2011: A new year, a new gig.

It’s been one hell of a year for me. Jaxon is now a year old and doing great. I got to spend alot of time with my family, almost 6 weeks by my count. I did some traveling too: I was in Taiwan for two weeks in May; I spoke at IPC (Germany) in October, and traveled through Bavaria and met some great people. I did some really cool stuff at work. Again, it was a great year.

But, I think as humans we ultimately can’t leave well-enough alone, and being human (yes, debatable), something needed to change. Due to some personal and professional reasons, I decided to leave Yahoo! to pursue other opportunities. I was there 3 1/2 years and I had some great times. I worked with really smart, passionate people and worked on projects with major impact. Yahoo! was a great experience for me - they moved me out here, gave me fun stuff to work on, allowed me to pursue my technical interests and even do some traveling, all on their dime. For that, I’m very sincere when I say, “Thanks.”.

So, why did I have to leave? Well, to paraphrase a thoughtful colleague’s blog post, Yahoo! and I had reached a crossroad where I really couldn’t “add” to Yahoo! and pursue my current interests at the same time. There is plenty of work to be done, but for me to take it on would mean me putting aside my own aspirations. While I do believe that my interests and Yahoo!’s immediate needs will converge again one day, it’s just not today, and so, I needed to move on. With all of that said, I really, REALLY want to thank upper management for trying really, really hard to find a position for me that met my needs - Thanks.

So, what’s next? How can one top working on the Number 1 News site in the world? Work on stuff in space, of course!

I’m now the Senior Platform Software Engineer at Skybox Imaging. Skybox is a venture-backed startup that’s building satellities (yes, we literally build them in house) better, faster, cheaper and smaller than anyone has before. So what am I doing there? In short, I’m responsible (solely ATM) for storing, processing and serving all of the data (video, photos and text) we get from the satellites.

This is an awesome opportunity for me for several reasons:

  • I’m building the Hadoop cluster, storage and serving layers from scratch, everything from design to deployment, and much of the code that runs on it.
  • Lots and lots of data, and using Hadoop to process image data is largely-uncharted water at this point.
  • Lots of code to be written - in addition to the above, I’m helping out the flight software team in building the encoder that converts the human readable command manifest into the bits that get radiated to the satellite.
  • This industry is completely new to me, which makes it fun and interesting. I know nothing about space, aeronautics or mechanical engineering. They’ve already let me have at it with some of the tools (they obviously don’t know me too well) and I haven’t hurt anyone yet.
  • And of course, there are the perks:

  • Kegerator
  • Ping-pong/Nerf Guns/Xbox/Team events - all the usual startup stuff
  • Only two miles from my place
  • I literally work with Rocket Scientists.
  • It is going to be a fun year. We’ve got lots of cool toys to play with (we have our first satellite dish *inside* the office) and some serious $$$ behind us. Of course, I’ll miss working with my friends at Y!, but we’re all in the same town and I’m sure we’ll stay in touch. I wish Y! the best and do believe they are now on the right course - 2010 was a planning/design/initial implementation year and 2011 will further implement that vision. And I look forward to the day that Y! News publishes the article describing our first launch - look out for it!


    My Todo List Search

    Having gone through some GTD training recently, I set out on my hunt for the best todo list system for me. First off, let me say that I’m not a GTD purist by any means and in fact have been doing something that somewhat resembles GTD for a few years now, but I certainly like some of its principles. Anyway, here are my (slim) requirements:

    1. Website - no desktop software required.
    2. Mobile Access - ideally IPhone App and must have identical functionality to the website
    3. Concept of Tasks, due dates, and priorities
    4. Repeating tasks is a nice to have
    5. Free is a nice to have

    With those in place, I set out and evaluated these, with some of my brief comments:

    • - mobile interface too simple, you can only view the tasks from your mobile, no updating/deleting
    • (RTM)- probably most suited for my needs, but due to their terms, I’m essentially paying $25 year to support their iphone developer. $25 is what one pays for Flickr, and that is a much more valuable service IMO. The phone app has a 15 day trial.
    • - looks awesome, but doesn’t support priorities, due dates and “tasks” from the web interface from what I can see. I was told that it does do this from the desktop app, but I really want a website and mobile app, that’s it.
    • Errands (iphone app) - I thought this app was great and many people like it, but it has no website to go along with it which means all data entry needs to happen on the phone. I’m not one of these people married to a PIM so this is in the realm of possibility for me, but I ultimately decided I need a website sync up
    • - website plus mobile website, but no priority or due date
    • - iphone plus website, has due dates, but no priorities, but you can sort the list, so that can be your priority. You have to buy the IPhone app, but they have a demo video on the website.
    • - website/mobile website - due date but no priorities, you lose completed items unless you move them to another list, but you can’t move between lists on your mobile device.

    As it stands now, I’m using RTM and am still in the 15 day window. Zenbe Lists is definitely a close second and I’ll reevaluate that before my 15 days expire with RTM.


    Long time no blog

    It has been a long time since I’ve written and I’m due for an update. So here goes:

    Moved to Mountain View

    On July 5th of 2009, we moved into our new place in Mountain View. We weren’t really looking in Mountain View (we were looking in west San Jose and Willow Glen) but I have to say, so far I love it. Just a couple of miles to downtown (can ride my bike or take a < 10 minute bus ride) and central to many stores, two parks, freeways and Caltrain. I'm closer to work as well, which I've been taking advantage of by riding my bike to and from twice a week (7.3 miles each way).

    Our (town)house is great too, with a creek right that opens up into a small (man-made) lake with fountains all right outside our front door. Just behind that is the (usually empty) pool which is close enough for me to pick up the WiFi from our place. The 3 beds, 2.5 bath, patio (the cats dig that) and 2 car garage give us the space we wanted and really not for much more than we were paying in Santa Clara. Oh, and the schools: Los Altos. You don't get any better than that.

    The twist in the story was that we learned of our July 5th move-out date on July 2nd. We had just seen this place the night before and it just so happens that we loved it. Can't believe we moved everything in 3 days. Much thanks to Pierre and Janise for all the help and support. We couldn't have done it without you guys.

    Joined a new team at Yahoo!

    Not sure how much of this is public knowledge, but I’ve joined a new team at Yahoo!. Funny thing is, so did the rest of News. We’re now all part of the Media Integration Team (MIT). We’ll be bridging the gap between Media properties (News, Sports, Finance, Entertainment) and Platforms by working with both groups to create uniform, ready-to-go solutions for Media. It’s a neat gig, as we get evaluate and prototype with new technology at Yahoo! and come up with whatever is necessary to roll it out. Many times a technology at Y! can’t get implemented right away due to scheduling, lack of resources or the “lack of polish” (usability, SLA, required features) needed for a Media Property to use it. We’re the solution to those problems. I’m definitely looking forward to working on some new and challenging things.

    Trip to NY/Cruise to Bermuda

    Elissa and I are joining our friends Dale and Katrina on a cruise to Bermuda. This will be our first trip without Evan - and I absolutely can’t wait! We both need a break and a chance to recharge and what better way to relax? The on-shore excursions look great and I’ll enjoy doing nothing while “at sea”. Evan will be vacationing as well at Chez Grandma, aka: boot camp. I’m sure she’ll whip him into shape. Much to Elissa’s dismay, of course.

    In retrospect, our timing may not have been the best for this cruise, but we bought the flight and cruise tickets during the “OMG, the economy is going to crash and we’re all gonna die” period of this year (has that ended yet?) and so we’re going on a great vacation for a bargain. Nice to see some $$$$ flow our way as Uncle Sam got plenty of it in 2008.

    Shoulder surgery in September

    I’ve lived with my “trick” shoulder long enough. Evan just got his first baseball mitt, and I’d like to play catch with him without risking a trip to the hospital. So, I’m going under the knife in September. Should be in and out in a couple of hours. My shoulder will need to be immobilized but I’ll still be able type (albeit awkwardly). Three to nine months of physical therapy to follow.

    International PHP Conference in November

    In November, I’m heading to Karlsruhe, Germany to the International PHP Conference. I’ll be speaking about highly-configurable web applications and will certainly share my slides, etc. with the community afterwards.

    I plan on staying a few extra days to do some sightseeing, and even went to my first German restaurant in preparation the other day. Delicious.

    New Baby in January

    Elissa and I are pleased to announce a new addition to the family come January. We won’t know the sex until the big day and we’re at a loss for names. I suggested “Sylvester” and “Jesus” (pronounced “Hey-Zeus“) but Elissa shot those down cold.

    So, that’s about it from me. I’d like to say, “I’ll be posting something new every week”, but I doubt that will happen. :-)


    Things that annoy me in computing

    Even to this day, these things exist. What gives?

    1. Browser inconsistencies - please, don’t get me started
    2. Non-secure login - there is NO GOOD REASON as to why I should need to log into your website without SSL. Most of you have it, why isn’t it the default? By you not redirecting me to the SSL version by default, you are telling me, “Our system resources are more important that your security.”. Thanks.
    3. State of Wireless - tell me again, why isn’t it fast, secure and absolutely everywhere?
    4. Network hopping - although this has gotten better it is still not idea. My computer/software needs to figure out which network I’m on and not on. And while I’m at it, if I have multiple available and credentials for all, then use them!



    My Commute via Public Transportation

    I decided that I was going to take public transport (or, not use my car) to work, for several reasons:

    1. Inject a little activity into my life (as I use my bike or a scooter to get to and from the stops, etc)
    2. See if I can do anything productive during that time. FYI, I wrote this blog on the bus.
    3. My son loves buses and trains. As he gets older we’ll start to use them more on our weekend excursions.
    4. Just for fun and to see how long it would take vs. by car.
    5. Learn a little about my transportation options as well as roads I never drive down.
    6. If I can save a few bucks and help the environment too, why not?


    In the suburbs of Long Island, public transportation is mildly useful but totally uncool. It is not acceptable to not have a car, even if it is by choice. Now that I travel back to LI often, I’ve come to rely on PT (or, transportation other than my own personal car) I see how lousy it really is, which is probably due to the fact that only people who can’t afford a car (or can’t drive for some reason) use it for the most part.

    Here in the Bay Area, however, that is not the case. People of all types use public transportation. It is definitely better than the bus system on LI, but not as robust and fast as the NYC system. It also gets confusing as there are several different transit systems here and depending on where you are and where you want to go, you may use more than one.

    I use VTA as I’m traveling inside Santa Clara county. Plus, it is free for me to ride thanks to Y!.

    Planning and Preparation

    I used the public transportation feature of Google Maps for my initial planning. It is very cool, but not without its flaws. The VTA website and a paper-copy of the VTA schedule were my best friends during the week. Also, a big thanks to my co-workers for the advice and tips along the way.

    My bike had been chained to my storage closet in my complex with the front wheel removed since I arrived here in CA, so on Memorial Day I decided to put it back together, cleaned it up and put air in the tires. The bike is nothing fancy - just a cheap Huffy I bought a few years ago. It has knobby tires that are made for dirt and makes a swooshing noise when I ride. But, I’m not a pro cyclist - I just need something to get me from point A to point B.

    VTA fully supports using your bike for this purpose and describe what they offer on the bus and light rail here. In short, up to 4 bikes on a bus, 6 on the light rail.

    I’ve already seen lots of bikes on PT - ten-speeds, old clunkers, mountain bikes, pro-bikes, BMX bikes, folding bikes, tandem bikes and even bikes with banana seats. Its all about getting around.

    Here are some of the highlights from my journey:

    Bus was 2 minutes late. One other bike in the rack. Bike is simple to put in - just place front wheel in and pull the hook over the front tire (although, I was still worried about my bike falling out). I also had the outer slot, but I saw the other bike owner get his bike out OK. Another Y! got on the bus a few stops later and sat right in front of me, so I thought I’d follow him, but he got off at Great America. Stops are announced which is very helpful, too.

    Light Rail and Bike rack - that totally sucks - just hold your bike if you can. Especially if you have a heavy mountain bike like mine.

    Ride home was fine - I skipped the plan big G gave me to opt for the route returning home. I goofed, however (see what happens when you cross the big G?) and took a train 15 minutes too early, which left me at the connecting bus stop for 15 minutes. But, now I know.

    The only other downside is that I need to cross a major road on the way home, with no traffic light. Argh.

    5/28 - signed up for free wifi - a little slow, and doesn’t seem to work on the bus itself, but hey, it is free. It would be nice if just worked everywhere, though, as I wouldn’t need a broadband card. Oh well.

    A couple of Y!s were at the bus stop this morning. It seems that people tend to not use public transport everyday but rather just a few times a week. I’ve had conservations with other Y!s and one said he saved $30 a week plus wear-and-tear by just using PT twice a week. Pretty cool.

    Had to leave work early on Wednesday because my wife had plans. The public transport schedule accommodated me just fine. I was a little too early for the train leaving Y!, but had the connection to the bus optimized so I only waited two or 3 minutes.

    6/2 - rode my scooter to the bus stop. That is more of a workout than I thought! It also shows that I am out of shape.

    The scooter is cool because it folds up but I do wish the platform was a little bigger. I bought the “pro” model of the scooter as it supports my weight - you would think that bigger people would have larger feet and hence they would make the platform larger. Not so.

    6/3 - missed the bus by 30 seconds - a very nice woman actually took myself and a fellow Y! up the road (about 4 miles) to catch the bus. Never got her name, but thank you!

    6/4 - bus was late - missed my train, but Y! shuttle to the rescue!

    Lessons Learned

    • not all stops are listed in the schedule, pick the one before and add a few minutes
    • bus with a bike: when you see the bus coming, look and see how many bikes are on the rack. If no bikes, position your bike so the front tire faces you and put in on the kickstand as you will need to pull down the rack. The bike goes on slot closest to the bus. If there is one bike already on the rack, position the front tire away from you. If there are two bikes, you’ll be taking it on the bus.
    • bike and light rail - hold it if you can - the bike racks are a pain and not worth it for a short trip
    • my commute with a car - 25-35 minutes. Commute with bike/PT - 55 - 113 minutes (57 on average).
    • once you learn where you need to said transportation to, position yourself accordingly. There are benefits to riding the front or back of the train, etc.
    • personal pref, but I don’t like the seats in the front of the bus that face each other. However, if you have a bike and the rack is full you may end up here.
    • riding a scooter is about 1/2 as fast in my situation but twice the workout. Riding a scooter also confines you to the sidewalk so be on the lookout for cracks, etc.
    • Caveat - you are at the mercy of the transit schedule if there is an emergency

    Hiring Developers and the Big Picture

    I’ve been sitting on this for about a year and now that it has come up yet again, I just have to comment.

    This got started when I got caught up in reading the recent thread on the NYPHP mailing list about interviewing developers and its reference to Joel Spolsky’s, “The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing” (v. 3.0 10/2006). I discovered that he actually wrote a book on the topic as well (don’t click the link, please).

    I don’t know how to say this any other way: All these people got it wrong.

    If you read through the threads I’ve linked to, you see that this quickly becomes “me too” party where everyone interjects their criteria/question as to not feel inadequate. So, whats the best answer? There is none, but here are my thoughts on the issue:

  • Every situation is different. Since every place of employment is different, a standardized test won’t help unless you are doing things in a standardized way. My experience: as much as well all crow about wanting standards, engineers generally don’t - unless it was their standard, of course.
  • You don’t always want the Alpha. I see the discussion go from a request for a junior developer to questions for veterans. This is not a car, where you are hoping to get a Ferrari for a Chevy price. These people need to fit in and grow with your organization. If you manage to get an “expert” for that junior position, they are just going to leave, so don’t bother. Rather than looking at how much you can spend on this new hire, you should be looking at what you NEED for the company to grow. Hiring a junior person is really for backfill (or if you can’t afford a senior person) so the requirement needs to be different, as well as the questions.
  • I won’t get long winded, but rather than fun algorithm tests that only prove if the user has seen the latest parlor tricks, you need to assess their experience, skill level, and THEIR goals. All of this fun should be done at the phone screen level, so when they are here in person, you should seriously be considering them. So, do this:

  • Read their resume, go in and start talking to them. Ask them about their resume and items
  • As you go through each item, as them in detail about it. If you are experienced as you think you are, you should be able to delve pretty deeply. This also conveys to the candidate that simple BS isn’t going to work with you
  • Give them a problem to work on and see how they tackle it. This is open-ended, and you should see technical knowledge mixed in with a get-it-done attitude.
  • The last one is pretty important. You really don’t care if they can solve the carnival game you gave them at the interview, you really care if they can handle whatever may come at them in the future. I think this is the part that people don’t get. Language, platform, etc, don’t really matter at that point. If you are looking for a true expert, you need to look for the traits that one displays:

  • Technical experience: not syntax, but concepts
  • STRONG communication skills. This is a deal breaker. They can’t speak and write, they are out. No matter the position.
  • Roll with it/Get it done mentality. You should be looking for that person to consistently try to solve the problem, coming at it from different angles and won’t stop until it is fixed or they re-assess the problem itself (IMO it takes a real expert to see this).
  • So, make a pot of coffee and sit and have a chat with the person. You’ll never know what you don’t know without it.