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Unlimited vacation. Minimum vacation. Aren’t we right back at the beginning?

December 20, 2014
South Beach. CC-BY-NC, by Thomas Hawk -

South Beach. CC-BY-NC, by Thomas Hawk –

A couple of weeks ago, Mathias Meyer wrote an article entitled “From Open (Unlimited) to Minimum Vacation Policy“, detailing how his company, Travis CI, has moved from away from an “unlimited” vacation policy. Mathias found that the dangers of unlimited vacation policies were coming true: Engineers weren’t taking any or enough vacation to avoid burning out. So, he decided to move Travis to a model where a minimum amount of vacation is required. Sounds great, but doesn’t it seem like we’re right back where we started? Isn’t this just a traditional vacation policy couched in different terms? And what was so bad about traditional vacation policies, anyway? Read more…

Migrating from Sympa to Google Groups for Business

December 19, 2014

One of my last projects for 2014 is to move Chef off our old Sympa mailing list server to Google Groups for Business. This migration was codified in Chef RFC 028 a few months ago, but we wanted to hold its implementation until the migration to the domain was completed.

Moving the list of subscribers is fairly straightforward, but migrating the list archives has been enough of a chore that I thought I would document the required steps. This way, if anyone else is faced with a similar task, they do not need to spend hours Googling and/or banging their head against the wall of the Google Groups Migration API, where there are dragons — lots of them. Read more…

Building the Data General Eclipse MV/8000, or, lessons from product development in the 70’s

December 16, 2014

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Tracy Kidder’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Soul of a New Machine, in which he followed Data General (DG) engineers around for over a year while they tried to pull a miracle minicomputer, codenamed “Eagle”, out of the company. The firm’s survival was on the line. They were being slaughtered by Digital Equipment Corporation’s VAX 11/780 and they needed a winner, badly.

DG’s “new machine” ultimately became the Eclipse MV/8000, a name that, like the CDC 6600, is nearly unrecognizable to anyone today besides old computer nerds like myself. In other words, it’s damn hard to build a company that lasts. Both DG and its main rival, DEC, are gone, shoved aside by the PC revolution and the march towards inexpensive, x86-based servers running Linux. And so if you work in technology, you probably feel (or should feel) an immense sense of urgency, because there is always a surplus of discontinuous innovations just around the corner to disrupt whatever you’re working on right this instant. And those disruptors will in turn be disrupted by others, and then by yet others… Read more…

Crossing the Chasm: Essential readings in product development

November 10, 2014

This is another in a series of reviews on management & leadership books that I’m doing on the blog.

Geoffrey Moore wrote his seminal product development book, Crossing the Chasm, back in 1991. That was eight to ten years before the first dot-com bubble. Now, if only entrepreneurs in those heady days of had read this book, just think of how much capital, venture and otherwise, might have been preserved. Moore’s lessons are still extremely relevant nearly a generation later, and indeed, I see many companies making the same mistakes in product development & execution that he describes here. As such, the book should be required reading for any senior engineer, product manager, or product marketing person. This last group was initially the target audience for the book. Read more…

Good to Great: Pretty good, 13 years later.

October 14, 2014

This is another in a series of reviews on management & leadership books that I’m doing on the blog.

Last week I finally sat down and read Jim Collins’s Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t. Obviously, at Chef we’re trying to build a great company, and I thought this book would show us a way forward.

Good to Great was written in 2001, so you might be wondering why it’s taken me 13 years to crack it open. Well, quite honestly, I once had a co-worker and friend who was given this book upon starting a new job, and he scoffed at it. In retrospect, I think he did so because it was obvious that his employer was most definitely not on the path to greatness. The notion that handing out copies of a business book could fix their dysfunctional culture & failure to execute is laughable. It’s about as useful as giving anti-drug pamphlets to a meth user. In any case, I associated his mockery with the conclusion that the book is bad, which it most definitely is not. Read more…

How to be CEO: Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing about Hard Things”

August 31, 2014

This is the beginning of a continuing series of reviews about books on management and leadership. Think of it as a “papers we love” but for folks who have chosen to pursue a non-technical path in their engineering careers.

At some point I figure I’d like to be CEO of my own company. So it was with great interest that I picked up Ben Horowitz’s “The Hard Thing about Hard Things”, which is partly a memoir about his time running LoudCloud and Opsware, which he eventually sold to HP in 2007 for about $1.6 billion. Along with Marc Andreessen he then went on to found the well-known Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, which has invested in Facebook, Foursquare, GitHub, Pinterest and Twitter, among others.

From this CV it sounds like he has been wildly successful as an entrepreneur and CEO. But like all Hollywood stories (and Wikipedia articles) it glosses over the twists and turns in his career that, for instance, almost saw LoudCloud go bankrupt several times. (He also pivoted the company from being a cloud services and hosting company to a product company, nearly bankrupting it again.) Horowitz claims that many management books out there only give you advice about the happy path, but don’t teach you how to deal with adversity. That’s where the book comes in: no-nonsense advice about the many difficult situations you’ll find yourself in as a CEO. Read more…

Don’t touch the defaults: The Hippocratic Oath for System Administration

August 22, 2014

caduceusThe Hippocratic Oath, taken by doctors, is often paraphrased as “first, do no harm”. I’d like to note the broad applicability of the Hippocratic Oath to system administration. What, for example, is the first thing that you do when receiving a Severity 1 incident in the middle of the night? Correct answer: Look around at your surroundings but don’t change a bloody thing. No good has ever come to a system administrator whose first response is to pound the keyboard furiously and poke around systems, making random changes. This isn’t Hackers, after all. Like a doctor, you need a hypothesis as to what is wrong before operating on your patient.

Beyond just incident handling, though, I’d like to apply the Hippocratic Oath for System Administration using a philosophy that I call, somewhat uncreatively, leaving the defaults the hell alone. Too often I’ve seen people randomly change configuration settings without a true understanding of why. This behavior applies not only to system administrators randomly tuning Linux kernel parameters or PostgreSQL postgresql.conf settings without rhyme or reason. It also applies to the way in which applications are set up in the first place. In this post, I’ll give you some of my guiding principles for leaving things alone and just accepting the defaults even if you know they might not be optimal. In other words, leave the unnecessary tuning for your car, not your job. Read more…

Why I love working at Chef

March 10, 2014

Chef LogoI started my job at Opscode Chef a little over a year ago, on March 4, 2013. I admit that job-wise, I have a short attention span. Usually by this point in a technology job, I’m getting antsy and bored, but not at Chef. I love working here and I routinely describe it as the best job I’ve ever had in IT, which probably shocks anyone who’s ever known me. On my one-year anniversary, I thought I’d take a little bit of time to unpack why I keep saying that. Read more…

Using a Raspberry Pi as a cheap AirTunes server

January 12, 2014

No_AirPortI hate giving Apple more money than I have to. Sure, I own a MacBook Air and it’s wonderful, but I chafe at Apple charging me $99 for an AirPort Express just to stream music wirelessly to my stereo. I don’t need another Wi-Fi base station, anyway. So I decided to build my own AirTunes server with a Raspberry Pi. Here’s how to do it really easily. Read more…

Canada’s mobile network: hostile to visitors

January 9, 2014
Cutting edge phones in Canada. Just kidding. (CC BY-NC 2.0, Flickr user bec.w)

Cutting edge phones in Canada. Just kidding. (CC BY-NC 2.0, Flickr user bec.w)

Recently my wife and I returned to Toronto for our Christmas holidays. Though we haven’t lived in Canada for over two years, I remember the cellular plans being outrageously expensive compared to the United States or Europe. Since then, it appears they’ve gotten slightly better, but only for residents who have long-term contracts. Visitors, sadly, are out of luck.

Both of us own unlocked iPhone 4Ses, so I thought we could just waltz right into a carrier’s store, buy a SIM card, plunk down some money and get some data for the week. After all, this is what we did over in the United Kingdom in September. Each of us paid £10 for a SIM and got 1 GB of data. (Actually, they give the SIMs away for free. The £10 was just for usage.)

Astonishingly, there’s no such option in Canada. All the plans, even the so-called “prepaid” ones, are designed for long-term-residents. I was told by Virgin and Fido representatives that I’d need a Canadian billing address (!) and the only way to get service for a month would be to sign up and cancel within 30 days. Furthermore, the data rates are outrageous. Here’s what Fido is charging for Data Add-ons for a month:


$35 for 1 GB for a month? Are you kidding me? That’s almost the price of my entire cellular phone plan in the United States for a month!

As a last resort, I went to talk to a third-party reseller, the ones who represent multiple carriers. I told the rep what I wanted. He laughed, then said, sheepishly, “It’s not possible. Canada’s cellular phone companies don’t have pay-per-use data plans.” Then he told me to call Verizon and get a data roaming plan! “It’ll be easier that way,” he said.

If you want to see how good the pay-as-you-go plans are in the UK — and they really mean pay-as-you-go, as in you don’t need a billing address — go check out T-Mobile UK’s “SIM Card Only” page. Reading it again made me think: if Canada Post is saving all this money by killing off door-to-door mail delivery, why don’t they start a telco that’ll give Canada some real competition in cellular services?