409: Support & Maintenance and Rotating Developers

Episode 409 · December 5th, 2023 · 28 mins 7 secs

About this Episode

Stephanie recommends "Blue Eye Samurai" and a new ceramic pot (donabe) for cooking. Joël talks about the joy of holding a warm beverage in a unique mug.

Stephanie discusses her shift to a part-time support and maintenance role at thoughtbot, contrasting it with her full-time development work. She highlights the importance of communication, documentation, and workplace flexibility in this role. Stephanie appreciates the professional growth opportunities and aligns this flexible work style with her long-term career goals.


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 have a TV show recommendation this week. I think this is my first time having TV or movies to recommend, so this will be fun. My partner and I just finished watching Blue Eye Samurai on Netflix, which is an animated historical Samurai drama.

But the really cool thing about it is that the protagonist she's a woman who is disguising herself as a man, and she is half Japanese and half White, which the show takes place during Edo, Japan. And so that was a time when Japan was locked down, and there were no outsiders allowed in the country. And so, to be mixed race like that was to be, like, kind of, like, demonized and to be really excluded and shamed. And so, the main character is on, like, a revenge mission.

And it was such a cool show. I was kind of, like, on the edge of my seat the whole time. And it's very beautifully animated. There were just a lot of really awesome things about it. And I think it's very different from what I've been seeing on TV these days.

JOËL: Is this a single-season show?

STEPHANIE: So far, there's just one season. I think it's pretty new, yeah. It's very watchable in a couple of weekends.


JOËL: Dangerously so.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, exactly [laughs].

JOËL: How do you feel about the way they end the arc in season one? Do they kind of leave you on a cliffhanger, or does it feel like a pretty satisfying place?

STEPHANIE: Ooh, I think both, which is the sweet spot, in my opinion, where it's not, like, cliffhanger for the sake of, like, ugh, now I feel like I have to just watch the next part to see what happens because I was left unsatisfied. I like when seasons are kind of like chapters of the story, right? And the characters are also well written, too, and really fleshed out even, you know, some of the side characters. They all have their arcs that are really satisfying. And, again, I just was left very impressed.

JOËL: I guess that's the power of good storytelling.

STEPHANIE: Yeah. I was reading a review of the show. And that was kind of the theme of–it was just that, like, this is really good storytelling, and I would have to agree. Yeah, I highly recommend checking it out. It was very fun. It was very bloody, but [chuckles], for me, it being animated actually made it a little more palatable for me [laughs]. The fight scenes, the action scenes were really cool.

I think the way that it's been described is kind of, like, you know, if you like historical dramas, or if you like things like Game of Thrones, there's kind of something for everyone. I recommend checking it out. Joël, what's new in your world?

JOËL: Listeners of the show don't know this, but you and I are on a video call while we're recording this. And you'd commented earlier that I was holding a cool mug. It's got a rock climbing hold as a handle, which is pretty fun. I enjoy a lot of bouldering. That makes it a fun mug.

But I was recently thinking about just how much pleasure I get from holding a mug with a warm beverage. It's such a small thing, but it makes me so happy. And that got me thinking more broadly about what are things in life that are kind of like that. They're small things that have, like, an outsized impact on your happiness. Do you have anything like that?

STEPHANIE: Oh yes, absolutely. You were talking about the warmth of a hot beverage in your hands. And I was thinking about something similar, too, because I'm pretty sure this time of year last year, I talked about something that was new in my world that was just, like, a thing that I got to make winter more tolerable for me here in Chicago, and I think it was, like, a heated blanket [laughs].

And I am similarly in that space this year of like, what can I do or get to make this winter better than last winter? So, this year, what I got that I'm really excited to use— it actually just came in the mail—is this ceramic pot called the donabe that's kind of mainly used for Japanese cooking, especially, like, hot pot. And so, it will be a huge improvement to my soup game this year [laughs].

Similarly, it's kind of, like, one of those small things where you can take it from the stovetop where you're cooking straight to the table, and I'm so looking forward to that. It's kind of like your hot beverage in your hand but, like, three times the size [laughs].

JOËL: Right. The family-style version of it.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, exactly. So, that's what I'm really looking forward to this year as something that is just, like, I don't know, a little small upgrade to my regular soup routine. But I think I will get a lot of pleasure [laughs] out of it.

JOËL: What do you normally cook in that style of pot? Is it typically you do a hot pot in there, or is it meant for soups?

STEPHANIE: Yeah, it holds heat really well, so I think that's why it's used for soup a lot. And the one that I got specifically has a little ceramic steamer plate as well. And so, I'm looking forward to having, like, this setup that's made for steaming, where you don't have to have any, like, too many extra bits. And, again, it can go from stove to table, and that's one less thing I [chuckles] need to wash.

JOËL: I love it. So, something else that is kind of new in your world is you'd mentioned on a recent episode you'd wrapped up with your current client. And you've rotated on to not exactly a new client but a new almost line of business. You're doing a rotation with our support and maintenance team. Can you tell us a little bit about what that is like?

STEPHANIE: Yeah. I'm excited to share more about it because this is my first time on this team doing this work. And it's pretty new for thoughtbot, too. I think it's only, like, a year old that we have had this sub-team of the one that you and I are on, Boost. In the sub-team, support and maintenance is focused on providing flexible part-time work for clients who are just needing some dedicated hours, not necessarily for, you know, a lot of, like, intense new feature work, but making sure that things are running smoothly.

A lot of the clients, you know, have had Rails apps that are several years old, that are chugging along [chuckles], just need that, like, attention every now and then to make sure that upgrades are happening, fix any bugs, kind of as the app just continues to work and provide value. And then, occasionally, there is a little bit of feature work.

But the interesting thing about being on this team is that instead of being on one client full-time, you are working on a lot of different clients at the same time, and a lot of them are on retainers. So, they maybe have, like, 20 hours a month of work that gets filled with kind of whatever tasks need to be done during that time. So yeah, I recently joined a few days ago and have been very surprised by kind of this style of work. It's different from what I'm used to.

JOËL: That seems pretty different than the sort of traditional thoughtbot client engagement. Typically, if I'm a client and I'm hiring a team from thoughtbot, as a client, I get sort of a dedicated team. And they're probably either building some things for me or maybe working with my team and sort of full-time building features.

Whereas if I hire the support and maintenance team, it sounds like it's a bit more ad hoc. And it's things I assume it's like, oh, we probably need to upgrade our Rails version since a new release came out last month. Can you do that? Here's a small bug that was reported. Can somebody fix that? Things along those lines. Is that pretty approximate of what the experience is for a client?

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I would say so. I think the other surprising thing has been there have been a little bit of more DevOps type of tasks as well mixed in there. Because oftentimes, these are smaller clients who maybe have, like, a few developers actively working on new features and that type of stuff. But there is, like, so much of the connecting work that needs to happen when you have an application. And if you don't have a full in-house team for that, that often gets put on developers' plates. But it's kind of nice to have this flexible support and maintenance team, again, to, like, do the work as it comes up.

A lot of it is not necessarily, like, stuff that can be planned in advance. It's kind of like, oh, we're hitting, like, our usage limit for this Heroku add-on. Let's evaluate if this is still working for us, if this is a good tier to be on. Like, should we upgrade? Are there other levers we could pull or adjustments we can make?

So, that's actually been some of the stuff that I've been working on, too, which is, again, a little bit different from normal development work but also still very much related. And it's all kind of part of the job. And, you know, a lot of the skills are transferable. And to know how to do development in a framework then sets you up, I think, really well to, like, be able to make those kinds of evaluations.

JOËL: So, it sounds like you almost, in a sense, provide a bit of a velocity cushion for clients so that if something does come up where they would maybe normally need to pull a dev off of feature work to do some side thing for a couple of days, you can come in and handle that so that their dev team stays focused on shipping features.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, I like that phrase you used: velocity cushion. That's cool. I like it. The other surprising thing that I have kind of quite enjoyed, at least for now, is because we bill a little bit differently on this work; we have to track our hours more explicitly. And that has actually helped me focus a lot more on what I'm doing and if I should continue to be doing what I'm doing. I'm timeboxing things a lot more because I know that if there is a ceiling on the number of hours, I want to make sure that that time is spent in the most valuable way.

And I also really enjoy, like, the boundaries of timeboxing, yes, but also, like, the tasks are usually scoped pretty narrowly so that they are things that you can accomplish, definitely in the week, because you don't know if you'll kind of still be working for this client next week but even more so, like, within a few days.

And that is nice because I can kind of, like, you know, track my hours, finish the task, and then feel a little bit more free to go do something else without being, like, okay, like, what's the next thing that I need to be doing? There's a little bit more freedom, I think, when you're kind of, like, optimizing towards, like, finishing each item.

JOËL: Do the stories of the work that you have to do does it typically come kind of pre-scoped? Are you involved in making sure that it has, like, very aggressive scoping?

STEPHANIE: Yeah. So far, I've not been involved in doing the scoping work, and it has come pre-scoped, which has been nice. This was also, again, just different. Because I was on a client team previously, a lot of the work to be done was the disambiguating, the, like, figuring out what to be doing. Whereas here, because, again, we're kind of optimized for people coming in and out, if there is uncertainty or lack of clarity, it's pointed out early, and someone is like, "Okay, I will take care of this. Like, I'll take the lead on this so that it can be handed off."

One client that I'm working on is using Basecamp's Shape Up methodology, which I actually hadn't worked with in a very explicit way before. And that has been interesting to learn about a little bit, too. One thing that I have enjoyed about it is instead of sprints, they're called cycles. And I like that a lot because, you know, sprints kind of have the connotation of, like, you're running as fast as you can but also, like, you can't run that way forever [laughs]. And so, even that, like, little bit of rewording change is really nice. The variable part is scope, right? It's we're focused on delivering something completely and very intentionally cutting scope as kind of the main lever.

JOËL: How do you maintain sort of focus and flow if you're jumping across multiple clients? Because you said, you work with multiple clients as part of this team. And I feel like I can get a little bit frustrated sometimes, even just jumping between, like, tickets within one project. And so, I could imagine that jumping between different clients during the week or even the day might be really disruptive. Have you found techniques to help you stay in the flow?

STEPHANIE: Yeah, that is a tough one because, also, every client has their different application; you then have to start up on [laughs] your local machine, and that is kind of annoying. You know, I do still tend to kind of, like, bundle similar work together. If, like, there's a few things I can do for a client on one day, I'll make sure to focus on that.

But what I mentioned earlier about, like, seeing something to completion has been really, I want to say, fun even. Because it then kind of, like, frees up that mental space of, like, okay, I don't have to, like, have this thing that I'm working on lingering in my head about, like, oh, did I forget to do something? Or, you know, have, like, shower thoughts of like, oh, I just thought of a new way to implement this [laughs] feature because it doesn't spill over as much as maybe larger initiatives anyway.

And so, I am context-switching, but it's only kind of after I've gotten something to a good place where I've left all of the notes. And that's another thing that I'm now kind of compelled to do a little more actively. It's like, every single day, I'm kind of making sure that the work that I've done has been reported on, one, because I have to track my hours, so, you know, and I sometimes leave notes about what that time was spent on doing.

And also, when the expectation is that someone else will be picking up, then there's no, like, oh, like, let me hold on to this, and only when I know that I have to hand off something that's when I'll do the, like, dedicated knowledge dumping. It's kind of just built into the process a little more frequently.

JOËL: So, you're setting up for, like, an imminent vacation factor.

STEPHANIE: Yeah. Which I kind of like because then I can take a vacation [laughs] whenever I want and not have to worry too much about, oh, did I do everything I needed to do before I leave?

JOËL: So, you know, these practices that you're doing are specifically adapted for the style of work that you have. Are there any that you think you would bring to your own practice if you ever rotated back on to a dedicated client project, anything that you would do there that you would want to include from your practice here?

STEPHANIE: Yeah. It does sound kind of weird because part of what's nice about being on a full-time team is that there is less, oh, if I don't get something done today, I have tomorrow to do it [laughs]. And it seems like that would be like, oh, like, kind of take the pressure off a little bit.

But I would be really curious to continue having, like, such an intense awareness about how I'm spending my time. Because I've certainly gotten a little bit lax on, like, full-time development work when you just go down a rabbit hole [laughs] and you come out, like, three hours later, and you're like, "What did I just do?" [laughs] And, you know, maybe that's what needed to be done, and that's fine.

But if you have the information that it took you three hours, you can at least make a better-informed decision about, like, oh, maybe I should have stopped a little earlier or, like, yeah, it took about three hours, and that's okay. I think that would be an interesting area to incorporate and to be able to report more frequently. And I also like to know how other people spend their time, too. So, just, like, that sharing of information would also be really beneficial even to, like, a team.

JOËL: What about the more aggressive documentation? Is that something that...because that can be really time-consuming, I imagine, as well. Is that something that you would value in a kind of, more focused full-time project context?

STEPHANIE: Yeah. One part I've enjoyed about it is that I'm documenting, like, decision-making a lot more actively where, you know, I'm kind of, like, surfacing to be like, hey, here's the outcomes of, like, my research. We're not as, you know, embedded in the business, and we don't have as much of that, like, context and knowledge about what the best solutions are all the time. I'm documenting all of that, you know, usually, for the client stakeholder to be like, "Hey, here's my recommendations, like, how do you want to...what do you think is the best way to go?

On one hand, it's kind of nice not to have to, like, be solely responsible for making that decision, right? And I'm kind of, like, leaning on, like, hey, like, you're the expert of your application and your product, you know, here's what I've learned. And now I've, like, put this all, like, for you and presented it to you.

And I think that, for me, has gotten lost sometimes when I end up being the same person of, like, doing the research and then deciding, and it just kind of ends up being held in my head. And that, I think, is something really important to document, even if it's just for other people to, like, see how that process might work or, like, what things I already considered or didn't try. That exercise, I think, can be really important.

So, so far, the documentation has not necessarily been, like, code level, but more, like, for each task, it's, like, showing your work, right? And not in a, like, you're being monitored [laughs] sort of way but in a way that supports it getting done with a lot of that turnover.

JOËL: It's almost like a mini report that you're doing. So, you'd mentioned, for example, an application running into memory problems on Heroku. It sounds like you would then go maybe investigate that and then make some recommendations on whether they need to increase some dynos or maybe make some internal changes. It sounds like you may or may not be the one to execute those changes. But you would write up some, like, a mini report and submit that to the client, and then they can make their own execution choices.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, exactly. And they can execute it themselves or then create a new ticket for the next person rotating on to support and maintenance to tackle it in a different cycle.

JOËL: So, support and maintenance doesn't just do the investigation. Your team might do the execution as well. It's just that the sort of more research-y stuff and the execution stuff gets split out into different tickets because it's so tightly scoped.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, that sounds right.

JOËL: I like that.

STEPHANIE: One area that I wasn't sure that I was going to like so much about this kind of work is, you know, when you're not kind of embedded on a team, I was thinking that I might not feel as connected, or I would miss a bit of that getting to know people and just, like, seeing people face to face on a daily basis.

I'm still evaluating how that would go so far because it has definitely been, like, mostly asynchronous communication, you know, which is what works well for this type of the style of team or project. But I think what has been helpful is realizing that, like, oh yeah, like, I can also get that elsewhere, you know, with thoughtbot folks like with you doing this podcast every week.

And right now, there are, like, two Boost members who are doing support and maintenance full time, and folks who are unbooked kind of come in and out. And I can see that there's still a team. So, it's not nearly as kind of, like, isolating as what I had thought it would be.

JOËL: There's something that's really curious to me, I think, sitting at the intersection of the idea of fostering more team interactions and the sort of, like, mini reports that you write. And that's that I would love to see more sharing among all of us at thoughtbot about different interesting problems that we've had to solve or that we're tackling on different client work. Because I think in that case, it's a situation where we all just learn something, you know, maybe I've never had to deal with a memory leak or might not even have an idea of, like, how to approach memory issues on Heroku.

So, seeing your little mini report, if you'd maybe share that, and, you know, maybe it can be anonymized in some way if needs to, I think would be really nice, at the very least, something that could be done, like, internally. So, I almost wonder if, like, building that practice of, you know, maybe not for every ticket that I do because, you know, I don't want to just be dumping my tickets in the thoughtbot Slack. But I run into something interesting and be like, oh, let me tell a little story about this and do a little write-up. That might be something that's good for the whole team and not just for folks who are on support and maintenance.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely. As you were saying that, I was thinking about how it does kind of encourage me to find support outside of my, like, immediate team, right? Because I don't necessarily have one with the client and to, I don't know, I'm imagining, like, these roots growing in terms of different communities I'm a part of and bringing those problems just outside of my internal world, and kind of getting that outside feedback because by necessity a little bit, right? But also, with the added benefit of, you know, I think that's also how a lot of people end up writing content that gets shared with the world.

So, I had the misconception that I would be kind of just, like, on my own off doing things like just tickets and being a little coding robot, but I've been surprised by it feels very fresh and new. So, I think, I guess, I was needing a little bit of that [laughs].

JOËL: I was having a conversation with another thoughtboter recently about how valuable sometimes change can be for its own sake and how that can sort of refresh. You want it just at the rate where you have a chance to build some stability. You don't want chaos. But sometimes change can sort of take you out of a rut, give you energy, maybe sort of restart some good habits that you had sort of let atrophy. And that finding, like, just that right level of shaking things up can really help a team, you know, get their effectiveness to the next level.

STEPHANIE: Yeah. I like what you said about good habits, for sure. A couple of other random, little things that I just thought of about what I've liked is, I don't know, maybe this is a little silly. But we, you know, use shared credentials for logging into different services and applications or third parties that clients are using. And that has actually been something that has been so easy [laughs] and very low friction compared to, you know, joining a new project and manually be added as, like, your individual account to all of the different things. And things inevitably get forgotten, and then you have to rely on someone else to do it. And sometimes they don't get back to you [laughs] for a while.

The self-serviceness of this work has been cool, too. And I just, yeah, wanted to say that I really appreciated the thought that went into making it as easy as possible to be like, yeah, I can find the credentials here. It is, you know, a bit more anonymized because I'm just using, like, a shared account.

JOËL: Like a generic thoughtbot account on a client system rather than stephanie@thoughtbot.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, exactly. But I think I saved so much time [laughs] this week just being able to do all of that myself and, you know, knowing where to look first before having to ask.

JOËL: I guess you'd need something like that, right? If you're only jumping in on a project for the first time, for a couple of hours or something like that, you don't want to go through a whole onboarding process because that might then, like, easily double. You know, instead of doing two hours on this project, you're now doing four.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, exactly. I guess the other takeaway, for me, was like, oh, definitely, if I were to have to set up accounts [laughs] for an application, you know, I've obviously seen where it was like, very clearly, like, the founder having created all these personal accounts for this services, and people are still using their credentials many years later [laughs], even though they probably, like, maybe may not even work for the company anymore.

But yeah, the shared credentials and using that generic account that anyone can kind of get into when needed has really lowered the barrier to jump into doing that work, right? And especially because, like you said, it reduces that time. And we're, you know, billing by the hour anyway. So, it's kind of a win-win situation.

JOËL: And I totally understand why you would not want something like that for a longer engagement. But for something like support and maintenance, it sounds like it was the right choice.

STEPHANIE: Yeah, yeah. Again, I just mentioned it because it's just different. And so, maybe if this sparks any ideas for our listeners about how processes could be different or, like, the styles or ways of working can be different, I think that would be cool.

JOËL: And just to be clear here, it sounds like what you're doing is for sort of each client; you create a separate set of credentials that are for that client but that are about thoughtbot generically. You don't have, like, one thoughtbot email and password that we reuse for every client.

STEPHANIE: [laughs] Oh yes. That would be not so good [laughs] if we got hacked and suddenly, now they have access to everything.

JOËL: So, every client gets its own unique email password combo. We're using security best practices here. And then, since you do have to share them through a team, are you doing some sort of, like, shared 1Password vault or something along those lines?

STEPHANIE: Yeah, we are using a shared 1Password vault. That is definitely what I meant [laughs] the first time when I was mentioning the shared credentials, where that was basically the only thing I had to get onboarded to, the vault, for support and maintenance to be able to hit the ground running.

JOËL: So, this sounds like a pretty exciting new style of project for you. Is this something that you would see yourself preferring to do longer term, to sort of focus on this style of project? Or do you think that you'd like to come back to more classic project work in the near future?

STEPHANIE: I'm not sure yet, but I'm also hoping to have an answer to that question. And it definitely does feel like an experiment for me personally. I can see liking it, and that also fitting well with some of my longer-term goals of being able to, like, step back from work. Maybe working fewer days a week is something that I've, like, thought about in terms of, like, a long-term goal of mine because I'm not as needed [laughs] on a team.

Which I think, in the past, I also had a bit of a misconception that, like, in order to be a good developer, I had to have all the domain knowledge, and be indispensable, and, like, be the go-to person to answer all the questions. But now I'm at a point where I don't want to [laughs] necessarily have to answer, like, every question because that creates, like, a dependency on me. And if I need to step away from work, then that could be tough, right? The vacation factor that you mentioned.

So, this style of work is very interesting in terms of if it might provide me a little bit more of that, not exactly work-life balance, but just kind of be closer to my goals in terms of what I want out of work and my time. And, hopefully, I'm going to be doing this next week, but I don't know because that's the nature of it [laughs]. But if I am, then I'll definitely have more to say about it. Probably.

JOËL: Well, it definitely sounds like we'll have to check in again on what's, I guess, not so new in your world on a future episode. On that note, shall we wrap up?

STEPHANIE: Let's wrap up. Show notes for this episode can be found at bikeshed.fm.

JOËL: This show has been produced and edited by Mandy Moore.

STEPHANIE: If you enjoyed listening, one really easy way to support the show is to leave us a quick rating or even a review in iTunes. It really helps other folks find the show.

JOËL: If you have any feedback for this or any of our other episodes, you can reach us @_bikeshed, or you can reach me @joelquen on Twitter.

STEPHANIE: Or reach both of us at hosts@bikeshed.fm via email.

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

ALL: Byeeeeeeee!!!!!!


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