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Apple, HEY, and the Path Forward

Just in time before the start of WWDC today, it looks like there is a nice resolution between Basecamp and Apple

Jason Fried:

So we got down to it, and worked the weekend to get an update on Apple’s desk Monday morning. Our team did a great job implementing the product changes that Schiller asked for, and first thing this morning, right after we shipped 1.0.2 to our customers, we submitted 1.0.3 to the App Store for approval.

This new version introduces a new free option for the iOS app. Now users can sign up directly in-app for a free, temporary, randomized @hey.com email address that works for 14 days. Think of it like a temporary SIM card you buy when traveling. Or for when you don’t want to give out your real email address, like a short term “for sale” listing, like Craigslist does it.

We’ve also accelerated our multi-user HEY for Work offering where the company pays but the employees don’t. This brings HEY in line with Basecamp, and dozens of other high profile multi-platform enterprise offerings that have been permitted in the App Store for a decade.

I suspect this isn’t the last we’ll hear of this issue, but it’s great to see a peaceful resolution between my two favorite companies. ❤️

Why In App Purchases Are Terrible

This response by Jason Fried to Apple on why they don’t want to use In App Purchase is pure gold. He’s 100% spot on, and anyone that has run a subscription business knows these truths well. 

When Apple forces companies to offer In App Purchases in order to be on their platform, they also dictate the limits to which you can help your customer. This has a detrimental impact on the customer experience, and your relationship with your customer. It can flat out ruin an interaction, damage your reputation, and it can literally cost you customers. It prevents us from providing exceptional customer service when someone who uses our product needs help.

[…]

For example, at Basecamp we help people for all sorts of reasons. We apply credit to accounts for all sorts of reasons. We provide hardship exceptions for all sorts of reasons. We discount our software for teachers. We provide free versions for first responders. We extend trials for those who need more time. We extend payment terms occasionally for those who can’t make ends meet this month. We make exceptions because people are exceptional. We take enormous pride in helping people out. And we’re damn good at it.

If we had to push our customers through Apple’s system, we couldn’t do any of that. Apple’s rules prevent us from servicing our customers, yet Apple gives us no choice but to submit to those onerous rules or not be represented on their platform. That’s flat out hostile – to us, to our customers, and to the community.

The whole piece is wonderful. 

Hey in the App Store

There’s a mess brewing between Apple and third-party developers again. I sure hope that this issue doesn’t overshadow the launch of Hey, about which I’m very excited, but it’s hard to not focus on it today.

Yesterday, on Twitter, David Heinemeier Hansson posted this note:

Wow. I’m literally stunned. Apple just doubled down on their rejection of HEY’s ability to provide bug fixes and new features, unless we submit to their outrageous demand of 15-30% of our revenue. Even worse: We’re told that unless we comply, they’ll REMOVE THE APP.

This is a really bad look for Apple. The Hey app is free in the store, and does not mention how to sign up or offer any other option to sign up for the service. It’s just an app for existing members to use. Just like Slack, Gmail, Basecamp itself, and countless others. 

Reporting at Protocol, David Pierce has the full story:

On Tuesday afternoon, Apple sent Basecamp a slightly softer written notice. “We noticed that your app allows customers to access content, subscriptions, or features they have purchased elsewhere, but those items were not available as in-app purchases within the app,” it said. Because Hey didn’t qualify as a “Reader” app, Apple said that existing subscribers could log in as normal but Hey needed to make all subscriptions available to new users as in-app purchases.

Apple told me that its actual mistake was approving the app in the first place, when it didn’t conform to its guidelines. Apple allows these kinds of client apps — where you can’t sign up, only sign in — for business services but not consumer products. That’s why Basecamp, which companies typically pay for, is allowed on the App Store when Hey, which users pay for, isn’t. Anyone who purchased Hey from elsewhere could access it on iOS as usual, the company said, but the app must have a way for users to sign up and pay through Apple’s infrastructure. That’s how Apple supports and pays for its work on the platform.

John Gruber chimes in with an excellent response:

[H]ow could such a distinction be made in writing? There are some apps that are definitely “business services” and some that are definitely “consumer products” (games for example), but to say that the area in between encompasses many shades of gray is an understatement. The entire mobile era of computing — an era which Apple itself has inarguably largely defined — is about the obliteration of distinct lines between business and consumer products.

Let’s hope Apple fixes this quickly. It’s a ridiculous decision that’s only going to cause further problems down the road. If they wanted to instate a new policy, they picked the wrong independent company to bully around. I’m sure DHH won’t go down quietly.

Hey Launches

This week is the official launch of Hey.com, the new e-mail service from the folks at Basecamp. I haven’t been this excited about e-mail since Gmail launched over 15 years ago. (Remember how cool it was that they offered 1GB of storage, and didn’t force you to put things in folders?)

The thinking behind Hey is nothing less than you’d expect from the Basecamp team. They didn’t just create a new e-mail client. They rethought everything about how e-mail works and what it should be in 2020.

Some of the highlights from the tour on Hey.com:

  1. Screening of e-mails and senders, just like incoming phone calls.
  2. Renaming subject lines and grouping related threads together to keep things organized.
  3. Surfacing all files that have been received and sent in one simple file browser. Hallelujah.
  4. No push notifications, unless you opt-in.
  5. A first-party way to reply to something later. Perfectly suited towards organizing and prioritizing your replies.
  6. A “paper trail” section to keep all receipts. Brilliant.
  7. A single page readable view for newsletters.
  8. A way to add notes and reminders for yourself inline with your e-mails.
  9. Safe image loading through a proxy on Hey’s servers, and automatic spy pixel blocking.

On the interface design front, there are some very nice patterns here too. Everything is super fast. There are keyboard shortcuts for (nearly?) everything you see. The interface is clearly designed to be useful and get out of your way. It looks lovely.

Hey is a very opinionated product. It’s not going to be for everyone. That’s by design, and the product is better for it.

Last but not least, I love the video tour that’s posted on Basecamp’s YouTube page. It’s just Jason Fried walking you through the features of Hey while sharing his screen. No frills, no super polished animations or faceless voiceovers. Just the creator of the product telling you about how it works and why they made the decisions they did. Everything about this product is completely refreshing.

The Daily: What We’ve Learned About the Coronavirus

Today’s episode of “The Daily” was a great update on the virus featuring Donald G. McNeil Jr. In short: states that were initially hit hard with the virus are seeing improvements, where states that didn’t have as many cases early on are now surging. Especially in areas like Florida and Texas.

Anecdotally, here in Texas, people seem to have forgotten that there ever was a virus and are pretending like it no longer exists. I was talking with someone yesterday who scoffed at the word COVID. “Oh that’s over”, he said.

COVID-19: Straight Answers from Top Epidemiologist Who Predicted the Pandemic

Nice interview here by Dan Buettner with Dr. Michael Osterholm:

In short, Dr. Osterholm is arguably one of the most dependable, non-political sources for straight answers on what COVID-19 means to us and our world in the immediate future. In his 2017 book, Deadliest Enemy, he correctly foretells a global pandemic and offers the best strategy for fighting it now and avoiding it in the future.

Here are the highlights of our conversation. But if you really want to understand this disease, read the whole interview. This disease may be the biggest event of our lifetimes.

This thing isn’t over, and it’s only getting worse. A good reminder to keep vigilant.

Jason Fried on current events

There’s exceptionally hard work ahead. I recognize this work has been happening for years, often ignored or unappreciated by many people, including me. How frustrating it must be to work so hard, and see such little progress, on something so elemental.

Change will require a massive, sustained effort by millions over many years. A change in perspective, mindset, and approach. And that work will certainly be met with future setbacks, which is why change requires optimism, too (which is in short supply in moments like these). I hope we can find it, and support those who need it.

I’ll be working to educate myself, and break my own patterns of ignorance. This sense of urgency is, embarrassingly, new to me, so I have a lot to learn – which organizations to support, what books to read, what history to absorb, and who to listen to. I’m starting on that today. If you’re like me, I hope you’ll do the same.

Barack Obama on Real Change

Barack Obama, on Medium:

I recognize that these past few months have been hard and dispiriting — that the fear, sorrow, uncertainty, and hardship of a pandemic have been compounded by tragic reminders that prejudice and inequality still shape so much of American life. But watching the heightened activism of young people in recent weeks, of every race and every station, makes me hopeful. If, going forward, we can channel our justifiable anger into peaceful, sustained, and effective action, then this moment can be a real turning point in our nation’s long journey to live up to our highest ideals.

Let’s get to work.

A brief glimpse into what it would be like to have real leadership in charge.

America in Crisis

Oliver Darcy, writing in this morning’s Reliable Sources newsletter:

What do you write on a day like this? How can the day be neatly summed up in a string of sentences and paragraphs? How can the pain, agony, frustration, and fear felt by so many across the country be properly conveyed? Is it even possible?

I’m not sure.

I’m not sure how one conveys the emotions felt by a country that has watched, yet again, an unarmed black man die in police custody. How one conveys what it feels like to see major American cities set ablaze, or protesters clashing with Secret Service outside the White House. How one conveys a President of the United States who, instead of offering words aimed at consoling a nation, chooses to instead pour gasoline on the fire and turn the temperature up.

Imagine if you transported a recording of the news from Friday, May 29, 2020, back in time. Imagine showing people the state of America: With unrest spreading across the country, with a pandemic claiming the lives of more than 100,000 Americans, with 40 million out of work. Imagine explaining to people that a CNN crew was arrested live on-air for covering a protest, despite doing nothing wrong. Or that Twitter had to actually apply a warning label on the tweets from the President and White House for glorifying violence.

What would we think if we saw the events unfolding in America unfold in another country? “This country has been slowly unraveling for two decades; the acceleration in real time is terrifying to behold,” tweeted Tim Alberta. It’s hard to disagree.

The New York Times Phasing Out 3rd Party Ad Data

Sara Fischer, reporting for Axios:

The New York Times will no longer use 3rd-party data to target ads come 2021, executives tell Axios, and it is building out a proprietary first-party data platform.

Beginning in July, The Times will begin to offer clients 45 new proprietary first-party audience segments to target ads

This is great news and I hope others follow. It’s going to be tough for them to pull away from the giant data providers, but I hope that publishers can do it. Third-party tracking and sharing of user data is gross and a privacy nightmare.

As an aside, I do happen to run a small independent publisher that is partially supported by sponsored ads at Air Mail. When I built the tech for Air Mail, I specifically and intentionally created a system that wouldn’t allow any third-party tracking of ad data. We host and serve all of our ads in a first-party and private matter. Tracking clicks and impressions is standard practice for ad servers and ours does it entirely in the background as well. This allows our sponsors to check their numbers without compromising on one ounce of customer data from our readers. I created the type of system that I wouldn’t mind using as a reader.

It’s not that complicated if you design your ad systems with privacy in mind from the beginning. Here’s hoping more of the publishing world catches on.

Spotify Acquires Joe Rogan

Ashley Carman for The Verge:

Joe Rogan, comedian and host of one of the most popular podcasts in the world, is taking his show to Spotify. The Joe Rogan Experience will soon become a Spotify exclusive, meaning episodes’ full audio and video will only be available through the platform starting later this year. Up until now, Rogan’s show has never been available on Spotify, let alone exclusive to any platform.

Spotify is quickly eating up the “podcast” world. Not great.

A “podcast” that is only available on one app and does not provide an open feed to access its shows is not a podcast. Maybe we need a new name for these type of things. We need more independent podcast publishers, not consolidation of power into the hands of the few.

Dave Grohl on Live Music

Dave Grohl in the Atlantic:

In today’s world of fear and unease and social distancing, it’s hard to imagine sharing experiences like these ever again. I don’t know when it will be safe to return to singing arm in arm at the top of our lungs, hearts racing, bodies moving, souls bursting with life. But I do know that we will do it again, because we have to. It’s not a choice. We’re human. We need moments that reassure us that we are not alone. That we are understood. That we are imperfect. And, most important, that we need each other. I have shared my music, my words, my life with the people who come to our shows. And they have shared their voices with me. Without that audience—that screaming, sweating audience—my songs would only be sound. But together, we are instruments in a sonic cathedral, one that we build together night after night. And one that we will surely build again.

Amen.

The bit about Springsteen in the piece is priceless too.

(via Daring Fireball)

Jason Isbell on Self Doubt

David Peisner, writing about the making of Jason Isbell’s new album for the New York Times:

After all the strife the album caused, it’d be understandable if Shires never wanted to hear it again, but that’s not the case. “It’s the worst recording experience I’ve ever been a part of, but it’s my favorite record he’s made,” she said. “I’d like to say we’re stronger because of it, but we’re not. We just know that our strength is more than we thought.”

Isbell doesn’t think the album was affected by the turmoil he underwent making it but allowed for the possibility he could be wrong. “Maybe you can hear it,” he said. “Maybe the record is better for it. I don’t know. I try not to ask that question because I don’t want to get in a pattern of [expletive] my life up to make better records.”

What a refreshingly honest piece. Tough discussion I’m sure. Isbell is by far my favorite artist of the past 5 years or so. Looking forward to the new album. (Call me old-fashioned, but I don’t listen to singles ahead of the release. I like to wait for the full thing.)

The Facebook SDK Crash

Anil Dash writing about this yesterday’s Facebook SDK issue that crashed many apps:

So, understandably, everybody just plugs in the Facebook code (often called a “library” or more formally, a Software Development Kit, “SDK”) and focuses on the more important features of their app. But while lots of open source code libraries that you might use just perform a certain function in your app, like displaying a picture or formatting some data, this Facebook code also relies on a service on Facebook’s site running properly, too.

Today, that service got broken.

The result of Facebook’s breakdown today is kinda wild: a minor configuration change on a Facebook server that isn’t even visible to regular users made dozens of high-profile apps from some of the biggest companies in the world all start crashing when you open them — even if you weren’t using Facebook at all.

On Concerts and Ticketing

This was supposed to be a great year for live music. Well, every year is a great year for live music. But, for me, any year with a new Pearl Jam tour these days is a good year.

One of my favorite things to do is see my favorite bands and performers live in concert. In a previous life I would travel up and down the east coast to see shows as much as I could. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a few bands and still wish I could go to more. It’s harder for me to get out these days (life with small children at home is complicated!) but I still manage to get to a select few shows each year.

And yet, right now I can’t imagine a more dangerous place than a crowd of 500 to 20,000 people sitting together in close proximity. Everyone breathing on one another. Ugh. Gross. This isn’t something we’ve imagined before. Live events are supposed to be fun: a way to escape life and enjoy the music for a few hours. As with everything else right now, it’s a whole new world.

The music industry doesn’t know how to handle what’s happening. None of us do, really, but some are handling it better than others. The music industry is lazy. More specifically, the live music ticketing industry is lazy and has barely innovated in decades.

Why should they innovate? Each year millions of people, just like me, buy tickets as fast as they can when their favorite artists announce new tours. There’s no reason for these providers to change when they are already making money at an alarming rate compared to the actual service they provide. Service charges, convenience fees, and other ticketing add-ons continue to increase in cost, while the service and convenience they offer continue to decline.

As fans, we go online at a specific time to try and fight the bots and scalpers to get decent tickets. The tickets go on sale at 10:00 AM local time on some random weekday when we’re all supposed to be working because the ticket providers still can’t handle a surge of traffic that’s less than Amazon receives in an hour of Cyber Monday sales. And yet their servers still buckle under the pressure. Bots, scalpers, and preferred ticketing vendors get all of the good seats and true fans are left with scraps. Which we always buy because, hey, we’re in the building. And so is Paul McCartney!

Or, if you’re out of touch like me, you don’t even realize when tickets are on sale until that magical time has already passed. This happens to me all of the time. I’m listening to something on Apple Music and I wonder if the artist is touring soon. I check it out and sure enough they are coming soon, but tickets are already mostly sold. Then you’re stuck in the third-party market of StubHub and others; inevitably paying a hefty premium on top of a face-value ticket price to some scalper that never intended to go to the show anyways. There has to be a better way.

Then the coronavirus happens and the live music world is upended. Last night I received an e-mail from Ticketmaster about a show that was supposed to take place back in March:

Hi John,

Unfortunately, the event organizer has had to cancel your event.

The good news is that a refund will be processed automatically for you. Due to the unprecedented volume of cancellations, you should expect to receive your refund in as soon as 30 days.

Please Note: If the tickets were transferred to you, the refund will go to the fan who originally purchased the tickets from Ticketmaster.

Of course the concert has been canceled. It was supposed to take place in March, and it’s now May 2nd. That’s also nice that they are going to refund my purchase. Strangely though, much like unsubscribing from a mailing list, it takes 30 days to refund. But it’s better than nothing.

Except for the last sentence of the e-mail: “the refund will go to the fan who originally purchased the tickets from Ticketmaster.”. Ticketmaster knows that I have the tickets, but it isn’t smart enough to realize that I didn’t purchase the tickets. I bought them from someone else on StubHub (for a premium, sigh) and then received the tickets as a transfer. So according to this it seems that I probably over paid for the concert (which is totally fine) on StubHub, and now the original purchaser is going to receive a refund for whatever they paid. We can only assume that I’ll receive nothing by way of a refund, even though I clearly ‘own’ the tickets in my Ticketmaster account.

The money I’m out for the concert is annoying, but I get that. It’s a minor blip on the coronavirus radar these days. It wasn’t an expensive ticket so I’m not that worried about it.

But the bigger issue is how much of a mess the ticketing industry is. Ticketmaster, building on tech from decades ago, is not prepared to handle simple things like returning an order. StubHub, and others like it, are seemingly still operating on the idea that a ticket is a piece of paper that once transferred to someone retains no historical context of its origin.

The concert industry, like many, is hurting right now. This could be a time of great innovation and overall cleanup. Ticketmaster is a giant. They have immense resources and even more political sway in the industry. What if they took on the task of modernizing the concert ticketing space? That seems unlikely.

The more likely and hopeful scenario is one of disruption from a new player in the market. Cloud services are ubiquitous. Mobile ticketing solutions are available to everyone with a smartphone. The databases and integrations required for this type of innovation are not complicated from a systems design perspective.

The live music industry is at a standstill right now. It’s going to be months or years before concerts are back to the way we left them. That’s plenty of time to start innovating and clean up this mess.

As a fan, I hope someone is up to the challenge. Here’s to 2021 being the best year for live music and ticketing yet.

Technical Skill Interviewing at Basecamp

David Heinemeier Hansson joins the discussion on evaluating programmers with a skills test. At Basecamp, they prefer a late stage take-home challenge that mirrors the actual work that will be performed in the job if hired. As usual from Basecamp, this is very well thought through and sounds like a nice process for the company and the candidate alike:

There’s no perfect process for hiring great programmers, but there are plenty of terrible ways to screw it up. We’ve rejected the industry stables of grilling candidates in front of a whiteboard or needling them with brain teasers since the start at Basecamp. But you’re not getting around showing real code when applying for a job here.

So we whittle the group of candidates down aggressively first. This means judging their cover letter and, to a far lesser extent, their resume. For the opening we had on the Research & Fidelity team, we gave 40 people the take-home test, and even that proved to be too many. For the opening we had on the Security, Infrastructure & Performance team, we only gave 13 people the take-home test. That felt better. In the future, we’ll target fewer than 20 for sure.

Then there’s the assessment itself. I’ve heard many fair complaints that companies are asking candidates to complete massive projects that may take 20-30-40 hours of work, which is all unpaid, and which might be difficult for candidates to fit in with their existing job and life. Yeah, don’t do that. Asking someone for forty hours of work product, without pay, which might well go nowhere, is not what we do or advocate at Basecamp.

Brent Simmons on Coding Challenges

Brent Simmons, who has been building and shipping exceptional software for decades, has been writing about his recent reentry into the job market and practicing for coding skill tests during interviews. I’ve followed Brent’s work for as long as I can remember and his blog is one of my favorites. A few days ago, he described the pain of studying for code interviews:

I don’t have a CS degree, but I have decades of experience — I know what a linked list is, for instance, and could write one by hand easily if called to. In a few different languages, even. I could talk about the trade-offs between a linked list and a contiguous array. Etc. I’ve got all that.

My style of coding is to break problems into steps and make it super-obvious to other people — and future-me — what the code is doing. I like to write code so clear that comments aren’t needed.

He then describes how he approaches problems normally during the course of his work and how that is very different from what these technical interviews are looking for. When I wrote last week about technical recruiting I was thinking about this same problem. This style of technical interview is set up to quiz people on very low-level puzzles and graded on a scale designed for a computer science exam, rather than actual day-to-day aptitude for real job.

Brent followed up yesterday with another post:

There’s a whole small industry to help people prepare for these tests — so it’s not like you’re getting the authentic programmer showing up. You’re getting the person who’s prepared for one of these.

Because of that, an interviewer is even less likely to learn how a candidate approaches solving a problem. Instead, they’ll learn how well the candidate prepared to make a good impression — which tells you nothing about how they’d actually solve a problem.

Daniel Jalkut, on Twitter, reacting to Brent’s posts:

No matter how experienced we are, the prospect of code-related interview questions provoke fear in us. I don’t know if any other industry is like this, where inrterviews are designed as “gotcha” traps, designed to make fools out of geniuses.

I understand the need to see how someone codes before hiring them to join your company. But it shouldn’t be tricky. And it should focus on the actual job itself, which for most of software development, is just solving hard problems. I’d much rather hear about how someone solved a problem than if they know a specific sort algorithm.

Why we can’t build

Very nice response to Marc Andreesson’s post last week by Ezra Klein at Vox:

So let me end with my answer to Andreessen’s question: What should we build? We should build institutions biased toward action and ambition, rather than inaction and incrementalism.

But that means doing the difficult work of reforming existing institutions that aren’t going anywhere. You can’t sidestep the existence of the government, as too many in Silicon Valley want to do. You have to engage with it. You have to muster the political power to rebuild parts of it. And then you need to use the government to make markets competitive again.

But legislators on both sides prefer the status quo because it gives them power when they’re in the minority, and because they’re more afraid of what their opponents might do than committed to what they’ve promised to do. The allure of what they could build isn’t as powerful as the fear of what the other side may build.

The Magic Keyboard

Morning coffee with the new iPad Magic Keyboard

My new iPad Magic Keyboard arrived yesterday. I’ve been waiting for this thing patiently since it was announced last month. Along with the Airpods, this is one of the Apple products I’ve been most excited about in the past few years.

Some initial quick thoughts follow…

It feels really nice, so much better than the squishy keys of the old keyboard cover. It feels like I’m typing on a real computer now, instead of some bolted-on after thought accessory.

I work in the mornings before the kids wake up often, usually on the iPad in the kitchen. It’s so nice to have the keys lit up so I can actually type in the dark and see what’s going on. The backlit keyboard is a wonderful addition.

The viewing angle is slightly more adjustable than the keyboard cover, but not by very much for my practical use. I guess it’s nice to be able to fold it into itself a bit more, but I’m not sure I’ll ever use that, especially when just using this as a laptop replacement and typing on a table top. I actually wish that it opened a bit more for typing while standing up at a counter-height surface, but that’s a minor quibble.

These keys sure do feel nice! The mechanism under the key is crisp and responds very well.

It’s going to take a bit to get used to the iPad screen hanging out right above the number keys. It seems I lift my fingers up when typing more than I would have predicted so I’m hitting the bottom of the iPad screen more than I’d care to. I think with some practice this will go away.

Initially when I attached this keyboard to my 2018 iPad, it did nothing. Oh shoot, did I get a dud? I was so excited to play with this thing. No, it works fine. It turns out that I needed to run a software update on my iPad. After a slow update and reboot, I’m in business. Halfway through the reboot the keyboard just lit up… ahh.

I still don’t understand why the need for a hardware ‘globe’ button that enables the emoji keyboard. The iPad keyboard cover I was using prior has it as well. Why? It’s in the same place as the Fn key on a standard Mac laptop, so I instinctively hit it when I’m doing text manipulation. (I never realized how often I use Fn-Delete to remove characters in front of the cursor. It turns out that Control-D does the same thing, so I need to switch my muscle memory to that instead.) Lucky for me, I can use the keyboard settings in iOS to disable the silly globe key so it has no effect when pushed. Waste of space, but I can handle that.

The trackpad… wow there’s a trackpad for iOS! This is so delightful. It’s so natural for me to reach for the trackpad now instead of having to lift up my fingers and drag the screen around when I’m typing. It sounds silly, but it makes for such a nicer experience.

It’s Time To Build

Marc Andreessen:

Every Western institution was unprepared for the coronavirus pandemic, despite many prior warnings. This monumental failure of institutional effectiveness will reverberate for the rest of the decade, but it’s not too early to ask why, and what we need to do about it.

Many of us would like to pin the cause on one political party or another, on one government or another. But the harsh reality is that it all failed — no Western country, or state, or city was prepared — and despite hard work and often extraordinary sacrifice by many people within these institutions. So the problem runs deeper than your favorite political opponent or your home nation.

Part of the problem is clearly foresight, a failure of imagination. But the other part of the problem is what we didn’t *do* in advance, and what we’re failing to do now. And that is a failure of action, and specifically our widespread inability to *build*. […]

Building isn’t easy, or we’d already be doing all this. We need to demand more of our political leaders, of our CEOs, our entrepreneurs, our investors. We need to demand more of our culture, of our society. And we need to demand more from one another. We’re all necessary, and we can all contribute, to building.

Every step of the way, to everyone around us, we should be asking the question, what are you building? What are you building directly, or helping other people to build, or teaching other people to build, or taking care of people who are building? If the work you’re doing isn’t either leading to something being built or taking care of people directly, we’ve failed you, and we need to get you into a position, an occupation, a career where you can contribute to building. There are always outstanding people in even the most broken systems — we need to get all the talent we can on the biggest problems we have, and on building the answers to those problems.

What will the sports fan’s experience look like after coronavirus?

Interesting analysis of the sports world, specifically the in-stadium experience, in a post Covid-19 world by Alex Speier in the Boston Globe:

To maintain 6 feet on all sides, you’d likely need multiple empty seats and multiple rows between fans — some of which could potentially be offset by having, say, a family of four from one household sitting together in a block. Crowd composition could be altered further by profiling. Might teams discourage those at greater risk of serious complications from COVID-19 — those over 60, or those with preexisting conditions — from going to games? Would teams restrict tickets to — or feature different seating plans for — those who could document they had developed antibodies to the coronavirus?

Decontamination of stands will have to become a staple of stadium operations. Hand sanitizer will become omnipresent in concourses. Cleaning staffs would have to be vigilant about the “high-touch” areas of facilities — including railings (both in stands and on escalators) and elevator buttons. Might there be a requirement for spectators to wear masks? If so, masks with team logos might replace caps or jerseys as the most frequently seen form of team apparel.

It’s a quintessential part of the stadium experience: A hot dog passed from vendor to fan to fan to fan, with cash flowing back in the other direction. In all likelihood, that familiar ritual will be gone. “They’ll have to have no stadium vendors,” said Zimbalist. “They’re not going to have people passing hot dogs down or passing anything down. That has to stop.”

via Peter King’s Football Morning in America

Thoughts on Recruiting

For the past few weeks, I’ve been helping out a friend with some technical recruiting. This is a bit of new territory for me and with that always comes new things to learn. I’ve done my fair share of hiring in the past, so it isn’t completely foreign but this situation is unique for me.

The process is exhausting and difficult but in the end you’re bringing a new person onto your team to help your company grow. So it’s worth it. You keep pushing through because that one next person can really help your company grow.

But I’ve never tried to hire someone for someone else’s team. It feels counterintuitive in a way. But I’m wrapping my head around it so far. I’m helping talented people find a great job and that’s wonderful. I’m also helping someone else build a team to do important work. I’ll only be involved from afar, but the end result is the same.

The Industry

The technical recruiting world is broken and awful. The vast majority of people that I’ve encountered doing this job are playing a strict numbers game. They blast out job postings, candidates, and poorly researched e-mail introductions by the thousands just hoping for a few suckers to respond.

From a candidate’s side it’s a beat down. I’ve long ago disabled all notifications from LinkedIn and I have a number of pattern matching filters on my e-mail addresses to keep this stuff from ever reaching my inbox. I’m not trying to be rude, but there is so much garbage out there that it’s hard to find a signal in that noise. Every few weeks I’ll go into LinkedIn and my message queue is filled with recruitment notes for “once in a lifetime” and “top tier” positions at great “brands”. If these positions were that unique, I wouldn’t get 20 of them a week.

From the company’s side, it’s also a beat down. Many of the companies are actually doing interesting work. They have a real problem on their hands and they have a business opportunity they could accomplish if they could just find a few good people to focus on it. Many (but certainly not all) of the hiring managers in these companies are not technical and feel unequipped to find the right people for the positions. To solve the problem there are usually both internal company recruiters and external staffing and recruiting firms. Both have their benefits and both approaches can be completely terrible.

Staffing firms have a less than desirable reputation in the tech world. For good reason too. The numbers game playing out each day is a complete turn off and gives the industry a bad name. It’s not usually that they don’t care, they just don’t know what to do. They are tasked with hiring for a very technical position that they don’t understand and don’t know how to qualify people for. It’s a beat down all around.

Getting Better

I’m not here to solve the world’s recruiting problems. I’m passionate about building software and companies around that software. Recruiting is certainly one piece of that puzzle, but it’s usually something I leave to others. In short, I’m not leaving my ‘day’ job to become a recruiter, but I can still help a little bit.

The biggest thing I think I’m contributing to this process is that I know these technical jobs. I’ve done the jobs myself, I’ve been in these roles. I’ve hired for them before in my own companies. I know the tech and I understand the problems the companies are trying to solve by hiring. I also know a thing or two about shipping software and actually accomplishing organizational goals. So I’m using what I know to identify people that I’d hire if I was the company.

The challenging part of finding who I’d hire is: I’m not hiring them! I am just one piece of the process and just one opinion in the room. Sometimes who I’d hire isn’t the right fit for a company, and that’s totally fine. It’s their company and I need to defer to them on what’s best. It’s hard to present someone I think is great and have them rejected, but that’s a part of the deal. I’m working on getting better at this.

The Interview Process

I’m learning about big company interview processes a bit too. The biggest company I’ve worked for was about 120,000 employees at its peak, and I’ve slowly moved my career into the opposite direction ever since. I prefer to work in a startup with less than 10 people. So it’s a bit different. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a big company, as much as it’s not for me.

At a bigger company, the interview process is completely different than what I’ve been exposed to most of my career. For the past decade or so I’ve almost exclusively been hiring for companies that I own or have built. This is a very different process than hiring for a company that’s been around for decades and is publicly traded, for example. I would obsess on every hire and worry about how they would affect the company’s vibe and culture. I cared more about their personality and past experience than how technical they were. I can teach programming, but I can’t teach someone be kind to their coworkers if they don’t think that’s worthwhile. With a bigger company, culture is still important, but it’s very different than a startup. Hard skills seem to matter more than the soft ones.

My interview style is to speak conversationally with the person and just try and get to know them. I want to know how they think. How do they solve problems? What problems have they solved before? What did they learn from those problems? Sure, we can get technical here. If they built a cool API I’ll most certainly ask how they built it. What did they build it with? How did it scale? How did you decide to use this piece of tech over this other one? There aren’t right or wrong answers here, for the most part. I’m imagining this person in the role I’m hiring for and trying to see how their past experiences and best practices align with mine and those of my team.

I’m not into tricks and riddles and code algorithm puzzles. Not one bit. I don’t care if you know some specific computer science term or how to best write some algorithm. Most good developers I know spend a lot of time Googling and figuring things out. I know I do. If I’m presented with a performance challenge, I’m surely not going to recall some abstract algorithm from college and apply it from memory. I’m going to search for a solution. I’m going to look at forums and read blogs about how others are solving the problem. I’ll chat it through with coworkers. Then I’ll devise a solution and implement it. Maybe I’ll do that whole process two or three times before the best solution presents itself.

So I’d probably be terrible in a coding quiz interview. I might be laughed out of the room if I had to whiteboard some computer science algorithm from memory. I don’t need to know that stuff, I just need to know that it’s a thing. In the “real world” I’d Google it and solve it within 10 minutes.

But these type of things are quite common in big company land. So I’m learning to adapt. If I find someone I like, it’s now part of my job to prepare them for these type of technical interviews. Once I find someone that I think can do they job, I need to also make sure they can pass the interview. These are very different things, but if the end goal is the same, it’s a worthwhile effort.

As with everything in this space, I’m not sure if I’m right or wrong. I don’t think there is a hard and fast ‘right or wrong’. I’m just doing what I know and what’s worked for me.

What’s Next

As I think I’ve articulated, recruiting is a big giant mess. It’s hard for everyone. There’s no perfectly correct way to do this and the only way to get better is to keep trying to get better.

I’m going to keep trying for now. It’s a small chunk of my free time, but it’s been an interesting ride so far.

Now back to building software.

Hiring at Automattic

Jerry Jones (no, not that one) writing about his interview and eventual hiring process at Automattic:

The entire hiring process is text based. Seriously.

Never once did I hear someone’s voice or do a video call. Until my first paycheck arrived, a part of me still believed it was all too good to be true, and it was just an elaborate prank.

They invited me to a slack channel, and I was free to ask questions and talk with the hiring team. They told me how they do what they call “async communication.” You can ask a question, and you may not get an answer for awhile, as the person may be in a totally different part of the world.

I found the idea of a Slack-only interview fascinating. I’m sure it can be difficult waiting for responses in the void sometimes, but this also seems like a great way to also respect the workload of those on the inside doing the interviews as well.

There’s some other interesting parts in the piece about coding tests and trial run too. It’s clear there has been some careful thought put into this process, and that’s nice to see.