Blog Fiasco

May 25, 2012

Additional management skills

Filed under: Musings — Tags: , , — bcotton @ 6:48 am

My friend Eric recently wrote a post about critical management skills. I had intended to leave a comment with my thoughts, but instead I’ll build on them here. Eric hit many key points, but what I thought was lacking from his list are visible leadership and setting a vision. Visible leadership requires not just doing the things that Eric suggests, but a bit of showmanship as well. Employees must see evidence of active support from their manager, even if that means the manager has to tilt at the occasional windmill. The nature of the workforce has changed from generations past. Loyalty to the company and a rigid chain of command are no longer the norm. Leaders must recognize when they have good people working for them and must avoid pulling rank.

Setting a vision can be a difficult task. The reality that the vision is based on changes almost as soon as the vision is set. Still, effective leadership requires that such a vision be defined. Visions cannot be specific projects or tasks, they much be more broad, but not so general as to be meaningless. Ideally, the organization will have a strategic plan of some sort. This is normally defined at the highest level. Each level down must identify how its own duties tie into the strategic plan, all the way down to each individual employee. The group’s strategic plan then guides the projects the group will work on, how new and vacated positions will be staffed, and how employee performance will be evaluated.

May 23, 2012

To automate or not to automate?

Filed under: Linux,Musings — Tags: , , , — bcotton @ 6:25 am

According to HackTux.com, the eighth sysadmin commandment is

VIII. Thou shalt automate

Do more, faster by automating tasks. You are the puppet master, do not waste your time with menial work. Work smarter, not harder.

It makes sense to automate tasks. Automation reduces the number of opportunities for human error and it makes processes repeatable. These are good things, but like any ideological absolute there are exceptions. One issue I’m currently wrestling with is whether or not the builds of internal documentation at work should be automated. There are compelling arguments for both choices, and it’s not clear to me which one wins out.

Since I’m the one who is leading the documentation charge, I got to pick the technology. My work in the Fedora Documentation group has made me familiar with DocBook XML and Publican, so that’s what I chose. The combination of the two allows for a single source (that can be edited in any editor and neatly managed with your version control system of choice) that can be built into HTML, PDF, or epub. While I wouldn’t call publican “fragile”, it can be a bit verbose in its output. Sometimes the output can be helpful, and sometimes it can be easily ignored, and I’ve not yet come up with an easy way to programmatically distinguish the two. More importantly, the output can give a clear indication that the syntax is invalid (although it’s not always easy to figure out what the precise problem is).

The arguments in favor of automated builds are championed by one of the group’s managers. His concern is that even a well-documented build process may be a deterrent to some group members. Automating the builds removes the opportunity to make mistakes and makes the process simpler. On the other hand, it presents additional moving parts which may break in new and interesting ways.

There are two ways to handle the automated builds. First, every time a document is updated in the version control tree, a post-commit hook builds the new version. This has the ability to provide nearly-instant feedback on whether or not the document is semantically valid and has the correct layout and content. On the other hand, it may now require multiple commits to finally get the document correct. The writer could, of course, run publican locally before committing the changes, but if they’re going to do that, why have an automated process repeat the work? This method also contradicts the “commit early, commit often” philosophy that I embrace.

Instead of triggering builds based on commits, the build can be done on a schedule. This prevents multiple concurrent build attempts due to rapid commits, at the expense of losing quick feedback. In addition, it can muddy the “who broke this doc?” waters. If there are multiple commits between builds, it is potentially more difficult to hunt down the offending error (or even worse, errors). It also absolves writers of responsibility — since the entire group must be notified that the build failed, everyone will assume someone else will fix it. As a result, the document doesn’t get fixed.

I’m sympathetic to the pro-argument builds. On the other hand, the Fedora Docs are manually built and published (granted there are other considerations like release cycles and translation). Having to run and correct builds by hand helps train writers to write valid syntax the first time through and it allows documents to be updated when they’re ready, while still giving writers the ability to commit works in progress. Useful documents are almost never write-once, read-many. Even the U.S. Constitution has had 27 patches accepted. Still, for the kinds of documentation intended (e.g. design documents), once a document is initially written, it shouldn’t change often. This suggests that designing an automated build system is over-engineering, especially considering the current staff shortage.

It would seem that my current inclination is to keep with a manual build process, even if it is heresy. Fortunately, this may be a solved problem in the not-so-distant future. Red Hat’s Joshua Wulf (and others) have been developing a live DocBook editor that can be done entirely in the web browser. The idea is to lower the barrier to entry for Fedora contributors. This is still in the proof-of-concept stage, but the initial results are promising. In the meantime, I’ll work on getting the content seeded. If someone else in the group wants to automate it, I won’t stand in the way.

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