Being a happy bricklayer

“What are you doing?”
“I’m laying bricks,” said the first bricklayer.
“Feeding my family,” said the second bricklayer.
“I’m building a cathedral,” said the third bricklayer.

When I’ve learned this story in the primary school, I was shocked to see how shitty the life of the first two bricklayers were. The first one didn’t even had any intrinsic motivation to do his job, so he was probably a slave, a prisoner or some other kind of forced workforce. And the financial situation of the second one was apparently so critical that he was forced to take a job – any job he could find – to feed his family, even though he wasn’t really interested in laying bricks or perhaps even in construction works altogether.

I’m very happy to say that I was building a cathedral on every job I took so far. And frankly speaking, I don’t even see a point to do it differently. A job takes 8 hours a day. And for a hobby we could find, perhaps, one hour per day, on average? So by making your job to your hobby, and your hobby to your job, you increase the happy time of your life by 700%.

Another shocking aspect of that story is the missing loyalty of the first two workers. Per my upbringing and education, I’m normally very loyal to my employer, at least as long as they are loyal to myself. When my employer decides to hire me, they have some purpose in mind. It is the question of my loyalty, and of my integrity, to deliver upon it. But the first two workers seemed to be absolutely ignorant to their purpose in their organization!

That’s why I don’t really know what to say, every time when I hear someone declaring that his/her purpose in the company is not related to money. I mean, common, private companies have exactly one primary goal, one reason to exist: to earn money. Yes, they might have some cool vision like not being evil, or having a laser-sharp focus on perfect products, but these goals are all secondary. They are quickly forgotten when the primary goal is in danger. No company can survive for long, unless it follows the primary goal.

Therefore, I do really think that the purpose of all and every employee should be to see how s/he can help the company to earn or to save money. If s/he is not okay with that, well, wouldn’t s/he be much more happier working in a government agency, a non-government, a scientific, military, or a welfare organization?.. Just asking…

Tolles UX

HUK24.de hat eine faszinierende (und teilweise mutige) UX. Probiert mal selber aus! Was mir gefallen hat:

1) Sie verkaufen die KFZ-Versicherung in exakt gleicher Art und Weise, wie ich es kaufen will. Es gibt keine Landing Pages mit glücklichen Menschen, die mir die Vorteile erklären. Es gibt keine Testimonials. Es gibt keine übergroße CTAs “Jetzt kaufen”. Stattdessen verstehen sie, dass wenn ich zum ersten Mal auf huk24.de komme, bin ich noch am Vergleichen, welches Versicherungsunternehmen ich auswähle, und deswegen geben sie mir exakt das, was ich möchte: schnell, unverbindlich und unkompliziert mal berechnen zu können, wie viel ich in meinem Fall zahlen müsste.

2) Aber das noch nicht alles. Am Ende der Kalkulation gibt es naturlich einen CTA “Jetzt abschließen”. Wenn ich aber an dieser Stelle den Tab verlasse und mir ein Paar Tage Zeit nehme, um die anderen Alternativen abzuklappen, und dann zurückkehre, wirft mir die Seite keine “Session ist abgelaufen”, sondern sie weißt noch alles, was ich damals eingetragen habe, und ist immer noch bereit, sofort einen Vertrag abzuschließen! Das allein ist goldig.

3) Wenn ich dann bei der Bestellung an den Punkt komme, wo Zugangsdaten vergeben werden, fragen sie nur noch nach einem geheimen Passwort. Die Benutzerkennung wird dann automatisch generiert und mir angezeigt, so dass ich meine komplette Zugangsdaten in meinem KeePass abspeichern kann. Und wenn ich mich nicht täusche, wird die E-Mail erst später abgefragt, und zwar an der Stelle, wo ich selber daran Interesse habe, sie mitzuteilen (z.B. damit ich meinen Versicherungcode erhalten kann).

4) Es ist möglich, bei der Bestellung eine WerberID einzugeben, wenn ein anderer Kunde von HUK24 sie mir empfohlen hat. Es gibt aber auch einen Hinweis, dass ich die WerberID auch später (sogar nach Vertragsabschluß) eintragen kann, falls ich sie nicht zur Hand habe.

5) Wenn ich die Seite in einem eingeloggten Zustand verlasse und später einfach www.huk24.de eingebe, bekomme ich nicht die Startseite zu sehen, sondern ein Hinweis, dass ich automatisch ausgeloggt wurde und mich wieder einloggen kann. Ich kann zwar trozdem nicht-eingeloggt weiter surfen, aber es besteht schon ein softer Zwang, mich einzuloggen. So kann HUK24 mich besser verstehen und mir personalisierte Funktionen anbieten.

6) Nach der Anmeldung komme ich zum “Meine HUK24” Bereich, wo in der Mitte die exakt 6 wichtigsten Funktionen abgebildet sind, die ich überhaupt jemals brauchen könnte: huk247) Und viele kleinere UX-Merkmale, die ich toll finde, z.B. durchgehend werden Buttons nicht deaktiviert, sondern beim Klicken erhält man eine Overlay mit Erklärung, was man noch machen müsste, usw.

Mal schauen. Wenn ihr eigentliches Produkt (die Versicherung) genau so gut funktioniert wie die Webseite, habe ich eine richtige Entscheidung getroffen.

Enterprise Innovation

Well, my Enterprise Seasons model was too simple. Actually, after creating their first successful “flywheel” product, some corporations proceed with creating second, third and further successful products, always remaining an innovative enterprise, at least at some of its parts. There are a lot of advantages in this:

Risk diversification. If one product fails for whatever reason, another products will keep the company afloat.

The law of diminished returns can be worked around. Instead of investing more and more creative power into smaller and smaller uplifts, one can enjoy a much higher ROI with a new fresh product.

Linear scalability. Growing the company by growing production and sales of a single product involves a lot of work with people, processes, and inevitable bureaucracy. Growing the company by creating a new product, can be just copying of its existing structure.

Several revenue sources can allow for aggressive market policies, so that the company might allow one of its products to be intentionally unprofitable, to gain market share.

– At last, there might be synergy between different products, for example ideas or methods from one product can be applied to another, or selling a combination of products might be easier.

Therefore, for me it is even more interesting to understand, why there are so many enterprises that have problems with innovations. Why some enterprises don’t keep creating more and more products? So far, I’ve seen the following scenarios:

Cultural incompatibility. Discovering a new product is everything but safe: 90% of new products fail. The traditional 19-century world view of a safe, life-time workplace, and a state welfare system eliminate the necessity of innovation. “We will work in the same safe market niche, and hopefully it will last until we leave the job and have our rent, and if not, the welfare system will help us to remain afloat and to find a new job.”

Ethical reasons. Growing a company can be seen as a consumeristic, anti-ecological activity. In this case, the company not only doesn’t create new products, also continuous development of its primary product is almost non-existing; it is in maintenance mode.

– While investing most of resources into establishing and developing its secondary product, the company’s primary product is hit and almost destroyed by a sudden market shift; its development is frozen and everyone keep working to make the secondary product the new primary.

– Even though the primary product is running well, most of its revenues are paid out to foreign shareholders running a short-time strategy. Innovation is barely possible, because there are not enough people and money for it.

If some innovation is nevertheless trying to happen, often there are cultural difficulties:

The Sun and stars fallacy. Sun is so much brighter than stars that we don’t see stars at day. The scale of the primary product is much higher than the one of a new product; it always has more visitors, page views, registrations, orders, revenue and operational spendings. “What? Your new product only generates X orders per month? What a fail, our primary product generates YYYYY orders! Let’s spend more on the primary product!” The trick is, if you don’t invest into the new product to grow it, it will also never reach maturity. The primary product was also so small in its initial stages.

The No-Fail mentality. When searching for a new product, everyone in the team (PM, designers, developers) must have the “Fail Fast, Fail Cheap” mentality. On contrary, developing a mature product, the team must have a “No Fails Allowed” principle. If you like test-driven development, run-time performance optimization, software security, writing source code commented and formatted to style guide, creating comfortable in-house frameworks and planning several sprints ahead, you should develop a mature product. But, if you like fast user feedback, discussions about usability and the minimal viable product, several releases each week, and your software works only in 80% of cases, your source code is dirty as devil, but you’d rather spend more time discussing one-pixel changes in the UI, then you should be in team discovering a new feature or product. When companies ignore these differences and assign their “No-Fail” developers to discover a new product, this only leads to everyone’s frustration.

The additive development fallacy. Development of the primary product is often additive. Projects like “We expect X% more users, have to scale hard- and software”, “We need feature X due to law changes”, or “we need a more modern design, let’s do a relaunch”, when implemented, usually never need to be rolled back. The problems begin, when new products or features are also implemented in the additive manner. Instead of starting with hypothesis verification and then a prototype, a complete product or feature is conceived, designed and implemented. Several months later, it rolls out, gets some less-than-moderate user attention, and starts to rot quietly in its tiny dark corner. Nobody has the balls to sun-set this feature, because, well, the company’s culture is additive, and the months of development are perceived as an asset. In reality, such features are a debt, constantly sucking team efforts and energy for maintenance, support, porting, translation, and operating.

I’m not sure yet, how enterprises create a new successful product. When observing enterprises with several products, I have the feeling that either

– a charismatic leader builds his very own small empire and creates a new product as a by-product (no pun intended),

– or the merge and acquisitions department grabs a product together with its team, and successfully integrates it into the company,

– or the company organizes its own startup incubator. The company owns then only partially its new products, and a lot of the existing infrastructure is not re-used, but at least the cultural issues are solved,

– or, in 0,00001% of cases, companies such as Valve have an innovation culture from the very beginning on.

Please share your experiences of innovations within an enterprise.

My Decision Theory

On my way to work I usually take a bus. Once, I’ve arrived to the bus stop a little bit late and had to wait for the next bus. I looked at the timetable and found out that the next bus was going to come in 12 minutes. I take two bus stops, which takes 4 minutes with the bus, or 20 minutes to walk.

I’ve decided to walk.

Now, mathematically, it was a wrong decision. Waiting for 12 minutes, then driving with the bus 4 minutes gives 16 minutes, which is shorter than 20 minutes. But, that day was very cold, so I’ve figured out I’d better walk and warm me up than staying at the bus stop for 12 minutes, possibly catching a cold. So, even if the decision was mathematically wrong, it was correct from the health point of view.

Several minutes into walking, I’ve watched a bus driving past me. What I’ve forgot while making my decision, is that two different bus lines pass my bus stop, and I can take both to come to work. I’ve looked up just one timetable and forgot about the second one.

As a consequence of this decision, I came into work several minutes later than I ought to come. Normally, this is not a very good thing. But I’ve worked a little bit more on the previous day, and I didn’t have any meetings scheduled, so that this hasn’t caused any major troubles. On the positive side, I’ve walked for 20 minutes, which was better for my health.

So, I took a decision, which was wrong both mathematically (16 minutes is less than 20) and logically (there was another bus line), but it didn’t have any major negative consequences, and indeed it was even good for my health.

Crazy, but this is how the world is. We take wrong decisions, but earn only positive consequences. Sometimes, we take perfectly correct and elegant decisions, that become huge source of negative consequences.

I’m still trying to understand how to handle it.

And this is by the way why I’m always laughing when I hear CS academics speaking about “reasoning about your code” and “formal proof of correctness”. They seem to be thinking, the biggest problem of software industry was to figure out, if 16 is less than 20.

Four Weeks of Bugfixing

The hardest bug I’ve ever fixed in my life took me 4 weeks to find. The bug report itself was pretty simple, but I have to give more context first.

I was one of the developers of a Smart TV software, and the bug related to the part of the software responsible for playing video files stored on your USB memory or drive. The CPU that was available for this task was a 750MHz ARM chip, and clearly it had not enough power to decode video (let alone HD video) in software. Luckily, every digital TV set has a hardware H.264 decoder, and our SOC was so flexible that we could use it programmatically. In this way, we were able to support H.264 video playback (too bad for you DivX and VC-1 owners).

Technically, the SOC has provided a number of building blocks, including a TS demux, an audio decoder, a video decoder, a scaler and multi-layer display device, and a DMA controller to transfer all the data between the blocks. Some of the blocks were present more than once (for example, for the PIP feature you naturally need two video decoders) and therefore could be dynamically and freely interconnected programmatically, building a hardware-based video processing pipeline. Theoretically, one could configure the pipeline by writing some proper bits and bytes in specified configuration registers of the corresponding devices. Practically, the chip manufacturer has provided an SDK for this chip, so that you only had to call a pretty well-designed set of C functions. The SDK was intended to run in the kernel mode of a Linux kernel, and it came from the manufacturer together with all building scripts needed to build the kernel.

Furthermore, this SDK was wrapped and extended by some more kernel-side code, first to avoid dependency on a particular SOC, and second to provide some devices to the user-mode, where the rest of the Smart TV software was running. So to play video programmatically, one needed to open a particular device from user mode as a file, and write into it a TS stream containing video and audio data.

Sadly, there are many people out there who have invented a lot of different container formats besides of TS. Therefore, our software had to detect the container format of the file to be played, demux the elementary streams out of it, then mux them again into a TS stream, and then hand it over to the kernel mode code. The kernel code would pass the TS bytes to the DMA device, that would feed the hardware TS demuxer, that would send the video elementary stream to the hardware video decoder, where it finally would be decoded and displayed.

For the user mode, we could implement all possible container formats ourselves (and this would mean some job security for the next 10 years of so). Fortunately the Smart TV software was architected very well so that the GStreamer framework was used (for you Windows developers it is an open-source alternative to DirectShow). The framework is written in C (to be quick) and GLib (to be object-oriented) and provides a pipeline container, where you can put some filters and interconnect them. Some filters read the data (sources), some process the data (eg. mux or demux), some use the data (sinks). When the pipeline starts playing, the filters agree on which one will drive the pipeline, and the driver would pull the data from all filters before it in the pipeline, and push the data into all the filters after it in the pipeline. Our typical pipeline looked like this (in a simplified form): “filesrc ! qtdemux ! mpegtsmux ! our_sink”. As you can expect from such a framework, there are also a lot of stuff related to events and state machines, as well as memory management.

So now, back to the bug report. It looked like this: when playing a TS file from USB memory, you can seek forward and backward with no limitation. When playing any other container format, you can seek forward, but you cannot seek backward. When seeking backward, the video freezes for several seconds, and then the playback continues from the latest position.

This is the sort of bugs when I think this might be fixed in a day or two. I mean, it works with TS, it doesn’t work with MP4, it is fully reproducible, so just find out what is different in those two cases and you’ve caught it.

The GStreamer pipeline in TS case looked like this: “filesrc ! our_sink”. So it must be either qtdemux or mpegtsmux. I’ve built another MP4 demuxer and replaced qtdemux with it. Negative, the bug is still there. No wonder, it also appeared in other container formats. I couldn’t replace mpegtsmux, because I haven’t found any alternatives. So the only thing I could do is to use the pipeline “filesrc ! qtdemux ! mpegtsmux ! filesink”, write the output into a file, and then try to dump the TS format structure and to look for irregularities.

If you know TS format, then for sure, you are already very sympathetic with me. TS is a very wicked and complicated format, and they repeat some meta-information every 188 bytes, so that the dump of several seconds of video took megabytes. After reading it, I didn’t find anything suspicious. Then I’ve converted my test MP4 video into a TS using some tool, dumped that TS, and compared. Well, there were some differences, in particular, how often the PCR was transmitted. Theoretically, PCR is just a system clock and should not influence the playback at all, but practically we already knew about some hardware bugs in the decoder making it allergic to unclear PCR signaling. I’ve spent some time trying to improve PCR, but this didn’t help either.

I have then played the dumped TS file, and I could see the seek backwards that I did during the recording. This has convinced me that mpegtsmux was also bug-free. The last filter I could suspect was our own sink. Implementing a GStreamer filter is not easy to do right in the first time. So that I went through all the functions, all the states, all the events, informed myself how the proper implementation should looked like, and found a lot of issues. Besides of a lot of memory leaks, we’ve generated a garbage during the seek. Specifically, GStreamer needs it to work in the following way:

1. The seek command arrives at the pipeline and a flush event is sent to all filters.

2. All filters are required to drop all buffered information to prepare themselves for the new data streamed from the new location.

3. When all filters have signaled to be flushed, the pipeline informs the pipeline driver to change playback location.

4. After the seek, the new bytes start flowing in the pipeline. Our code has conformed to this procedure somewhat, but did the cleanup prematurely, so that after the cleanup some more stale data polluted our buffers, before the data from the new location arrived.

I couldn’t explain why did it work with TS but not with MP4, but I’ve figured out that fixing it will make our product better anyways, so I’ve fixed it. As you can imagine, this didn’t solve the original problem.

At this point I’ve realized that I had to go into the kernel. This was a sad prospect, because every time I’ve changed anything in kernel, I had to rebuild it, then put the update on a USB stick, insert it into TV set, upgrade it to the new kernel by flashing the internal SOC memory, and then reboot the chip. And sometimes I’ve broken the build process, and the new kernel wouldn’t even boot, and I had to rescue the chip. But I had no other choice: I was out of ideas what else I could do in the user space, and I suspected that in the kernel space, we also had a similar issue with a garbage during the seek.

So that I’ve bravely read the implementation of the sink device and changed it in a way that it would explicitly receive a flush signal from the user space, then flush the internal buffer of the Linux device, then signal back to user space it is ready, and only then I would unlock the GStreamer pipeline and allow it to perform the seek and start streaming from the new location.

It didn’t help.

I went further and flushed the DMA device too. It didn’t help. Also flushing the video decoder device didn’t help.

At this point I’ve started to experiment with the flush order. If I first flush the DMA, the video decoder might starve in absence of data and therefore get stuck. But if I flush the decoder first, the DMA would immediately feed it with some more stale data. So perhaps I have to disconnect the DMA from video decoder first, then flush the decoder, then the DMA, and then reconnect them back? Implemented that. Nope, it didn’t work.

Well, perhaps the video decoder is allergic to asynchronous flushes? I’ve implemented some code that has waited until the video decoder reported that it has just finished the video frame, and then flushed it. Nope, this wasn’t it.

In the next step, I have subscribed to all hardware events of all devices and dumped them. Well, that were another megabytes of logs to read. And it didn’t help, that the video playback was a very fragile process per se. Even when playing some video, that looked perfectly well on the screen, the decoder and the TS demux would routinely complain of being out of sync, or losing it, or being unable to decode a frame.

After some time of trying to see a pattern, the only thing I could tell is that after the seek forward, the video decoder would complain for some frames, but eventually recover and start producing valid video frames. After a seek backward, the video decoder has never recovered. Hmm, can it be something with the H.264 stream itself that prevented the decoder to work?

Usually, one doesn’t think about elementary streams in terms of a format. They are just BLOBs containing the picture, somehow. But of course, they have some internal format, and this structure is normally only dealt with by authors of encoders and decoders. I went back to GStreamer and looked up, file by file, all the filters from the pipeline producing the bug. Finally, I’ve found out that mpegtsmux has a file having “h264” in its name, and this has immediately ringed alarm in my head. Because well, TS is one abstraction level higher than H.264, why the hell mpegtsmux has to know about the existence of H.264?

It turned out, H.264 bitstream has in its internal structure so-called SPS/PPS, the sequence parameter set that is basically a configuration for the video decoder. Without the proper configuration, it cannot decode video. In most container formats, this configuration is stored once somewhere in the header. The decoder normally reads the parameters once before the playback start, and uses them to configure itself. Not so in TS. The nature of TS format is so that it is not a file format, it is a streaming format. It has been designed in the way that you can start playing from any position in the stream. This means that all important information has to be repeated every now and then. This means, when H.264 stream gets packed into the TS format, the SPS/PPS data also has to be regularly repeated.

This is piece of code responsible for this repeating: http://cgit.freedesktop.org/gstreamer/gst-plugins-bad/tree/gst/mpegtsmux/mpegtsmux_h264.c?h=0.11#n232 As you can see, during the normal playback, it would insert the contents of h264_data->cached_es every SPS_PPS_PERIOD seconds. This works perfectly well until you seek. But look how the diff is calculated in the line 234, and how the last_resync_ts is stored in line 241. The GST_BUFFER_TIMESTAMP is as you can imagine the timestamp of the current video sample passing through the tsmux. When we seek backwards, the next time we come into this function, the GST_BUFFER_TIMESTAMP will be much less than last_resync_ts, so the diff will be negative, and thus the SPS/PPS data won’t be repeatedly sent, until we reach the original playback time before the seek.

To fix the bug, one can either use the system time instead of playback time, or reset last_resync_ts during the flush event. Both would be just a one line change in the code.

Now, the careful reader might ask, why could the TS file I’ve recorded using mpegtsmux in the beginning of this adventure be played? The answer is simple. In the beginning of this file (i.e. before I’ve seek), there are H.264 data with repeated SPS/PPS. At some point (when I’ve seek during the recoding), the SPS/PPS stop being sent, and then some seconds later appear again. Because these SPS/PPS data are the same for the whole file, already the first instance of them configures the video decoder properly. On the other hard, during the actual seek of MP4 playback, the video decoder is being flushed, and therefore the SPS/PPS data is being also flushed, and this is the point when the video decoder relies on repeated SPS/PPS in the TS stream to recover, and this is exactly the point when they stop coming from the mpegtsmux.

Four weeks of search. 8 hours a day, 5 days a week. Tons of information read and understood. Dozens of other smaller bugs fixed on the way. Just to find out a single buggy line of code out of 50 millions lines of code in the source folder. A large haystack would contain to my estimate 40 to 80 millions of single hays, making this bug fixing adventure literally equivalent of finding a needle in a haystack.

Four Seasons of Enterprise

In the beginning, there is no enterprise, just a couple of founders fascinated by a single idea and working hard to realize it. The startup does not earn much money, and there are barely any employees, so that I suppose it might feel just like a (very hardcore) hobby. Or a side gig. There are no formally defined roles. Everybody is doing everything, and everybody is responsible for everything, and everybody can see the real contribution of each other. There is an Enterprise Spring feeling, full of the can-do mentality.

The Enterprise Summer begins, when the enterprise starts earning substantial amount of money and hires their 20th employee. The founders, now CEOs, suddenly realize that “they” (their company) are earning much more money than they would have been ever able to earn by their own. And they are responsible that this revenue increases, not decreases. Also, they realize that dozens of their employees trusted them and build on stability of the company to plan their life, pay off mortgages and so on. This is a huge responsibility and huge pressure. And for sure, a lot of sleepless nights, with a single thought running through your head: “how are we going to survive?”

I had a chance to observe several founders in several companies, hitting this level. They were all good-hearted, creative, smart, modest and ethical people. But I could see, day for day, how this pressure had melted, squeezed or at least severely bent their personality. At some point, you have to ignore interests of your friends, in the sake of the enterprise. At some point, you have to make unpopular, hard decisions and stop some projects, because your enterprise can’t handle too much projects at once and has to focus more sharply to survive. You have to cut parts of the body to save the rest. And on some day, you have to lay off somebody for the first time. If you didn’t had grey hairs before, this is the time for the first one.

At this stage, enterprises usually have a very loyal staff, and everyone has a very entrepreneurial approach: everybody knows exactly, how are we earning money, what does he or she has to do to help earning money, and what will happen if someone stops earning money. Summer Enterprises that don’t have enough staff of this kind, die very quickly.

First formally defined roles appear, out of a very practical and extremely transparent reason (that everyone can follow): that the division of work will reduce overhead, and thus help earning more money, and thus help the enterprise to survive. With roles comes responsibility, and some formal processes. The individual contribution of every single person starts getting fuzzy, because of division of labor, so that first non-monetary KPIs appear. Non-monetary KPIs lead to the first “locality problems”, where some people tend to over-optimize their own KPI, at the expense of some other departments, and the overall revenue. But because the company is still on the profitability edge and is fighting for its survival, these problems are usually timely detected by CEOs and fixed.

At some point, the enterprise gets a momentum. Some kind of a flywheel appears, generating ever more revenue and income, seemingly by itself. In the Enterprise Autumn, the company starts hiring more and more staff. Survival of the company is getting less and less dependent on individual contribution or individual decisions of any single employee. There will be more and more process. At this point, CEOs realize that they have finally achieved the nirvana they had envisioned so eagerly in their sleepless nights before, and start focusing on the conservation of the status quo. Minimizing or at least managing risks of destroying the flywheel is prioritized above trying some new ways earning money. Every single department is culturally trimmed to minimize risks and avoid mistakes. As a result, any major innovation ceases.

Usually, at this point, more and more people playing corporate politics are hired.

Remember the feeling of people before the 20th century? The mankind was so small compared with the nature that no one made any second thought cutting the last tree in the forest or spilling waste into a river. The “Well, when this forest is cut down, we’ll just move on to the next forest” attitude. Only in the 20th century, people have finally realized that the Earth is a closed and pretty limited ecosystem. The Enterprise Summer is just like ecological thinking – everybody is aware that any single major fuck-up can end up with a global meltdown. Everybody is an Entrepreneur. On the contrary, in the Enterprise Autumn companies, there are a lot of people with the middle age attitude. They know that the momentum is huge and flywheel is big, so that they can allow putting their own career interests above the interests of the enterprise.

This is why Autumn Enterprises are so full of corporate politics. And from some particular point of view, one can at least understand it. After all, the well-being of a living, breathing person should be valued more than some abstract 0,01% uplift in revenues of some soulless corporate monster, earning money for some minority to allow them to buy a second yacht. So no wonder some people feel it ethical to do corporate politics and enjoy playing politic games. Others have to participate to protect themselves. Yet another just go under radar and opt out.

Another consequence of the corporate politics is the rise of huge locality problems, where the narrow focus on the KPIs of my own department prevails, often at the expense of the overall revenue, and there is nobody who can untangle these problems.

But no momentum can be forever. Either the too much of locality problems, or some external sudden market shift damages the flywheel, so that it cannot rotate so effortlessly than before. This is the time of the Enterprise Winter. At this point, the company usually has a long history of corporate politics, so that

a) all of its most important posts are occupied by corporate politicians with a non-ecological thinking, and

b) most of ecologically thinking Entrepreneurs have either left the company, or remained on an outsider role without any real influence.

To fix the flywheel, or to find out a new one, the enterprise needs (more) Entrepreneurs. But the corporate politicians (correctly) see them as a danger for themselves and fight them.

Different things can now happen depending on balance of power between the two groups. Entrepreneurs might win the battle, or at least manage to fix the flywheel while being constantly under attack. Or personal interests of corporate politicians might accidentally be best represented by a project that also fixes the flywheel. Or the flywheel has so much energy that it allows the company to survive for years and years, even in the damaged state, and then, another lucky external influence might fix it. Microsoft’s flywheel has been severely damaged around 10 years ago, and they have demonstrated both spectacular flywheel repairs and awful additional flywheel damages since than. Apple had experienced a similarly long period, the 12 years without Jobs.

But in the worst case, if the flywheel is weak and the corporate politics prevails, the agony might start, with all possible short-term potentials being sucked out of the flywheel, then staff getting laid off, and then all remaining assets being sold.

How M should an MVP be?

Minimum Viable Product is now mainstream. But what exactly does it mean?

In my opinion, MVP is just an example of a more generic principle: Fail Fast. In other words, if you have to fail, it is better to fail in the very beginning, reducing the amount of burned investment.

If my idea is good, using MVP is counterproductive: some early adopters will get bad first impression due to lack of some advanced features or overall unpolishness, and we will need to spend much more money later just to make them to give us another chance.

If my idea is bad, MVP will save us a lot of money.

Because there is no sure way to know if my idea good or bad beforehand, it is safer to assume it is bad and go with the MVP.

But how exactly minimal the product should be? Do we want to reduce the feature set? Or don’t care about usability? Or save on proper UX and design? Does it mean it may be slow, unresponsive, unstable? Can its source code be undocumented and unmaintainable?

Well, the reason of MVP is reducing the overall investment. The principle behind it, is investing just that much to achieve a sound and valid market test, and not more. This means, when deciding about MVP, you tend to cut the area what costs you most.

For example, let’s assume we have a product development team that needs only 1 day to design a screen, 3 days to develop the backend for that screen, and 10 days to develop the frontend. It is naturally, that MVPs produced by this team would tend to have great visuals combined with an awful and buggy UI and a very good backend.

Let’s assume now that a team needs a week to design one screen, 1 day to develop the frontend, and 5 days to develop the backend. MVPs of that team would tend to have ugly, but responsive and user-friendly UI that would often need to show the loading animation because of a sluggish backend.

What does it mean?

This means that a double advantage is given to teams capable of designing and fully developing one screen per day: not only their MVP will be released sooner (or alternatively can have more features, better look and performance and more user-friendly UI), but also it can be a well-balanced and therefore mature-looking product (that’s an advantage to be mature-looking).

And this also means, if you want to identify where your business has capacity issues, just look at your typical MVPs: if some areas of them are substantially worse than other, you know what areas of the product team can be improved.

Client Driven Development

When I first tried out the test-driven development (it was around 1998, I think), I was fascinated how it helped me to design better APIs. My unit tests were the first clients of my code, so that my classes obtained a logical and easy-to-use interface, quite automatically.

Some time later I’ve realized that if you have a lot of unit tests, they can detect regressions and therefore support you during refactoring. I’ve implemented two projects, each took a couple of years, and have written around 200 unit tests for each.

And then I’ve stopped writing unit tests in such big counts. My unit tests have really detected some regressions from time to time. That is, around 5 times a year. But the efforts writing and maintaining them were much higher than any advantages of having detected a regression before manual testing.

But still, I was missing the first advantage of TDD, the logical and easy-to-use interfaces. So I’ve started to do Client Driven Development.

The problem with the unit tests is that they don’t have any direct business value per se. They might be helpful for business goals, but in a very indirect way. I’ve replaced them with a client code that does have some direct business value.

For example, I’m developing a RESTful web service. I roughly know what kind of queries and responses it must support. I start with developing a HTML page. In there, I write an <a> tag with all the proper parameters to the web service. I then might write some text around it, documenting the parameters of the service. Then I open this page in the browser and click on the link, which predictably gives me a 404 error, because the web service is not yet implemented. I then proceed with implementing it, reloading my page and generally using it in place of a unit test.

Of course, this approach has the drawback that, unlike in a unit test, I don’t check the returning values and thus this page cannot be run automatically. If you want, you still can replace this link with an AJAX call and check the returning values – I personally don’t believe that these efforts would pay off at the end of the day. More important is that this page has an immediate business value. You can use it as a rough and unpolished documentation for your web service. You can send it to your customer, or another team writing some client, etc.

If the web service is designed in a way that it is hard to get away with <a> and <form> tags, I would write some JavaScript or Silverlight code to call it properly. In this case, the page might have more business-relevant functions. For example, when it loads, it might request and display some data from the web service, in a sortable and scrollable grid, and allow you to edit them, providing you with a very low-level “admin” interface to the service.

This approach is not constrained by web development. I’ve used it for example for inter-process communication, and if my code has not yet been refactored out, it is flying now in passenger airplanes, and running inside of TV sets in many living rooms. In this variant, I start developing the inter-process communication by creating a bash script or a trivial console app that would send the messages to another process. I implement corresponding command-line options for them. When I’m ready, I start developing the receiving part, inside of some running process. This has the similar effect on the API design as unit testing, but has the advantage that you can use it during debugging, or even in production, for example in some startup scripts.

I’m not an inventor of this approach, indeed I often see this approach in many open source projects, but I’m not aware of any official name for it.

 

Smart TV application software architecture

Someone come to my blog searching the phrase in the title of this post. To avoid disappointments of future visitors, here is a gist of what the architecture looks like.

First of all, let’s interpret the architecture very broadly as “most important things you need to do to get cool software”. According to this, here is what you need to do:

1) Put a TV set on the developer’s desk. And no, not “we have one TV set in the nearby room, he can go test the app when needed”. And no, not “there is a TV set on a table only 3 meters away”. Each developer must have an own device.

2) Get a development firmware for the device so that you’ll get access to all log files (and ideally, access to the command line). A TV set is a Linux running WebKit or Opera browser.

3) Most Smart TVs support CE-HTML and playing H.264 / AAC videos in MP4 format. Just read the CE-HTML standard and create a new version of your frontend. Alternatively, you might try to use HTML5, because many Smart TVs would translate remove control presses as keyboard arrow key presses; and some Smart TVs support the <video> tag.

4) If you’re interested in a more tight integration with the TV, eg. be able to display live TV in your interface, or switch channels, or store something locally, you need to choose a target ecosystem, because unfortunately there is no standard app API spec today.

MUSEing

For some reason, I meet people every day who don’t agree with my MUSE framework or at least implicitly have a different priority framework in their minds. Usually it looks like this:

“Let us conceive, specify, develop, bugfix and release the product, and then ask the marketing guys to market it”. Well, what if we first ask marketing, what topics can bring us the cheapest leads and then conceive the product around them, or at least not against them?

“Solution A is better from the usability standpoint than solution B, therefore we should do A”. Well, B is better for motivation, because it looks more beautiful, and beauty sells. I don’t care if something is easy to use, if it looks so ugly that nobody would want to use it.

“So does this bug prevents users from using the feature, or it is just some optics, and the functionality is all in place and working?” Well, users first needs to have a reason to use our product, second must be able to understand the product. Unless these two requirements are satisfied, it doesn’t matter if the functionality is working. It is different from, say, enterprise software, where users are in the work setting and have to use the software. In the entertainment market, nobody has to read the book, listen the song, or watch the movie to the end. Or use our web site.

“MVC is a great idea, because it allows us to decouple logic from view. Let’s quickly find and use some MVC framework for HTML5!” Yes, MVC is a great idea for enterprise software, because it makes UI easier to test, allows designers and developers to work in parallel, and provides reusable components in a very natural and effortless way. But one of the MVC drawbacks is that you can easily hit a performance issue in the UI, because this architecture prevents you from squeezing 100% of the performance from the UI technology. Besides, HTML5 MVC frameworks often wrap or abstract away DOM objects and events, and therefore make it complicated to define exactly, what is shown to the user. Another MVC drawback is that it helps you to believe that reusing exactly the same UI components overall in the app is always a good idea, because hey it is good for implementation and good for usability. But a seductively looking beautiful design is more important. Even if it looks a little different on different screens.

And sometimes it is quite hard for me to understand these opinions, because MUSE sounds for me so natural and logical that I can’t imagine any other consistent priority framework.

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