Category: Personal

Looking for folk to help

I’m currently taking a bit of a break from regular work. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t have a deadline or an imminent sense of expectation – I’ve been digging on the coal face of professional software development almost constantly for 27 years. I’m lucky to be in a position, through hard work over those 27 years and circumstance, that I don’t need to find paid work “tomorrow” and so I’m taking a little time out to recharge, scratch a few itches, complete a couple of side projects, and figure out what I want to do next.

I’m a week in and one of the things that dawned on me is that I’m not really talking to people in the day and I miss helping fellow developers with technical problems and career development and that general chewing of the fat that goes on. Whatever I do next has to include this!

And so I figured a way to perhaps solve that problem and give something back to the community would be to offer some of my time to help others and hopefully everyone wins.

As a starting point I figure offering a regular hour a week to 3 people would be a good place to start. A space to knowledge share, talk through technical issues, career issues, approaches, challenges, look at code – basically whatever helps. I’m likely to favor helping people at the start of their career – just because its so hard when you’re faced with the entire crazy world of software development and the choices you make then reverberate down the rest of your career.

If its of interest then drop me a DM on Twitter with just a short note of how you think I might be able to help and we can set up a Teams or Zoom call and talk it through and see if its a good fit. I’m on UK time. If I end up over subscribed (feels very hubristic to say but I think its important to be clear) I’ll need to filter down to 3 people and that will be based on where I think I can have the most impact.

As some background on me – I’m based in the UK and I taught myself to code in the 80s on the 8-bit micros (a BBC Model B and Master 128) and moved into professional software development I think in 1994. I skipped university – I had a place to do Computer Science but school had left a really nasty taste in my mouth and I managed to find a job through sending in some source code to businesses (on a 3.5″ floppy!). Over the years I’ve done just about every role from writing code to managing large teams, working in product teams, consultancy, corporates, and startups. Making things is my passion and my natural home is small teams with a good deal of end to end autonomy. Tech wise – I started out with BBC Basic and 6502 assembly. Spent most of the 90s doing C and C++ on 68000 based embedded systems and PCs. Then the 2000s has been mostly .NET and web technologies (JavaScript, TypeScript, React, CSS etc.) – more recently I’ve got heavily into my functional programming with F# but still use C#. I’ve been all over Azure for the last 10 years and more recently have been dabbling with AWS and Digital Ocean.

Outside of tech – I’m (to say the least) a keen cyclist love to cycle up mountains. Sadly I live somewhere pan flat so COVID has been somewhat limiting this last year.

2020 Review

I think the most generous thing you could say about 2020 is that it was strange – nevertheless there have been some highs and lows and so, in true narcissistic fashion, are some of my personal high lights and low lights as a middle aged grumpy bastard working in tech.

F#

A real highlight for me. Over 2019 I’d started to become ever more frustrated by C# with this exciting numbered list of issues bothering me the most:

  1. I increasingly felt I was “fighting” the language – its object oriented roots support patterns we’ve mostly decided are unhelpful to us now and while C# has evolved its still held back by those roots.
  2. Ever increasing complexity – as its evolved lots of complexity has been added and it shows no sign of slowing down.
  3. As a combination of (1) and (2) there is no longer an obvious path of least resistance.
  4. When I started to pick up F# some of the things I felt were helpful (immutability being a standout) were not baked into C#. They’re still not common.

In any case. I jumped ship to F# as I recognized my approach was increasingly functional with a dash of object orientation – which really is F#s bag. Their was definitely a steep learning curve to “do things well” (I mean how the actual fuck do you do a loop without being able to change a variable) but the pay off has been massive.

Their is also some fantastic framework support – the SAFE stack comes to mind.

In any case – at the end of it all I’ve never felt as productive as I do with F# – it was well worth the effort to learn. And there are some fantastic folk in the F# community – helpful, friendly, thoughtful and generous with their time.

Getting to talk at fsharpConf 2020 was bloody amazing too! A real genuine highlight of 2020 for me.

Receiving an MVP Award

That was super cool. It was nice to be recognized and I was super appreciative of the award and the nomination.

I’m not sure if I’ll be renewed – my community contributions have fallen off (change of role, bit burned out with everything going on) and its fair to say I’m about a million miles away from towing any kind of Microsoft line and have found myself quiet critical on a number of occasions this year (I hope they appreciate critical friends….!).

OSS in .NET land

I’ve bailed on this. To me at this point it seems like something of a lost cause. A mugs game as I’ve written before. Yes Microsoft are having another trip around the “how could we improve this” but the published pieces I’ve seen aren’t really encouraging.

I’m not going to blather on about it all here. Aaron Stannard has published many many thoughtful articles on the topic but my takeaway is: you’re better off working in another ecosystem or simply accepting the ecosystem for what it is, leveraging it as it stands, and building a product and business out of it. OSS may form part of your strategy (likely adoption and PR), it may not.

AWS

I became curious about AWS while poking around their support for ARM processors and discovering a significant economic advantage was to be had. I’ve migrated my bike performance website over to it and learned a lot through that. Ironically they seem to be making better use of .NET than Microsoft and Lambda is fantastic (having a full suite of F# blueprints puts Azure Functions to shame frankly).

If I was to compare AWS with Azure I would say that AWS feels more low level and like it is built for developers by developers with a more consistent foundation. You can get going more easily with Azure “in just 5 minutes” but once you get past that facade AWS just feels more “put together” to me. I can’t imagine working with AWS without a robust infrastructure as code solution (I’ve been using Pulumi).

If I was to start a new project today as a .NET developer what would I choose? AWS.

(and in fact I have been doing that this last couple of weeks)

A full year as CTO

If I’d known we were going to have a pandemic I’m not sure I’d have moved into a role that took me so far out of my comfort zone. Its had highs and lows. I still have the itch to make things (myself) and COVID + CTOing has left me too exhausted to scratch it in my free time which has been frustrating and led to quite a few started and unfinished projects. I’m trying not to beat myself up too much about that.

Personal stuff

Like many my mental health has definitely taken a battering this year – I’ve not been effected directly by COVID in terms of my health or my job (beyond operational issues) but I’ve seen people who are and its “always there” like a nasty hum in the background – combined with the role change it really gave me a pounding. I’d also finally in my 40s figured out ways to compensate for the things I don’t have in my life by putting other things in their place and they’ve ben cut off by the pandemic.

See the source image
End of the year James

I crawled into the Christmas break with quite bad insomnia, what I can only describe as “micro-panics” each night when I went to bed, and an utter absence of energy and enthusiasm.

It took about 12 days of my Christmas break to start feeling back to even vaguely normal again. I’m nervous as to how I’ll get on in the first quarter of 2021 but will push on.

Looking ahead

I’ve been thinking about what I’m good at and what interests me. Really its doing early stage product development on small budgets / tight resource constraints with tiny teams / solopreneur land. I love it and I’ve got quite practiced at optimizing the development side of it. I’m thinking maybe their is some writing and perhaps even business opportunity around that.

I’ve also got a truck load of product ideas. I always do….

.NET Open Source – A Mugs Game

I recognise my own motivations have at least as large a bearing on my views as the behaviour of vendors and so I should note that this is a purely personal perspective and from someone who currently largely operates in the .NET and Microsoft space. Your mileage may differ.

If you follow me on Twitter you might have noticed a growing disillusionment on my part with open source software – not its usefulness but rather the culture, business and economics.

OSS used to be a threat to big tech but, particularly with the growth of the cloud as a business model, its become a source of ideas, free products to package and host, and free labour for big tech. They figured out how to monteise it. The old Microsoft mantra of embrace, extend, extinguish is back but now applied to open source (the recent debacles around AppGet and, the excellent, Farmer are recent examples of this).

During a discussion on Twitter around this @HowardvRooijen made this comment:

Part of the issue is, 20 years in, everyone is still focusing on low level components… They are fun to hobby code (and then increasingly wearisome), if you move up the value stack MS are less likely to compete.

https://twitter.com/HowardvRooijen/status/1274412962439192578?s=20

He’s right but for me, emotionally, OSS was a sandpit where you could still almost scratch that 8-bit low level itch in a useful way. In someways a holdout of the “good old days” of the bedroom coder and there was a certain spirit to it that, for me, has been lost.

If you move up the value chain you’re talking about building products or things that more obviously can be turned into products. If these things are the things that are “safer” from big tech and Microsoft then absolutely we should not be creating them for free. Thats our income, our livelihood.

I have switched (more later) to move up the value chain with my cycling performance website but I currently have no intention of making this OSS. If it starts to get traction and feels worth it (i.e. it provides enough value to warrant a subscription) I will absolutely look to charge for it. OSS doesn’t help me build it and it doesn’t help me sell it – so it doesn’t make sense to.

What of the .NET Foundation? Is it a beacon of hope? Christ no. From its maturity model to silence over recent events (and seeming ignorance of the collateral damage of things like the AppGet issue) its very slanted towards a) Microsoft interests and b) the consumption of OSS. I’ve seen little support for small contributors. I was really concerned by the approach to the Maturity Model as that was entirely about trying to get contributors to “professionalise” to ease the adoption by “risk averse businesses”. Translation: get contributors to do more work so that profitable business can benefit.

I joined the Foundation with the idea that I could speak from the inside. In reality I’ve struggled to find the will to engage and I’ll almost certainly let my membership lapse at the end of its current term. The only thing I can see keeping me in is their support for user groups.

So where does this leave me? Basically I’m out. I’m done with it. At this point I think .NET OSS is a mugs game. I’m conciously upping my sponsorships of OSS projects I use so I continue to give something back but I’m not participating in this any more. There’s no good outcome here for contributors.

I’ll try and organise a handover of Function Monkey but I feel very dispirited by things at the moment and, frankly, am struggling to look at it.

I’ll continue to work on community contributions but in the form of writing and videos. But heck I’m even thinking that has to lead somewhere deliberate.

Where does that leave others? If you’re planning on starting a new OSS project I’d first encourage you to think long and hard about why and at the very least reconcile yourself with the likely end game (obscurity, hijacked in some way by Microsoft, hired perhaps) and understand that you’ve given all the value away. Are you really ok with that? Maybe you can build a consultancy business round it but history shows how hard this is and I think its getting harder.

I think there are easier and more effective ways to achieve most (if not all) of the outcomes OSS contribution might lead to.

Finally I’ll finish by saying: I think there are plenty of well meaning people at Microsoft. I think most of those promoting OSS from within Microsoft do so meaning well but ultimately as an organisation they have a very specific business model around open source software (absolutely its been discussed at senior levels of the business) and its one that is at odds with how I at least, perhaps naively, saw the “spirit” of open source software.

Tumbleweed

Apologies for the tumbleweed round these parts lately particularly if you left a comment asking for help and I never got back to you. Unfortunately I had a rough few months with illness and have been slowly easing myself back into business as usual and my priority was getting back to things that paid my bills!

I’ve got a few “… of the year 2014” posts and then I hope 2015 will be back to usual.

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