308: That’s Picante

Episode 308 · September 14th, 2021 · 48 mins 5 secs

About this Episode

You know what really grinds Chris' gears? (Spoiler Alert: It's Single-Page Applications.)

Steph needs some consulting help. So much to do, so little time.


CHRIS: I have restarted my recording, and we are now recording. And we are off on the golden roads. Isn't software fun?

STEPH: Podcast battle. Here we go!

Hello and welcome to another episode of The Bike Shed, a weekly podcast from your friends at thoughtbot about developing great software. I'm Steph Viccari.

CHRIS: And I'm Chris Toomey.

STEPH: And together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way. Hey, Chris, happy Friday. How's your week been?

CHRIS: Happy Friday to you as well. My week's been good with the exception of right before we started this recording, I had one of those experiences. You know the thing where software is bad and software is just terrible overall? I had one of those. And very briefly to describe it, I started recording, but I could hear some feedback in my headphones. So I was like, oh no, is that feedback going to show up on the final recording? Which I really hope it doesn't. Spoiler alert - listener, if I sound off, sorry about that. But so I stopped recording and then I went to go listen to the file, and I have our audio software configured to record directly to the desktop. And it does that normally quite well. But for some reason, the file wasn't there. But I remember this recently because I ran into it another time.

For some reason, this is Finder failing me. So the thing that shows me the files in a graphical format, at least on my operating system. Although I think it also messes up in the terminal maybe. That feels like it shouldn't be true, but maybe it is. Anyway, I had to kill all Finder from the terminal to aggressively restart that process. And then suddenly, Finder was like, oh yeah, there's totally files there, absolutely. They were there the whole time. Why do you even ask?

And I know that state management is a hard problem, I am aware. I have felt this pain. I have been the person who has introduced some bugs related to it, but that's not where I want to experience it. Finder is one of those applications that I want to just implicitly trust, never question whether or not it's just sneakily telling me that there are files that are not there or vice versa. So anyway, software.

STEPH: I'm worried for your OS. I feel like there's a theme lately [chuckles] in the struggles of your computer.

CHRIS: On a related note, I had to turn off transparency in my terminal because it was making my computer get very hot. [chuckles]

STEPH: Oh no, you're not a hacker any more.

CHRIS: I'm not. [chuckles] I just have a weird screen that's just dark. And jellybeans is my color scheme, so there's that going on. That's in Vim specifically. Pure is my prompt. That's a lovely little prompt. But lots of Day-Glo colors on just a black background, not the cool hacker transparency. I have lost some street cred.

STEPH: What is your prompt? What did you say it is?

CHRIS: Pure.

STEPH: Pure, I don't know that one.

CHRIS: It is by Sindre Sorhus; I think is his name. That's his Twitter handle, GitHub name. He is a prolific open-source creator in the Node world, particularly. But he created this...I think it's a Bash and a Zsh prompt. It might be for others as well. It's got a bunch of features. It's pretty fast. It's minimal. It got me to stop messing around with my prompt, which was mostly what I was going for. And it has a nice benefit that occasionally now I'll be pairing with someone, and I'll be like, "Your prompt looks like my prompt. Everything is familiar. This is great."

STEPH: Well, if you get back in the waters of messing around with your prompts again, I'm using Starship. And I hadn't heard of Pure before, but I really like Starship. That's been my new favorite.



CHRIS: I mean, on the one hand…

STEPH: You're welcome. [laughs]

CHRIS: On the one hand, thank you. On the other hand, again, let me lead in with the goal was to stop messing around with my prompt. So you're like, oh, cool. Here's another prompt for you, though. [chuckles]

STEPH: [laughs] But my goal is to nerd snipe you into trying more things because it's fun.

CHRIS: I don't know if you know this, but I am impervious to nerd sniping.

STEPH: [laughs]

CHRIS: So try as you might, I shall remain steady in my course of action.

STEPH: Are we playing two truths and a lie? Is that what we're doing today? [laughs]

CHRIS: Nah, just one lie. It's easier. Everybody wins one lie.

STEPH: [laughs]

CHRIS: But anyway, in other news, we're going to do a segment called this really grinds my gears. That's today's segment, which is much like when I do a good idea, terrible idea. But this is one that I'm sure I've talked about before. But there's been some stuff that I saw moving around on the internet as one does, and it got these ideas back into my head. And it's around the phrase single-page application. I am not a fan of that phrase or SPA as the initialism. Thank you, Edward Loveall, for teaching me the difference between an initialism and an acronym. I really hope I'm getting it right, by the way, [laughs] SPA as people call them these days.

I feel weird because of how much I care about this thing, how much I care about this idea, and how much whenever I hear this acronym, I get a little bit unhappy. And so there's a part of it that's I really do think our words shape our thinking. And I think single-page application has some deeply problematic ideas. Most notably, I think one of the most important things about building web applications is the URL. And those are different pages, at least in my head. I don't know of a different way to think about this.

But if you are not emphasizing the URL and the fact that the URL is a way to address different pages or resources within your application, then you are throwing away one of the greatest advancements that humankind has made, in my mind. I care a lot about URLs; it turns out. And it's not inherent to an SPA that you will not be thinking about URLs. But again, in that idea that our words shape our thinking, by calling it an SPA, by leaning into that idea, I think you are starting down a path that leads to bad outcomes. I'm going to pause there because I'm getting kind of ranty. I got more to say on the topic. But what do you think?

STEPH: Yeah, these are hot takes. I'm into it. I'm pretty sure that I know why URLs are so important to you and more of your feelings around why they're important. But would you dive in a bit deeper as to why you really cherish URLs, and why they're so important, and why they're one of the greatest advancements of humanity?

CHRIS: [laughs] It sounds lofty when you say it back to me, but yeah. It's interesting that as you put into a question, it is a little bit hard to name. So there are certain aspects that are somewhat obvious. I love the idea that I can bookmark or share a given resource or representation of a resource very simply. Like the URL, it's this known thing. We can put hyperlinks in a document. It's this shared way to communicate, frankly, very complex things.

And when I think of a URL, it's not just the domain and the path, but it's also any query parameters. So if you imagine faceted search on a website, you can be like, oh, filter down to these and only ones that are more than $10, and only ones that have a future start date and all those kinds of nuance. If you serialize that into the URL as part of the query param, then that even more nuanced view of this resource is shareable is bookmarkable is revisitable.

I end up making Alfred Workflows that take advantage of the fact that, like, oh, I can look at this URL scheme, and I can see where different parts are interpolated. And so I can navigate directly to any given thing so fast. And that's deeply valuable, and it just falls naturally out of the idea that we have URLs. And so to not deeply embrace that, to not really wrap your arms around it and give that idea a big hug feels weird to me.

STEPH: Yeah, I agree. I remember we've had this conversation in the past, and it really frustrates me when I can't share specific resources with folks because I don't know how to link to it. So then I can send you a link to the application itself to the top URL. But then I have to tell you how to find the information that I thought was really helpful. And that feels like a step backward.

CHRIS: Yeah. That ability to say, "Follow this link, and then it will be obvious," versus "Go to this page, click on this thing, click on the dropdown, click on this other thing." Like, that's just a fundamentally different experience. So one of the things that I saw that got me thinking about this was I saw folks referring to single-page applications but then contrasting them with MPAs, which are multiple-page applications.

STEPH: So the normal application? [laughs]

CHRIS: And I was like, whoa, whoa, everybody. You mean like a website or a web app? As much as I was angry at the first initialism, this second one's really getting me going. But it really does speak to what are we doing? What are we trying to build? And as with anything, you could treat this as a binary as just like there are two options. There are either websites which, yeah, those have got a bunch of URLs, and that's all the stuff. And then there are web apps, and they're different. And it's a bundle of JavaScript that comes down, boots up on the client, and then it's an app thing. And who cares about URLs? I think very few people would actually fall in that camp.

So I don't really believe that there is a dichotomy here. I think, as always, it's a continuum; it’s a spectrum. But leaning into the nomenclature of single-page application, I think pushes you more towards that latter end of the spectrum. I think there are other things that fall out of it. Like, I believe deeply in having the server know more, have more of the logic, own more of the logic, own more authorization and routing, and all of those things because really great stuff falls out of that. And that one has more of a trade-off, I'd say.

But I won't name any names, but there is a multiple billion-dollar company whose website I had to interact with recently. And you land on their page on their marketing site. And then, if you click log in, it navigates you to the application, so a separate domain or a separate subdomain, the application subdomain, and the login page there. And the login page renders, and then I go to fill in my username and password. Like, my mouse makes it all the way to click on the little box or whatever I'm doing if I'm using keyboard things. But I have enough time to actually start to interact with this page.

And then suddenly, it rips away, and it actually just renders the authenticated application because it turns out I was already logged in. But behind the scenes, they're doing some JWT dance around that they're checking; oh no, no, you're already logged in, so never mind. We don't need to show you the login page, but I was already on the login page.

And my feeling is this sort of brittle UI; this sort of inconsistency erodes my trust in that application, particularly when I'm on the login page. That is a page that matters. I don't believe that they're doing anything fundamentally insecure. But I do have the question in my head now. I'm like, wait, what's going on there, everybody? Is it fine? Was that okay? Or if you see something that you shouldn't see and then suddenly it's ripped away from you, if you see half of a layout that's rendered on a page and then suddenly you see, no, no, no, you actually don't have access to that page, that experience erodes my trust.

And so, I would rather wait for the server to fully resolve, determine what's going to happen, and then we get a response that is holistically consistent. You either have access, or you don't, that sort of thing. Give me a loading indicator; give me those sorts of things. I'm fine with that. But don't render half of a layout and then redirect me back away.

STEPH: I feel like that's one of the problems with knowing too much because most people are not going to pick up on a lot of the things that you're noticing and caring deeply about where they would just see like, oh, I was logged in and be like, huh, okay, that was a little weird, but I'm in and just continue on. Versus other folks who work very closely to this who may recognize and say, "That was weird." And the fact that you asked me to log in, but then I was already logged in, did you actually log me in correctly? What's happening? And then it makes you nervous.

CHRIS: Maybe. Probably. But I wonder…the way you just said that sounds like another dichotomy. And I would say it's probably more of a continuum of an average not terribly tech-savvy user would still have a feeling of huh, that was weird. And that's enough. That's a little tickle in the back of your brain. It's like, huh, that was weird.

And if that happens enough times or if you've seen someone who uses an application and uses it consistently, if that application is reasonably fast and somewhat intuitive and consistent, then they can move through it very quickly and very confidently. But if you have an app that half loads and then swaps you to another page and other things like that, it's very hard to move confidently through an application like that. I do think you're right in saying that I am over-indexed on this, and I probably care more than the average person, but I do care a lot.

I do think one of the reasons that I think this happens is mobile applications came along, and they showed us a different experience that can happen and also desktop apps for some amount of time this was true. But I think iOS apps, in particular really great ones, have super high fidelity interactions. And so you're like, you're looking at a list view, and then you click on the cell for that list view. And there's this animated transition where the title floats up to the top and grows just a little bit. And the icon that was in the corner moves up to the corner, and it gets a little bigger. And it's this animated transition to the detailed view for that item. And then if you go back, it sort of deanimates back down.

And that very consistent experience is kind of lovely when you get it right, but it's really, really hard. And people, I think, have tried to bring that to the web, but it's been such a struggle. And it necessitates client-side routing and some other things, or it's probably easiest to do if you have those sorts of technologies at play, but it's been a struggle. I can't think of an application that I think really pulls that off. And I think the trade-offs have been very costly.

On the one positive note, there was a tweet that I saw by Sarah Drasner that was talking about smooth and simple page transitions with the shared element transition API. So this is a new API that I think is hoping to bring some of this functionality to the web platform natively so that web applications can provide that higher fidelity experience. Exactly how it'll work whether or not it requires embracing more of the single-page application, client-side routing, et cetera, I'm not sure on that. But it is a glimmer of hope because I think this is one of the things that drives folks in this direction. And if we have a better answer to it, then maybe we can start to rethink the conversation.

STEPH: So I think you just said shared element transitions. I don't know what that is. Can you talk more about that?

CHRIS: I can try, or I can make a guess. So my understanding is that would be that sort of experience where you have a version of a certain piece of content on the page. And then, as you transition to a new page, that piece of content is still represented on the new page, but perhaps the font size is larger, or it's expanded, or the box around it has grown or something like that. And so on mobile, you'll often see that animate change. On the web, you'll often see the one page is just completely replaced with the other. And so it's a way to have continuity between, say, a detailed view, and then when you click on an item in it, that item sort of grows to become the new page. And now you're on the detail page from the list page prior.

There's actually a functionality in Svelte natively for this, which is really fancy; it's called crossfade. And so it allows you to say, "This item in the component hierarchy in the first state of the application is the same as this item in the second state of the application." And then, Svelte will take care of transitioning any of the properties that are necessary between those two.

So if you have a small circle that is green, and then in the next state of the application, it's a blue rectangle, it will interpolate between those two colors. It will interpolate the shape and grow and expand it. It will float it to its new location. There is a really great version of it in the Svelte tutorial showing a to-do list. And so it's got a list on the left, which is undone things, and a list on the right that is done things. And when you click on something to complete it, it will animate it, sort of fly across to the other list. And if you click on it to uncomplete, it will animate it and fly back.

And what's great is within Svelte because they have this crossfade as a native idea; all you need to say is like, "It was on this list, now it's on this list." And as long as it's identifiable, Svelte handles that crossfade and all the animations. So it's that kind of high-fidelity experience that I think we want. And that leads us to somewhat more complex applications, and I totally get that. I want those experiences as well. But I want to ask some questions, and I want to do away with the phrasing single-page application entirely. I don't want to say that anymore. I want to say URLs are one honking good idea. Let's have more of those.

And also, just to name it, Inertia is a framework that allows me to build using some of the newer technologies but not have to give up on URLs, give up on server-side logic as the primary thing. So I will continue to shout my deep affection for Inertia in this moment once again.

STEPH: Cool. Thanks. That was really helpful. That does sound really neat. So in the ideal world, we have URLs. We also have high fidelity and cool interactions and transitions on our pages. We don't have to give it a fancy name like single-page application or then multi-page application. I do wonder, with our grumpiness or our complaint about the URLs, is that fair to call it grumpy?

CHRIS: It's fair to call it grumpy, although you don’t need to loop yourself in with me. I'm the grump today.

STEPH: [laughs]

CHRIS: You're welcome to come along for the ride if you'd like. And I'm trying to find a positive way to talk about it. But yeah, it's my grumpytude.

STEPH: Well, I do feel similarly where I really value URLs, and I value the ability to bookmark and share, like you said earlier. And I do wonder if there is a way to still have that even if we don't have the URL. So one of the things that I do is I'll inspect the source code. And if I can find an ID that's for a particular header or section on the page, then I will link someone to a section of that page by then adding the ID into the URL, and that works. It's not always great because then I have to rely on that being there. But it's a fix, it's a workaround.

So I wonder if we could still have something like that, that as people are building content that can't be bookmarked or the URL doesn't change explicitly, or reference that content, to add more thoughtful bookmark links, essentially, or add an ID and then add a user-facing link that says, "Hey, if you want to link someone to this content, here you go." And under the hood, it's just an ID. But most people aren't going to know how to do that, so then you're helping people be able to reference content because we're used to URLs, so just thinking outside the box. I wonder if there are ways that we can still bookmark this content, share it with people. But it's okay if the URL isn't the only way that we can bookmark or reference that content.

CHRIS: It's interesting that you bring that up, so the anchor being the thing after the hash symbol in the URL. I actually use that a ton as well. I think I built a Chrome extension a while back to try what you're saying of I'll inspect the DOM. I did that enough times that I was like, what if the DOM were to just tell me if there were an ID here and I could click on a thing? Some people's blogs...I think the thoughtbot blog has this at this point. All headers are clickable. So they are hyperlinks that append that anchor to the URL.

So I wouldn't want to take that and use that functionality as our way to get back to URLs that are addressing resources because that's a way to then navigate even further, which I absolutely love, to a portion of the page. So thinking of Wikipedia, you're on an article, but it's a nice, long article. So you go down to the section, which is a third of the way down the page. And it's, again, a very big page, so you can link directly to that. And when someone opens that in their browser, the browsers know how to do this because it's part of the web platform, and it's wonderful.

So we've got domains, we've got paths, we've got anchors, we've got query params. I want to use them all. I want to embrace them. I want that to be top of mind. I want to really think about it and care about that as part of the interface to the application, even though most users like you said, are not thinking about the shape of a URL. But that addressability of content is a thing that even if people aren't thinking of it as a primary concern, I think they know it when they...it's one of those like, yeah, no, that app's great because I can bookmark anything, and I can get to anything, and I can share stuff with people.

And I do like the idea of making the ID-driven anchor deep links into a page more accessible to people because you and I would go into the DOM and slice it out. Your average web user may not be doing that, or that's much impossible to do on mobile, so yes, but only more so in my mind. [laughs] I don't want to take anchors and make them the way we do this. I want to just have all the URL stuff, please.

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STEPH: I have a confession from earlier when you were talking about the examples for those transitions. And you were describing where you take an action, and then the page does a certain motion to let you know that new content is coming onto the page and the old content is fading away. And I was like, oh, like a page reload? We're just reimplementing a page reload? [laughs] That's what we have?

CHRIS: You have a fancy, though.

STEPH: Fancy, okay. [laughs] But that felt a little sassy. And then you provided the other really great example with the to-do list. So what are some good examples of a SPA? Do you have any in mind? I think there are some use cases where...so Google Maps, that's the one that comes to mind for me where URLs feel less important. Are there other applications that fit that mold in your mind?

CHRIS: Well, so again, it's sort of getting at the nomenclature, and how much does the acronym actually inform what we're thinking about? But taking Google Maps as an example, or Trello is a pretty canonical one in my mind, most people say those are single-page applications. And they are probably in terms of what the tech actually is, but there are other pages in those apps. There's a settings page, and there's a search page, and there's this and that. And there's like the board list in Trello.

And so when we think about Trello, there is the board view where you're seeing the lists, and you can move cards, and you can drag and drop and do all the fancy stuff. That is a very rich client-side application that happens to be one page of the Trello web app and that one being higher fidelity, that one being more stateful. Stateful is probably the thing that I would care about more than anything. And so for that page, I would be fine with the portion of the JavaScript that comes down to the client being a larger payload, being more complex, and probably having some client-side state management for that. But fundamentally, I would not want to implement those as a true client-side application, as a true SPA. And I think client-side routing is really the definition point for me on this.

So with Trello, I would probably build that as an Inertia-type application. But that one page, the board page, I'd be like, yeah, sorry, this is not going to be the normal Inertia thing. I'm going to have to be hitting JSON endpoints that are specifically built for this page. I'm going to have a Redux store that's local. I'm going to lean into all of that complex state management and do that within the client-side app but not use client-side routing for actual page-level transitions, the same being true for Google Maps. The page where you're looking at the map, and you can do all sorts of stuff, that's a big application. But it is one page within the broader website, if you will. And so, I still wouldn't want client-side routing if I can avoid it because I think that is where I run into the most problems.

And that thing I was talking about where I was on the login page for a second, and then I wasn't; I do not like that thing. So if I can avoid that thing, which I have now found a way to avoid it, and I don't feel like I'm trading off on that, I feel like it's just a better experience but still reserving the right to this part of the application is so complex. This is our Wiziwig drag and drop graphical editor thing, cool. That's going to have Redux. That's going to have client-side state management, all that stuff. But at no point does single-page application feel like the right way to describe the thing that we're building because I still want to think about it as holistically part of the full web app. Like the Trello board view is part of the Trello web app. And I want it all to feel the same and move around the same.

STEPH: Yeah, that makes sense. And it's funny, as you were mentioning this, I pulled up Google Maps because I definitely only interact with that heavy JavaScript portion, same for Trello. And I wasn't even thinking about the fact that there are settings. By the way, Google Maps does a lot. I don't use hardly any of this. But you make a great point. There's a lot here that still doesn't need such heavy JavaScript interaction and doesn't really fit that mold of where it needs to be a single-page app or even needs to have that amount of interactivity. And frankly, you may want URLs to be able to go specifically to these pages.

CHRIS: That actually is an interesting, perhaps counterpoint to what I'm saying. So if you do have that complex part of one of your applications and you still want URL addressability, maybe you need client-side routing, and so that becomes a really difficult thing to answer in my mind. And I don't necessarily have a great answer for that. I'm also preemptively preparing myself for anyone on the internet that's listening to this and loves the idea of single-page applications and feels like I'm just building a straw man here, and none of what I'm saying is actually real and whatnot.

And although I try to...I think we generally try and stay in the positive space of like what's good on the internet. This is a rare case where I'm like, these are things that are not great. And so I think in this particular case, leaning into things that I don't like is the way to properly capture this. And giant JavaScript bundles where the entirety of the application logic comes down in 15-megabyte download, even if you're on 3G on a train; I don't like that.

I don't like if we have flashes of a layout that they can get ripped away b; it’secause it turns out we actually aren't authorized to view that page, that sort of thing. So there are certain experiences from an end client perspective that I really don't like, and that's mostly what I take issue with. Oh, also, I care deeply about URLs, and if you don't use the URL, then I'm going to be sad. Those are my things.

Hopefully, that list is perhaps a better summary of it than like...I don't want it to seem like I'm just coming after SPA as a phrase or a way of thinking because that's not as real of a conversation. But those particular things that I just highlighted don't feel great. And so I would rather build applications that don't have those going on. And so if there's a way to do that that still fits any other mold or is called whatever, but largely what I see called an SPA often has those sorts of edge cases. And I do not like those edge cases.

STEPH: Yeah, I like how you're breaking it down where it's less of this whole thing like I can't get on board with any of it. You are focusing on the things that you do have concerns with. So there can be just more interesting, productive conversations around those concerns versus someone feels like they have to defend their view of the world.

I have found that I think I'm a bit unique in this area where when people have a really differing opinion than mine, that gets me really excited because then I want to know. Because if I believe very strongly in something and I just think this is the way and then someone very strongly says like, "No, that's not," I'm like, "Oh yeah. Okay, we should talk because I'm interested in why you would have such a different opinion than mine." And so, I typically find those conversations really interesting. As long as everybody's coming forward to be productive and kind, then I really enjoy those conversations.

CHRIS: That is, I think, an interesting frame that you have there. But I think I'm similar, and hopefully, my reframing there puts it in the way that can be a productive conversation starter as opposed to a person griping on a podcast. But with that said, that's probably enough of me griping on a podcast. [chuckles] So what's up in your world, Steph?

STEPH: Oh, there are a couple of things going on. So I am in that pre-vacation chaotic zone where I'm just trying to get everything done. And I heard someone refer to it recently as going into a superman or superwoman mode where you're just trying to do all the things before you go, which is totally unreasonable. So that has been interesting. And the name of the game this week has been delegate, delegate, delegate, and it seems to be going fairly well. [chuckles] So I'm very excited for the downtime that I'm about to have.

And some other news, some personal news, Utah, my dog, turns one. I'm very excited. I'm pretty sure we'll have a dog birthday party and everything. It's going to be a thing. I'll share pictures on Twitter, I promise.

CHRIS: So he's basically out of the puppy phase then.

STEPH: Yeah, the definition for being a puppy seems to be if you're a year or younger, so he will not be an adult. Teenager? I don't know. [laughs]

CHRIS: What about according to your lived experience?

STEPH: He has calmed down a good bit.

CHRIS: Okay, that's good.

STEPH: He has gotten so much better. Back when we first got him, I swear I couldn't get 15 minutes of focus where he just needed all the attention. Or it was either constant playtime, or I had to put him in his kennel since we're using that. That was the only way I was really ever getting maker’s time. And now he will just lounge on the couch for like an hour or two at a time. It's glorious. And so he has definitely calmed down, and he is maturing, becoming such a big boy.

CHRIS: Well, that is wonderful. Astute listeners, if you go back to previous episodes over the past year, you can certainly find little bits of Utah sprinkled throughout, subtle sounds in the background.

STEPH: He is definitely an important part of the show. And in some other news, I have a question for you. I'm in need of some consulting help, and I would love to run something by you and get your thoughts. So specifically, the project that I'm working on, we are always in a state where there's too much to do. And even though we have a fairly large team, I want to say there's probably somewhere between 7 and 10 of us. And so, even though we have a fairly...for thoughtbot, that's a large team to have on one project. So even though there's a fair number of us, there's always too much to do. Everything always feels like it's urgent. I can't remember if I've told you this or not, but in fact, we had so many tickets marked as high priority that we had to introduce another status to then indicate they're really, really high, and that is called Picante. [chuckles]

CHRIS: Well, the first part of that is complicated; the actual word that you chose, though, fantastic.

STEPH: I think that was CTO Joe Ferris. I think he's the one that came up with Picante. So that's a thing that we have, and that really represents like, the app is down. So something major is happening. That's like a PagerDuty alert when we get to that status where people can't access a page or access the application. So there's always a lot to juggle, and it feels a lot like priority whiplash in terms that you are working on something that is important, but then you suddenly get dragged away to something else. And then you have to build context on it and get that done. And then you go back to the thing that you're working on.

And that's a really draining experience to constantly be in that mode where you're having to pivot from one type of work to the other. And so my question to you (And I'll be happy to fill in some details and answer questions.) is how do you calm things down? When you're in that state where everything feels so urgent and busy, and there's too much to do, how do you start to chip away at calming things down where then you feel like you're in a good state of making progress versus you feel like you're just always putting out fires or adding a band-aid to something? Yeah, that's where I’m at. What thoughts might you have, or what questions do you have?

CHRIS: Cool. I'm glad you brought an easy question that I can just very quickly answer, and we'll just run with that. It is frankly...what you're describing is a nuanced outcome of any number of possible inputs. And frankly, some of them may just be like; this is just the nature of the thing. Like, we could talk about adding more people to the project, but the mythical man-month and that idea that you can't just throw additional humans at the work and suddenly have that makes sense because now you have to coordinate between those humans. And there's that wonderful image of two people; there's one line of communication. Three people, suddenly there are a lot more lines of communication. Four people, wow. The exponential increase as you add new people to a network graph, that whole idea.

And so I think one of the first questions I would ask is, and again, this is probably not either/or. But if you would try and categorize it, is it just a question of there's just a ton of work to do and we're just not getting it done as quickly as we would want? Or is it that things are broken, that we're having to fix things, that there are constant tweaks and updates, that the system doesn't support the types of changes that we want, so any little thing that we want to do actually takes longer? Is it the system resisting, or is it just that there's too much to do? If you were to try and put it into one camp or the other.

STEPH: It is both, my friend. It is both of those camps. [chuckles]

CHRIS: Cool. That makes it way easier.

STEPH: Totally. [laughs] To add some more context to that, it is both where the system is resistant to change. So we are trying to make improvements as we go but then also being respectful of the fact if it is something that we need to move quickly on, it doesn't feel great where you never really get to go back and address the system in a way that feels like it's going to help you later. But then, frankly, it's one of those tools that we can use. So if we are in the state where there's too much to do, and the system is resisting us, we can continue to punt on that, and we can address things as we go.

But then, at some point, as we keep having work that has slowed down because we haven't addressed the underlying issues, then we can start to have that conversation around okay; we’ve done this twice now. This is the third time that this is going to take a lot longer than it should because we haven't really fixed this. Now we should talk about slowing things down so we can address this underlying issue first and then, from now on, pay the tax upfront. So from now on, it's going to be easier, but then we pay that tax now. So it is a helpful tool. It's something that we can essentially defer that tax to a later point. But then we just have to have those conversations later on when things are painful. Or it often leads to scope creep is another way that that creeps up.

So we take on a ticket that we think, okay, this is fairly straightforward; I don't think there's too much here. But then we're suddenly getting into the codebase, and we realize, oh, this is a lot more work. And suddenly, a ticket will become an epic, and you really have one ticket that's spiraled or grown into five or six tickets. And then suddenly, you have a person that's really leading like a mini project in terms of the scope of the work that they are doing.

So then that manifests in some interesting ways where then you have the person that feels a bit like a silo because they are the ones that are making all these big changes and working on this mini-project. And then there's the other one where there's a lot to do. There are a lot of customers, and there's a lot of customization for these customers. So then there are folks that are working really hard to keep the customers happy to give them what they need. And that's where we have too much to do. And we're prioritizing aggressively and trying to make sure that we're always working on the top priority. So like you said, it's super easy stuff.

CHRIS: Yeah. To say it sincerely and realistically, you're just playing the game on hard mode right now. I don't think there is any singular or even multiple easy answers to this. I think one question I would have particularly as you started to talk about that, there are multiple customers each with individualized needs, so that's one of many surface areas that I might look t say, "Can we sort of choke things off there?"

So I've often been in organizations where there is this constant cycle of the sales team is going out. They're demoing against an InVision mock. They're selling things that don't exist. They're making promises that are ungrounded and, frankly, technically infeasible or incredibly complicated, but it's part of the deal. They just sold it, and now we have to implement it as a team. I've been on teams where that was just a continuing theme. And so the engineering team was just like, "We can never catch up because the goalpost just keeps moving."

And so to whatever degree that might be true in this case, if there are ten different customers and each of them right now feels like they have an open line to make feature requests or other things like that, I would try to have the conversation of like, we've got to cut that off right now because we're struggling. We're not making the forward progress that we need to, and so we need to buy ourselves some time. And so that's one area that I would look at.

Another would be scope, anywhere that you can, go into an aggressive scope cutting mode. And so things like, well, we could build our own modal dialogue for this, but we could also use alert just like the JavaScript alert API. And what are all of the versions of that where we can say, "This is not going to be as nice, and as refined, and as fitting with the brand and feel and polish of the website. But ways that we can make an application that will be robust, that will work well on all of the devices that our users might be using but saves us a bunch of development time"? That's definitely something that I would look to.

What you described about refactoring is interesting. So I agree with we're not in a position where we can just gently refactor as we find any little mess. We have to be somewhat ruthless in our prioritization there. But like you said, when you get to that third time that a thing is working way harder, then take the time to do it. But really, like just every facet of the work, you just have to be a little better. If you're an individual developer and you're feeling stuck, raise your hand all the earlier because that being stuck, we don't have spare cycles right now. We need everybody to be working at maximum efficiency. And so if you've hit a wall, then raise your hand and grab somebody else, get a pair, rubber duck, whatever it is that will help you get unstuck. Because we're in a position where we need everybody moving as fast as they can.

But also to say all of those aren't free. Every one of those where you're just like, yeah, do it the best you can. Dial it up to 11 on every front. That's going to drain the team, and so we have to also be mindful of that. This can't be forever. And so maybe it is bringing some new people onto the team or trying to restructure things so that we can have smaller communication channels. So it's only four people working together on this portion of the application, and therefore their communication lines are a bit simpler. That's one way that we can maybe save a little bit. But yeah, none of these are free. And so, we also need to be mindful that we can't just try harder forever. [laughs] That's a way to burn out the team. But what you're describing is like the perfect storm of every facet of this is difficult, and there's no singular answer.

There's the theory of constraints (I think I'm saying that right.) where it's like, what's the part of our process that is introducing the most slowdowns? And so you go, and you tackle that. So if you imagine a website and the app is slow is the report that you're getting, and you're like, okay, what does that mean? And you instrument it, and you log some stuff out. And you're like, all right, turns out we have tons of N+1s. So frankly, everything else doesn't matter. I don't care if we've got a 3 megabyte JavaScript bundle right now; the 45 N+1s on the dashboard that's the thing that we need to tackle. So you start, and you focus on that.

And now you've removed that constraint. And suddenly, the three megabyte JavaScript bundle is the new thing that is the most complicated. So you're like, okay, cool, let's look into tree shaking or whatever it is, but you move from one focus to another. And so that's another thing that could come to play here is like, which part of this is introducing the most pain? Is it feature churn? Is it unrealistic sales expectations? Is it developers getting stuck? And find the first of those and tackle it. But yeah, this is hard.

STEPH: Yeah, it is. That's all really helpful, though. And then, I can share some of the things that we are experimenting with right now and then provide an update on how it's going. And one of the things that we're trying; I think it's similar to the theory of constraints. I'm not familiar with that, but based on the way you described it, I think they're related.

One of the things that we are trying is breaking the group into smaller teams because there are between 7 and 10 of us. And so, trying to jump from one issue to the next you may have to really level up on different portions of the application to be able to make an impact. And there are areas that we really need infrastructure improvements and then essentially paving the way for other people to be able to move more quickly. We do have to prioritize some of that work as well.

So if we break up into smaller teams, it addresses a couple of areas, or at least that's the goal is to address a couple of areas. One is we avoid having silos so that people aren't a bottleneck, or they're the only ones that are really running this mini-project and the only one that has context. Because then when that person realizes the scope has grown, bringing somebody on to help feels painful because then you're in an urgent state, but now you have to spend time leveling someone else up just so that they can help you, and that's tough.

So the goal is that by having smaller teams, we will reduce that from happening because at least everything that feels like a small project...and by feels like a small project, I mean if we have more than one ticket that's associated with the same theme, that's going to start hinting at maybe this is more than just one ticket itself, and it might actually belong to an epic. Or there's a theme here, and maybe we should have two people working on this. And breaking people into groups, then we can focus on some people are focused more on the day-to-day activity. Some people are focused on another important portion of the codebase as we have what may be extracted. I'm going to say this, but we're going to move on, maybe extracted into its own service. [laughs] I know that's a hot one for us, so I'm just going to say it.

CHRIS: I told you I can't be nerd sniped. This is fine. Let's continue on. [laughs]

STEPH: [laughs] And then a small group can also focus on some of those infrastructure improvements that I was alluding to. So smaller teams is something that we are trying.

We are also doing a really great job. I've been really happy and just proud of the team where folks are constantly reaching out to each other to say, "Hey, I'm done with my ticket. Who can I help?" So instead of immediately going to the backlog and grabbing the next thing. Because we recognize that because of this structure where some people are some silos, they have their own little mini backlog, which we are working to remove that to make sure everything is properly prioritized instead of getting assigned to one particular person. But we are reaching out to each other to say, "Hey, what can I do to help? What do you need to get done with your work before I go pick something else up?"

The other two things that come to mind is who's setting the deadlines? I think you touched on this one as well. It's just understanding why is it urgent? Does it need to be urgent? What is the deadline? Is this something that internally we are driving? Is this something that was communicated without talking to the rest of the team? Is this just a really demanding customer? Are they setting unrealistic expectations? But having more communication around what is the sense of urgency? What happens if we miss this deadline? What happens if we don't get to this for a week, a month? What does that look like?

And then also, my favorite are retros because then we can vote on what feels like the highest priority in terms of pain points or run these types of experiments like the smaller teams. So those are the current strategies that we have. And I'm very interested to see how they turn out because it is a tough way. Like you said, it's challenge mode, and it is going to burn people out. And it does make people feel fatigued when they have to jump from one priority to the next. So I'm very interested. It's a very interesting problem to me too. It just feels like something that I imagine a lot of teams may be facing. So I'm really excited if anybody else is facing a similar issue or has gone through a similar challenge mode; I’d love to hear how your team tackled it.

CHRIS: Yeah, I'm super interested to hear the outcome of those experiments. As a slightly pointed question there, is there any semi-formal version of tracking the experiments? And is it just retro to retro that you're using for feedback on that? I've often been on teams where we have retro. We come up with it, and we're like, oh, this is a pain point. All right, let's try this. And then two weeks later, we're like, oh, did anyone actually do that? And then we just forget. And it's one of those things that I've tried to come up with better ways to actually manage, make slightly more explicit the experiments, and then have a timeline, have an almost scientific process of what's the hypothesis? What's the procedure? What are the results? Write up an executive summary. How'd it go?

STEPH: We are currently using retro, but I like that idea of having something that's a bit more concrete. So we have action items. And typically, going through retro, I tend to revisit the action items first as a way to kick off retro. So then that highlights what did we do? What did we not do? What do we not want to do anymore? What needs to roll over to the current iteration? And I think that could be just a way that we chat about this. We try something new, and we see how it's going each week in retro. But I do like the idea of stating upfront this is what we're looking to achieve because I think that's not captured in the retro action item. We have the thing that we're doing, but we haven't captured this is what we hope to achieve by taking this experiment on.

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STEPH: As for the other thing that you mentioned, I do have an idea for that because a former client that I worked with where we had experiments or things that we wanted to do, we were using Trello. And so we would often take those action items…or it was even more of a theme. It wasn't something that could be one-and-done. It was more of a daily reminder of, hey; we are trying this new thing. And so, we want to remind you each day to embrace this experiment and this practice. And so we would turn it into a Trello ticket, and then we would just leave it at the top of the board. So then, each day, as we were walking the board, it was a nice reminder to be like, hey, this is an ongoing experiment. Don't forget to do this.

CHRIS: I do like the idea of bringing it into a stand-up potentially as like that's just a recurring point that we all have. So we can sort of revisit it, keep it top of mind, and discard it at some point if it's not useful. And if we're saying we're doing a thing, then let's do the thing and see how it goes. So yeah, very interested to hear the outcomes of the experiment and also the meta experiment framework that you're going to build here. Very interested to hear more about that.

And just to say it again, this sounds like your perfect storm is not quite right because it doesn't sound like there's a ton of organizational dysfunction here. It sounds like this is just like, nah, it's hard. The code's not in perfect shape, but no code is. And there's just a lot of work to be done. And there are priorities because frankly, sometimes in the world, there are priorities, and you're sort of at the intersection of that.

And I've been in plenty of teams where it was hard because of humans. In fact, that's often the reason of we're sort of making up problems, or we're poorly communicating or things like that. But it sounds like you're in the like, nope, this is just hard. And so, in a way, it sounds like you're thinking about it like, I don't know, it's kind of the challenge that I signed up for. Like, if we can win this, then there's going to be some good learnings that come out of that, and we're going to be all the better. And so, I wish you all the best of luck on that and would love to hear more about it in the future.

STEPH: Thank you. And yeah, it has been such an interesting project with so many different challenges. And as you've mentioned, that is one area that is going really well where the people are wonderful. Everybody is doing their best and working hard. So that is not one of the competing challenges. And it is one of those; it’s hard. There are a lot of external factors that are influencing the priority of our work. And then also, some external areas that we don't have control over that are forcing some of those deadlines where customers need something and not because they're being fussy, but they are themselves reacting to external deadlines that they don't have control over.

So it is one of those where the people are great, and the challenges are just real, and we're working through them together. But it's also hard. But it's helpful chatting through all the different challenges with you. So I appreciate all of your thoughts on the matter. And I'll report some updates once I have some more information.

On that note, shall we wrap up?

CHRIS: Let's wrap up.

STEPH: The show notes for this episode can be found at bikeshed.fm.

CHRIS: This show is produced and edited by Mandy Moore.

STEPH: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or a review in iTunes as it helps other people find the show.

CHRIS: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us at @_bikeshed on Twitter. And I'm @christoomey.

STEPH: And I'm @SViccari.

CHRIS: Or you can email us at hosts@bikeshed.fm.

STEPH: Thanks so much for listening to The Bike Shed, and we'll see you next week.

All: Byeeeeeeee!

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