to scan Apple Music to find what I want to listen to.

Apple Music is all about the music, not the show or fighting the user experience.

Subscribed

That’s why I subscribed. Great mixes, full access to quality recordings, no interruptions and easy access, anywhere, anytime.

And with that, my current mix just ended. Oooh, that one looks interesting. Gotta go, pressing play…

Follow the author as @hiltmon on Twitter.