Showing posts tagged Recurse

Learning about Psychological Safety at the Recurse Center

Oct 19th, 2021

Mozilla Recurse

Last summer, I took a 6-week sabbatical from my job to attend a virtual “programmers retreat” at the Recurse Center. I thought I’d write up some notes on the experience, with a particular lens towards what makes an environment suited towards learning, innovation, and personal growth.

Some context: I’m currently working as a software engineer at Mozilla, building out our data pipeline and analysis tooling. I’ve been at my current position for more than 10 years (my “anniversary” actually passed while I was out). I started out as a senior engineer in 2011, and was promoted to staff engineer in 2016. In tech-land, this is a really long tenure at a company. I felt like it was time to take a break from my day-to-day, explore some new ideas and concepts, and hopefully expose myself to a broader group of people in my field.

My original thinking was that I would mostly be spending this time building out an interactive computation environment I’ve been working on called Irydium. And I did quite a bit of that. However, I think the main thing I took away from this experience was some insight on what makes a remote environment for knowledge work really “click”. In particular, what makes somewhere feel psychologically safe, and how this feeling allows us to innovate and do our best work.

While the Recurse Center obviously has different goals than an organization that builds and delivers consumer software, I do think there are some things that it does that could be applied to Mozilla (and, likely, many other tech workplaces).

What is the Recurse Center?

Most succinctly, the Recurse Center is a “writer’s retreat for programmers”. It tries to provide an environment conducive to learning and creativity, an opportunity to refine your craft and learn new things, both from the act of programming itself and from interactions with the other like-minded people attending. The Recurse Center admits a wide variety of people, from those who have only been through a coding bootcamp to those who have been in the industry many years, like myself. The main admission criteria, from what I gather, are curiosity and friendliness.

Once admitted, you do a “batch”— either a mini (1 week), half-batch (6 weeks), or a full batch (12 weeks). I did a half-batch.

How does it work (during a global pandemic)?

The Recurse experience used to be entirely in-person, in a space in New York City - if you wanted to go, you needed to move there at least temporarily. Obviously that’s out the window during a Global Pandemic, and all activities are currently happening online. This was actually pretty ideal for me at this point in my life, as it allowed me to participate entirely remotely from my home in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada (near Toronto).

There’s a few elements that make “Virtual RC” tick:

Why does it work?

So far, what I’ve described probably sounds a lot like any remote tech workplace during the pandemic… and it sort of is! In some ways, my schedule and life while at Recurse didn’t feel all that different from my normal day-to-day. Wake up in the morning, drink coffee, meditate, work for roughly 8 hours, done. Qualitatively, however, my experience at Recurse felt unusually productive, and I learned a lot more than I expected to: not just the core stuff related to Irydium, but also unexpected new concepts like CRDTs, product design, and even how visual studio code syntax highlighting works.

What made the difference? Certainly, not having the normal pressures of a workplace helps - but I think there’s more to it than that. The way RC is constructed reinforces a sense of psychological safety which I think is key to learning and growth.

What is psychological safety and why should I care?

Psychological safety is a bit of a hot topic these days and there’s a lot of discussion about in management circles. I think it comes down to a feeling that you can take risks and “put yourself out there” without fear that you’ll be ignored, attacked, or ridiculed.

Why is this important? I would argue, because knowledge work is about building understanding — going from a place of not understanding to understanding. If you’re working on anything at all innovative, there is always an element of the unknown. In my experience, there is virtually always a sense of discomfort and uncertainty that goes along with that. This goes double when you’re working around and with people that you don’t know terribly well (and who might have far more experience than you). Are they going to make fun of you for not knowing a basic concept or for expressing an idea that’s “so wrong I don’t even know where to begin”? Or, just as bad, will you not get any feedback on your work at all?

In reality, except in truly toxic environments, you’ll rarely encounter outright abusive behaviour. But the isolation of remote work can breed similar feelings of disquiet and discomfort over time. My sense, after a year of working “hardcore” remote in COVID times, is that our normal workplace rituals of meetings, “stand ups”, and discussions over Slack don’t provide enough space for a meaningful sense of psychological safety to develop. They’re good enough for measuring progress towards agreed-upon goals but a true sense of belonging depends on less tightly scripted interactions among peers.

How the Recurse environment creates psychological safety

But the environment I described above isn’t that different from a workplace, is it? Speaking from my own experience, my coworkers at Mozilla are all pretty nice people. There’s also many channels for informal discussion at Mozilla, and of course direct messaging is always available (via Slack or Matrix). And yet, I still feel there is a pretty large gap between the two experiences. So what makes the difference? I’d say there were three important aspects of Recurse that really helped here: social rules, gentle prompts, and a closed space.

Social rules

There’s been a lot of discussion about community participation guidelines and standards of behaviour in workplaces. In general, these types of policies target really egregious behaviour like harassment: this is a pretty low bar. They aren’t, in my experience, sufficient to actually create an environment that actually feels safe.

The Recurse Center goes over and above a basic code of conduct, with four simple social rules:

These rules aren’t “commandments” and you’re not meant to feel shame for violating them. The important thing is that by being there, the rules create an environment conducive to learning and growth. You can be reasonably confident that you can bring up a question or discussion point (or respond to one) and it won’t lead to a bad outcome. For example, you can expect not to be made fun of for asking what a UNIX socket is (and if you are, you can tell the person doing so to stop). Rather than there being an unspoken rule that everyone should already know everything about what they are trying to do, there is a spoken rule that states it’s expected that they don’t.

Working on Irydium, there’s an infinite number of ways I can feel incompetent: this is a requirement when engaging with concepts that I still don’t feel completely comfortable with: parsers, compilers, WebAssembly… the list goes on. Knowing that I could talk about what I’m working on (or something I’m interested in) and that the responses I got would be constructive and directed to the project, not the person made all the difference.1

Gentle prompts

The thing I loved the most about Recurse were the gentle prompts to engage with other people, talk about your work, and get help. A few that I really enjoyed during my time there:

… and I could go on. What’s important are not the specific activities, but their end effect of building connectedness, creating opportunities for serendipitous collaboration and interaction (more than one discussion group came out of someone’s checkin post on Zulip) and generally creating an environment well-suited to learning.

A (semi) closed space

One of the things that makes the gentle prompts above “work” is that you have some idea of who you’re going to be interacting with. Having some predictability about who’s going to see what you post and engage with you (that they were vetted by RC’s interview process and are committed to the above-mentioned social rules) gives you some confidence to be vulnerable and share things that you might be reluctant to otherwise.

Those who have known me for a while will probably see the above as being a bit of departure from what I normally preach: throughout my tenure at Mozilla, I’ve constantly pushed the people I’ve worked with to do more work in public. In the case of a product like Firefox, which touches so many people, I think open and transparent practices are absolutely essential to building trust, creating opportunity, and ensuring that our software reflects a diversity of views. I applied the same philosophy to Irydium’s development while I was at the Recurse Center: I set up a public Matrix channel to discuss the project, published all my work on GitHub, and was quite chatty about what I was working on, both in this blog and on Twitter.

The key, I think, is being deliberate about what approach you take when: there is a place for both public and private conversations about what we work on. I’m strongly in favour of open design documents, community calls, public bug trackers and open source in general. But I think it’s also pretty ok to have smaller spaces for learning, personal development, and question asking. I know I strongly appreciated having a smaller group of people that I could talk to about ideas that were not yet fully formed: you can always bring them out into the open later. The psychological risk of working in public can be mitigated by the psychological safety that can be developed within an intentional community.

Bringing it back

Returning to my job, I wondered if it might be possible to bring some of what I described above back to Mozilla? Obviously not everything would be directly transferable: Mozilla has its own mission and goals, and there are pressures that exist in a workplace that do not exist in an environment purely directed at learning. Still, I suspected that there was something we could do here. And that it would be worth doing, not just to improve the felt experience of the people here (though that would be reason enough) but also to get more feedback on our work and create more opportunities for collaboration and innovation.

I felt like trying to do something inside our particular organization (Data Engineering and Data Science) would be the most tractable initial step. I talked a bit about my experience with Will Kahn-Green (who has been at Mozilla around the same length of time as I have) and we came up with what we called the “Data Neighbourhood” project: a set of grassroots micro-initiatives to increase our connectedness as a group. As an organization directed primarily at serving other parts of Mozilla, most of our team’s communication is directed outward. It’s often hard to know what everyone else is up to, where they’re struggling, and how we could help each other out. Attacking that problem directly seemed like the best place to start.

The first experiment we tried was a “data checkins” channel on Slack, a place for people to talk informally about their work (or life!). I explicitly set it up with a similar set of social rules as outlined above and tried to emphasize that it was a place to talk about how things are going, rather than a place to report status to your manager. After a somewhat slow start (the initial posts were from Will, myself, and a few other people from Data Engineering who had been around for a long time) we’re beginning to see engagement from others, including some newer people I hadn’t interacted with much before. There’s also been a few useful threads of conversations across different sub-teams (for example, a discussion on how we identify distinct versions of Firefox for iOS) that likely would not have happened without the channel.

Since then, others have tried a few other things in the same vein (an adhoc coffee chat pairing bot, a “writing help” channel) and there are some signs of success. There’s clearly an appetite for new and better ways for us to relate to each other about the work we’re doing, and I’m excited to see how these ideas evolve over time.

I suspect there are limits to how psychologically safe a workplace can ever feel (and some of that is probably outside of any individual’s control). There are dynamics in a workplace which make applying some of Recurse’s practices difficult. In particular, a posture of “not knowing things is o.k.” may not apply perfectly to a workplace where people are hired (and promoted) based on perceived competence and expertise. Still, I think it’s worth investigating what might be possible within the constraints of the system we’re in. There are big potential benefits, for our creative output and our well-being.

Many thanks to Jenny Zhang, Kathleen Beckett, Joe Trellick, Taylor Phebillo and Vaibhav Sagar, and Will Kahn-Greene for reviewing earlier drafts of this post

  1. This is generally considered best practice inside workplaces as well. For example, see Google’s guide on how to write code review comments


Lightweight dashboards and reports with Irydium and surge.sh

Aug 3rd, 2021

Irydium Recurse

One of my main goals with Irydium is to allow it to be a part of as many data science and engineering workflows as possible (including ones I haven’t thought of). Yes, like Iodide and other products, I am (slowly) building a web-based interface for building and sharing dashboards, reports, and similar things. However, I also want to fully support local and command-line based workflows. Beyond the obvious utility of being able to use your favorite text-editor to create documents, this also opens up the possibility of combining Irydium with other tools and workflows. For a slightly longer exposition on why this is desirable, I would highly recommend reading Ryan Harter’s post on the subject: Don’t make me code in your text box.

Using the irydium template

To make getting started easier, I just created an irydium-template: a simple GitHub repository which contains a minimal markdown document (a big mac index visualization) which you can use as a base, as well as a bit of npm scaffolding to get you up and running quickly. To check it out via the console, I recommend using degit (the tool of choice for such things in the Svelte community):

npx degit git@github.com:irydium/irydium-template.git my-notebook
npm install
npm run dev

This will create a webserver which renders the document (index.md) at port 3000, along with some debugging options. As you edit and save the document, the site should update automatically.

Publishing your work

When you’re happy with the results, you can create a static version of the site (an index.html file) by running npm run build. You can publish this via whatever you like: GitHub pages, Netlify / Vercel or… my new favorite service, surge.sh. Surge provides a really simple hosting service for hosting static sites and works great with Irydium. Installing and running it locally is two commands:

npm install -g surge
surge

Surge will prompt you for an email and a password, then will automatically publish your site at a unique URL. As an example, I published a site for the above template: few-blade.surge.sh

Interested in chatting more about this? Feel free to reach out on the Irydium Gitter chat.


Irydium @ Recurse Updates

Jul 28th, 2021

Irydium Recurse

Some quick updates on where Irydium is at, roughly a week-and-a-half before my mini-sabbatical at the Recurse Centre ends.

JupyterBook and MyST

I’d been admiring JupyterBook from afar for some time: their project philosophy appealed to me greatly. In particular, the MyST extensions to markdown seemed like a natural fit for this project and a natural point of collaboration and cross-pollination. A couple of weeks ago, I finally got in touch with some people working on that project, which prompted a few small efforts:

I’ve become convinced that building on top of MyST is right for both Irydium and the larger community. Increasing Irydium’s support for MyST is tracked in irydium/irydium#123.

Using Irydium to build Irydium

I’ve been spending a fair bit of time thinking of how to ma ke it easier for people to build Irydium documents through composition of existing documents. Landed the first pieces of this. The first is the ability to “import” a code chunk from another irydium document. There’s a few examples of this in the new components section of irydium.dev:

In a sense this allows you to define a reusable piece of code along with both documentation and usage examples. I think this concept will be particularly useful for supporting language plugins (which I will write about in an upcoming post).

It’s a real project now

I spent a bit of time last week doing some community gardening. I still consider Irydium an “experiment” but I’d like to at least open up the possibility of it being something larger. To help make that happen, I started working on some basic project governance pieces, namely:

Next steps

There’s not a ton of time left at RC, so some of these things may have to be done in my spare time after the batch ends. That said, here’s my near-term roadmap:


10 years at Mozilla

Jul 12th, 2021

Mozilla Recurse

Yesterday (July 11, 2021) was the 10 year anniversary of starting at the Mozilla Corporation. My life has changed a ton in those years: in that time I ended a marriage, changed the city in which I live two times, and took up religion1. Mozilla has also changed pretty drastically in my time here, especially in the last year.

Yet somehow I’m still at it, for more or less for the same reasons that led me to accept my initial offer to join the A-team.2 The Internet has the immense potential to be a force for individual empowerment and yet more than ever, we see this technology used to consolidate unchecked power, spread misinformation, and generally exploit people. Mozilla is not perfect (no organization is: 10 years anywhere will teach you that), but it’s one of the few remaining counter-forces to these accelerating trends. While I’m currently taking a bit of a break to explore some stuff on my own, I am looking forward to getting back to work on the mission when I return in mid-August.

  1. To the extent that Zen Buddhism is a religion. 

  2. I’ve since moved to Data @ Mozilla 


Adding persistence to Irydium with Supabase

Jul 5th, 2021

Recurse Irydium

Entering the second week of Recurse. Besides orientation and a few adventures in pair programming (special shout out to Jane Adams for trying out Irydium with me!), I spent most of my time attempting to get document saving & loading working with Irydium.

I learned from Iodide that not having a good document sharing story really inhibits collaboration and sharing, which is something I explicitly want to do here at the Recurse centre (and in general for this project). That said, this isn’t actually an area I want to spend a lot of time on right now: it’s the shape of problem I’ve solved many times before (and that has been solved by many others). I’d rather spend my time over the next few weeks on things I haven’t had much of a chance to look at or pursue in my day-to-day.

So, to try to keep the complexity down, I decided to take the same approach as the svelte repl, which aims only to allow the reproduction of simple examples. It allows you to save anything you type in it and also browse anything that you had previously saved. That’s not going to replace GitHub, but it’s more than enough to get started.

Supabase

So with that goal in mind, how to do go about it? If I wanted to completely fall back on my previous knowledge, I could have gone for the tried + true approach of Django / Heroku to add a persistence layer (what I did for Iodide). That would have had the benefit of being familiar but would also have increased the overall implementation complexity of Irydium considerably. In the past year, I’ve become convinced that serverless approaches to building web applications are the wave of the future, at least for applications like this one. They’re easier to set up, easier to develop, and (generally speaking) cheaper to deploy. Just before I launched, I set up irydium.dev as a static site on Netlify and it’s been a great experience: deploys are super fast and it’s easy to reason about what’s going on “under the hood” (since there’s not a much of a hood to look under).

With that in mind, I decided to take a (small) gamble and give Supabase a try for this one after determining it would be compatible with the approach I wanted to take. Supabase bills itself as a “Firebase Alternative” (Firebase is another popular solution for bootstrapping simple web applications with persistence). In contrast to Firebase, Supabase uses a standard database technologies (Postgres!) and has a nice JavaScript SDK and a bunch of well-written tutorials (including one especially for Svelte).

The naive model for integrating with Supabase is pretty simple:

I’d say it probably took me 20–30 hours to get the feature working end-to-end (including documentation), which wasn’t too bad. My impressions were pretty positive: the aforementioned tutorial is pretty decent, the supabase-js library provides a nice ORM-like abstraction over SQL and integrates nicely with Svelte. In general working with Supabase felt pretty familiar to me from previous experiences writing database-backed applications, which I take as a very good sign.

The part that felt the weirdest was writing raw SQL to set up the “documents” table that Irydium uses: SQL is something I’m fairly used to writing because of my experiences at Mozilla, but I imagine this might be off-putting to someone newer to writing these types of things. Also, I have some concerns of how maintainable a Supabase database is over the long term: while it was easy enough to document the currently-simple setup instructions in the README, I do somewhat fear the prospect of managing my database via their SQL console. Something like Django’s schema migrations and management commands would be a welcome addition to Supabase’s SDK.

Netlify functions

The above approach isn’t what most people would consider to be “best practice”1. In particular, storing credentials in localStorage is probably not the best idea for an application presenting interactive content like Irydium: it wouldn’t be particularly difficult for a malicious document to steal someone’s secret and send it somewhere it shouldn’t be.

I’m not so worried about it at this stage of the project, but one intriguing possibility here (that’s compatible with our current deploy set up) would be to write some simple Netlify Functions to do the actual interaction with Supabase, while delegating to Netlify for the authentication itself (using Netlify Identity).

I experimented writing a simple function to prove out this approach and it seems to work quite well (source, example). This particular function is making an anonymous query to the database, but I see no obstacle to handling authenticated ones as well. Having an API under a .netlify namespace seems kinda weird on first blush, but I can probably get used to it.

I want to move on to other things now (parsers! document state visualizations!) but might poke at this more later. In the mean time, if you write/build something cool at irydium.dev/repl, let me know!


Irydium: Points of departure

Jun 28th, 2021

Recurse Irydium

So it’s my first day at the Recurse centre, which I blogged briefly about last week. I thought I’d start out by going into a bit more detail about what I’m trying to do with Irydium. This post might be a bit discursive and some of my thoughts are only half-formed: my intent here is towards trying to express some of these ideas at all rather than to come up with the perfect formulation for them, which is going to take time. It is based partly on a presentation I gave at Mozilla last Friday (just before going on my 6-week leave, which starts today).

First principles

The premise of Irydium is that despite obvious advances in terms of the ability of computers to crunch numbers and analyze data, our ability to share whatever we learn from these understandings is still far too difficult, especially for people new to the field. Even for domain experts (those with the job title “Data Engineer” or “Data Scientist” or similar) this is still more difficult than one would like.

I’ve made a few observations over the past couple years of trying to explain and document Mozilla’s data platform that I think form a good starting point for trying to close the gap:

Ok, so what is Irydium?

Irydium is, at heart, a way to translate markdown documents into an interactive, compelling visual presentation.

My view is that publishing markdown text on the web is very close to a solved problem, and that we should build on that success rather than invent something new. This is not necessarily a new point of view (e.g. Rmarkdown and JupyterBook have similar premises) but I think some aspects of Irydium’s approach are mildly novel (or at least within the space of “not generally accepted ideas”).

If you want to get a bit of a flavor for how it works, visit the demonstration site (irydium.dev) and play with some of the examples.

What makes Irydium different from <X>?

While there are a bunch of related projects in this space, there’s a few design principles about Irydium that make it a little different from most of what’s already out there1:

With the above caveats, there are still a number of projects that overlap with Irydium’s ideas and/or design goals. A few that seem worth mentioning here:

Success criteria

My intent with Irydium, at this point in its development, is to prove out some concepts and see where they lead. While I’d welcome it if Irydium became a successful, widely adopted environment for building interactive data visualizations, I’d also be totally happy with other outcomes, such as:

  1. Providing a source of ideas and/or code for other people.
  2. Working on (or with) Irydium being a good learning experience both for myself and others

  1. Please don’t conflate “unique” with “superior”: I’m well aware that all designs come with trade offs. In particular, Irydium’s approach will almost certainly make it difficult / impossible to directly interact with “big data” systems in an efficient way. 

  2. There is at least one effort (Dataflow) to allow editing Observable documents without using Observable itself, which is interesting. 


Mini-sabbatical and introducing Irydium

Jun 23rd, 2021

Mozilla Recurse Irydium

Approaching my 10-year moz-iversary in July, I’ve decided it’s time to take a bit of a mini-sabbatical: I’ll be out (and trying as hard as possible not to check bugmail) from Friday, June 25th until August 9th. During this time, I’ll be doing a batch at the Recurse Centre (something like a writer’s retreat for programmers), exploring some of my interests around data visualization and analysis that don’t quite fit into my role as a Data Engineer here at Mozilla.

In particular, I’m planning to work a bunch on a project tentatively called “Irydium”, which pursues some of the ideas I sketched out last year in my Iodide retrospective and a few more besides. I’ve been steadily working on it in my off hours, but it’s become clear that some of the things I want to pursue would benefit from more dedicated attention and the broader perspective that I’m hoping the Recurse community will be able to provide.

I had meant to write up a proper blog post to announce the project before I left, but it looks like I’m pretty much out of time. Instead, I’ll just offer up the examples on the newly-minted irydium.dev and invite people to contact me if any of the ideas on the site sounds interesting. I’m hoping to blog a whole bunch while I’m there, but probably not under the Mozilla tag. Feel free to add wrla.ch to your RSS feed if you want to follow what I’m up to!