April 2013 Archives

Intern season comes soon

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And we're big fans of them. Being a small company, our interns actually do interesting stuff.

This summer I'd like to have a more Ops-oriented dev-Intern, since we need help with things like:

  • Deployment automation
    • Software package install automation (not everything can be puppeted, alas)
    • OS configuration optimization
  • Automation of statistics gathering
  • Automation of new-machine staging
  • Building pretty interfaces to the automation for a diverse audience (all of our Engineers are in the on-call schedule, you see)
  • Building pretty interfaces for status tracking of how things are running (application-specific things, not just OS/HW level things)

In short, we need a DevOps intern. Or if you're old-school, we need a Systems Programmer. But this also involves more than just automation engineering! Oh, yes!

  • Working through the software-package dependency tree for upgrading the Linux distro-version underlaying large parts of our infrastructure!
    • Package names change, which affects the configuration management setups!
    • Libraries perform differently!
    • Libraries go away completely, which mean we need to roll them and deploy them ourselves!

And that's not all! Such an intern is guaranteed to be involved in our August Major Maintenance window, which is very likely to include a bunch of hardware things! We don't know what that'll be yet, as that is determined by how fast we grow in the next two months, but it's likely to involve hardware, and it's likely to involve this Intern in the process of getting it integrated! It'll be a long weekend, but that's how these things work. Experience!

The Write The Docs conference is running right now, and a session just got done about search-oriented documentation (the slide-deck) and it hit all kinds of bells for me. I'm a technical user of a very wide variety of documentation, and I work in an industry that coined the term RTFM. We are consumers of documentation in all of its various forms:

  • Straight up manuals on paper, sitting on a shelf, that arrived with the product (back when manuals still shipped with product)
  • Offline manuals in CD-ROM form (in that time between when physical manuals stopped shipping and everyone had an Internet connection).
  • Online manuals in HTML form.
  • Support databases listing targeted resolutions of problems and technical notes hilighting obscure bits of config-trivia.
  • Random Internet forums with posts from fellow lost people having the same problem.
  • Random wikis.
  • Vendor-specific product forums attempting to provide a 'Community' experience to support (and take some load off of their support people).
  • Internal ticketing databases.
  • Internal and external bugtrackers.

How do we find all that crap?

Google.

This is why none of us have cracked open an offline manual (or put in a CD-ROM) in years. Our portal into documentation is the search-engine, either the majors or the one built into our internal tools (where the majors can't find it). But search is our index.

For those of us who write end-user visible documentation, keeping this in mind is paramount. Enhancing searchability means enhancing metadata like tags, so tag your doc with the words users actually search for not their actual names. As a consumer of documentation I can only cheer this kind of effort to improve discoverability.

In defense of monoculture

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Sarcasm setting: Subtle (some of you will miss this disclaimer)

In recent months I've noticed a decided trend towards considering WebKit to be the Internet Default Browser. This is nothing but good, as that is most definitely a driver of industry innovation. The decision by Opera to drop Presto and adopt WebKit was one I cheered; for years Opera has been pissed on by web developers as 'weird', so hopefully this will cause more sites to put that browser-badge on their Supported Browser shelf.

Such monocultures are actually good for the web, as they provide a driver for innovation. Only having to build web-sites to a single quirk-standard makes it a lot easier to create well-working web-sites, and that drives growth. More startups can get out the door faster in order make more money, and as we all know it's startups who disrupt industries. The fact that so many of these startups are using Chrome (and by extension WebKit) as their standard browser is a clear indication that we're heading towards another era of monoculture centered growth.

WebKit conquered the old standard for two big, big reasons:

  1. It works on mobile. Mobile is where all the growth is these days, so working on mobile is a major, major thing. And Microsoft wasn't the first mover in this space, Apple (WebKit) was. Firefox (Gecko) doesn't work on mobile (until very, very recently), so it wasn't going to do it either.
  2. It also works on Macs. So many webdevs are doing their dev-work on Apple hardware these days that "works on a Mac" is a key driver for growth. IE doesn't. WebKit does.

The modern web is a decidedly heterogeneous place, so the ability to run on anything is very key. IE can't, Firefox only recently got that ability, but WebKit has already been doing that for years. A WebKit monoculture is in the cards.

At least until Google decided to fork it. We don't need more fragmentation in the web rendering spaces, we need less. This saddens me.

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