Be a Yardstick of Quality

Inspiration from Steve Jobs, in 1987. This is my milepost for 2017.

People judge you by your performance, so focus on the outcome. Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.

From I, Steve edited by George Beahm (2011).


Smarter, Faster, Better

A few findings from reading Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg (Goodreads).

On self-motivation: Ask yourself, why am I doing what I’m doing? If you are doing something you think is stupid and meaningless, you’re not going to care.

Envisioning the day: Make a habit of picturing how things will go, what goals you have from meetings or tasks—it can make you much more productive.

Distractions: We can trick our brain to ignore things by spending time visualizing what we want to occur, like going to the store for only lasagna and ignoring the special display of holiday cookies.

Tests, finances, decisions: Slow down to make better choices, called “disfluency.” Also helps with overload of data; it’s easy to let your eye slide over it without absorbing anything. Fight it by slowing the information down, make it stickier.

Internalize new ideas: Tell someone about it, interact with the idea, and it’ll stick with you better. For example, telling a colleague about a book you’re reading, not to educate them, but to lock in the ideas.

Financial life: Force yourself to interact with the data, even if it seems inefficient. Sit down regularly and see what you spent money on—is it expected? Do you need to change habits? Not only look, but write it down.

Editorial note: I published this with the WordPress desktop app, a superbly focused and native experience to write posts and manage your blog settings.

Design for Real Life

Real life is complicated.

Even after we’ve tested all the important user flows and polished the edges in our app or site, people still stumble. Why? Because we’re humans, and because our products still have:

  1. Broken flows: transition points or interactions, like a form on a site, that aren’t working correctly.
  2. Content gaps: someone needs a specific piece of content, but you don’t have it—or it’s not in the right place at the right time.
  3. Pain points: people get hung up and are likely to abandon the site or app.

Making digital products friendly isn’t enough to make them feel human.

For more on this topic, I highly recommend Design for Real Life from A Book Apart; the ebook is only $11.


Instead of treating stress situations as edge cases, it’s time we move them to the center of our conversations—to start with our most vulnerable, distracted, and stressed-out users, and then work our way outward.

The reasoning is simple: when we make things for people at their worst, they’ll work that much better when people are at their best.

Order Design for Real Life from See also the Flow glossary for terms inspired by this book that we use in testing WordPress.

Review: The Way of the Web Tester

This is a book review of The Way of the Web Tester by Jonathan Rasmusson. Hat tip: Alister Scott.

A beginner’s guide to automated testing, though not specific to the web, despite the title. Covering the quintessential pyramid of UI, integration, and unit tests as well as basic building blocks of HTML, CSS, HTTP and REST APIs, and JavaScript. The book also spends time on best practices for general software programming and testing.

The goal for test automation, according to the author, is to have more time to do the fun things like developing new features, and less time on boring things like fixing bugs. We can’t test everything, yet “with the right 20%, we can sure test a lot.” Agreed. In broad strokes, this book debunks many common misconceptions of automated testing.

Don’t try to automate everything. Instead, automate just enough.

I love the dual audience of testers and developers, and how each chapter addresses the goals for each to learn in the coming text. The chapter ending summaries are handy. The text flows and the examples are easy to follow. Though a quick read, the book ends up covering important topics such as organization, naming, coupling, reusable code, and avoiding flaky tests by making them deterministic.

A few minor nitpicks: I found the metaphor of armor and mobility a tad confusing, and some of the humor seemed off-putting and unnecessary. As a beginner book I didn’t like how it conflated an important concept of CSS selectors and using similar syntax with jQuery to select elements by ID; in my opinion this difference should be understood at a beginner level. The author also doesn’t mention targeting data URIs in HTML attributes for selection, which seems to me to be worth a mention as a useful technique when working without relying on extra IDs or classes everywhere—such as legacy code or HTML output from third-party templates that you don’t control—and is present in popular JavaScript frameworks such as React.

I love the concept of a Developer Productivity team at a software company—at Spotify, Rasmusson describes a squad that went around killing and fixing flaky tests. Making things run better, making everyone happier. I think of Excellence Wranglers at Automattic as having a similar goal in our work as quality advocates.

The Way of the Web Tester does a great job introducing important concepts and covers the basics of automated testing, and I’d recommend it to everyone, even seasoned developers and testers.


Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise

Book review for Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool.


This fascinating book takes a deep dive into how to harness the adaptability of your brain and body to achieve abilities that would otherwise be out of reach.

Focused and concise, illustrated with research, and bringing new science to light, I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning and improving.

The main premise is to explain that what we think about acquiring abilities is probably wrong. Are gifted people at a natural advantage to become experts? Can anyone apply certain techniques to achieve the same results as others? Does high IQ play a role?

Answers abound. There is no such thing as natural ability; anyone can become an expert by putting in the time. Illustrated with exploring prodigies through history, their skills reduce down to two questions: 1) What is the exact nature of the ability? 2) What sorts of training made it possible? Traits favorable to a task help at the beginning but don’t make a difference at high levels; it all comes down to your own effort.

But not just any effort. The 10,000-hour “rule” popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success is not the full story—the how long isn’t as important as how. Just practicing over and over doesn’t lead to mastery as you’ll soon plateau and stop improving. Important to know that you aren’t reaching a set potential, you are developing your potential because it’s not a fixed state. Surprising to read about many studies showing adult brain plasticity and adaptability. The brain’s adaptability is incredible.

The key piece is deliberate practice: training with expert teachers, eliminating your weaknesses by forming mental representations that drive you consistently to great performance, and spending lots of time in private practice on the right things.

The best among us in various areas do not occupy that perch because they were born with some innate talent but rather because they have developed their abilities through years of practice, taking advantage of the adaptability of the human body and brain.

Since there are no shortcuts to expertise, and you aren’t born with natural advantages, to improve you must engage with your training and stick with it, getting out of your comfort zone to reach the next level. You can control your environment, and adapt to changes by learning new skills.

Deliberate practice is knowing where to go, and how to get there.

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning, Refactor Your Wetware by Andy Hunt (2008) is sensible and matter-of-fact, a gem of a book that works well both as reference and as inspiration. A science-based lifehacker manual that serves as the ultimate guide to personal productivity.


Full of tips, tricks, philosophies, and science behind how our brains function best for learning and thinking, the book covers topics such as reading and study habits, control over context and environment, trusting intuition while questioning everything, discovery and capture of ideas, and how to pay better attention. All tied to harnessing the power of opposite sides of the brain, creative versus practical, reactive versus thoughtful. Seeing both the forest and the trees.

Since the book is too full of useful information to summarize in one blog post, I’d like to share a few of my favorite parts.

Intuition and pattern matching replace explicit knowledge.

This echoes my philosophy of The Investigative Mindset where rules are not a substitute for clear thinking while considering the context. You can trust your intuition, yet you would do well to verify it by asking questions and digging deeper and keeping in mind your expectations and cognitive biases.

If you don’t keep track of great ideas, you will stop noticing you have them. Everyone has good ideas, fewer go further to keep track, act on them, and pull it off.

So true. Keep a journal, review it often, and take action on the best ideas. Share them with others for accountability, they can improve with feedback, or someone else can run with it if you don’t have time or energy to do so.

Rewire your brain with belief and constant practice; thinking makes it so.

This idea of mastery through constant, focused effort echoes what I’ve learned elsewhere, including a new book I’m excited about, Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise (review to come soon).

A random approach, without goals and feedback, tends to give random results.

“You got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.” —Yogi Berra

The best efforts need a plan, because if you work on a team like mine at Automattic you’ll know from experience that starting on things without a clear goal in mind, nor a plan on how to get there, without specific metrics to track it — means it’ll be almost impossible to measure the results.

I love the concept of SMART goals: specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-boxed. Reminds me of Google’s Objectives and Key Results.

Read deliberately with SQ3R (scan, question, read, recite, review), which I find similar and complementary to Adler’s ideas on how to read books, as described by Ian Stewart.

You are who you hang out with: attitudes, behaviors, beliefs, and emotions are all contagious.

What does it take to stay sharp? Awareness. Learn to quiet your mind’s endless chatter, keep track of your ideas by working on and adding to your thoughts in progress, and avoid context switching.

Pragmatic Thinking & Learning is a must-read for all thinkers and learners. Hat tip: Nikolay Bachiyski.

Review: Superforecasting

This is a review of Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction by Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner.
Although “Destined to become a modern classic” from the book jacket description might be a bit overstating the book’s impact, I did enjoy the reading it and came away inspired and energized. The style is approachable and authentic.

Beliefs are hypotheses to be tested—not treasures to be guarded.

In this book we learn who superforecasters are, why they are good at what they do, and how anyone can mimic their approach to improve their thinking.

81eccldB55LThe future, in the near term, can be predicted. This skill can be learned, practiced, and improved—and some people are much better at it than others.

Superforecasters are smart, but not genius-level and are comfortable with numbers and statistics. They live in perpetual beta. They exercise caution, nuance, and healthy skepticism while developing techniques and habits of mind to bring smart thinking for the future (and now). They are constantly belief-updating and fact-checking. In short, they are teachable.

They have:

1. A healthy appetite for information
2. A willingness to revisit and revise when new information arises
3. An ability to synthesize material from very different sources
4. An ability to think in fine gradations
5. A growth mindset: determination, self-reflection, and willingness to learn from mistakes
6. Awareness of their biases
7. Grit

Their methods:

1. Gather evidence from a variety of sources
2. Think probabilistically
3. Work in teams
4. Keep score
5. Be willing to admit error and change course

One favorite thread of mine in this book was how it addressed other impactful books like Thinking Fast and Slow from Daniel Kahneman and Black Swan and Antifragile by Nassim Taleb. As another book about meta-cognition (thinking about thinking) the authors weave elements of the other works into this one while both agreeing and disagreeing with their philosophies and techniques. The book feels pragmatic and up-to-date.

For example, Taleb’s black swans are unimaginable and impactful. In that view, forecasting will only interest short-term thinkers because it can’t predict black swans. However, the authors of Superforecasting argue—and I agree—that incremental change can be profoundly impactful. One style risks a lot for a rare huge win while the other pays off slowly, modestly, and more often.

Takeaway lessons for my work include: 1) think clearly, not too fast, and do the needed research 2) be willing to adjust and learn from evidence and new information 3) models are valuable even if not 100% accurate—they are simplified in order to explain and predict, and 4) keep going, keep learning.