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Programming with toys and magic should be relished, not scorned

David wrote this on 9 comments

In the early days of Rails, a common dismissal of the framework and its Ruby roots were that these were just toys. Something for kids or amateurs to play with; to build a quick throw-away prototype or system of no consequence. It was most certainly not a tool for professionals building real systems for enterprise, king, or country.

Explicit in this charge against Rails and Ruby laid a grander, sweeping dismissal of toys of all kinds. And more specifically, a rejection of fun and enjoyment as valid reasons for adoption of technology that remains prevalent to this day.

The implication that real professionals do not bother with such childish indulgences. Making Serious Business Software is meant to be a chore. Something to be endured, not relished. An activity worthy of a stiff upper lip, not a smirk.

This charge against childish affection for unserious toys is often expanded to all sorts of wonder, and in particularly magic. In some circles, magic is now downright a dirty word. A label to be applied to anything appealing to greater aspirations than the khaki slacks efficiency of all that oh-so-serious Real Business Software.

But take a step back. Why on earth would we want to associate such joyful memories of learning about the world and its mysteries through toys and magic with that which is beneath us? Even though our goal may well be Serious, why must our approach? Since when is fun, novelty, and exploring the unknown at odds with productivity or value?

A phrase that’s been bothering me for a long time ties all this together: “Use the best tool for the job”. It implies that there is an objective, “best” tool for any programming job. And it leads the search towards those beige horizons of key-point comparisons and feature charts. This does X, Y, Z, thus it must be better than that which only does X and Y. It allows no room for simply preferring A to B on the account that it’s more fun!

Today Ruby and Rails are rarely accused outright of being toys. After more than a decade with roaring, overwhelming success creating an endless stream of “Yup, That’s Serious” business applications, the charge is now obviously preposterous.

But the same charges are still constantly brought against many things new, and as a favorite euphemism for toy goes, “unproven”. If there’s any sense of wonder or unexplained advantage, it readily gets that scornful label of “magic”.

It’s the lingua franca of the incumbents. The manifestations of a rigid minds trying so hard to appear above that childish sense of wonder.

The bottomline: Waging war on toys, magic, and wonder is simply a poor frame of reference. Many of us got into programming exactly because it seemed like magic, like playing with toys. Constructing intricate worlds out of nothing. Legos of logic and rabbit holes of learning.

Love thy toys; love thy magic.

Would you hire the last Delta representative you spoke with if you owned a customer service company?

First question in the Delta Airlines customer service follow-up survey. Love it.


Nathan Kontny
Nathan Kontny wrote this on 12 comments

For years I’ve chatted with smart, ambitious people and friends who want to start new projects or businesses. Often their visions are big. So they dream up equally big things their startups need: money, connections, resources. And that’s where they get stuck. They don’t have any of those things.

In 1978, an artist named Patricia came home to her husband and announced she quit her job at a newspaper. She just couldn’t stand it anymore. Occasionally, she’d have some of her art posted on the front page, which was great. But most of the time, the job was corporate tediousness.

Patricia’s husband Mel understood. He was a writer at the same newspaper. Sometimes he’d get an interesting assignment, but often he was stuck writing obituaries.

There was just one problem. He was sitting at home waiting to tell her the exact same thing. He had quit that day too.

Patricia and Mel were now both unemployed with little savings. To make ends meet, they took up freelance magazine assignments. But the income wasn’t consistent, and they could barely make rent.

They couldn’t stand working for someone else. But they couldn’t make enough money freelancing.

So, they decided to start a clothing store. But all they had in capital was next month’s rent, $1500. Could they start a store with this? Not likely. They sought out a bank loan. They were turned down. So how do they get past this?

The Oakland A’s have one of the lowest budgets of any baseball team in the United States. The owner’s cheap. Their stadium sucks. Fan attendance is terrible. If you’re going to see a game near Oakland, folks just go watch the Giants in San Francisco.

To make matters worse, back around 2002, the big teams with huge budgets kept scooping up their best players. The A’s couldn’t compete with the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox who had a 100 million dollars to spend on players vs. the A’s 40 million.

To everyone’s surprise though, the A’s started winning games. A lot of them. The 2002 Oakland A’s won just as many games as the Yankees did that season. And the A’s put up streaks like 16-1 in June 2002, and ended the season with 20 wins in a row, one of the longest winning streaks in baseball history.

The A’s success was made famous in Michael Lewis’ book, Moneyball, and the Hollywood movie with the same name starring Brad Pitt. Moneyball publicized the strategy the A’s general manager, Billy Beane, used to win games.

He used statistical analysis, or Sabermetrics as it’s known in baseball, to find players that were overlooked by other teams. Players that might not look like typical all stars but somehow got on base a lot. He looked for old players past their prime. He even learned from statistics to avoid high school players traditional scouts valued. Sabermetrics showed that high school players’ performances weren’t a good predictor of Major League success.

Using these new analytics, they found cheap players who, in aggregate, replaced the numbers they lost when their stars joined other teams.

But something happened after the book came out in 2004. The A’s started losing again. Why? The competition started copying them. Other teams were now hiring their own statisticians, even stealing members of Billy’s management staff. The Red Sox hired the inventor of Sabermetrics, Bill James, and with their own Sabermetrics-created team and huge budget, the Red Sox won the 2004 World Series.

In response, Billy Beane started backing off of some of the things he’d learned from Sabermetrics. Since other teams were now avoiding high school players, those players became undervalued. In 2006, Billy spent his first two draft picks on high school kids. And that season he started winning again, taking the division and the first series of the playoffs.

And just like any ultra-competitive market, things changed again. The A’s found themselves losing their advantage and having to innovate.

In 2012 and 2013, Billy was on top once again, and the A’s won their division and made it to the playoffs. This time Billy was using less Sabermetrics and more an approach of: find cheap resources, configure them in different ways, and see what works.

Ted Baker, a professor at Rutgers Business School, argues in his paper, Winning an unfair game, The Oakland A’s weren’t successful because of statistical analysis. They were successful because of bricolage.

Bricolage is the construction of something new from a diverse range of available things – often cheap because people take them for granted or consider them garbage.

Billy Beane was assembling teams from garbage. No one wanted Scott Hatteberg after he was cut from the Rockies in 2002. He was a catcher who couldn’t throw because of an injury. Garbage. But Billy put him at first base where he didn’t have to throw and they could still take advantage of his great hitting.

Sean Doolittle is another example of a player who played first base but now wasn’t any good as a hitter because of an injury. So Beane gave him a shot on the mound in 2012 to see if he could go back to being a pitcher (which he played in high school and some of college). He turned out to be their best relief pitcher.

Sabermetrics helped Billy in 2002 and 2003, but when everyone started using it, what was once undervalued went up in price. So he looked for other ways to assemble cheap resources, often thrown away by other teams as garbage, until he found a new, valuable combination. That was always his game.

Patricia and Mel were stuck. They couldn’t afford to manufacture new clothes. So they bought surplus shirts for almost nothing. The seller was just happy to get them out of his warehouse.

The old shirts smelled terrible. But they didn’t have enough money to launder them. So they used their home washing machine one load at a time.

They didn’t have the money to rent a store, so they first started selling their shirts from a flea market. When that did ok, they found a store to rent for $250 a month – dirt cheap even in 1980’s prices. Why was it so cheap? Again, it was garbage no one wanted. The store had to stay unlocked at night so that students of the martial arts school upstairs had an entrance open for evening classes. No legitimate retailer would rent a store they couldn’t lock.

They wanted to create a catalog. But they couldn’t afford the glossy, thick, bound ones their competition had. So, Mel wrote his own. They couldn’t afford photos. So, Patricia drew pictures of their clothes. They stapled, addressed, and mailed them all themselves.

They couldn’t even afford shelves for their store, so they used wooden fruit crates Mel found in the garbage outside a market.

On and on, Mel and Patricia made do with what they had on hand, often, literally, garbage.

When Patricia and Mel were deciding on a name for their company, they thought about the surplus clothing they were buying. Most of it from unstable tropical countries. Aha. The perfect name of their business would be: Banana Republic.

Patricia and Mel Ziegler founded Banana Republic which they sold to The Gap in 1983, and continued to run for 5 years after the acquisition. During Patricia and Mel’s tenure, Banana Republic became one of the most successful apparel retailers in the world, with more revenue per square foot of retail space than any other retailer in the United States – double the national average.

Of course they had more resources and capital than they knew what to do with after the Gap acquisition, but the only way they got there, the only way they got to that point and out-competed everyone else, was doing the same thing Billy Beane’s been doing. They went with what they had on hand or could find in the trash. They refused to reach for things they couldn’t acquire. They didn’t sit around wishing the universe would change to meet their dreams.

As you can read in the wonderful story Patricia and Mel Zielgler wrote about their founding of Banana Republic in Wild Company, Mel and Patricia probably lucked out finding those jobs at that newspaper prior to Banana Republic. That’s afterall where they learned journalism’s classic proverb: “Go with what you’ve got.”

P.S. You should follow me on Twitter: here for more articles.

Imagining Basecamp on Apple Watch

Jason Z.
Jason Z. wrote this on 11 comments

Over the last day or so I spent some time learning about the different Apple Watch components (notifications, glances, WatchKit app) and imagined how Basecamp might work on the upcoming device. Here’s what I came up with.

Notifications are a given for Apple Watch. The ability to see what’s new in your projects simply by raising your wrist sounds fantastic.

Apple Watch mentions flow

Canned, quick-reply options could be great. I also like the idea of setting your status as an option when notifications start piling up.

Apple Watch pings flow

It’s interesting how the actions can change depending on what kind of communication it is—there are a ton of possibilities. Comments, for example, could offer “Stop following” or “Bookmark” (not shown).

Apple Watch comments flow

Glances are for quick information display, a great place for state-of-the-world type content. This glance answers the question, “Is anything new in Basecamp?” by showing what’s new for you by bucket and how many items are in each.

Apple Watch glances

Notifications and Glances are outside the WatchKit app, itself. Here are some additional sketches showing how full a WatchKit app could look:

Apple Watch screens

I went into this skeptical but came out convinced there is a lot in Basecamp that could be useful on a watch. Notifications seem natural, in particular, but any kind of communication has potential. These simple designs use mostly stock UI widgets until we have a better idea what can or should be customized further. We’re certain to have new ideas once we have the device on our wrists.

Look and Feel and Feel

Jason Fried
Jason Fried wrote this on 16 comments

Designers often talk about the look and feel of a product, an app, an object, etc. These are good concepts to be talking about, but how the thing feels isn’t really the important feel. The important feel is how it makes you feel. That feeling isn’t usually covered by look and feel discussions.

This has recently come into focus for me. The trigger? Instagram.

I’ve been on Twitter (@jasonfried) for years. Since I don’t have a Facebook account, Twitter has been my only social networking outlet. I mostly use it for sharing novel or interesting things I’ve seen or read, the occasional quote, or a point of view, perspective, or epiphany about something business related.

I follow just under 200 people. Some of them I know personally, others I’ve never met, some are brands, some are individuals, some are because of hobbies or special interests, some are dead serious, others funny or silly. It’s a healthy mix, and I try to pay attention to everything that shows up in my feed.

Twitter’s an amazing thing, no question. I think it’s one of the most important products ever, and it’s absolutely changed the way ideas, news, insights, complaints, and casual communications happen.

A few months ago I signed up for Instagram (@jason.fried). I started following a few people – some of the same people I follow on Twitter. Almost immediately I felt something – I felt good! Instagram makes me feel good. I enjoy thumbing through Instagram.

Since then, every time I’ve gone back to Twitter, I’ve noticed I’ve felt anxious, unhappy, uncomfortable. I didn’t notice this before I started using Instagram, because I didn’t have anything to contrast it with. It was just the way it was, and I didn’t think much about how it made me feel.

Every scroll through Twitter puts at least one person’s bad day, shitty experience, or moment of snark in front of me. These are good happy people – I know many of them in real life – but for whatever reason, Twitter is the place they let their shit loose. And while it’s easy to do, it’s not comfortable to be around. I don’t enjoy it.

Every scroll through Instagram puts someone’s good day in front of me. A vacation picture, something new they got that they love, pictures of nature, pictures of people they love, places they’ve been, and stuff they want to cheer about. It’s just flat out harder to be negative when sharing a picture. This isn’t a small thing – it’s a very big deal. I feel good when I browse Instagram. That’s the feel that matters.

So now I have a choice… When I have a few minutes to kill, and my phone is in front of me, I almost always reach for Instagram. I never regret it. I come away feeling the same or better. When I occasionally reach for Twitter, I discover someone’s pissed about something. I often come away feeling worse, feeling anxious, or just generally not feeling great about the world. Twitter actually gives me a negative impression of my friends. I know it’s not Twitter doing it, but it’s happening on Twitter. that’s how Twitter feels to me.

None of this has anything to do with how the apps look or feel. It’s not the buttons, it’s not the animations, it’s not the interface or visual design. It’s not the colors, it’s not the font, it’s not the transitions. It’s how using the apps make me feel before, during, and after. The sense of anticipation (am I about to see something wonderful vs. am I about to get a dose of someone’s bad day?), the things I experience as I scroll through (a butterfly vs. an injustice), and how I feel once I’m done (that was nice vs. fuck that – ugh).

The Twitter vs. Instagram experience is really reinforcing what matters when designing a product. What kind of behavior can we encourage? What kind of moments can we create for people? What do people anticipate before they use something? How does it leave them feeling when they’re done? These are now some of the most important questions for me when working on a design.

BTW: You can follow me on Twitter at @jasonfried or on Instagram at @jason.fried. I promise to keep both positive.

Our favorite stuff

Emily Triplett Lentz
Emily Triplett Lentz wrote this on 4 comments

A few weeks ago, via Know Your Company , we asked folks at Basecamp what brand-name items they couldn’t live without. (We have strong feelings about yogurt, and Chicagoans are extremely serious about their skin care regimens.) Here’s what everyone said:

Emily Triplett Lentz, Support: Ha! I’m sure I could live without my favorite stuff. But I’m glad I don’t have to.
Hearos earplugs. I’m a light sleeper, so I’ve tried lots of different kinds. These expand fully and block a lot of noise. I probably get at least an hour or two more of sleep with them in.
Dreaming Cow yogurt. The flavors are unusual, like blueberry cardamom. They’re fatty but not too sweet. I have one every day.
Burt’s Bees lip balm—the original kind, with the peppermint oil in it. Hurts so good.

Mig Reyes, Designer: My moisturizer game on fleek:

Shaun Hildner, Video Producer: Aquaphor—I’ll get almost anything in a generic, but Aquaphor.

Wailin Wong, Reporter: Like Mig, I take my moisturizing regimen very, very seriously. CeraVe and Aquaphor all the way. Also in the realm of personal care: Mario Badescu Lecithin Nourishing Shampoo; Cetaphil cleanser; Clear Care or PeroxiClear hydrogen peroxide contact lens solution (every drugstore brand I’ve tried has burned my eyeballs); bareMinerals Original Foundation; Glide floss.
My iPhone, I guess. My Zojirushi rice cooker. The New York Times. The Bobeau sweater. My Uniqlo capri jeggings. That’s right. NAME-BRAND JEGGINGS.

Ann Goliak, QA: I’m real big on skin care products for my face—Cetaphil face wash, Kiss My Face sunblock, Clinique and Philosophy lotions, and of course, Aquaphor.

Andrea LaRowe, Admin: Saucony running shoes. I’ve tried soooo many other brands, but I always end up with yet another pair of Sauconys.

JorDanée Key, Support: Right now it’s So Delicious’s brand of coconut milk. It’s the only coconut milk without a carcinogen preservative. ... Thankfully Costco carries it in bulk.

Natalie Keshlear, Support:
Nike shoes for running.
Klean Kanteen for water.
Happy Socks for happy feet.
WildFang anything.

Taylor Weibley, Ops: Arcteryx jackets. They are expensive but they are also very comfy, durable, well-fitting, and they do their job well. (Wait for summertime sales.)
Costa sunglasses are great when you are out on the water. Their customer service has been good too.

Sylvia Chong, Support: Y’all should try an Asian skincare regime if you care about moisturizers. You could have up to 9 steps/products. Here’s a beginner’s guide if you’re interested:
Laniege Water Sleeping Pack
Laniege Balancing Emulsion (Sensitive)
My Beauty Diary masks
Etude House eye makeup because they have products to make your eyes look bigger
Cetaphil gentle skin cleanser: the only cleanser that doesn’t burn my skin off
Shiseido Tsubaki shampoo and conditioner

Jason Zimdars, Designer: Upon reflecting on this question I realized I don’t have very strong brand loyalty. I suppose one thing I never compromise on is my Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Been wearing them since I was maybe 9 or 10 years old and they’re still my go-to shoes today.

Dan Kim, Programmer: The only product I can think of that I would never switch from is my Mac. Not Apple broadly, but Macs specifically.
Cars, phones, clothes, food, whatever else brands—I have preferences, but those are all pretty negotiable. But I can’t see myself ever switching from a Mac.

Tony Giang, Support: I have minor brand preferences (Nikon cameras, EVGA graphics cards, Iron Edge gym equipment etc.), but there aren’t any brands that I couldn’t just drop for another.
Being disloyal means I can try out new things without feeling tied down. It also means I probably end up spending more money than I should when I want to try ALL THE THINGS.

Tom Ward, Programmer: I can do without almost anything, but these are the few things I’d go out of my way to get hold of:
Dorset cereals Simply Nutty cereal
Arm & Hammer baking soda toothpaste
Body Shop shower gel

Eileen Uchitelle, Programmer:
Stoneyfield French Vanilla Whole Milk Yogurt—all other yogurt is inferior
Apple products—MacBook, iPhone, iPad
Klean Kanteen Water Bottle
Patagonia outdoor everything—laptop bag, rain jacket, down jacket
And I almost forgot that the one thing I probably can’t live without are my boots. Made by Timberland, awesome construction, even though they aren’t waterproof my feet never get wet. I’ve got a brown pair and a black pair. I wear them all the time with everything and anything.

The Coffee Test

Shaun wrote this on 14 comments

Some of the folks at our Chicago office drink a lot of coffee and have been known to have strong opinions on the quality. So I decided to see if they actually preferred the taste of really good coffee over a cup of something a bit more generic.

Taking off the developer goggles

Jason Z.
Jason Z. wrote this on 6 comments

One of the very best things about working at Basecamp is “Everyone on support (EOS)”. That’s our policy where everyone on the team—no matter what their normal job is—spends one day per month as a customer support agent.

Each time my turn comes around I marvel at the truly excellent service our team provides every single day in what is a very tough job. Our team’s ratings and response time are insanely good even with dead weight like me pulling down their averages one day a month. I have no idea how they all remain so positive in a role where it feels like all day you’re saying “no”. Let’s face it, many customers know the answer to the question they’re asking. They’ve looked everywhere and tried everything so they’re frustrated, defeated, and sometimes grumpy by the time they reach out to a support agent— one who is understanding, empathetic, but often powerless to fix the problem. They have work to do and all this tech stuff just gets it the way.

While I’m glad to gain in appreciation for my coworkers what’s even more important about those stints on support is that I always learn something.

I know a lot about Basecamp already. I’ve been working on the current version of Basecamp almost exclusively since before the first commit back in 2011, from the first napkin sketches to its launch on iPad. What that means is I have internalized a very intricate mental model of Basecamp. I know every feature inside-out—and not just that, but code, domain models and all the decisions and debates and history that lead to why things are the way they are, why they aren’t another way and what compromises fit in-between. That’s not to brag, many of us who make products can say the same thing. These apps are built from our passions, they’re our babies. We can feel them. We notice when an interaction takes a beat too long, when a button is a few pixels out of alignment.

All of this blinds us. We’re wearing developer goggles.


Reproducible research isn't just for academia

Noah wrote this on 2 comments

My wonderful coworkers here at Basecamp have discovered a surefire way to make my head explode. All you have to do is post a link in Campfire to a piece of flimsily sourced “data journalism” that’s hard to believe (like the notion that the top decile of American drinkers consume a mean of 10 drinks per day, every single day of the year).

Bonus points are earned for things that have ridiculous infographics and/or provide absolutely no source or methodology. Since I started my career by analyzing Census data, things about demographics are extra special catnip.

This is a fun game to play, but it’s actually a real problem. The bar for what passes as credible when it comes to data journalism is incredibly low. There are some shining examples of quality — FiveThirtyEight releases much of the data that goes with their stories, and some are advocating for even greater transparency — but the overall level of quality is depressingly low. It’s just too easy to make an infographic based on shoddy original data or poor methodology and publish it, and there’s little to no repercussions if it isn’t actually accurate.

Academia has been battling this issue for years under the banner of “reproducible research”. Peer review has been a hallmark of academic publishing since at least 1665, but it hasn’t solved the problem. Still, there’s awareness of the issue, and some efforts to improve it: training, policies requiring data release in order to be published, etc.

It’s easy to take shots at data journalists and academics for shoddy methodologies or insufficiently reproducible research because their work is public, but the truth is that those of us in industry are just as susceptible to the same flaws, and it’s even easier to get away with. Most analysis done for private companies isn’t peer reviewed, and it certainly doesn’t have the wide audience and potential for fact checking that journalism or academic publishing has.

I’m as guilty as anyone else in industry when it comes to being less than perfectly transparent about methodology and data sources. I’ve even published plenty of tantalizing charts and facts and figures here on SvN that don’t meet the standards I’d like to see others held to. Mea culpa.

I’m trying to do better though, particularly with what I share internally at Basecamp. I’m footnoting data sources and methodologies more extensively, doing more work in Tableau workbooks that show methodology transparently, including my analysis scripts in writeups, and trying to get more peer review of assumptions that I make. I’m fortunate that the Basecamp team trusts my work for the most part, but I shouldn’t need to rely on their trust — my job is to bring impact to the business through responsible use of data, and part of being a responsible data analyst is being transparent and reproducible.

It’s not the easiest path to work transparently or to ensure reproducibility. It takes extra time to explain yourself, to clean up scripts, and so on, but it’s the right path to take, both for yourself and for your audience, whoever they may be.

Welcome Jay Ohms, programmer

Jason Z.
Jason Z. wrote this on 1 comment

Today we’re excited to announce the latest addition to the Basecamp team: Jay Ohms joins us as our lucky 13th programmer. He’ll be working with our mobile team on Basecamp for Android.

Android enthusiasts will know Jay as the one part of the duo behind Press, the popular Android RSS reader. Press arrived at a time when great design was hard to find on the platform. Jay’s focus on quality and eye for detail made Press a favorite and caught our attention, too.

After spending a week working with our Chicago-based Android team on a trial project we knew Jay, who also happens to live in Chicago (did someone bribe an alderman?), was a great fit. Jay makes us better on Android and we’re excited to show you what we’ve got in store for 2015.

Everyone, Jay; Jay, everyone.