Things to do when you’re not writing code

programmer at work

If you’re reading this, I assume most of your hours are spent staring at an IDE, coding away. What about the times when you’re not building shiny new features. If you’re lucky enough, then you’re going to have a couple of hours of free time every now and then. What should you use that time for ? So many possibilities. If you want to become a better programmer, then these few hours can be incredibly valuable. I’m here to help you get the most out of that time.

Tinker with your process

This assumes you have a process you follow through your day. If you don’t have a process, build one. A good starting point is the organization process It doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s not going to be perfect. That’s OK. A good process should be a checklist you go through for every piece of work.

What makes a process useful is that it can be improved. So start with something, anything. Now think about your process. Did you miss anything lately? Did you break anything? Does your work take longer than expected ? Did you find yourself waiting for others for extended periods of time? These are all questions you should ask yourself, and improve your process to prevent that! Sticking to a process is hard work, however, it’s worth it!

Read around

Reading is an important part of your work. You should not underestimate the value of information. The world of programming is in constant shift. New frameworks, patterns and technologies emerge every day. If you want to be a good programmer, you should keep yourself up to date with the latest trends. The best way to do that is to read around.

You should, at least, read about the frameworks you’re using. Become a guru on the frameworks you’re using. Look at the documentation. How is everyone else using that framework ? Is there anything you can learn from them ? Reading the source code can be incredibly valuable at times. Take your pick, but get to work!

Think about dependencies

What is the next thing you’re going to work on and why ? More than once, I have started on a ticket only to find out there are hidden dependencies required, assets that I needed (which take forever to track down and acquire).  Think about the next piece of work and the following ones. Is there anything you should do now to save yourself some time in the future ? There are lots of little things that have the potential of costing you lots of time later down the road. The earlier you think about them, the easier your life is going to be. And who doesn’t like an easy life?!

Think about potential issues

The hallmark of a good programmer is the ability to think about the bigger picture, not just what you’re working on at the moment. How does what you’re working on now fit into the whole project? Is the work you’re doing now going to cause any integration issues. I’ll give you a spoiler: Most of the problems with software can be found at the joints. What external services does your ticket (and project for that matter) depend on ? What happens if that service is down, or slow, or wrong or any of the myriad of possible ways of things to go wrong with a service. Catch them early and not only you’ll save yourself a headache (and possibly an embarrassment when the project goes live) and you will prove yourself as an awesome programmer. Two birds with one stone.

In conclusion, if you find yourself with some time on your hands, don’t waste it, use that time to improve yourself, like a knight sharpening its sword before a battle (I always wanted to say that!). Thse thins are valuable in the long run. Instead of stealing some moments whenever you have them, try to make them. Take a break from writing code and improve yourself. You’re going to be better at it! Your project is going to benefit! Everybody wins!

What do you usually do when you have a bit of free time on your hands ?

L.E. As with everything in life, common sense should prevail. This does not mean you should drop important work when important work needs to be done, nor does it mean you should completely abandon your other hobbies and focus on programming 24/7. If you need a break from work, you should take a break!

Greenfield project – how to get it right from the get-go

You lucky programmer you. You get to work on a new project. A shiny new toy for you. All the possibilities that lay ahead. Simply limitless! Now the only question is: how do we do this right? How do we make sure our little project does not end up a big ol’ mess that is impossible to handle.

Decide on the spec

Before you can get your hands dirty, you have to have a plan. Right? You should have a very, very good idea what you have to do. Here are a couple of questions that you should have the answer to before you start any work:

  1. What are you trying to solve with the project ?
  2. What is the workflow of the project ?
  3. What is the expected load (now and in the future)
  4. What is the most important feature ? If you have to settle for three features, what would they be ?
  5. Are there any risks you need to look out for ?
Start reading

Now that you know what you’re doing, start reading! Honestly, there is a lot of reading involved before starting a new project. You should know what the available frameworks are, what are their limitations, what are they good/bad at. Additionally, you should have a good idea what add-ons you should use for what tasks and how well documented they are. Another important thing you should look into if known issues. There is a lot of less-than-stellar code out there, you should make sure you’re not relying on one for your awesome project. So, start reading now and don’t stop until you know everything. Well, maybe not everything, but you have a good idea what adding a particular framework means. Little word of advice here, if I may, just because you have experience with something, it does not make it the right tool for the job. Don’t skip over this stage.

Decide on the tech stack

Decisions, decisions! There are a lot of choices out there. Some are more mature (like Spring), while others are quickly changing offering new shiny toys at every turn (like React). You need to make a decision now that will affect the project it’s whole life. No pressure, right ? This is also the stage where you decide the infrastructure: what database will you use ? Will it be hosted on your server, or somewhere in the cloud ? What OS will the server be running on ? How will you do the deployment ? All of these are important questions, so take your time thinking about them now. You’ll thank yourself later. This is also the stage where you are in a safe position to make promises about timelines for your project, set deadlines, milestones, you know, all those things.

Set some ground rules

The beginning an important time for your project! The rules and conventions you set here are going to stick around for a long, long time. Be careful what patterns you add to your project here, they can save you or hurt you easily later down the line. Read about your tech stack’s best practices and make them part of your project. It’s going to be a lot of chaos in the early days of the project. You should be vigilant, so that you spot the changes that go against your rules and correct them.

Good job bearing with me this far. Now it’s time to go out there and make your dream project happen! Cheers!

How to meet your deadlines – A quick guide to ensure you are never late

Oh, the dreaded deadline! You have a week’s worth of work to do by tomorrow. If that has ever happened to you, then you should know that feeling well. In the following lines I will try to give a few tips that should alleviate that feeling. Let’s begin!

Don’t underestimate the work

This is something that needs to be done in the planning stage. Estimating the amount of time a piece of work is going to take is as much an art as it is a science. It takes a great deal of experience to do it right. In most cases things are going to take longer than expected. A process that works really well for me is breaking down the work into the smallest piece of self-contained work (call them tasks, tickets, whatever you want, the concept remains the same). It is much easier accurately estimate a small piece of work, than a big one. When you have a list of small and self-contained tasks you can begin to add estimate them. At the end, add the values together and you have a deadline.

Give yourself some slack!

Estimating a task involves accounting for the unexpected. Unexpected events have an unbalanced effect on the deadlines. This is a fancy way of saying that bad things happen much more often than good things. Things will break, and they will need to be fixed, you will have to wait for other teams to be done with their work, specs and assets will be late, computers do break from time to time and that will certainly affect your deadlines. The more dependencies you have on your task, the more slack you need. This may sound extreme, but I usually add a 30% slack on the dev time and even that proves to be insufficient from time to time.

Be honest with the stakeholders

Do not commit to more work than you are able to do! Remember, in the long run, doing things right is much faster than doing things fast. If you need to rush through work, you will unavoidably make mistakes that tend to add up over time and slow down future development time. You have probably heard this before, but I’m going to say it anyway: Do quality work from the start, even if it takes slightly longer now, it will save you tons of time later down the road.

Track progress as you go along

It is much easier to make corrections to your course as you are traveling towards your destination. How does this translates into a helpful tip? Glad you’ve asked! To sum up: It’s easier to correct for small delays than large ones. That sounds reasonable enough, right? The trick here is to spot delays as early as possible. If you have a timeline for your project, you should be able to say at any moment if you are on track. When the work slips, it’s going to be easier to account for a small delay. By doing this regularly, it should never come as a surprise to have to do a month worth of work withing a week.

That’s all we have for today! Hope you have enjoyed it! See you next week!

Keep meetings short

We have all suffered through meetings. You know that meeting that seems to just go on and on and on without an end in sight. I you hate them as much as me, then this article might just be for you. In the following lines I will share some tips and tricks that helped me organize and partake in pleasant, useful meetings.

Meetings are a necessity

As the size of the team grows and there are multiple parties involved in bringing a project to an end, the overhead associated with coordinating these multiple armies of people become significant. Meetings are just one of the tools that helps to keep people focused and on the right track. Meetings are also a distraction. They take people away from their daily work, it breaks rhythm and whoever took part in the meeting needs a bit of time to get back in the zone, and be a productive little bee again. Given the high cost that meetings have, it’s worth doing them right so you can get the most value out of them.

Establish an agenda and stay on it!

Meetings should have a purpose! They should have a clear and precise purpose. If you are just sharing information, as in there is nothing to decide, you just want to let your team know something, that’s not a meeting, that’s a presentation and it’s a whole different story on what makes presentations useful. Meetings should be about deciding things. They are the much nicer alternative to huge email chain.

Getting back to the point. Before you start a meeting, you should know what needs to be decided. This way, if the discussion goes of track you can quickly spot it and steer it back on point and shave some minutes off there.

Let participants know what the agenda is.

The meeting will go a lot smoother if participants know what they are getting themselves into. They can do a bit of research beforehand, in the safety of their own desks. The more prepared participants are, the less time they need to learn what they need to know to reach a decision, the faster the meeting ends. Simple, right ? If you are a participant to meeting, feel free to ask what the meeting is about and get all the relevant information you need to prepare.

Get the right people in the room

This one is more for the person organizing the meeting. Everyone in the room should be there with a purpose: they either have the knowledge to answer a question, or the power to decide on a course of action. Everyone else can be briefed via email after the meeting ends. Getting only the relevant people in the room saves a lot of the debate that arise from either explaining a decision to someone without sufficient knowledge on a particular subject, or dealing with opinions from people that ultimately have no saying in the project. Remember less (people) is more (useful meetings)!

Take things outside (of the meeting room)

I’m definitely not suggesting fighting when you don’t agree in meeting. Keep things civil, we are professionals after all! This bit is more about the kind of discussions that are still in the scope of the meeting, but are at a high level of detail, so that only a couple of people care about it. If most people are not getting anything from what is being discussed, then you don’t have the right people in the room and you are wasting their time. When people get into such an argument the right thing to do is to call time out and suggest they (and only they) continue this chat in private and let you all know how it went.

That’s it! Try to do that so you get to enjoy the meeting you take part of, and, on top of that, feel like you’re actually doing something useful with your time while you are at it. Cheers!