Friday, 12 November 2021

Tech Job Titles

One of the most common questions I get on career panels, mentoring or coaching sessions and after talks is to explain what my job, my role actually is. There is no easy answer, because it requires an understanding of the complex dependencies of roles in "Tech" (for lack of a better word, information technology product) firms.

Information Systems, Computer Science or Design Thinking courses or books for career starters typically focus on explaining the Software Engineer (SWE) job, sometimes the Product Manager (PM) and partially process-specific rituals and roles (e.g. in Scrum the Product Owner). But rarely do they mention the difference between performing the SWE role in non-tech industry (for lack of a better word - firms or public entities that primarily exist due to non-tech “hardware” products even though they might claim to "digitalize" afraid of disruption), in consulting (firms that provide services, usually to the former, to "digitalize") and tech (firms that sell “software” products and services to gain an advantage with speeding up "digitalization"), and within tech between startups and established firms.

With recent hypergrowth, a lot has been published on "upwards"* career management and manager roles in Tech. But I haven’t seen a good resource on the continued blending of these archetypes and roles and responsibilities - with a list of observations and this article as background reading I'm trying to do so. Maybe later I’ll do a variation for non-tech industry companies and consulting firms.

tl;dr I've created a GitHub repo "awesome-tech-roles" modeled after the "Awesome Lists" with the goal of showing typical clusters of roles and references to good articles that illustrate the variety within the roles - for career starters in the tech industry. The links are examples, observations, not endorsements of my personal view. Given the bias towards SWE and PM roles I've tried to keep roughly the same number of references per role cluster and focus on established tech firms.

Sunday, 31 May 2020

Observability, Debt or the Bret-Victor-Ization of distributed systems

I've been thinking how the different way of conceptualizing cost (in the broader sense of investment) in Cloud changes the tech debt metaphor. It never was a good metaphor to start with and allowed too many excuses, but I like the idea of expressing a suboptimal, incomplete or leaky level of abstraction somehow, as a dialectical, critical tool. I like declarative systems because they allow comparison of state over time, but they do limit expressiveness of our mental models, and omissions, when writing down code. Debt, with its pseudo-quantifiable touch is such a mental model limit. No one wants to keep ADR's for each of these*. How to solve this?


It's exciting to see how the next step in polyglot programming is taking stacks apart and designating a layer to developer experience for humans based on “progressive disclosure of complexity”, and how we argument for this is feedback time or, in other words, Software Delivery Performance. What a16z recently called The Decade of Design (but combined with craft and lean), the best example probably being Stripe which shows that beautiful API's and documentation and a beautiful website (and beautiful books) might after all correlate, and maybe because they take empathy to their heart (no surprises here for anyone who has seen or used PayPal). 

When I first saw this at Google working with Dremel / F1 and all the Data Mesh tools around it, an ontological, rhizomatic approach to data - without oversight, yet with structure, as side effect of, essentially DDD (or set / category theory, referring to ontology below). And the same when seeing Borg and the Service Mesh around it. Both were built as products with a builder focus, with "a builder" meaning universally anyone who wants to build something, meaning to contribute to a shared idea. When we say everything-as-code we need to go beyond engineering components, we, and that means everyone and the maximum of diverse perspectives, need to look at the product and all of its users. Similar to medical doctors who moved away from seeing "man as machine", or architects seeing the city or the house as a machine, we are slowly moving away from seeing a software system as a machine, perfectly controllable. Technology is not neutral, and a constant process and struggle that goes far beyond engineering.

Saturday, 19 October 2019

Operating Manual for the Ship of Theseus

Over the last 5 or more years I've had kind of an abstinence from conferences and software architecture books. Industry focus was on Cloud, Serverless and ML, leaving system design stalling, with the occasional, rare exception (KNative, Learned Structures, ISA and Simon's ongoing quest for explainability come to mind).

Conference speakers still explain Agile, DevOps, ADR's, EDA and Resilience, while people still pile up tech debt and big balls of mud, just now using Serverless or Kubernetes. The 20 year anniversary edition of The Pragmatic Programmer, which I hold in my hands, says it is “just as relevant today as it was back then”. Given that I saw the limits of Agile, I became more interested in the product operations, SRE side of systems and how observability, explainability, human collaboration and supportability spins system evolution to converge towards simplicity (or not) and builds a community-centric narrative that hopefully enables, in the long term, better socio-technological structures.

Over the last year or so, though, I found myself surprised by an influx of interesting material, in particular in regards to bias, culture, empathy, failure, discovery, resilience (SRE) and risk awareness in orchestration complexity of socio-technical systems.

A welcome change from a long overdue self correction of VC-fueled get-rich-quick startups culture. Concrete examples are my favourite book Accelerate, which inspired a great Böckeler / Fowler talk at Craft Conf and a very entertaining self reflection by Tilkov, and other nice perspectives like George Fairbanks Continuous Design Talk and Nygard thinking about state, Videla's, Wichary's, Steenson's and Ullman's thoughts about weird languages, Design It! (and the 2nd edition of Release It!), but also some really great distributed systems research by Howard and Kleppmann challenging our perspective on concurrency, and new, humble ways to create frameworks.

Empathy for Entropy

It's not simply that Microservices have made microblogging-driven startups suddenly realize the value of BDUF. It rather is the agile move away from Enforcement towards Observation with better tools, empathetic user-centric techniques and ways of thinking about consistency and concurrency. It reminds me of my W-Jax talk 7 years ago, when I first read about Spanner and its formalization of time. When Kleppmann argues for OLEP and Local First, that the queue is the database, it reminds me how Spanner argues that the database is the queue. Both arrive at the same insight: That information and time are entangled, and that entropy or consistency are derived from that. As Howard beautifully analyzed, for our systems it’s easy to replace the concept of time with state transitions (Lamport clocks). This allows us to step away from seeing the system as uncontrollable, and us reactive, to focus on the real, human cause for entropy.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

An annotated Philosophy of Software Design

We build our computer (systems) the way we build our cities:
over time, without a plan, on top of ruins
Ellen Ullman

After much hype I've read John Ousterhout's A Philosophy of Software Design which he uses to teach his course at Stanford and presents as a personal experience "opinion piece". Its basic goal seems to be to develop an awareness and intuition about how and when to manage complexity emerging out of proper problem decomposition in Software Design.

Undergraduate students thus seem to be the main audience, which explains why, despite the title, architecture or non-abstract large system design, distributed systems, developer workflow and design thinking are not covered much, and why a prosaic, almost aphorismic writing style were chosen. My assumption is this is  also why barely any references or annotations are given. It's supposed to be the beginning of an iterative journey, similar to language learning. I figured it might help to share mine, though, to go the next step in that journey (Github would feel too official, so blog):

Preface, Iterative process to this book. Exercises in Programming Style 2014Beautiful Code, 2008Software Craftsmanship 2001 (Craftsperson) and before that The Pragmatic Programmer 1999 and even Programming Pearls 1986 developed iterative, small-wisdom, later developed into Kata's, based learning of software design.

Saturday, 28 April 2018


After a recent conference I had some good questions and discussions about the current state of services meshes (Istio in this case), thus decided to note down what I find interesting about them.

I'm a fan of infrastructure-level (polyglot) service meshes. The premise excites me as much as Android ten years ago. Working over those years with SOA, EDA, REST Hypermedia API's, API Management, Microservices and language-bound Services Meshes (Netflix / Pivotal, Lightbend's Reactive), I tend to be careful about the resolution of their promises though.

This post is about 3 lesser known effects of service meshes. My last post already covered complexity, emergence and observability in a more general way so I'll limit those topics.


Horizontal scalability in the multi-core age is one of the main arguments behind basically all modern stateless software architectures. Consistency in distributed systems, immutability and state-handling are often mentioned common properties, typically used to justify functional programming paradigms. To me it seems though, their most important common property is a complex, emergent network graph structure. Layers and tiers cannot represent contemporary systems anymore. Those systems have a complex adaptive graph structure in space (infrastructure, users, component interactions) and time (versioning / one codebaserainbow releases, experiments, DevOps, event order, routing).

We could observe a lot of frameworks in the last years quietly move towards declarative graph alterations. The first I remember were Android Intents and Puppet. But more recently it was ReactTensorflowBeamKubernetesEve (RIP) not to forget the re-emergence of SQL combined with flexible consistency models and stream processing.

All of those come with a robust, well-defined domain vocabulary and set of patterns that allows to precisely define desired behaviour. A graph encourages modularization and reuse, it allows for division of labor: Better specialization while making the overall concept better understandable. This, in turn, allows a wider, more diverse group of people to reason and converse about the behaviour of the system. The shared language and culture may hopefully enable them to learn alongside the system, what Nora Bateson calls "symmathesy". It requires all actors in the system to define goals and dependencies, versioned together in one codebase across layers and components, documentation, test (spec), customer support feedback and architectural decisions. That's why all good (micro) service-architecture principles contain continuous delivery and lean.

The biggest difference between those graph-based declarative approaches and Model-Driven concepts (MDD/MDA) is that they are bottom-up, and designed to support evolution*. Instead of requiring a canonical model, tribal ("bounded") domain language or strict interface contracts externally, it is very easy to implement domain-event messaging on the infrastructure level, because the infrastructure itself has meaning, allowing for independently composed distributed systems - in other words choreographed rather than orchestrated.

The declarative, domain-event-driven approach shares some advantage of MDA though: The vocabulary, patterns, and visible graph of dependencies. It makes it a lot easier to follow, though, and a lot harder to ignore. Once the implications of changes to the graphs are commonly understood, it's a lot easier to reason about the graph (see, for instance, the original Flume paper). On the low level that service meshes target, the infrastructure level, this quality makes it a lot easier to reason and iteratively learn the entire system (including the mesh itself and the DevOps process around), and to version, document, track and test the system.