StackOverflow has 25% unanswered questions

We were talking the other day at Ada Developers Academy about whether StackOverflow has an increasing barrier to entry. In order to play you have to answer a question. This was easier when it first started (and when it first started I had lots of experience). In the last few years many, many of the beginner questions are already answered. And for beginners, it’s even harder to find questions you can answer. The students I was talking to were frustrated by this.

At the same time, I was lamenting the fact that the few questions I’ve asked don’t get answered. Maybe because I only ask questions I can’t find the answer to and that are really hard. Or maybe they are uninteresting.

So I checked and discovered that this morning StackOverflow lists 1,687,405 unanswered questions of 7,016,543 total. That’s 25% unanswered questions! This really surprised me.

So I’m sure there are questions for beginning programmers just by the shear volume of questions. Finding them may be a challenge.

[Update 2014-05-12]

There’s an interesting post on meta.stackoverflow.com where the top responders seem to think that the quality of questions is getting lower and more repetitive. One responder to this meta questions decried the questions on SO as being “answered 100 times, or is a “do my work for me” question.” So from their perspective the reason 25% are unanswered is because they have been answered before or the requester hasn’t done sufficient pre-work to warrant asking a question.

Sorry coders, graphic design is 75% of the game

We spend a lot of time making our software well architected, maintainable, bug free and well written. It’s important to us that we build software that we can be proud of and that we can scale and maintain (alternately, you can take Fred George’s extreme position of building everything on throw-away microservices, but that’s a different post). In fact, in a survey of my team we found that companies we have worked in often have five to seven developers per graphic designer. That implies that it takes a lot more development effort that graphic design effort to get the job done.

My experience is, that from the customer’s perspective, great graphic design can cover a multitude of sins. A site that looks great will have customers apologizing for bugs. A site that looks ugly or unbalanced will have people looking for bugs. Whether we like it or not, customer opinion is predicated more on graphic design than all the work we spent making the software fast and robust.

Here’s a story I tell to illustrate this (I’m sure you have your own similar experience).

When I bought my house I knew I had to replace the furnace — it was a gas furnace from the 20’s that took up more square feet than a bathroom. I had a company install a top-of-the-line energy efficient gas furnace, inside the crawlspace, which meant re-building all the duct work in the basement. When they had completed the job, I saw that they had used three different types of duct tape throughout the basement. This immediately got me looking at other issues — such as the dampers they had not installed, seams that were either not taped or not sealed, and other minor issues. I had them come back and complete the job; but if they had been consistent in their duct tape use, I probably would have let it go at just having the dampers installed and maybe even let that be. The fact that things were inconsistent made me concerned about the quality of the work and look for more problems.

The corollary to this story is when I had my house re-plumbed with all copper pipes. The plumbers did a beautiful job, sweating clean, perfect joints and getting into the tight areas in the house with a minimal amount of holes. I was very impressed with the work. (As was the inspector: “Ken did this job? Ok. You’re all set, then. Bye.”) Even though it took two days to really flush the flux out of the pipes I didn’t mind because it looked so pretty.

That doesn’t mean we’re not putting a lot of effort into robust, responsive, maintainable code. But it does mean that we try to have damn good graphics design.

Why your back-end tools should be sexy, too

If your internal tools aren’t the same quality and sexiness as your client-facing tools, then your employees aren’t going to be as excited as they could be and won’t be selling your company as well as they could.

While working at Bookr, our design motto was “dead simple; dead sexy.” It’s something that I think is a great, simple goal that most everyone in the company can eat least target. We applied this to our product and customers loved the way it looked. I’ve carried that through (internally) for Blueprint, although I don’t think that “sexy” quite fits our brand here as it did for Bookr.

On almost every project I’ve worked on, we put a lot of effort on client-facing parts of the product and tools that are used internally (often called “admin” screens) just don’t get the same treatment.

Have you ever called up a company on the phone and had to wait while the representative has to navigate an extremely complex system or set of systems to get your information? Ok, have you ever called a company at not had that experience? Doesn’t that frustrate you as a customer? Quite often, I’ve had representatives apologize for the poor quality or capabilities of their software. As a software developer, I don’t want this ever to happen with my products.

So in the last two companies, I’ve been working to promote as much, or nearly as much, effort on the design and thoughtfulness and usefulness of “admin” screens as I do on the client facing stuff.

For Blueprint, not only are our clients using the product directly, but account managers and analysts use the product for consultative services. They get the benefit of client-facing tools, but when they cross into the “admin” parts of the site I don’t want them to feel put off.  We are constantly looking at the tools we have built for managing, tracking and maintaining client accounts and client information — tools that clients don’t have access to — and they way we use those tools to try to make sure they can be simple and sexy.

Why you maybe shouldn’t praise employees’ talent

In a series of studies Carol Dweck (with C. M. Mueller, 1998)[1] found that praising students’ abilities conveys “that their ability is a gift and makes them reluctant to take on challenging tasks that hold a risk of mistakes.”[2]

I recently read Why Aren’t More Women in Science?, which a was surprisingly interesting, especially as learned scientists and researchers come to different conclusion to answer the question posed in the title. There is a lot of interesting information in there about behavioral science and I recommend reading it if you are interested in technology, women in technology, and the recent push for STEM instruction in schools.

However, I found the results of Dweck’s 1998 study to be surprising and contradictory to almost all advice in both teaching and management. What Dweck discovered though, actually makes sense. If you praise an individual for an innate ability (talent, intelligence, etc.), then she may be reluctant to risk losing your esteem in her that you have suggested is related to something that she cannot change.

This doesn’t mean you should’t praise people though. I think that what Dweck suggests is that you should praise people for what they’ve accomplished — for a job well done — rather than suggesting that they are naturally good at it. As I’ve tried to look at my practice of praise (which I continually work on) I find that this is hard, because I want to recognize individual strengths (First Break All the Rules was my first management bible).


[1] Mueller, C. M., & Dweck, C. S. (1998). Intelligence praise can undermine motivation and performance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology., 75, 33-52.
[2] Dweck, C. S. (2007). Beliefs That Put Females at Risk. Why Aren’t More Women in Science? Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Emotional search with Twitter

I’ve been reading the Twitter API docs and just discovered that Twitter lets you search based on the tone of the tweet using emoticons. For example, type this search:

#829strike :)

Twitter returns tweets about the Fast Food strike on 8/29  with a positive attitude.

If you want to see the other side of the the emotions, use a frowny face.

#829strike :(

This works on Twitter Search as well as through the API.

Using emoticons as operators to represent attitude is pretty cool.

Yes, it turns out Windows 8 is relevant

Meeker 2012 p24Here in Seattle among small tech companies (or start-up), and among pundits worldwide, people like to say that Windows is irrelevant. They point that slide (#24) in Mary Meaker’s State of the Internet last year (or slide #109 in this year’s deck, although it looks like that’s missing the Apple segement) that shows that Microsoft dominated computing platforms for 20 years and is being replaced with iOS and Android. They say that Windows 8 isn’t important and the Windows Phone 8 will never gain the market share that Apple and Android have.

I’m sure that there is lots of research to backup these claims (Gartner and IDC chimed in after all), but flat design is pervasive. The big news this week out of WWDC is that Apple’s iOS 7 has moved to flat design. Android 4 dropped skeuomorphic elements 18 months ago, even changing the text box to a single line. The latest Gmail for Android looks like Windows Phone 7, with quartered avatars that are incredibly reminiscent of the Metro tiles.

Zune 2007All that started at Microsoft. The elements that Microsoft built on for Metro were hatched in the Zune “chromeless” interface Method designed in 2007, carried into Windows Phone 7 and then Windows 8. The Metro interface has gotten tons of not-very-friendly press, but it’s clearly made an impact on the world.

So when the entire world of design is changed based on ideas coming out of Windows and Microsoft, I find it disingenuous to claim that they are not relevant. I couldn’t say whether Windows 8 is selling well enough for Microsoft, but it’s certainly making it’s mark.

We fixed rails redis store to rapidly expire 50,000 keys daily from a 3.5M key cache

In building out Blueprint, we have taken an approach of “cache everything” (or what we think is most important) to make the app super responsive. Our customers love this.

What we actually cache is, essentially, a data digest used in the reporting view (so not the view or the model per-se). These digests could be a daily, weekly, monthly or annual view of a perspective on a data cube. Each day we add new, updated data to our cubes and need to expire the cached items that pertain to that day (e.g. latest week, month, year). In addition, we’re often recalculating categorizations for clients which means expiring their entire cached history and rebuilding it.

And so, we will expire 50,000 cache keys each morning as we push in new data (and then we go rebuild them). For a given site we might delete 1000-2000 keys.

Up until this week we used the delete_matched method to all of the site’s keys in a single call (optimizing our redis time). However, delete_matched relies in the redis keys method which is slow, blocks the redis server and isn’t meant to be used in production. In fact, I could watch our redis server’s CPU go from 0.1% to 100.0% exactly during the call to expiring site caches. Because redis is mostly single threaded, pinning the CPU for processor-heavy operations holds back all the fast GET calls from our cache reads and slows the site to a crawl.

The solution was clearly we couldn’t rely on redis to tell us what keys were in the cache. Michael and I whiteboarded this and built (well, Michael mostly built) a replacement cache store that inherits from RedisCacheStore and effectively does three changes: stores the key name into a set (we partition sets, which is hidden in the code below) when the cache entry is written, remove the key name from the set when the cache entry is deleted, use the set to find the matched keys for delete_matched and remove those from the cache and the set.

      def delete_matched(pattern)
        sub_set = find_matching_keys(@set, pattern)
        Redis.current.srem(@set, sub_set)
        Redis.current.del(sub_set)
      end

      private

      def write_entry(key, entry)
        Redis.current.sadd(@set, key)
        super
      end

      def delete_entry(key)
        Redis.current.srem(@set, key)
        super
      end

I was pretty surprised not to find other solutions for this already or that the redis-store implementation doesn’t do this automatically. However, when we implemented it the tricks in partitioning the set (to keep that read time low) lead me to believe it’s not a generalized solution (although you could use hashing to generalize it). We also had to build a process to build up the set from the existing 3,541,239 keys in our cache, so we’ll see if that takes the weekend or just the night.