Cameron Watters: software engineer & erstwhile engineering manager / director

We Learn By Changing Our Minds

Like plenty of others around that time, I was laid off at the end of September 2008.1 My then employer was running out of money. Fortunately, I had some savings to rely on and I was able to take on a bit of freelance work as well to keep afloat while I looked for the next gig. But it was late in the year and the US stock market was crashing, and I lived in a small town with relatively few technology jobs.

The day after Christmas that year, a local tech CEO invited me to meet for coffee, which I happily accepted. I was grateful for the professional connection and figured that, if things went well, I could maybe pick up some freelance work. There was one slight wrinkle, though—they were a dyed-in-the-wool Microsoft shop. And I had fairly strong, somewhat public, negative feelings about Microsoft technologies.

Now, I came of age in the software industry during Slashdot's heyday in the late 1990s, and I philosophically align then and now with those advocating for open, non-proprietary technologies. Microsoft, on the other hand, wanted to control it all. Bill Gates had written a book advocating private communication networks to supplant the open internet, Microsoft was under investigation by the DOJ for anti-trust violations, and their attitude toward the FOSS world was actively hostile. In short, Microsoft sought to destroy the very future I hoped for. I'd also spent a fair bit of time working with Microsoft's software in corporate IT contexts, and found it buggy and cumbersome. And the licensing model remains a nightmare for anyone except Microsoft.2

"I avoid Microsoft technology like the plague"

As our coffee wrapped up, the CEO and I spent a brief few moments discussing transitioning our server infrastructure from Windows to Linux or FreeBSD, which he fairly quickly dismissed; I assured him I'd continue to suggest it. Coffee morphed into an interview, with the CEO handing me off to an impromptu panel interview with the engineering leadership. In the interview, one of the managers on the panel decided to bring up my personal website and came across a sentence he wanted me to explain—"I avoid Microsoft technology like the plague."3 I hand-waved away the more political aspects of the topic and focused instead on one item—the cumbersome implications of Microsoft's Licensing model on software architecture for multi-tenant web-based software.4 On New Year's Eve 2008, after another more focused interview, they offered me a job, which I accepted.

When I decided to accept the job, I made an explicit the choice to challenge any technological prejudices which had come along for the ride but which were not truly connected to any deeply held principles. I ran Windows Vista (which sucked), I used Visual Studio (which was a revelation), I used IIS (which sucked), and learned C#, which remains one of my favorite languages to work in.

"The Mac Team Has More Fun"5

The autumn before I joined, the company had released an initial Mac version of its software. Development of this initial version had been contracted to a separate shop and few in the company took it seriously. Despite a resurgence of Mac use over the previous 10 years, particularly among technologists, the pervasive view within the company was that Macs and their users weren't worth the trouble.

But the initial Mac version had demonstrated that there was enough of a market to invest further. The company's flagship Windows desktop software was in the final year of a multi-year re-platforming and set to launch the following fall. After some initial prototyping done by the one engineer who believed in the Mac project, a decision was made to build a Mac version that was aligned with the Windows version and that new version would be built in-house. This was a major undertaking that would require adapting a 20-year old C++ Windows-only codebase to run on the Mac and also figuring out a way to share a substantial portion of the C#/.NET code written for the soon-to-be-released Windows version.

A small team, most of whom joined the company around the same time I did, formed around the leadership of that one engineer who believed in the Mac version. I happened to sit near this group, which gave me a front-row seat as they suffered through the first 9 months wrangling that C++ codebase and figuring out how to wield that shared C# code by embedding Mono and building a native Cocoa UI around it.6

The new Windows version, which I had been working on since March, shipped in November 2009, and the Mac team was expanding. I'd been a Mac user since 1995 and had grown fond of the team, so I was happy to join them when asked. The same week the new Windows version launched, the team released a barely functional alpha version of the new Mac app, which some customers actually downloaded and installed. We released a new alpha almost weekly for twenty-something releases. In Summer 2010, we finally released what we called "Beta 1". Within a week of release, nearly 30% of active users were running the Mac beta.

As we had discovered during the Alpha period, the Mac market for our software was actually sizable. That 30% number remained fairly consistent over the years I remained with the company. We shipped the first GM release in early October 2010, and I moved on from the Mac team in February 2011.

How can we learn, except by changing our minds?

I stayed with that company for a little more than five years after leaving the Mac team, during which I was able to collaborate with some truly excellent engineers on work that I continue to be proud of years later. And along the way, many beliefs—which would have at one time been axiomatic for me or others—were challenged and, ultimately, revised or set aside (disconfirmed?) because they didn't hold up under pressure.7 Our customers were better for it. We were individually better for it. The company was better for it.

Over the course of my career, confirmation bias has been one of the most common sources of problems for individuals and organizations. A particular pernicious manifestation occurs when a strong, but context-sensitive opinion or belief is elevated to the level of fundamental value or principle, independent of context.

Dogma can serve as a powerful unifying force, which, for a time, may seem useful. But dogma makes us brittle—like shooting the moon, one essentially has to be perfect, which is unlikely. Our brains our wired to preserve our sense of integrity, so broad dogma also makes us more susceptible to a host of other cognitive biases, including the backfire effect and belief bias. When a group does it, it can add the in-group bias as well.

To work in an organization whose value system is unacceptable or incompatible with one’s own condemns a person both to frustration and to nonperformance.

—Peter Drucker, Managing Oneself

For individuals, this can be challenging enough, as the ability to find a compatible organization or team is inversely proportional to the number of opinion-cum-moral-imperatives one holds to. For organizations, the risk is often existential—adapting to changes which invalidate those core beliefs is nearly impossible without painfully undoing the unity built around that shared belief, sometimes unmaking the organization in the process.

I have found Paul Saffo's Strong Opinions, Weakly Held or Richard Feynman's admonitions against 'cargo cult science' to be instructive and helpful here. For myself, I have made it a practice to regularly challenge those of my own beliefs which are falsifiable or and wrestle with which of my primary beliefs ought to become secondary based on new information.

Growth is literally the stuff of life. Dogma inhibits growth by inhibiting learning, which makes us brittle. Keep it to a minimum.

  1. In a fun twist, I had spent the weekend running a half-marathon and participating in a fitness challenge for charity. The previous 12 months at the office had also been pretty rough, and the combination of it all had left me feeling sufficiently exhausted to remark to Betsy that, "I could really use a sabbatical. I don't want to quit my job or anything, but I could really use about three months off…" 

  2. This paragraph is a drop in the bucket. Former Microsoft executives from this time period have gone on to found massive patent trolls and the tactics used by Microsoft and the Business Software Alliance to motivate cash strapped public institutions to spend large on bulk licensing deals are deplorable. 

  3. Honestly, it probably helped that I hadn't expected this to be an interview and, therefore, wasn't deeply invested in it producing a job offer. That likely freed me to answer candidly, particularly considering we'd already navigated an awkward moment caused by my offering the technically correct response "It depends" to the question from another panelist, "How many bits are in a byte?" The expected answer was "eight", but I had interpreted it as a "gotcha" question. 

  4. I complained that, given Microsoft's licensing model for components like Microsoft SQL Server, license pricing often influenced software architecture in sub-optimal ways, whereas FOSS tools provided more flexibility to choose the right architecture to solve the problem without having to hoist license pricing (which often devolves into economic rent-seeking by the vendor) as a primary consideration. The reply I got was "You won't ever have to worry about that." To which I replied, "That's a promise!" Three weeks after I joined, we needed to be able to do some testing with a version of SQL Server that did not hinder resource utilization by license restriction like the Developer Edition that we were using. I may have too much enjoyed the conversation about how expensive that would be imploring us to find an alternative approach. 

  5. I was probably the only person obnoxious enough to actually say this. The Mac Team developed a bit of a good-natured (or so we thought) chip on our shoulders and also had a lively and unique sense of humor relative to the rest of the company. For example, our build server, which was physically situated among our desks in an open floor plan, played clips from the chorus of Miley Cyrus's Party in the U.S.A. when the build succeeded. 

  6. The technical elements of that project deserve explication, but I'm the wrong person to do it. 

  7. By the time I left, free and open-source alternatives had replaced much of the Microsoft software that had been in use, particularly for SaaS-based components.