February 17th, 2009

Found a litl work

I started work at litl yesterday, did all the necessary administrivia and got a build environment set up, and am typing this today using their software stack. There are a lot of similarities between my old and new jobs: both target poorly served "nonexpert" audiences — in litl's case, families at home — and are taking advantage of the opportunity to build a clean-slate integrated hardware/software solution that's new and different and not another rehash of the Common Desktop Environment of 1993. Both litl and OLPC write highly design-driven software and employ some of the same design firms, so there are more subtle aesthetic similarities as well.

The most sobering difference (for me) is the effective organization at litl. After spending years fighting uphill battles at OLPC, it's refreshing to find what seems a model development environment: clear and explicit specifications for new features, release notes that incorporate the specs (with green annotations indicating future features or deviations), and test cases. Lots of test cases — both in the code for machine use, and written in English for people to use.

This isn't rocket science. But writing specifications for a complete software/hardware system is not a little work, and as you become more ambitious the difficulty increases. Both OLPC's Sugar and litl reinvent the standard desktop paradigm, so you can't take even "the program launches when you click on it" for granted: you have to define every such interaction (what does "the program" mean?), how it should work, and test that it does so. Software at OLPC never quite made the transition from self-directed research project to production code. It saddens me to think what might have been if OLPC had been able to either properly develop Sugar, or successfully contract out the work — if only it was *Sugar* with the careful 200-page spec, exact lists of features implemented/in-process, heaps of test cases, and proper staging of features...

As part of a much larger company, litl also avoids the self-hosting trap. Email, HR, site hosting, databases, bug trackers, and collaboration support for the devel team are all sourced out to companies who do it well, so precious development time isn't wasted by having your rock star developers installing ubuntu for the 13th time on some new server, upgrading, doing backups, moving machines from one network to the next, tuning trac, etc. Some of this is inevitable, and some is actually necessary -- sometimes there *is* a vital business need for some tool which it's easier to have in-house and patch — but OLPC was suckered into bad decisions by the lure of fast free bandwidth from MIT. At OLPC we didn't have to pay for hosting or bandwidth as long as we kept our servers under our desks — so we ended up paying far more than we saved in lost developer hours as we tinkered.

Anyway, I'm looking forward to the change of pace and to actually delivering the features in the spec! At least one of my OLPC friends will be joining me, and litl is hiring (although they self-describe as "a small team of rockstars"); I can point you in the right direction if you want to learn more about working here.