On transitioning to a team of engineers

I’ve grown to seek the satisfaction of grinding single-handedly through unfamiliar code, unhelpful error logs, mysterious core dumps, and emerging alone & victorious. The majority of my software development work over the last 11 years has been as a solo engineer, where there was really no one else to turn to. In that time I’ve almost never been truly stumped by a problem, but sometimes at the expense of days of research, debugging, and backtracking. I am very used to digging in and solving difficult issues — on my own.

My last few years at the Walker we finally hired an awesome developer who was able to tell me I was optimizing too soon, and me to tell him he was refactoring too soon. Turned out he was further on the liberal end of Steve Yegge’s software engineering political axis than I was, but with that understanding we both pushed each other and did better work.

Working now as part of a legitimate team, it’s a different game. Individual software politics are largely  washed out by the slightly conservative lean of the language (Java), and with competent engineers around who are deeply familiar with the codebase the idea of struggling for days on a single issue is just crazy talk.

It’s turning out to be a difficult habit to break! Luckily, twitter provided a well-timed article by Matt Ringel on the Akamai blog: You Must Try, and then You Must Ask. It made me question the use of my time, and address my fear of “pestering”: if I recognize being legitimately stuck, give it 15 more minutes including documenting and rethinking, then that very process precludes the rapid fire cries for help that become pestering. It also requires an earlier “refactor” of my approach, which is often exactly what’s needed.

I’m curious how many engineer career transitions are from a team to solo or vice versa, and if I would now be able to take some of these techniques with me as a lone developer. It seems like a valuable process, even if the “You Must Ask” phase becomes “Post on StackOverflow and come back tomorrow.” Something to think about for those of you still slogging along alone!

A Love Letter to #musetech

Ten years ago I chased a girl to Minnesota. She told her friends I “did something with computers” and a job floated by: “Webmaster” at a place called the Walker Art Center. She said the Walker was cool: her friend was a member and they had great after hours parties. I bluffed my way through the interview (mod_perl was not my strong suit at the time), made a note to look up the word “curator”, and somehow got the job.

It was good work. Intense, creative, and just what I wanted to be doing. The blog we started caught the eye of the team behind the Museums and the Web conference, and we were invited to speak in New Mexico in 2006. Somehow it had never occurred to me there were more museum people doing what I was doing: getting art online, struggling with metadata and licensing, connecting communities, and lovingly leveraging technology to enact mission.

Naturally, the Walker itself is full of similarly amazing people doing incredible work, but this vibrant and welcoming community of museum technologists quickly became a bedrock of inspiration, energy, and support for me in my career. I’ve attended many more conferences since that first, and have recently served 3 years on the board of the Museum Computer Network. I’ve been lucky enough to listen to (and drink with) unrivaled leaders in the field, and in return share some of my experiences at conferences around the world. This community is populated top-to-bottom with people who are of the highest caliber, generous with their time and knowledge, and incredible assets and advocates for their institutions.

So it is with mixed emotions I’ve decided,  just a month shy of my 10-year anniversary at the Walker Art Center, it’s time to change gears. I will be joining a local company to help develop their Digital Asset Management software – so the move keeps me at least tangentially connected to the  museum world – and I’m wildly excited about the opportunity. I have high hopes to rediscover a bit of spare time and spend it with the girl I chased here and our two awesome kids. (…and to start hacking on various museum APIs and building fun side projects. Mmm, side projects…)

Fondly, with love, sweat, and tears: you rock, #musetech. I’ll keep you close.