Tags: pipelines

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Tuesday, January 17th, 2023

Chain of tools

I shared this link in Slack with my co-workers today:

Cultivating depth and stillness in research by Andy Matuschak.

I wasn’t sure whether it belonged in the #research or the #design channel. While it’s ostensibly about research, I think it applies to design more broadly. Heck, it probably applies to most fields. I should have put it in the Slack channel I created called #iiiiinteresting.

The article is all about that feeling of frustration when things aren’t progressing quickly, even when you know intellectually that not everything should always progress quickly.

The article is filled with advice for battling this feeling, including this observation on curiosity:

Curiosity can also totally change my relationship to setbacks. Say I’ve run an experiment, collected the data, done the analysis, and now I’m writing an essay about what I’ve found. Except, halfway through, I notice that one column of the data really doesn’t support the conclusion I’d drawn. Oops. It’s tempting to treat this development as a frustrating impediment—something to be overcome expediently. Of course, that’s exactly the wrong approach, both emotionally and epistemically. Everything becomes much better when I react from curiosity instead: “Oh, wait, wow! Fascinating! What is happening here? What can this teach me? How might this change what I try next?”

But what really resonated with me was this footnote attached to that paragraph:

I notice that I really struggle to generate curiosity about problems in programming. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing it so long, but I think it’s because my problems are usually with ephemeral ideas, incidental to what I actually care about. When I’m fighting some godforsaken Javascript build system, I don’t feel even slightly curious to “really” understand those parochial machinations. I know they’re just going to be replaced by some new tool next year.

I feel seen.

I know I’m not alone. I know people who were driven out of front-end development because they felt the unspoken ultimatum was to either become a “full stack” developer or see yourself out.

Remember Chris’s excellent post, The Great Divide? Zach referenced it recently. He wrote:

The question I keep asking though: is the divide borne from a healthy specialization of skills or a symptom of unnecessary tooling complexity?

Mostly I feel sad about the talented people we’ve lost because they felt their front-of-the-front-end work wasn’t valued.

But wait! Can I turn my frown upside down? Can I take Andy Matuschak’s advice and say, “Oh, wait, wow! Fascinating! What is happening here? What can this teach me?”

Here’s one way of squinting at the situation…

There’s an opportunity here. If many people—myself included—feel disheartened and ground down by the amount of time they need to spend dealing with toolchains and build systems, what kind of system would allow us to get on with making websites without having to deal with that stuff?

I’m not proposing that we get rid of these complex toolchains, but I am wondering if there’s a way to make it someone else’s job.

I guess this job is DevOps. In theory it’s a specialised field. In practice everyone adding anything to a codebase partakes in continual partial DevOps because they must understand the toolchains and build processes in order to change one line of HTML.

I’m not saying “Don’t Make Me Think” when it comes to the tooling. I totally get that some working knowledge is probably required. But the ratio has gotten out of whack. You need a lot of working knowledge of the toolchains and build processes.

In fact, that’s mostly what companies hire for these days. If you’re well versed in HTML, CSS, and vanilla JavaScript, but you’re not up to speed on pipelines and frameworks, you’re going to have a hard time.

That doesn’t seem right. We should change it.