Day 43: Scarcity and Value

How do you price art?

There is one aspect of economics that everyone understands: the law of Supply and Demand. It’s pretty obvious: useful/desirable things will be valued more highly than stuff that isn’t as in demand, and scarce things will cause people to offer to pay more.

I’ve found something
No one else is looking for
I’ve found something
That there’s no use for
And what’s more
I’m keeping it to myself

Wire, Single K.O.

For this discussion let’s assume that the art in question is “desirable”, so that there is a certain level of demand for it. The determinant for price will therefore be how scarce it is.

There is a fundamental difference between a painting, in which the creative effort results in a single item, and a recording of a performance, which can be duplicated and replayed an infinite number of times. The artist can only sell their painting once, but can sell as many videos as people want.

This same issue comes up with media such as photography and print making: there really is no limit to the number of copies of a single art work that can be made. In the days of negatives, the act of making a positive print was itself part of the creative process, because the printer (usually the photographer) had to have a feel for how to balance overall exposure with local dodging and burning. The great photographer Edward Weston trained his son Cole to learn his precise printing techniques, so that Cole could continue to make prints that would be as close to the artist’s vision as possible. So while in theory an infinite number of prints could be made, there is a practical limit.

But digital photography throws all of that out the window. The artist can make whatever corrections or other changes they want to the digital file, which can then be reproduced without loss forever. So how does one determine a price for something like this?

I’ve recently begun to submit my work to several galleries, and have had some success – just yesterday I got notice that one of my photos was accepted for a show! But I’ve seen several Calls for Entry for exhibits that have a requirement that any submitted work be part of a limited edition. A Limited Edition is when the artist decides that there will only ever be a certain number of prints made, and each print is “numbered” so that they buyer knows that they are one of the few owners of that piece.

I call bullshit.

Art’s value is in the piece itself. If it moves you, makes you think, or just is stimulating to look at, it has value. The fact that only a few other people can enjoy that particular piece doesn’t change the experience; it just creates an artificial scarcity to prop up prices that otherwise can’t be justified.

Paintings are scarce, by their very nature. Digital photographs are not.

I’m not playing this game. Sure, this might keep me out of some galleries, but those are probably not compatible in spirit with me. With a calibrated monitor, I can create a digital file that can be printed exactly the same anywhere in the world. If you like my work and want a print, I will sell you a print. I won’t say “sorry, but I’ve sold all the prints I can make of that image. You’ll have to find one from some art dealer or collector”.

The digital transformation calls for new ways of thinking about art. The music business learned that lesson with the advent of the .mp3 file. The photographic business will need to grow to accommodate this new digital reality.

Day 35: Chopped Candidate

Have you ever watched the TV show Chopped? If you haven’t, it’s a competition among 4 chefs. There are 3 rounds, and after each round, one of them is chopped (eliminated), until one remains. The winner gets a cash prize. This would seem like a good way to determine who is the best of the group, right?

The problem is how the competition is run: each round the chefs are given a basket of “mystery” ingredients that they can’t see until the round begins. And more often than not, the basket contains, shall we say, “odd” combinations. One such basket contained blood orange syrup, the African spice blend ras el hanout, hot cross buns, and lamb testicles. The chefs can add other staple ingredients, but those four flavors have to be featured prominently in the result.

And if that isn’t difficult enough, there is a time limit that is always ridiculously short. The chefs had 20 minutes to create an appetizer from the basket I described above: 20 minutes to create a recipe, determine what other ingredients to add, prepare and cook the food, and then plate it for a beautiful presentation.

I must confess that I find the show very entertaining, and have watched countless episodes. And I’m not alone: the show has been running for 44 seasons over the past 11 years. But let me ask you: if you were opening a restaurant, would this be the way you would select your head chef? I would hope not! Any restaurant that would spring surprises on their chefs and expect them to deliver first-rate food in impossibly short time limits wouldn’t last very long.

Which brings me to the point of all this: if you are interviewing for a programmer, do your interviews actually determine how well they would be able to work in your team? How positive their contribution will be?

Making a candidate live code a solution to a problem they’ve never seen before in a short period of time with people watching their every keystroke is the software development equivalent to being on Chopped. I certainly hope that your work environment isn’t anything like that. So why would you think that a live coding session in an interview tells you anything about their potential?

What artificial scenarios like Chopped or live coding interviews do is test a candidate’s ability to handle stress. Personally, I’ve never had a problem with live coding, but then again I’ve never had test anxiety in school, either. I’ve seen many talented developers choke under those circumstances, but that doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t want to have them on my team.

What does it say about your company as a place to work if the bar they have to clear is how well they can handle high levels of stress?

When I first started interviewing candidates when I was at Rackspace, the standard was to have one interviewer do a live coding challenge, and another ask one of those bizarre, abstract brainteasers (“Walk us through your thoughts…”). Once again, these practices just show how nervous someone is in what is already an inherently stressful situation. That link includes a juicy quote:

These types of questions are likely to frustrate some interviewees so watch out for those who aren’t willing to play the game. It’s an interview after all and you make the rules.

Mark Wilkinson, head of recruitment, Coburg Banks

It’s all a game to him, and if asking questions with no right answers eliminates potentially good candidates, tough. It sounds like he is more interested in seeing who can tolerate being bullied than finding the best people for his company.

After sitting through some of these types of interviews at Rackspace, I campaigned internally to change these practices, because I saw some intelligent and capable candidates get flustered and end up looking dumb. I found that there are better ways to determine if someone is a good addition to your team. Perhaps I’ll elaborate more about these in a future post…

Day 29: Death to Superman

Have you ever worked with a large team on a complex project? Usually there is a mix of experience levels, and those with more experience create the application design as well as the workflow that everyone will use. They also serve as the disseminators of information, especially when a new member joins the team. They are the resources that help everyone become more productive

At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. In a company with a good development culture, knowledge is freely shared, and the goal of the senior developers is to help create new senior developers.

In other situations, there is a different dynamic: the overall knowledge of the project is in the brains of a select few developers, and they consider the intricacies of the application their domain. Often it isn’t a group, but rather a single individual in that role. They begin to act like Superman: swooping in to save the day in a manner that only they can do.

This is common in companies without a healthy developer culture. Typically there is a sole developer assigned to create an application, so of course they are the only one who knows how it works. Or the project could have started with a small team, and eventually everyone leaves the project except for one. Other teams that need that functionality need to go through this person, who is now the bottleneck, the gatekeeper. As new people are added to the team, this one developer keeps them dependent on him (yeah, it’s usually a man) by only sharing bits of knowledge only as needed, and not educating the new members. He tends to treat the other developers as inferior, and as a result, no one else feels competent to handle the work that Superman can do.

Back in the ’90s when I was a junior developer I was placed on a team that had exactly that dynamic. Someone would have a great idea, but nobody would act on it until that one lead dev signed off on it. People were even a little afraid to say that they thought it was a good idea, because if this Superman figure didn’t like it, he wouldn’t simply explain why. Instead he’d make you feel dumb for not understanding every implication your change would have.

Of course, when he wanted to change something, he just did it without involving anyone else. It wasn’t unusual to come in one day to find the part of the code you’d been working on had been changed, or sometimes even deleted. Needless to say, there was a general unhappiness on the team.

After a few months, Superman started throwing his weight around with our boss, taking the attitude “you can’t afford to lose me”. It worked for a while, but after one particularly obnoxious outburst, our boss called his bluff, and Superman quit on the spot and stormed out. Everyone on the team was both relieved that the source of tension was gone, and also afraid of how much more work this would mean for us. We were all afraid that the project would founder, and we would have to re-hire Superman, who would then be even more insufferable.

To our surprise, it wasn’t all that bad at all. Everyone started exploring the code base a bit more, now that we didn’t have Superman to supply that knowledge and make those changes. We started talking among ourselves about things we thought needed to be changed, and team members who were always quiet began to speak up more. The entire dynamic of the team changed for the better. And instead of the project falling apart without Superman to lead the way, it got better. Maybe no single person knew the entire code base like he did, but we all learned a lot more, and with people working together, got more done. We divvied up the code so that each person was responsible for learning that part well enough to be a resource to the others. Knowledge was once again being shared.

So while it’s good to have some knowledgeable people on a team to serve as guides for the newer members, it can become toxic with the wrong people and the wrong environment. If you’re on a team with such a toxic member (or members), don’t worry about what would happen if they left the project. Inevitably, the team will be better off without them. Speak with your manager if they aren’t already aware of the situation, and try to come up with a plan to spread the knowledge around better. And if you are told that they think things are fine the way they are, that’s a very strong signal that it’s time to update your resume. It’s not worth the mental toll to remain in a toxic environment.

Day 10: Missed Opportunity

It’s been a little over 2 months since I became one of the 40 million people in the US who lost their job as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. In that time I’ve been reaching out to people in my network, tracking LinkedIn regularly, and keeping an eye out for a new opportunity.

I’ve applied to over a dozen companies, and out of all of those, only one even bothered to write back that they didn’t think I was a good fit for them. For the rest, it was as if my application had been sucked into a black hole.

Until yesterday. I got an email from a well-know tech company saying that they were impressed by my experience, and so we arranged for a video interview with the hiring manager. Finally, it seemed, the world of employment wasn’t looking so bleak!

For the record, it is not my intention to embarrass this company, so I shall not name them. They seemed genuinely interested, and the people I dealt with were both professional and pleasant.

The interview yesterday went well. I was impressed with the hiring manager, who seemed very sharp. I got the impression he was likewise impressed with me, since he told me he would refer me forward to the next phase of the interview process.

A couple of hours later, though, I got a call from someone in HR at this company. The hiring manager had mentioned to him that I was looking for remote work, which I always state clearly up front. It turns out that even though their entire company is working remotely now due to the pandemic, once that’s over they expect everyone to work from one of their offices. In other words, though working remotely has kept the company running, they will not hire anyone who isn’t located where their offices are. As I am not in a position to relocate now (and besides, I love San Antonio!), I politely declined to continue the hiring process. The HR person mentioned that there is talk of opening up the company to hiring remote workers, so I told them that if that ever happens and I’m still available, I would be glad to help them transition to a remote-friendly culture, as I do have a bit of experience with it.

Before the pandemic, it had been very difficult for me to understand why so many tech companies resisted remote work. I suppose its the old “if I can’t see you, how do I know that you’re working?” attitude. But now that they have been forced to do it by circumstances, you’d think that they’d realize that there is no reason not to embrace it, and many reasons to do so:

  • You now have access to a much wider pool of talent
  • Relocation expenses are eliminated for most hires
  • The amount of office space you need to run your business is kept low
  • Processes are documented better
  • Workers are generally happier

One of the supposed advantages of working in an office is the spontaneous conversations that happen – the proverbial “water cooler” discussions. Sure, these can be helpful, but all too often the fruit of those discussions is never recorded. When you work with a distributed team, it forces you to document these things, usually in email or a Google doc. Such documentation is helpful for preventing misunderstandings down the road.

Unfortunately, it seems that many companies are cutting edge of tech, but very slow learners when it comes to hiring remote workers. So I’m back to looking for openings and filling out applications. And that company is back to looking for the talent they need to grow.

Why OpenStack Failed, or How I Came to Love the Idea of a BDFL

OK, so the title of this is a bit clickbait-y, but let me explain. By some measures, OpenStack is a tremendous success, being used to power several public clouds and many well-known businesses. But it has failed to become a powerful player in the cloud space, and I believe the reason is not technical in nature, but a lack of leadership.

OpenStack began as a collaboration between Rackspace, a commercial, for-profit business, and a consulting group working for NASA. While there were several companies involved in the beginning, Rackspace dominated by sheer numbers. This dominance was a concern to many companies – why should they contribute their time and resources to a project that might only benefit Rackspace? This fear was not entirely unfounded, as the OpenStack API was initially created to match Rackspace’s legacy cloud API, and much of the early naming of things matched Rackspace’s terminology – I mean, who ever thought of referring to virtual machines as “servers”? But that matched the “Cloud Servers” branding that Rackspace used for its cloud offering, and that name, as well as the use of “flavor” for instance sizing, persist today. The early governance was democratic, but when one company has many more votes than the others…

The executives at Rackspace were aware of this concern, and quickly created the OpenStack Foundation, which would be an independent entity that would own the intellectual property, helping to guarantee that one commercial company would not control the destiny of OpenStack. More subtly, though, it also engendered a deep distrust of any sort of top-down control over the direction of the software development. Each project within OpenStack was free to pretty much do things however they wanted, as long as they remained within the bounds of the Four Opens: Open Source, Open Design, Open Development, and Open Community.

That sound pretty good, right? I mean, who needs someone imposing their opinions on you?

Well, it turns out that OpenStack needed that. For those who don’t know the term “BDFL“, it is an acronym for “Benevolent Dictator For Life”. It means that the software created under a BDFL is opinionated, but it is also consistently opinionated. A benevolent dictator listens to the various voices asking for features, or designing an API, and makes a decision based on the overall good of the project, and not on things like favoring corporate interests for big contributors, or strong personalities that otherwise dominate design discussions. Can you imagine what AWS would be like if each group within could just decide how they wanted to do things? The imposition of the design from above assures AWS that each of its projects can work easily with others.

The closest thing to that in OpenStack is the Technical Committee (TC), which “is an elected group that represents the contributors to the open source project, and has oversight on all technical matters”. Despite the typical meaning of “oversight”, the TC is essentially a suggestion body, and has no real enforcement power. They can spend months agonizing over the wording of mission statements and community goals, but shy away from anything that might appear to be a directive that others must do. I don’t think the word “must” is in their vocabulary.

They also bend over backwards to avoid potentially offending anyone. Here is one example from my interactions with them: one of the things the TC does is “tag” projects, so that newcomers to OpenStack can get a better idea how mature a particular project is, or how stable, etc. One of the proposed tags was to warn potential users that a project was primarily being developed by a single company; the concern is that all it would take is one manager at that company to decide to re-assign their employees, and the project would be dead. This is a very valid concern for open source projects, and it was proposed that a tag named “team:diverse-affiliation-danger” be created to flag such projects. What followed was much back-and-forth on the review of the proposal as well as in TC meetings about how the tag name was negative and would hurt people’s feelings, how it would be seen as an attack against a project, that it was more of a stick rather than a carrot, etc. All of this hand-wringing over an objective measurement of the content of a project’s current level of activity. (Epilogue: they ended up making it a positive-sounding tag: “team:single-vendor”, and no tears were shed)

Having ineffective leadership like the TC has ripple effects throughout all of OpenStack. Each project is an island, and calls its own shots. So when two projects need to interact, they both see it from the perspective of “how will this affect me?” instead of “how will this improve OpenStack?”. This results in protracted discussions about interfaces and who will do what thing in what order. And when I say “protracted”, I don’t just mean weeks or months; some, such as the CyborgNova integration discussions, have dragged on for two years! I cannot imaging that happening in a world with an OpenStack BDFL. This inter-project friction slows down development of OpenStack as a whole, and in my opinion, contributes to developer dissatisfaction.

So what would OpenStack have been like if it had had a BDFL? Of course, that would depend entirely on the individual, but I can say this: it would have flamed out very quickly with a poor BDFL, or it would be a much better product with a much higher adoption with a good one. Back in 2013 I had predicted that OpenStack would eventually rival the commercial clouds in much the same manner that Linux now dominates the internet over proprietary operating systems. In the early days of the internet, the ability for people to download and play with free software such as the LAMP stack enabled people with big ideas but small budgets to turn those ideas into reality. OpenStack began in the early days of cloud computing, and it seemed logical that having a freely-available alternative to the commercial clouds might likewise result in new cloud-native creations becoming reality. It was a believable prediction, but I missed the effect that a lack of coordination from above would have on OpenStack achieving the potential to fill that role.

By the way, many people point to Linux and its BDFL, Linus Torvalds, as the argument against having a BDFL, as Linus has repeatedly behaved as an offensive ass towards others when he didn’t like their ideas. But ass or not, Linux succeeded because of having that single opinion consistently shaping its development. Most BDFLs, though, are not insufferable asses, and their projects are better off as a result.