368: Sustainable Web Development

Episode 368 · January 24th, 2023 · 36 mins 3 secs

About this Episode

Stephanie talks about hosting a Soup Group! Joël got nerd-sniped during the last episode and dove deeper into Maggie Appleton's "Tools for Thought."

Stephanie has been thinking a lot about Sustainable Web Development. What is sustainability? How does it relate to tech and what we do?

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

STEPHANIE: And I'm Stephanie Minn. And together, we're here to share a bit of what we've learned along the way.

JOËL: So, Stephanie, what's new in your world?

STEPHANIE: I'm excited to share a winter survival idea for folks out there who are, like me, in a very cold place where all your friends don't want to hang out [laughs] and bear the cold temperatures of deep winter in January. Because tonight, I'm hosting my first soup group where I'm basically just going to make a really big batch of soup and have my friends come over with bread, and we're going to eat soup and bread and be cozy.

And I'm really excited because I was trying to figure out a way to combat the winter blues a little bit. And, yeah, I think this time of year can be really tough after the holidays to get people together again. At least for me, I was feeling like I haven't seen my friends in so long. And I was like, well, I could just be the person to take the initiative [laughs] and be like, "Come over to our place."

And the goal is to eventually do this regularly and just have this low-stakes open invitation for anyone to come and show up however they want to. It doesn't have to be, like, big pressure or anything. And if they can't make it at any one time, then there will hopefully be one in the future where they can make it, so I'm excited. After this, I am going to make soup for ten people, and it's going to be great. [laughs]

JOËL: I love this idea. Soup on a cold day is just the coziest thing.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, exactly. I definitely wanted to just make people feel warm and cozy. And that's what I want, so I'm really doing this for myself. [laughs]

JOËL: And you know the advantage of hosting is you don't have to go outside.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's the real thing is I'm probably going to kick everyone out at like 11:00 p.m. and then go straight to bed, and it's going to be great. [laughs]

JOËL: Have you been experimenting with a particular kind of soup recently? Are you going to bring out an old favorite?

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I'm excited to make ribollita today, so kind of like a Tuscan style of veggie hearty soup. And I've just been bookmarking soup recipes left and right. [laughs] And I've outsourced the bread situation. So I'm excited to see what kind of bread people bring. And yeah, it'll be very fun and kind of surprising in a comforting way.

JOËL: I'm not familiar with this soup. It's ribollita you said?

STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's it.

JOËL: You said it's a vegetable soup.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, mostly veggies and beans. So I have this giant cabbage, a lot of kale, multiple cans of Great Northern white beans, and they're all going to get mixed together. And we'll see how it turns out. I'll update the podcast on how the soup group goes. It is the inaugural one. So I can't think of a time that I made that much soup before. So, hopefully, it goes well. We'll find out. So, Joël, what about you? What's new in your world?

JOËL: So, in the previous episode, we talked a little bit about some of the things you had learned about note-taking. And you'd mentioned an article by, I think, Maggie Applebon --

STEPHANIE: Maggie Appleton.

JOËL: Appleton...on tools for thought. It was linked in the show notes of that episode. And I went back and read that article, and it was so good, particularly the section, I think, on historical tools for thought and how they, over time, were sort of groundbreaking in helping us to either remember things or to think about problems or ideas in a different way, or to sort of interrogate those ideas and see if we think they're true or helpful. And these were things like writing or the number system but even some more fancy things like the scientific method for the Cartesian coordinate system.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I was really excited to share this with you because I think it was the intersection of a lot of your different interests, including note-taking, diagrams, history, and human cognition, so I'm glad that you found it interesting.

JOËL: I definitely got nerd-sniped there.

STEPHANIE: [laughs]

JOËL: I think one thing that really struck me was the power of having multiple different representations for ideas. And one that jumped out at me was the Cartesian coordinate system, which, among other things, a really powerful tool that gave people...when this was invented, it allowed you to convert algebra problems into geometry problems.

And so now, something that used to be an equation you can draw as a triangle or something. And we know how to find the area of a triangle. That's been known since the ancient Greeks and even earlier. And so now a problem that sounded hard is now easy, or at least we have a different way to think about that problem. Because if this equation is equivalent to a triangle, what does that mean?

And vice versa, you can use this to convert geometry problems into algebra problems. And so sometimes the power of a new tool for thought might be in that it allows you to sort of convert between two other existing ways of representing things. And making those connections, all of a sudden gives you a whole new way of thinking about things. That blew my mind.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I agree. I think the other really cool thing is that a lot of these ideas that humans are discovering also already existed in the natural world. So when you are talking about math, you can see representations of math in plants and nature, and I was reminded of how honeycomb from bees is one of the strongest shapes. And yeah, it's really neat to draw inspiration from a lot of places and learn from things that, like, figured it out before we did.

JOËL: Have you seen the video on YouTube called "Hexagons are the Bestagons?"

STEPHANIE: No, I have not. Tell me more.

JOËL: It's a video on YouTube. We can link it in the show notes. Basically, the hexagon shows up everywhere in nature in part because it has a lot of really fun mathematical properties. It's one of the few shapes that you can use to completely cover a surface. So if you want to subdivide a two-dimensional surface into smaller shapes without leaving any empty spaces between them, you really don't have that many options.

I want to say it's like squares and triangles and hexagons are the only shapes that can do that. And hexagons have these really fun properties around strength. They also are one of the best balances between volume versus the amount of material that it takes to give you that volume and for strength and things like that. So it's good for honeycombs because you can store a lot of honey for very little amount of wax. But it's also good for all sorts of structural engineering because you can build things that are very strong yet light because they require very little metal or other material to create them.

STEPHANIE: When you're saying hexagons filling a lot of space, I also thought about how they've become kind of popular in tiles or interior design in kitchens, and bathrooms, and stuff. [laughs] I've definitely seen that trend a bit. [laughs] So that's really cool just to see, like, yeah, this thing in the natural world that we have adopted for other uses. It's really fun.

JOËL: I want to say this idea of taking a 2D space and being able to completely cover it without spaces with a shape is called tessellating a plane. It's a fancy term for it. And if you want to do it with just a single shape, I think there are only like three or four shapes that can do it.

STEPHANIE: That's really interesting because it reminds me of those tessellation puzzles that I used to play with as a kid. Do you know what I'm talking about?

JOËL: You're thinking like a tangram or something different.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, yeah, tangram, that was...oh my gosh, those were fun. Wow, I was learning math as a young child, [laughs] just didn't even know it.

JOËL: Another random fun fact: the logo for the Elm programming language is a tangram.


JOËL: And the community is sort of encouraged to then remix it because the tangram is just a square tessellated out of a bunch of these shapes. But then, if you're building a library or you've got an event or something, the community will take those shapes and remix them into some other shapes that might fit your event.

STEPHANIE: That's really cool. Is it a metaphor for how Elm can be used in different ways? [laughs]

JOËL: I'm not sure about the story behind the logo. We'd have to look that up.

STEPHANIE: That'll be a good adventure for later. [laughs]

JOËL: In...I want to say Moroccan art, but I think it might be broader than just Moroccan. It might be more broadly North African or Moorish or whatever you want to call that. There's a long history of building these tessellations, I think, out of tiles, but maybe other things as well where you're doing it with a variety of shapes.

So you might start...a classic one, I think is an eight-pointed...is it eight, or? I think it's an eight-pointed star, and then you sort of add other shapes around it. And those can create patterns that take a long time to repeat. And there are these beautiful geometric patterns that just keep on going and expanding without necessarily repeating over a lot of space.

STEPHANIE: Whoa. That kind of blows my mind a little bit. It seems so counterintuitive, but then I feel like there are a lot of things in math that are like that as well.

JOËL: So, yeah, I think a classic pattern you might start with something like an eight-pointed star. And then maybe to fill in the spaces around that central star, you might put some squares, and then maybe you put some triangles around that, and you sort of keep trying to fill in. And maybe eventually you get to another eight-pointed star, but it's not always perfectly symmetric.

STEPHANIE: Someone should make a board game or something out of this idea. [laughs]

JOËL: Oooh.

STEPHANIE: I bet there's one that exists. But I'm just thinking about people who like jigsaw puzzles and that being the next level challenge of, like, can you figure out how things fit together without the confines of a little jigsaw shape? [laughs]

JOËL: Right, right. You have a rectangle shape that you have to perfectly fill in with all of these other smaller shapes, and there is a single solution that will work. You have to figure it out.

STEPHANIE: I personally would be very overwhelmed, [laughs] but it sounds fun at the same time.

JOËL: So those are a lot of thoughts that I've been having inspiration reading that article that you shared on a previous episode. Have you been reading anything interesting recently?

STEPHANIE: I have. I'm really excited to talk about this topic because during my investment time this past week, I've been thinking a lot about it, taking a lot of notes in Obsidian, which is a callback to the last episode, and yeah, I'm excited to kind of get into it. So what I've been reading is Sustainable Web Development with Ruby on Rails by ‎David Bryant Copeland.

And I think a lot of fellow thoughtboters have referenced this book or talked a little bit about ideas from this book; at least, I've seen discussion about it in Slack, so that's kind of why I wanted to pick it up. But what really blew my mind was honestly the first chapter where he talks about why he wrote this book and basically what sustainable web development is because it is a little bit, maybe, like a buzzy word. It's like, what is sustainability? How does it relate to tech and what we do?

And he basically gets down to it by saying that the software that we write is sustainable if it continues to meet our needs years into the future or has longevity and continues to be something we can iterate and work on and not feel that pain or friction, and we feel like we want to, and we feel joyful working on this codebase. So that was kind of my interpretation of his definition about sustainability.

JOËL: I love that definition of sustainability about code that can grow and live for a long time. And I feel like that's not a universal value in the tech industry. And on the extreme end of that, you'll have teams that promote the idea that maybe every few years, you should throw out your old codebase and rewrite. I want to say some teams at Google may have done that as a practice for a while, and, of course, then people quote that as a best practice.

To a certain extent, I want to say that's kind of what happens with Basecamp in that there are multiple versions of Basecamp. And I want to say each of those is a fresh Rails app. So there's a sense in which those or that style of development is not sustainable in the definition that you were just giving there. How do you feel about that?

STEPHANIE: I definitely think the industry has a bias towards newness and change. And a lot of people want to pick up the hot, new technology and, like you said, rewrite code, especially when it's become hard to work with. And honestly, I think that could be its whole own episode, rewrites because I think you and I have pretty strong opinions about it.

But I genuinely think that most of our work is, at least, you and I on the Boost team, in particular here at thoughtbot, where we embed on existing client teams, and usually, that means legacy code as well, but I think that the work of development is mostly extending existing code and trying to sustain applications that have users and are working for users.

And I think that that's certainly a value that I wish were highlighted more or were invested in more because sometimes that change or wanting to hop on to do something different or do something new has a lot of consequences that I'm not sure we talk about enough as an industry.


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JOËL: It's interesting you mentioned the types of projects that we tend to be on. I feel like there are a lot of projects that I've been brought on where my goal, specifically coming onto this project, was to make the software more sustainable for the team. It's very easy to sort of start moving very fast in the beginning with a greenfield app, and then eventually, a lot of your choices catch up to you.

And then, as your team grows and your product grows, it becomes less and less sustainable. And that's often the point in the lifecycle of the product where I might join the team and try to help make things better for them. I love the keyword sustainable. I don't think that's one that I've used a lot, but it's a great label to put on that kind of work.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I agree. I think what you mentioned earlier, too, about values that, really stuck out to me in this book because it basically says, "This book is for you if you value these three things: sustainability, consistency, and quality." And all of the recommendations and techniques that he then presents in the rest of the book, using Rails, those decisions are recommended with those three values in mind.

And I think, one, those values are personally important to me as a developer. But it also helped me develop some guiding principles around decision-making and provided a lot of clarity around times that I've been on teams where we were doing things that didn't quite align with my values, and I didn't enjoy it. And I couldn't really figure out why.

But now I'm able to see that, oh, perhaps this team or organization was valuing something like speed, or profit, or change, or something like that that I just fundamentally value differently. And that was kind of where my internal friction or contentment or discontentment was coming from when working on these teams. So, yeah, that was really clarifying for me.

JOËL: Would you say, for you, when you talk about these values, that these are fundamental or ultimate values for you when you write code? Or are they values that are a good way to sort of be a means to some other end? You know, for example, sustainability, do you care about sustainability just for its own sake? Or do you care about it because you want a product to be able to live for a long time? You're building for ten years or 20 years or however long you want this project to last.

STEPHANIE: I think the thing with values is that they are really fundamental to a person's identity or belief system. In fact, the definition that I'm kind of working off of here is that values are those fundamental beliefs that drive our actions. And so when you say, like, are values driving how you write code? I think they drive everything. [laughs]

But the point that he makes in this book is like, here's how they drive code and technical decisions. So the book is actually quite specific about technical recommendations that he has in the context of Rails. And it's funny because we're talking pretty abstractly and big picture about values and things like that. But then I think it's because he sets the stage to be like, everything I recommend here is what I believe to be sustainable, and good quality, and consistent.

And just for an example, one of the recommendations he makes is to, when you're kind of setting up a greenfield application, is to use a SQL schema instead of the default ActiveRecord DSL, so using a structure .SQL file. Because, in his eyes, having the flexibility to write SQL and use the most you can with those tools when it comes to database work is more sustainable in the long term than using the DSL that might not have all the tools available to you that SQL does.

And so he kind of gives his reasoning about, like, this is what I recommend, and here's why it contributes to sustainability, in my opinion. And so I have found myself, while I'm reading along, either agreeing, like, oh yeah, I can see his reasoning here, or maybe even disagreeing because I might think about things differently or have other considerations in mind that are more important to me and what sustainability means to me. But what I hopefully want to take away from the framework or understanding of values is evaluating technical decisions that I make based on my values as an individual but, more importantly, the values of the team or organization.

JOËL: I love mental frameworks like that that give you clarity into your own thought processes or how you make decisions moving forward. Sometimes you can look at something that's very concrete. Somebody gives you some advice on maybe structuring your database schema, and that might be helpful in and of itself. But if you came away with a larger thought process, I think that's doubly valuable.

As an aside here, I love this approach to writing where he sort of lays down almost like preconditions for this book. If you don't agree on these values, this book is not going to be very helpful for you. And then also, here are situations where this advice is not going to apply. Now that I've put down all these edge cases for the rest of this book, I'm going to be speaking very decisively; these are the things I recommend and not have to caveat myself all the time.

It's like, yes, I know there are some edge cases where you might not want to do this if it's a one-off script or whatever it is. We've already dealt with all of those upfront. And now, I can be very confident and very direct for the whole rest of the book. And I feel like that's something I struggle with in some of my work sometimes is. I care a lot about nuance, and my audience probably cares about edge cases even more than I do. They probably care too much.

Because I say something that's generally true most of the time, and I know somebody's already thinking about the one edge case where that's not true. And that doesn't matter for the main point I'm trying to make. So it's always a struggle to know when to caveat a statement that I'm making. But if you caveat too much, then you undermine your whole point. And so I like this idea of putting some caveats up front and then just saying, like, now we're in the 80% case. Within the 80% case, these are things I think are true.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, that's a really good point. I agree he is very clear about the intended audience. And so when you read this book, you are either on board because you value the same things he does, or you're not because you are focused and your goals are things that are different from him. So I think it was really helpful to get on the same page, even in a piece of content or in a piece of writing. Because I want to use my time well as a reader, so I want to make sure that what I am consuming makes sense for me, and I will find it worthwhile.

David takes a really strong stance on what quality means. And even though that is a pretty subjective value, he describes it as doing things right the first time and acknowledging the reality that we likely won't have the time to go back and clean things up after they've been shipped. So, on this client project, I found myself wanting to refactor things as part of my process, suggesting different implementations to do things the quote, unquote, "right way," or the best way we could, and not everyone shared that sentiment.

I sometimes got pushback, and that was challenging for me to figure out how I wanted to navigate that situation and what I was willing to let go and what I wasn't. And so I'm curious if you've ever been in a consulting position like that where maybe the team and organization's values were a little bit different from your understanding, or if they just weren't clear at all, and you were driving towards something that seemed very nebulous.

JOËL: I think I've been on both sides of that, both sometimes saying, "Look, we need to maybe slow down," or "Here's a thing that we need to do otherwise that's going to cost us on the longer term. Here's an area where we need to invest in quality today." And sort of on the other side where I'll feel like someone is really pushing an overengineered solution claiming it's going to make life a whole lot better, "If we invest three months upfront today, and maybe in three or four years, it'll pay off if certain things happen," that don't really necessarily line up with the immediate goals.

A lot of this, I think, comes down to understanding the client, and their business, and their goals. Sometimes there is a really important deadline for something that has to happen based on an event in the real world. If you were building software for something that had to do with, let's say, the World Cup, you don't want it shipping in January 2023. That's just pointless. And so you've got to prioritize shipping things.

And sometimes you say, "Okay, well, do we ship a few broken things? Or do we prefer to ship something that's a little bit smaller, more tightly scoped, but that holds well together?" That again, you have to really understand the client, their business, their needs. So I think for me those values of sustainability, quality...I forget what the third one was that you'd mentioned.

STEPHANIE: Consistency.

JOËL: Consistency, yes. They all sort of inform how it's going to mesh with the product I'm working on, the goals of that product. Where's it going in the next three months, six months, 12 months? Where's it coming from? Who's the team that I'm working with? Am I with a team of 300 people that are just committing to the main branch all the time with no tests, and we're constantly fighting regressions? Then sustainability looks very different there than a one other-person team, and we're trying to ship something for the World Cup.

STEPHANIE: Oh yeah, I have a lot of thoughts there too. Because I do agree that it can look different and sometimes shift a little bit depending on the situation. What you were just describing about team makeup that is really interesting to me because, yeah, sustainability can look different for different teams.

If you have, let's say, a lot of earlier career developers on your team, maybe you really want to focus on readability and making sure that they're able to navigate the codebase and figure things out over something like more advanced patterns and skills that will just cause them friction. But maybe you have a team where you all agree that that's what sustainability means to you is choosing those more advanced technical patterns and committing to them and figuring out how to maintain that because it's important to you.

And the other thing that you brought up that is also mentioned in this book is that the more information developers have about the future and direction of the business, the better code we can write. For some reason, I've found myself in situations where I don't know all too much about what we are working towards or what the goals of the business are both in the short term and the long term. And I try to make the best guess I can.

But I think in those scenarios, at least moving forward, I would really like to be better about pushing product folks or leadership to explain to me why we're doing what we're doing, kind of share the information that they have so that we can build the best product that we can.

I think sometimes that information doesn't get shared for some reason. They kind of think that engineers are going to go do their engineer thing, and we'll focus on long-term strategy over here. But yeah, I truly believe that the more information we have, the better quality work we can produce.

JOËL: I 100% agree. And I think that's what we see in a lot of classic agile literature talking about things like cross-functional teams or even the client or the product team should be integrated with the development team. You're all one team working together rather than someone has an idea, and then the technical team executes on it.

We see that also in some of the domain-driven design literature as well, where oftentimes projects start, and you sit down with a subject matter expert, and they just walk you through all of the business aspects. And particularly for the purpose of domain-driven design, you talk about a lot of the terms that make sense for the business. You build up a glossary of terms. I think they call it a ubiquitous language of things that are specific to your business and how does that work on a day-to-day basis.

STEPHANIE: Do you have any strategies for getting more clarity around the work and why you're building it if it's not yet available to you?

JOËL: I think there are sort of two scenarios where you have to do that; one of them that comes up maybe more often for us as consultants is onboarding onto a new client. There's a whole new business that we may know nothing about, and we have to learn a lot of that. And so, as part of the onboarding process, I think it's really valuable to have conversations with people who are not part of the dev team to learn about the business side of things.

On a per-feature basis, if you've already been onboarded on a project, you've been there for a while, it's often good to go back to the person who maybe created a ticket, a product person who's asking for a feature, and ask, "Why? Why do you want this?" Ideally, maybe that's even part of the ticket-creating process because the two teams are more integrated, and product team is like, here's a problem we're trying to solve. Here's what we think would be a solution. Or maybe even just "Here's a business problem. We need a technical solution. Can you do that for us?"

But I've often followed up with people outside of the engineering team to ask follow-up questions. And why are we doing this? And sometimes it's even you have to do like five Whys where it's like, "Oh, we're doing this because we need to do this thing for this customer. They asked for it." And it's like, "Okay, well, why are they asking for that?" "Oh, it's because they have this problem." And why are they having this problem?" And eventually, like, "Oh, I see. Okay."

The real solution has nothing to do with what was asked, and you come up with something that's maybe much tighter scoped or will better solve, and everybody's a winner in that case. But it does require following up. So I guess the short and boring answer is talk to people outside the engineering team.

STEPHANIE: That's a great point. I think the questions that we as engineers ask can drive more clarity to product people as well if we continue to ask those five levels of why in ways that they maybe didn't think about either. We have the opportunity to do that if we want to do our work well, too. That's kind of exciting to me that it isn't just okay, we're handed some work to do, and they've done all of that strategic thinking separately. And having to implement those details, we can kind of start to chip away at what are we really doing here?

And you mentioned talking to people outside of the engineering team. I just was thinking that pairing with non-developers would also be a really great task to do, especially when you get a ticket that's a bit ambiguous and you have questions. And you can always comment on the ticket or whatever and ask your questions. But perhaps there's also a good opportunity to work things through synchronously. In some ways, I think that is a more natural opportunity for that conversation to evolve rather than it being like, okay, I answered these questions, and now I'm going to move on to whatever else I have to do.

JOËL: So you mentioned pairing. It's often good to have someone maybe outside the development team pair with you on a technical thing, but sometimes it's good to flip the script. If you're building especially software for an internal team, it can be really valuable to just shadow one of them for a couple of hours or a day.

I did a project where we were building a tool for an internal sales team. And I had the privilege to shadow a couple of the sales members for a few hours as they're just doing their job. And I'm just asking all the questions like, "Oh, why do you do it that way? And what is the purpose behind this?" And I learned so much about the business by doing that.

STEPHANIE: I love that we took this idea of sustainable development and went beyond just technical design decisions or aspects of how we do our jobs. Because there is so much more that we can do to foster the value of sustainability or whatever other values that you might have, and yeah, I feel really excited to try both these technical strategies from the book and also the collaborative aspects as well.

JOËL: I'm really excited about some of these ideas that are coming up from the book. I think today we basically just talked about the introduction, the idea of sustainability. But I think as maybe you read more in the book, maybe we can do another episode later on talking about some of the more specific technical recommendations, how they relate to sustainability and maybe share some of our thoughts on that.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I definitely am excited to keep y'all updated on this journey. [laughs]

JOËL: On that note, shall we wrap up?

STEPHANIE: Let's wrap up.

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