Finally, they both riff on a listener question on consulting. Said listener asked, "Do you think about your work as 'consulting first' or as 'building great software first and then good experiences for your clients will follow naturally?'" Find out their take and give us your own, here on this episode of 'The Bike Shed!'
Bike Shed "Nate Berkopec" Episode (https://www.bikeshed.fm/296)
Boring Rails: Skip the bullshit and ship fast (https://boringrails.com/)
mtime (File) - APIdock (https://apidock.com/ruby/File/mtime/class)
STEPH: Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Steph Viccari.
CHRIS: And I'm Chris Toomey.
STEPH: And together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way. So hey, Chris, happy Friday. How has your week been?
CHRIS: Happy Friday. My week's been great, yeah. I've been writing a lot of code, moving things around, planning some features, and all that fun stuff that goes into building an app, so I'm enjoying that process. I'm also halfway through listening to your recent episode with Nate Berkopec, which was absolutely delightful, well, at least the first half that I've listened to so far. I assume the rest will continue to be absolutely delightful, but it does remain to be seen. So I'll report back next week when I've listened to the whole thing. But yeah, that's great. And I'm glad that Nate got to come on, and we got to share a little bit of his story as well.
STEPH: I like how clear you are in terms of like, "The part that I've listened to so far is great, but I reserve judgment until I've heard the rest of it." [chuckles] But that's awesome.
CHRIS: The thing about being a developer is it has broken my brain such that I am overly specific all the time because I just argue with a computer all day. It's what I do. So then I start talking to humans, and I'm like, wait, I should probably behave differently now. And I got to unwind some of those computer fights. But anyway, and let's see, small updates working with Svelte, really like Svelte. I'm leaning into it more and more and embracing...I think I'm starting to understand the aspects of it that I really like. And one of the things that I really like about it is that it is somewhat underpowered. And what I mean by that is working on React applications, I find that I can do some fancy stuff, and I can express it really well in TypeScript. And I can really go for it and create some components that are wildly variable and configurable and can take in any combination of props and do all sorts of things. And I can slice out tiny, little components and do all of this. When I'm doing that, I enjoy it.
STEPH: I liked the phrasing that you used just a moment ago where you said, "Useful limitation." Since I haven't used Svelte myself, one of my understandings is that you like the fact that it is that low JS in terms that we are introducing this framework, but it's not as heavy-handed as React or another framework that you could retour. But then you also said you're running up to areas where you feel like you're missing some stuff from React, is what I'm hearing. Is there a particular feature, or do you have a concrete example to help me understand some of the stuff that you are really missing?
CHRIS: It's not so much that I feel like there are specific features missing, but as a pointed example, I am not able to pass in the DOM element that I would like the component to render as. That's a weird thing, but often, component libraries will do this. So you have a button component, but the button can render either as a literal HTML button element or an anchor element. And you can pass in as equals and then button as the string there. And in React, you can do that, and then you can actually do some type inference across it and say, "Okay, now the rest of the props that you can pass in are button props.” And if you pass in as equals a, so implying that you want it to be an anchor or a link, then it will constrain you to the link properties and say, "Oh, you must have a HREF now." That's really cool that you can do that. It's also super complicated, and the TypeScript representation of it, while it works, is very, very complicated and the types of errors that you get. The complexity of what you can build with React is really interesting. But I worry now that I've spent a good bit of time in Svelte, I worry if it's overpowered. I've worked on plenty of applications where the system as designed in React, all the set of different components is very, very complicated. And you sort of have to learn that system in order to be able to work in it, whereas in Svelte, you just start, and you're writing in HTML and CSS. And then, as you need more fancy stuff, you can slowly layer it in. And to be clear, Svelte definitely has plenty of power.
This past week, actually, we were working on a modal component, but we were really focused on accessibility, which is probably a good thing that you should do, but it turns out modals are very hard to get right. The dialogue component that should exist in HTML is not complete, and it's not a thing that we can rely on. So we have to do certain things ourselves. So the idea of focus trapping when the model pops up, we need to say, oh, okay, the focus should be trapped inside of here, so you can tab forward and back, but it's going to stay within that modal component. There's actually a way that you're supposed to portal it. So you move it outside of the documents so that you can make the rest of the document...I want to say aria-hidden is the property, but you're basically saying the entire rest of the document that's behind this modal component should be inert to a screen reader essentially or invisible to a screen reader while the modal is up. And doing all of those sorts of things is super complicated. After you close the modal, you're supposed to refocus the button that opened it, the triggering element, and that's a tricky one where you have to pass down a reference to something. And that was all very expressive, actually, very straightforward in Svelte in a way that I was really impressed by. So it definitely has all the power that you need but not any more than what you need. Or there is a small line of it's just right.
STEPH: So we should just scrap modals. That's one of the things that I'm hearing from you. So I just want to clarify because I do feel a little confused because in the beginning, it sounded like you were saying that Svelte is wonderful, but you do feel like you're missing a little bit of functionality there that you do receive with other frameworks like React. But then that last thing you said where “it's just right” sounds like it's the Goldilocks. So I'm a little confused as to exactly how you're feeling about Svelte in the moment.
STEPH: Hmm. Okay. I like that last part. Yeah, there are often times where I feel like the less powerful something is, even if it means a little extra work on my end but it's clear as to the work that's being done...I'm going to take it back a couple of years to when I was first learning Elixir because that's how I felt jumping from Ruby to Elixir and from Rails to Phoenix, where suddenly I felt like I had more clarity. There were some things that I had to do more on my own, but I felt more clarity as to what exactly was being done versus Ruby and Rails doing a lot on my behalf. So I can certainly relate to that.
CHRIS: Yeah, I think that captures it well, that the expressive power of React can perhaps lead to somewhat more confusing code, and the small handful of cases where I need to be slightly more verbose in Svelte I actually find really useful. Like, Svelte is making sure that I'm writing components that are clear and easy to work with, but it still has all of the power that I need, and I can do everything I want in it. And yeah, overall, just yeah, Svelte's great. Modals are complicated. And that's my story. But yeah, that's a little bit of what's up with me. What's going on in your world?
STEPH: Before we switch gears. I want to add on a little bit more to what you just said because something that I have noticed with me is that the longer that I've been a developer, the more I want that lower-level control and understanding as to what is happening. And it sounds like that is very much what you're saying that you're enjoying with Svelte is even if it does require a little more extra effort, that then at least I have that ability to exactly control what's happening versus if you're using higher-level obstructions, you're stuck with the API that's been designed for you. And that API works 98% of the time, that's wonderful but then that 2% of the time you're in trouble. So I've definitely noticed that trend, that over time, I want that lower-level control over everything that I'm working with and building, although not all the way to C, let's not go that far.
CHRIS: I mean, there's Assembly underneath C. We can keep going, and we can just manually manipulate transistors as well if we really want to get after it. [laughs]
STEPH: Next week on The Bike Shed. [laughs]
CHRIS: Much, much higher level of abstractions are interesting to me, but yeah, there is a sweet spot. Svelte seems like it's the one for me.
STEPH: Nice. So then switching back to what's new in my week, it's been a little bit of a weird week in terms of there's been a lot of focusing on sending data to a third-party system. So we had a lot of data that they needed in their system. So I have been focused on running a number of processes that are then sending that data over and then essentially babysitting processes, making sure everything is going smoothly. Also communicating with their team to understand okay, what's being received? Do we have any errors? Is there any sort of miscommunication between our systems, and that's why we're needing to resend this data to you? So it's been very different in terms that it wasn't a typical feature development week. It was more, hey, I sent you some data. What did you receive? And then let's fine-tune both of our systems on each end, which that part I always enjoy. As soon as I can get to that level of collaboration with someone, I very much enjoy that part because initially, it felt like a stressful task of like, hey, we've got this giant CSV. We need to process and send data. But then as soon as I have someone else to work with, then I'm like, yeah, okay, this is great. They can update their system. We can fine-tune ours as well in case there's something that's not communicating properly, and that part I really enjoy. I really enjoy collaborating with someone else so then we can both improve our systems together, so that part was a little different.
But the actual weird thing that I did this week is we have feature flags, and we are using those feature flags to help us sunset and deprecate some code. So we have a controller path that is pretty gnarly. It is one of the more dense, difficult areas of our codebase to understand. And so we are refactoring it and creating a new green space for it so we can start to pull in some of that behavior and then also refactor as we go. So we essentially have class version one, and we now have class version two, which is always something. And we want to be able to feature flag this because, with our deployment workflow, we need the ability one; we want to be able to switch back quickly. So that way, if something goes awry, we can switch back to the original code if we've made some misassumption in our V2 version. And then we want to leave that on for a while to make sure things are running smoothly, and then we can go back and actually remove that class.
But then the question came up is like, well, if we have these two files, how do we tell the team not to touch this particular file but only contribute or make a change to this other file? Because we have a sizeable team, and we work in different time zones. And there is a very reasonable answer that we communicate with the team that other folks are aware because they've seen the PR. There's a whole self-discipline of we review PRs and make sure stuff wasn't changed. All of that stuff is fine. It's reasonable. But I wanted to do something a little less reasonable [chuckles] that would still fail loudly in case someone changed a file. So the question was presented is there a way that we could fail loudly if someone changed this file? And there's a fun thing that we'll do at some of our daily syncs where someone will say, "That's a good idea. I have a bad idea." There's a fun thing that happens at our daily syncs where someone will often ask a question, and someone will provide an idea. And then someone else will say, "That's a good idea, but just to throw it out there, I have a bad idea. So let's just explore all of the ideas." And one of them was like, "Could we write a test around this? So if the file hash or something about that changed, then could we alert the team so then we know that this file changed and you're not supposed to change this file?" And essentially, having that discussion of like, well, then we're reimplementing Git because we're trying to track file changes. That seems like a bad idea but still a novel one to talk about for a few minutes.
The implementation that I landed on and then shared with a person that's working on this is you do have the ability with Ruby, the file class itself; you can open a particular file. And for this one, select class one, and then you can use the function mtime, which returns the modification time for a file. So you can check the last time that a file was changed. So I wrote a test that says that "This file was last altered at…" and I grabbed that file's last altered at time with mtime. And then, I compared that to a particular DateTime. And then that DateTime could be any DateTime in the future once we deploy this class version two, so we don't expect that file to be altered. So this test will always pass until someone changes that file. And then Ruby is going to say, "Oh, your time is now greater than that other time you said." And so it's going to fail, which actually works pretty well. It's not as ugly as I thought it was going to be. [chuckles] As to whether it's a good thing to add to the codebase, I don't know, but it was a fun thing to write.
CHRIS: I like it. I've definitely written things like that in the past, and I guess; therefore, I'm biased. [chuckles] I'm a fan of this sort of thing. But when you can take that group knowledge that is just shared in communication or via code review and you can capture it in the code, especially if you can do it in a stable, robust way…In particular, the first thing that comes to mind with that is like, well, are there going to be different representations of the timestamp on your system versus CI? Will that ever change over time? Like, Linux versus OS X or things like that. I actually have reached for Git in situations like this in the past. So, in particular, the one that I found myself doing a few times is trying to instrument code generation. So say we're working with Apollo, and we are generating the TypeScript types associated with a GraphQL request. I wanted to put something into CI to say, "If we haven't committed those changes," because we're supposed to be committing those files alongside, "then warn." And so the idea was take a snapshot of what things look like right now, run the command that does the code generation, and then check after that.
I've done different versions where it's like, hey, Git, is the working directory dirty at this point? That's a version. I've also done one recently where I got the checksum of the file but again, asking Git. Because you're totally right that a lot of this...this is what Git does, and we don't want to rewrite Git. But I did feel okay reaching out and being like, "Hey, Git, can you help me understand the word?" But I like these sorts of things, particularly if you can do it in a way that won't ever require someone turning it off. I don't know if you've worked on projects where ESLint is enabled, but every third line has an eslint-disable-next-line. And it's just like, well, we have a bunch of rules, but we ignore them in a lot of cases. And those sort of...the like trust scenario with an automated tool I think is so important. If it's ever giving you false positives, false negatives, whichever it is, then it immediately, I think, loses so much of its utility. But if you can do it in a way that is stable and robust, then I am a huge fan.
STEPH: Well, we'll see if the person decides to include it in their PR or not. But I do like that idea of where we can take away the idea that we're going to catch it if it changes in a PR because then we're just going to end up in a bad place that if we fix a bug in the class V1 but don't apply that to class V2, we're just going to be in a bad spot. And it's likely we'll forget about it when we go back to then delete class version one. There is something that you said that has reminded me of a very small change that I made to my process, but I feel like it had a big impact. And it's specific to working with feature flags, how often you'll have your tests where it's like if feature flag is on, this behavior should happen, if it's off, this behavior. And I often would wrap my test in the default path where the feature flag is off, and then I'd have my other if the feature flag is on; this is the behavior. But as we are migrating with the intent that this feature flag at some point in the near term future is going to always be on, so we know we're going to come back and remove all of the other code. I switched those two paths and treat the default happy path as the new if the feature flag is on; this is the new world. So then when folks are going back to say, "Okay, I just need to delete everything that represents when the feature flag is off," suddenly, it's just very easy to find that context to say, "Hey, feature flag is off and then boom, delete all of those tests." And that's been really nice.
CHRIS: I really like that lens of designing or coding for deleteability. How easy is it to just rip this thing out? It's one of the things that I love about Tailwind, or one of the purported facets of Tailwind that makes it really nice is when you're looking at a given template, you can just rip it out. You don't have to worry about it because there's no associated CSS that you need to think about because the CSS is sort of generated available, whatever you want to call it with Tailwind. But I really like that idea of making it easy to delete stuff. Because it's so easy to just have your codebase slowly grow over time and look at files and be like, "I don't know if we're using that, but better to be safe." Cool. I'm excited to hear if that does land in the codebase and how folks respond to it. What did you phrase the message as? So if there's a test failure, did you give a particular like a special RSpec formatted message to be like, "Hey, friend, you're not supposed to touch this file. I know you're well-intentioned, but…" or is it just like, "Failure, bad. Mtime is different." Which end of the spectrum are we on there?
STEPH: I love that you asked that question because I almost went down that path, and I was like, well, this should really have its own custom failure message because it's odd enough that I want to tell someone a little bit of a story when it fails. But I didn't because this was something that one; I just want to see if I could do. So I initially started looking at standard rb in RuboCop because at first, I was wondering if this was something I could solve via linting if it was something that RuboCop…if I could say, "Hey, RuboCop, if you notice that this file changed…" I didn't know if they had a hook into Git as they're looking for files to analyze. So I first leaned on RuboCop standard rb, which essentially then uses RuboCop under the hood, and I didn't find anything there. So then that's when I was like, okay, maybe Ruby has something, and that's when I found the file mtime. So at that point, once I'd gotten the test to pass, I'm like, you know, this is good. There's a very nice, friendly test description that goes along with if this fails; this is the reason why. But I do think that would be like cherry on the top addition to the test to have a very nice error message that goes along with this. So if I were the one that was adding this to the codebase, I would take a few more minutes to do that myself. It definitely felt like one of those moments where I had gone far enough into an experimental mode, and I felt like I had just reached that point where this is useful, and I want to share it with the person who's actually working on this. But then I pulled back going further because I'm like, I don't actually know if they want to use this and if they're going to implement it. So it felt like that right friendly balance of like, here's something that works. Feel free to use as is, make it better, don't use it, totally up to you.
CHRIS: Yeah, I think given that context, that's definitely I feel like a good line to draw, not like, “Here's fully completed code that you can now just drop in. I did all the work, but here it is.” Versus like, “Oh, here's a kernel of an idea if you want, run with it, but if not...”But yeah, [chuckles] if you went to the length of writing a nice paragraph summary message to the end-user, that feels like you're really taking over the show. So cool. Well, yeah, interested again to hear how that goes and hear if it does, in fact, stop. That's the other thing. It's like, if it never actually fails, then everybody was just fine with the human process. But I'm intrigued to see how many times it actually does stop unwanted modifications of the file. So that's an interesting measure to track.
STEPH: Yeah, that would be an interesting thing to track because if we do have it, then we may have less visibility into knowing if it failed because then someone will see it fail locally, but then we will have prevented it from getting to that PR state. It is one of those “did someone not change it because we added the test, or could we have skipped that process?” It feels like one of those nice safety measures, but that would be a fun thing to measure, I agree.
CHRIS: Yeah, especially if it's a small change; in this case, I think it's totally worth it. But now, as I said it, I didn't mean it to be more of a thing. But now that I think about the question, I wonder if all tests should fail at some point. Like, all tests have a cost, both in terms of development and then thinking about them in runtime and all of that. And a good test is one that eventually fails because you change the system in a way that broke some constraint. And so, therefore, I'm now asking the question, like, should every test fail at some point? Are tests that only ever pass actually not that useful? I don't think so. Now there's a story running in the back of my head that's like, I kind of want to look at the CI stats. And feature specs will occasionally fail for unrelated reasons. But unit-level tests that never break, that never fail and catch something that was broken…I don't know that I actually believe this, but I'm just intrigued. As I asked the question, I was like, huh, should all tests fail? Sort of like one hand clapping kind of thing, anyway.
STEPH: I like the question, or it's making me stop and think because my initial answer is yes, as long as it's failing for a meaningful reason, as long as it's not a flaky test or something along those lines. But otherwise, as you're working on the system and you're making changes, then I'm inclined to say that yes, every test should fail at some point. But I agree, if we're getting into existential test area, then I don't have concrete feelings about this yet.
STEPH: I'm fascinated by how that would feel as a user because if I'm hovering over a link, I'm thinking through my specific navigation habits. So if I'm going to a link, like, I don't hover very long. I don't think of myself as a hovering internet user. [laughs] I'm probably going to click on it right away. So I wonder if I would still feel that same speediness versus...yeah, I am interested in the metrics if they have something around like...I don't know why they would know this or have this, but like, most people hover for this long. And so then it speeds up their feeling of the page load. I'd be interested in that.
CHRIS: I like the idea that you're bracketing yourself into the quickest click of a link in the west. I'm looking around on their website, seeing they have a quote from NewEgg at the top, which is, "We implemented Quicklink and saw a 50% increase in conversions and 4x faster page transitions." So it sounds like I'm reading an ad for this now, which I'm not because it's a free project. So you can use it or not and pay the $0. They have a demo, and then they have a measure page. So I think you can actually get to...I think they're just talking about how to measure it. But I've definitely seen another page where you can click on a link, and it will tell you what was the difference between hover and active when you actually interacted with it. And it turns out the bounding box for a link is bigger than what you see. And you're often moving your mouse not entirely to the center, but you're not just getting to the edge of it and clicking. And so that period of time where you're moving your mouse onto the link, there's actually often a couple of hundred milliseconds, which is enough to really make a difference if you've got a speedy site. You can take what feels like a couple of hundred milliseconds and turn it into nothing.
STEPH: All I can think of right now is the image of a little mouse that's moving closer to a link with the Jaws' theme song playing. So it's ta-dum ta-dum. [vocalization] And this whole time, Quicklink is getting ready to then load as soon as the mouse reaches that perfect zone to then start loading. That's what I'm getting is Jaws and Quicklink. [laughs]
STEPH: That sounds really neat. I'll have to look into it. Maybe I think I'm the quickest click in the west. That's very hard to say. And it turns out that I'm actually quite slow, who knows?
CHRIS: You might just be average; that’s fine.
STEPH: No way.
CHRIS: Most people are, mathematically speaking at least. [laughter]
STEPH: Not possible. I'm certain that I'm special. I hope listeners get a kick out of my oddities, [laughs] my very honest self that's coming through on the mic today.
CHRIS: We're all a little special. But pivoting one more time…
STEPH: That means no one's special. [laughs]
CHRIS: Are you just doing the quote from Incredibles, or are you actually trying to say that? [laughs]
STEPH: I wasn't intentionally quoting The Incredibles, but I did just watch that movie recently, and you're totally right. I am quoting The Incredibles.
CHRIS: This is our second episode in a row then with a Pixar theme, which is always fun. But pivoting ever so slightly, I think our final pivot for the episode, we have a listener question today. So this question comes in from Matt Swanson, and he is asking about consulting first versus software first. So his question is, "One of the biggest turning points in my career was realizing that software consulting is, well, consulting. Do you think about your work as 'consulting first' or as building great software first and good experience for your clients will follow naturally?" So, Steph, what do you think?
STEPH: I liked this question because it really made me stop and think about the differences in how I approach my client work. So I will say that I do think it varies slightly for each client, but most of the time, I do think of my work as first building great software. And then, once I've had time to understand how the team works and then identify opportunities for improvement, then I'll put on my consultant blazer and start scheduling meetings. I'm just kidding. I don't like meetings, so I don't do that part. But I do find that most of my engagements are looking for initially a strong developer to help contribute to the team and mentor. And then, I find that a lot of my consulting skills can then start to shine once I have that opportunity to build trust and then share outsider views with the team and then coach them in other directions. So I do take the approach of building great software first. Although this question really made me pause and think about it because I do think of the consulting and building software as so tightly coupled. It's a little hard for me to define when am I switching from my developer hat over to more of my consulting hat.
CHRIS: Yeah, I think my initial reaction to the question was similar where I don't view these as two different modes that I'm fundamentally operating in. It's a continuum, or it's like a two by two grid thing, and I'm sort of moving around between the different spaces, but there's always a little bit of both. And I think if I were to answer the question directly, I would lean towards building great software. That's always the thing that I'm trying to do but often that requires some other more human-centric interactions. So having a difficult discussion around a feature and why we may not reach a deadline that we're going for or talking about ways in which the workflow is not necessarily going as well as it could, and we're ending up losing information along the way or different process things, all of that is a little bit removed from building great software. But at the same time, it's...actually, this is true of me now. I'm not technically a consultant anymore. I've stopped doing that, and I'm now full-time at an organization. And I'm not imagining my role changing fundamentally. I was consulting with them. I've now come on as a full-time employee, and I'm still viewing my work as very much the same thing. Maybe that's because I spent so long consulting that that's sort of the mode that I think of as how I work. But I think yeah, it's not necessarily two different modes. It's definitely a continuum that I'm operating across.
STEPH: Yeah, I think that's why for me, it often varies. I like that word that you're using around how it's a continuum and that you're constantly sliding back and forth between one mode and the other. And if I think back to earlier days when I was working specifically with product teams before then, I joined thoughtbot and trying to think, well, what are some of the differences? How would I define what is more of my consulting mode versus then the building great software mode? Although I think the latter does encompass the consulting skills. But thinking back to when I was working on a product team, I found...and this may also just be because I was new in my career. But I found that I often referred to whoever was more senior on the team to handle a lot of those more human-centric topics, as you phrased it earlier. So if there was some communication that we needed to share in regards to why we were delayed on implementing a feature, if we needed to run a retro, if there were some meetings that needed to be scheduled, it always felt something like, oh, this leader of the team is going to take care of that. I am more in the development role, so I will do my job but then defer a lot of that to them.
And then since joining thoughtbot with the way that we operate, I feel like I have more ownership in the process, and I want more ownership in the process. I want to be someone that is very aware of what are the specific goals that we're looking to reach? What are the deadlines? What's behind those deadlines that's encouraging us to push hard? And then also understanding how is the team functioning? What's something that we could do to improve the team's efficacy? Is the team happy? Are there areas there that we could improve? So I think for me, that is one of the core parts where I feel like I transitioned from being more focused on development to being more...you know, I don't have a great word for it. I often referred to it as being more of like a product owner. And since then, I feel like I have more ownership around the code that I'm working with and the team, and then the processes and the decisions for the product. But I actually don't have a great word that encompasses that sense of I want to be part of this and help make decisions and look out for everyone else that's around me. Does that resonate with you? Do you have any particular way that you would describe that or a word for it?
CHRIS: I don't have a specific word for it. In my mind, this is just how we build software. But I think that that speaks to the culture that we grew up in as software developers. It's so strongly in our minds to think this way. A thing that we've talked about in the past is encouraging software developers to observe the sales demo, to see what it looks like when we're talking to end-users, or, similarly, to sit on customer support calls or listen to user interviews or things like that. And the reason for that is we want...I believe strongly that developers will do better work if they understand the context of the end-user of the application. But I think fundamentally, that sort of loads things up in someone's mind that might encourage them to push back or to suggest a different way of working down the road, and I think that's a good thing. I think every software developer should have some amount of that going on. And so that idea that consulting is this other thing that you sometimes do I feel like that stuff fits under the umbrella of consulting and, therefore, I think it's just part of how we build good software, but maybe it's a nomenclature thing, and I'm just thinking about it wrong.
STEPH: Well, I want to pull at that thread a little bit because I was having that internal discussion with myself when I was thinking about this question is in regards to that being more aware of how the other teams are working to then help inform our decisions around the software that we're helping build, and implement advocating for a new process or advocating for how to build great software, is that consulting? I think you and I fall more into the camp of that's just how you build great software is; you have to be part of those decisions to be able to have more insights into the work that's being done. So I don't know if I could even really classify that as a consulting skill.
CHRIS: Yeah, that matches my thinking. There is a distinction between consultant and contractor that I'll sometimes push on a little bit where I see consultants as being perhaps a bit more strategic and not necessarily being handed the work to do. I see that perhaps more on the contractor end. It's like, "We need a website built. Here are the specs. Here's the design mock-up. Please build it," and that's that. Versus a consultant being like, "We need a website, but we're not even sure exactly what that means. Can you help us think about the features and prioritize? Do we need a mobile app or not?" And a consultant potentially working more in that space of helping to determine what is the work that we're even going to do. But again, that's a question of like, how do we build good software? We have to answer those questions, and maybe not everyone on the team is always answering those questions. But the more people feel empowered to and feel like they've got the context to be able to make those sorts of at least suggestions around those sort of decisions, I think the better.
STEPH: Yeah. I agree with the distinction in regards to being a consultant or a developer versus being a contractor because one definitely feels more removed from that decision or with that team collaboration process where you are more handed work, and then you implement that work, but you don't necessarily ask questions and be like, "Well, what are the benefits of adding this particular feature? Are we tracking to know that we've added the right thing?" those types of things that I would naturally include as part of my work. Versus if you're doing more of the contract work, then maybe you just implement and then don't ask those questions. Thinking back to then, what's different about being a consultant versus then doing development work…and I'm totally sidestepping all the financial stuff here. Like, if you're a consultant, then your world may be very different in terms of how you are acquiring jobs and then your marketing. So I am sidestepping that big conversation there but then focusing more on your day-to-day, how it may be different.
And the times that I do feel that I'm wearing more of my lower-casey consulting hat is where I am joining teams that have a very specific goal that they have brought thoughtbot on to help with. So maybe there is a particular certification that they want their software to achieve, or maybe they're looking to level up their team and a particular tech stack, maybe it's Rails, maybe it's testing. And that one feels more focused on I am here to help provide an outsider opinion, to help evaluate your team, to help you provide advice, to communicate more with leadership that's on the team so then they know how things are going. That feels more like a consulting engagement that is less focused on building great software. But I feel like that often still starts with we want that stuff, but we also still want great software. So I always feel like I'm in both, and I really can't be as effective at the consulting part without actually working with the team and understanding the struggles that they're going through. So I still feel like they fit very hand in hand, but I do find that there are certain engagements that do require more external communication versus the others are often more internal with the team that I'm helping build software with.
CHRIS: Well, I like that as a framing, the internal versus external communication and sort of the ratio of those. That's an interesting one.
STEPH: To me, that's really what then sort of differentiates the consulting versus the just focused on building great software is if I'm doing more external communication, I'm focused less on the building part of the software but more on the guidance part.
CHRIS: Yeah, I think that's a really good encapsulation or perhaps a way to differentiate the two ends of this. But I think both you and I probably feel that this just varies project to project. In some cases, we need more of what would fall into the consulting bucket, and other days, it's just nope, we got to go in. We got to implement. We got to build a bunch of features. We've got to get to the MVP launch and whatnot. And that often requires a little bit less on the consulting or the external communication side. But I think it's a case-by-case thing. And it's not that I think of myself as one or the other; it's I'll scale up or down as necessary based on the context of the situation. So I am both, I think.
STEPH: Two for one, consulting and building great software. [laughs]
CHRIS: One-stop shopping, everything you need.
STEPH: So, I do have a couple of examples that I can provide that may provide some insight as to how we view consulting a little differently than necessarily focusing on implementation. I feel that I'm still reaching for that separation between consulting and developing. So I'm going to focus on the external communication and the implementation. I feel like those are the two areas that are trying to be divided in this particular question. But I do have some examples from thoughtbot discussions around consulting. So every so often, we get together at thoughtbot, and we have these internal discussions where we talk about the different consulting challenges that we have faced. And it's a really nice time where we get together, and we may discuss ongoing active consulting challenges and questions that we have, or it may be scenarios that have happened in the past. And so then we present that scenario to groups, and then we break off into smaller groups, and then everybody has an opportunity to talk through how they would react, what advice they would give, how they would approach it. And I have found those sessions to be incredibly helpful, but I think it could be fun to share some of those examples. Folks can think about them as to how they would react to them. But I think this helps highlight why those consulting skills and then also building great software are so tightly coupled together.
So this first example focuses on building MVPs. So let's say that you're working with a client, and you've been focused on building an MVP, and the engagement is coming to a close in a few weeks. But the client is disappointed that there is a particular feature that they're really excited about that's not being included in the MVP, and they'd really like to know why that particular feature was cut. And they are worried that that will actually cause the business to fail if they don't have that feature in the MVP. So that's something that often comes up when we are focused on scoping MVPs to make sure that we are aligned with the client team to understand what is very important for the MVP and what can be a fast follow. And that can be a thorny one, especially if someone feels emotionally attached to a feature that is something that can be tricky to navigate. And how do you help the team reach a consensus that this feature really does need to be in the MVP, or it's okay that it doesn't need to go out now, and it can be in a future iteration?
And for another example, this one is more focused on communicating the progress of particular work and how it's going. So you can imagine this scenario coming from the client saying that they have been working with you for a few weeks and you've made good progress, but it feels like the last week things have stalled. And they don't understand why a particular feature is taking longer than expected to ship. And they haven't had any communication from the team regarding what's taking that feature a longer time to get out. So, again, these are just some scenarios that you can think through and imagine how then you would respond or handle each of these situations. But I think both of those are really great examples that focus on the more consulting aspect of our work and then when we need to have more external communication with teams, so then they feel confident that we are developing great software.
CHRIS: I think this is the first time that I've observed us giving homework to the listeners. But I think one thing that I'll highlight is we are talking about this in the context of consulting or being a consultant. But I think both of those examples that you gave, and more generally, most of these sort of conversations, actually apply pretty equally to working within an organization as an employee. You're still working on projects. You still have deadlines. You still need to ship things. You maybe aren't shipping as quickly as you need to; that maybe needs to get communicated to both internally within your team and externally within your larger organization. So yeah, I think these are broadly applicable, and I think, yeah, rolling them around in your head, let us know if you come up with any great solutions.
STEPH: And if folks are interested in these types of scenarios, then I'm happy to share some more of them. I could share them on Twitter or anywhere else that folks find helpful. But I really like that nuance where I feel like is a nuanced discussion between building some great software and then those consulting skills. So thanks, Matt, for submitting such a great question.
CHRIS: And as an aside, just to give a little more context on Matt, he runs a blog called the Boring Rails, which,, if you are not following it, it is a wonderful, straightforward summary of small, useful tidbits of information in the Rails world that are boring, but that's part of what we love about Rails. So I highly recommend that as well, and we'll include a link in the show notes. But yeah, thank you so much, Matt. And on that note, shall we wrap up?
STEPH: Let's wrap up. Show notes for this episode can be found at bikeshed.fm.
CHRIS: This show is produced and edited by Mandy Moore.
STEPH: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or a review in iTunes as it helps other people find the show.
CHRIS: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed on Twitter. And I'm @christoomey.
STEPH: And I’m @SViccari.
CHRIS: Or you can email us at email@example.com.
STEPH: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week.
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