Being a Productive Developer at a New Startup

Meetups are always fun because you get to meet a wide range of developers. A great event in NYC is Hacker Hours by NYC on Rails which offers programming help for any developer regardless of the problem.

A developer I helped out there recently learned Rails and joined a new startup. He asked me an interesting question regarding working at the new startup:

The other dev is very productive. I feel very slow and unproductive. Is this what it’s like every time you join a project? Everything is just a friggin’ mess?

Ignorance or Incapable?

I think there’s a distinction between ignorance, which is not knowing something because you haven’t had the opportunity, and being incapable, meaning not being able to do it even though you know how. When I start new projects, it takes hours and days of reading to get past the ignorance stage. It takes even longer if they use external libraries or APIs that I’ve not used before.

Don’t expect to be productive within days or even weeks. In larger projects, it could take months.

Legacy Code

On some projects, the developers are disorganized and unskilled or even advanced developers who used so much meta programming that the code reverted itself into being even harder to read. I have to read through the mess and the confusion to determine the program’s purpose and the programmer’s intent.

A developer’s goal is to make the program meet the goals of the business and it’s just as important to make it readable to other developers.

I think we would all agree that Ruby and Python reads easier than Assembler though all languages are capable of meeting their business needs. So you have to look at your highly productive developer and ask, is she writing functioning code, readable code or both?

Falling behind

From the new developer:

I’m burning out because I stare at “magic” all day and produce at a snail’s pace. I don’t get the reward of finishing something frequently and it decreases my morale.

If pairing through large chunks of the application isn’t an option, I suggest focusing on something small that’s part of the whole and working on it until you grok it. You can also start on a new section of code based on technology you already know.

Starting on a new project with lots of existing code and developers can be a daunting proposition. Your first commit will probably be a bug fix or small tweak.

Personally, I always start in the tests. That’s an easy place to find the interesting business logic and the uninteresting CRUD code. Test code needs to be refactored and structured just as much as the code it tests which provides another opportunity to learn more about the codebase and remove more of that “magic”.

Doing FAST vs Doing it RIGHT

Make your code a shining example of how it should work. Don’t spend too much time polishing it. Any true craftsman will want to continue working on their craft and as they get better and learn more, you’ll look back at your old code and wonder what you were thinking.

Any code written more than an hour ago is crap and will eventually be revisited. One of the Ruby Rogues said that all code is experimental.

Therefore, take the time to do it right. Don’t try to play catch-up and throw away quality in favor of speed.

The difference between that highly productive developer that writes messy code and the code that you write starts to shift the culture from one of productive mess which inherently contains technical debt to quality code that’s easier to work with later.

It’s always better to know about the engineering culture before you sign the dotted line but if it’s truly a startup, then you can shape its future.

Readable code

Recently there was a popular gist from a contractor that was let go due to applying aggressive SRP to a simple PostComment class in Ruby. The thread is a good read but when I think of the new developer’s comments regarding “magic” code, I think of something a previous co-worker, Donald Ball, wrote:

… getting code to do what it’s supposed to do is the lowest threshold for acceptability in my book. Getting code to clearly communicate its intent and to be easy and safe to modify is a higher bar, but is the standard by which I judge any code that’s intended to work for longer than a day. We spend more time reading code than writing code.