Yahoo! Hack Day: opening up Yahoo! itself

Ever since I organized the first Hack Day at Yahoo, people have been saying, “wouldn’t it be cool if you opened it up?” Guess what? That’s exactly what we’re doing — opening Yahoo! itself up, and in a big way. I’ve been to and helped organize internal Yahoo! Hack Days on three continents now and I’ve witnessed the incredible fun and creative energy firsthand, so opening up Hack Day was one of the first things I wanted to do when I started running the Yahoo! Developer Network.

Check out all the details on hackday.org, just launched yesterday. The fun begins on Friday, September 29 with an all-day developer workshop where we’ll be teaching you how to do real stuff with some of the tools from the Yahoo! Developer Network. That evening, we’ll kick off the Hack Day itself (the coding part) with some music that will go into the wee hours (if you need quiet areas to hack, we’ll have that for you). Don’t worry about how you’re going to get home, because you’ll be able to pitch a tent at Yahoo! (see our campus in the photo) to get a bit of rest before the fun continues on Saturday, where we’ll have demos on Saturday afternoon/evening, followed by even more high-quality entertainment (stay tuned). Mike Arrington from TechCrunch will be our MC (thanks, Mike). It’s going to rock — we guarantee it.

All this is being organized with the help and advice of Yahoo! hackers themselves — everyone is pitching in to put this thing on. If you don’t work at Yahoo! and want to be help out, let me know (just put “chadd” and “yahoo-inc.com” together and drop me a line).

We will have limited space, so let us know if you’re interested in attending by filling out the form at hackday.org.

Major thanks to two folks on the Yahoo! Developer Network team: Kent Brewster for the design and Vernon Marshall for the backend stuff. Also, a big thanks to everyone at all levels Yahoo! who not only approved all of our strange requests, they did it enthusiastically.

More on this Yahoo! Hack Day:

More on past Yahoo! Hack Days can be found in my del.icio.us bookmarks, tagged “hackday+yahoo.”

(Photo of Yahoo! campus by Premshree Pillai, one of the best hackers at Yahoo!)

Tags: hackday, yahoo

Collecting software methodologies

I’ve always enjoyed reading about software development methodologies and approaches (my favorite essay is Frederick Brooks’ “No Silver Bullet“), probably less because I love software and more because it’s interesting to see how people, who are inherently fallible, translate their hopes and desires into instructions for an inanimate machine. When you mix the innate fallibility of humanity with the near-absolute certainty of the “right way” present in at least a few software engineers, you’ve got a very peculiar kind of theater.

Bust of George Bernard Shaw, Reading Room, British MuseumWhen people ask me what I think about various software development methodologies, I can’t say that I have a super-strong opinion except that processes that are generally “agile” are good. Recently, I was thinking about this and dusted off a copy of Major Barbara, a George Bernard Shaw play (one of my favorites) that deals with religion. Adolphous Cusins (a not-so-sympathetic character in the play) says this in Act II:

I am a sort of collector of religions; and the curious thing is that I find I can believe them all.

That’s pretty much how I feel about XP vs. Scrum vs. your-agile-methodology-here. There’s a little bit of goodness in all of them.

(Photo: bust of George Bernard Shaw in the Reading Room at the British Museum)

One year anniversary at Yahoo!

Today is my one-year anniversary at Yahoo! I could write a really long post looking back at my first year at Yahoo!, but suffice it to say that I like the people I work with, the work continues to be challenging in a good way, my management rocks, and we’re in a competitive industry where the only thing we can depend on is constant change (perfect for the neophiliac in me). Add in the honor of either organizing or just helping out with Hack Days on three different continents in one six-month stretch alone, and this has been a pretty exciting year at work.

(photo by Roger Butterfield, licensed via Creative Commons)

Sex and Linux at Salon in 1999

I got a nice surprise in my inbox recently from Kent Brewster, one of my compatriots at YDN, when he saw the plea on my home page for a copy of my long-lost presentation at 1999 OSCON, Sex and Linux at Salon, which I did along with Jeffrey Radice, my partner. I knew it would turn up somewhere, but I feel a little silly now because it was sitting on the servers I used to run and I never tried Salon’s local site search. Oh well. I didn’t even remember the presentation being web-based, but it pleases my 34-year-old self that my 27-year-old self made that choice instead of PowerPoint.

So, why “Sex and Linux at Salon?” What did sex have to do with Linux? Some background, and it all starts to make sense. From 1996-98, I worked at CNN.com and CNNSI.com in Atlanta. Feeling the call of the west coast, but wanting something a little different than a run-of-the-mill Silicon Valley job, I responded to a job posting on Salon’s site for someone to lead the technology operation, emphasizing (if I remember correctly) that I was the perfect candidate for them: a wayward English major who had dropped his Shakespeare studies in favor of Unix and web development. (I later learned that this wasn’t so unique!) They called me back and I flew out to San Francisco and immediately fell in love with everyone at Salon. I made immediate plans to move and arrived in the summer of 1998. Once the new-to-SF buzz wore off, though, I found a technology operation in utter disarray. The servers were super-flaky NT boxes, there were no good backups, etc. At CNN, I had worked with what I’m certain was the best web operations team in the world at the time, so I decided to take some of the principles I learned there and crafted a plan to stabilize everything at Salon. I was a Unix guy anyway (Solaris mostly), so I knew the NT servers were not long for my world. All I needed was a little time.

To put it mildly, the summer/fall of 1998 was not a quiet one for a left-leaning San Francisco web site with a strong political point-of-view. As I was putting my technology plan together in my first weeks on the job, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was heating up, and Rep. Henry Hyde, head of the House Judiciary Committee, was leading the charge towards impeachment. The Starr Report was released. Salon had been in the fray from the beginning, offering (I think) a voice of relative reason in all the craziness. It was a great time to be at a place like Salon in San Francisco, and that summer and fall were some of the most memorable days of my professional life. I had no idea, though, about the tsunami that was about to hit Salon.

Salon really inserted itself in the fray when founder and editor-in-chief David Talbot decided to run old black-and-white photos of Rep. Henry Hyde with a woman sitting playfully in his lap — a woman with whom he had had an affair some thirty years earlier. I remember when the photos were unveiled in the office before we ran them. This was undoubtedly below-the-belt journalism, but those were below-the-belt times. When the photos and the story were published, we ran a story with our justification, “Why we ran the Henry Hyde story.” When I hear about the Clinton impeachment process, these words still echo through my mind:

Aren’t we fighting fire with fire, descending to the gutter tactics of those we deplore? Frankly, yes. But ugly times call for ugly tactics. When a pack of sanctimonious thugs beats you and your country upside the head with a tire-iron, you can withdraw to the sideline and meditate, or you can grab it out of their hands and fight back.

Anyway, to get back to the relationship between sex and Linux. . . . when we ran the Henry Hyde story, historical events overtook my thoughtful technology plan and I was stuck rebooting NT servers all day to keep the site up. Salon was denounced on the Senate floor — I rebooted the servers. The Salon story led all the network nightly newscasts (back when they still mattered a little) — I rebooted the servers again. Death threats, bomb threats, black faxes (my first experience with those) — more server reboots. A representative’s sexual indiscretions 30 years earlier led me to one conclusion: Linux. That’s where the “sex and Linux” connection became clear. We accelerated our migration plans after that day.

It seems a bit strange now that something like our little NT-to-Linux migration garnered so much coverage, but it did: Slashdot, Webmonkey, News.com, and PC World (in which I was somehow interviewed in a story about Xeon servers. Hmmm.) This coverage was largely driven by a press release that I authored along with our marketing department, with the bold title: Salon Adopts Linux as its Enterprise Internet Server Platform. That was really a fancy way of saying that a very small group of people stayed up for a few weeks straight dealing with all sorts of unforseen issues, but we ultimately completed the migration. We ran into lots of stupid issues, the case-insensitivity of the NT filesystem versus the case-sensitive Linux filesystem being one of them. We used a Windows tool on the NT box to make a tarball of our content (which was all flat files, no database backend at that point) and when we untarred it on the Linux box, the filenames were all funky: logo.jpg was LoGO.Jpg and things like that. Nothing that a simple Perl script using lc to rename all the files wouldn’t fix.

The coolest thing about our migration is that due to our constrained funds (Salon never seemed to be rolling in cash, at least for technology, while I was there and we were relatively frugal anway), we didn’t have a bank of new Linux boxes to migrate to, so we literally wiped NT off the boxes one-by-one and rolled out Linux on them until there were no more NT boxes. We never missed them, not even for a second. I don’t think I’ve done anything serious with an NT box since.

Spam monkeys on the existential typewriter of my mind

I decided to do some long overdue cleaning of my spam folder (which is teeming with 11,000 messages — need to set up the auto-delete on old spam) and I was quickly scanning the names of senders to make sure no one I cared about got caught in the trap, when the name of my 4th grade teacher jumped to my attention — a name that isn’t common in the least, but there she was among “Alphonse Barnes” offering me discount pharmaceuticals, “Alvin Gardner” offering a hot stock tip, and “Andrea Parham” offering me help for. . . well, let’s just put it under the umbrella of “man problems.”

So what was my 4th-grade-teacher-turned-spam-robot trying to say to me? Don’t think youth can’t be returned. Freaky — I don’t think I’ve ever hit the delete key so hard.

Don’t think youth can’t be returned. Spam, in its sheer randomness and volume, has moved from easy plays on broadly-shared insecurities to messages that resonate with my own specific memories.

The spam monkeys are typing on the existential typewriter of my mind.