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Living in the Prove It Culture

Note: This article was originally published at Planet PHP on 7 March 2012.
Planet PHP
Engineering cultures differ from shop to shop. I have been in the same culture for 13 years so I am not an expert on what all the different types are. Before that I was living in Dilbert world. The culture there was really weird. The ideas were never yours. It was always some need some way off person had. A DBA, a UI "expert" and some product manager would dictate what code you wrote. Creativity was stifled and met with resistance.

I then moved to the early (1998) days of the web. It was a start up environment. In the beginning there were just two of us writing code. So, we thought everything we did was awesome. Then we added some more guys. Lucky for us we mostly hired well. The good hires where type A personalities that had skills we didn't have. They challenged us and we challenged them. On top of that, we had a CEO who had been a computer hacker in his teens. So, he had just enough knowledge to challenge us as well. Over the years we kept hiring more and more people. We always asked in the interview if the person could take criticism and if they felt comfortable defending their ideas. We decided to always have a white board session. We would ask them questions and have them work it out on a white board or talk it out with us in a group setting. The point of this was not to see if they always knew the answer. The point was to see how they worked in that setting. Looking back, the hires that did not work out also did not excel in that phase of the interview. The ones that have worked out always questioned our methods in the interview. They did not belittle our methods or dismiss them. They just asked questions. They would ask if we had tried this or that. Even if we could quickly explain why our method was right for us, they still questioned it. They challenged us.

When dealing with people outside the engineering team, we subconsciously applied these same tactics. The philosophy came to be that if you came to us with an idea, you had to throw it up on the proverbial wall. We would then try to knock it down. If it stuck, it was probably a good idea. Some people could handle this and some could not. The ones that could not handle that did not always get their ideas pushed through. It may not mean they were bad ideas. And that is maybe the down side of this culture. But, it has worked pretty well for us.

We apply this to technology too. My first experience on Linux was with RedHat. The mail agent I cut my teeth on was qmail. I used djbdns. When Daniel Beckham, our now director of operations, came on, he had used sendmail and bind. He immediately challenged qmail. I went through some of the reasons I prefered it. He took more shots. In the end, he agreed that qmail was better than sendmail. However, his first DNS setup for us was bind. It took a few more years of bind hell for him to come around to djbdns.

When RedHat splintered into RedHat Enterprise and Fedora, we tried out Fedora on one server. We found it to be horribly unstable. It got the axe. We looked around for other distros. We found a not very well known distro that was known as the ricer distro of the Linux world called Gentoo. We installed it on one server to see what it was all about. I don't remember now whose idea it was. Probably not mine. We eventually found it to be the perfect distro for us. It let us compile our core tools like Apache, PHP and MySQL while at the same time using a package system. We never trusted RPMs for those things on RedHat. Sure, bringing a server online took longer but it was so worth it. Eventually we bought in and it is now the only distro in use here.

We have done this over and over and over. From the fact that we all use Macs now thanks to Daniel and his willingness to try it out at our CEO's prodding to things like memcached, Gearman, etc. We even keep evaluating the tools we already have. When we decided to write our own proxy we discounted everything we knew and evaluated all the options. In the end, Apache was known and good at handling web requests and PHP could do all we needed in a timely, sane manner. But, we looked at and tested everything we could think of. Apache/PHP had to prove itself again.

Now, you might think that a culture of skepticism like this would lead to new employees having a hard time getting any traction. Quite the opposite. Because we hire people that fit the culture, they can have a near immediate impact. We have a problem I want solved and a developer that has been here less than a year suggested that Hadoop may be a solution, but was not sure we would use it. I recently sent this in an email to the whole team in response to that.
The only thing that is *never* on the table is using a Windows server. If you can get me unique visitors for an arbitrary date range in milliseconds and it require Hadoop, go for it.
You see, we don't currently use Hadoop here. But, if that is what it takes to solve my problem a

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