Pairing tour

The penultimate stage of the resident apprenticeship at 8th Light is a pairing tour, where I got to spend time pairing with the crafters who will sit on my Review Board (i.e. the people who decide whether I get to "graduate" from my apprenticeship). I spent a day with each crafter and got exposed to a variety of different clients, languages and frameworks, project management tools, and work styles, all in under two weeks. Here are some notes and thoughts on how it went.

Eric M.: The day was spent updating the front-end Javascript library used for UI elements to use ES6, with Webpack and Karma to run builds and tests, rather than Coffeescript with Grunt. Since my previous experience with Javascript had been with ES5, I got a taste of how ES6 and Coffeescript syntax differed. It also showed me what a well-constructed Javascript library should look like, with good unit test coverage and a modular architecture that lends itself to reuse.

Kristin: I had another day spent with Javascript, hunting down a bug that turned out to be especially difficult to trace because of duplication that existed due to the feature being in a transition phase. We kept inserting console.log() statements and seeing nothing in the inspector until we finally realized that the code being called existed in a completely different portion of the file tree! Once we figured out what going on, we could then fix the bug, then fix another bug that we discovered while testing the functionality in the browser, and finally make a pull request with the changes. It also sparked some good software design discussions about why the duplication existed and what the best way would be to resolve the confusion it created.

Doug: Pairing with Doug was a bit unusual, since he is one of the two Managing Directors of the Chicago office. But it was rather fascinating to shadow him during his day and find out what his many responsibilities look like. Some meetings were with other management making high-level strategic or staffing decisions, and other meetings were with the teams that reported to Doug. Up until now, I haven't had many opportunities to see a really good manager in action, so I was really struck by the fact that the crafters that spoke with Doug all had a great deal of trust in him and were comfortable being honest about the problems they were facing in their work. I think this trust is able to exist when the manager shows trust in the team first.

Vincent: Vincent is one of my mentors, so I already knew him quite well, but I had never seen any of his client work before. We spent the day trying to lay the groundwork for "A/B testing" (quotation marks because the test group would be selected nonrandomly and their identities known) by exposing endpoints that would be necessary for identifying whether a user belonged to the test or control group. Due to the existing infrastructure, the service that would have the test feature could not talk directly to the database containing the user information, so we had to figure out how to communicate that data via an intermediary service that connected to a Grape API that connected to the database. (If that sounded complicated, it definitely was.)

Eric S.: Eric is my other mentor, and since his usual client has a lot of security procedures, I paired with him on a day when he didn't have to be on site. Since he's the Director of Training, I ended up sitting in on a few meetings that related to the various training services that 8th Light provides to businesses and even got to provide some feedback on a curriculum being developed. Towards the end of the day, he walked me through one of his side projects, implementing a browser version of Space Invaders in F# and discussed how to test a game loop in a functional paradigm. I didn't know any F#, so it was an interesting chance to look at an explicitly typed functional language, as well as a good demonstration of how to make things that are difficult to test more testable.

Nicole: I was supposed to pair with Zack originally, but because he is in between clients, he decided that it would be more productive for me to pair with Nicole, his former apprentice. I had paired with Nicole before, when she was still an apprentice, on our feedback rating app, so it was good to be working with her again. We worked on an internal 8th Light application that was written in Clojure; it was also good to be working in Clojure again. We wrote a validator for a new field added to a form and spent quite a lot of time hunting down every test that used that form in some way to make sure that those tests now worked with the new validation requirement. The test suite all passed but then the feature didn't work in the browser; the bug required some outside assistance to track down and turned out to be due to a parameter not being passed to a third-party library.

Rob: The first story of the day was adding a logger to an API managing document uploads. The code was all in C# and had to be edited in Visual Studio through a VM, which was a first for me. We used a third-party library to do the logging, but it took a lot of reading and experimenting to get it installed and then figure out where it needed to be injected. But we got it to log all API requests and responses and finished the story pretty quickly. Then we waded through the details of a few other stories and realized that they either had already been addressed or needed further consultation with business stakeholders. The last story we worked on was finishing the setup of a Flask API that would eventually hold endpoints for a new service. That was getting close to the end of the day, but I did get to write some Python and put in a passing test for the root path route.

Lisa: I paired with Lisa today, as the last stop on my pairing tour. She is working on a greenfield app, which has a React front-end and a Rails backend. The morning was spent on doing a code review of a pull request and addressing comments on a pull request she had made before, and then the afternoon was spent pairing with Jerome, another 8th Light crafter on the same project. I found React to be really interesting, since it makes some aspects of DOM manipulation seem a lot easier than just with plain Javascript and JQuery, so now I'm trying to think of ways that I can learn more about the framework in a future side project. Lisa also had a whole host of useful tips---from making more informative pull requests to using git checkout - to switch to the last branch---that she imparted during the day, which I plan to put into use.

Overall, the pairing tour was a great experience, allowing me to see what a crafter actually does on a day-to-day basis. Getting to see so many new code bases, all with different languages and frameworks, was also really illuminating; it shed new light on how a lot of decisions (good and bad) about software architecture get made as well as the challenges of working with legacy code. I'm in the middle of reading Working Effective With Legacy Code, and I think some of the content will make more sense to me now that I've actually experienced trying to modify a truly large existing code base. Everything that I've worked on up until now has been quite small and manageable, with not more than three contributors at most; it really is worlds apart from a piece of software that multiple teams have worked on, often for several years.

I also got to see more than just code. It was really educational to see how different developer teams work together: how they conduct their standups and IPMs, what their development workflows are, how they divvy up story cards and tasks, and even just how they consult one another individually when they have questions. Reading about agile processes in a book is not really the same as seeing how they are conducted in real life. Each organization, as well as each individual, ends up making compromises, and it's interesting to see how the same tradeoffs recur over and over again, although they are solved in different ways.

Tomorrow begins the final stage: challenges! I have no idea what these will be like since they generally keep them a secret from apprentices. What I do know is that the next two weeks will probably be intense. Wish me luck!

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