Underneath your code

Underneath your code is the working title for a new writing project. I started coming up with the idea for this a couple of months ago based on what I’ve been learning and hearing. Some of this comes as a follow-up from Kubernetes for Developers, and some of this is just aiming to help new developers.

A lesson that has been reinforced for me recently is that I can too easily assume a breadth of knowledge that doesn’t exist. I have been working with a couple of new developers recently, and there have been a number of concepts they weren’t yet familiar with that caught me by surprise. As I went looking for public resources to help them learn and dig into the topics they were interested in learning more deeply, what I found was a lack of cohesive and consistent information. All the detail is out there, even freely available, but scattered in a lot of different places. It is hard to pull together, and even harder to make the connections of why some of these details are interesting or relevant.

I’ve recently also seen some pushback when it comes to Kubernetes and Developers. The general meme as I’m perceiving it is “don’t expose Kubernetes to developers, they don’t need to know or it’s just too confusing”. Ahmet has great points about it being confusing or perhaps not being the best or correct abstraction over operational needs, but I think backing away from making Kubernetes more accessible and useful to developers is the worst possible path. Outside of my own opinion that using Kubernetes is a good and reasonably efficient way to help keep software running reliably and consistently,  I think developers should absolutely know the world in which their code lives, and the details of how that runs, or not. Lots of general operational concepts are just unknown, confusing, or perceived as irrelevant or that should be hidden. I think it’s a lot better to be able to have a holistic view and knowingly choose what you hide and abstract away, and even more so what constraints come with those choices.

What I am starting is the next layer down from what I wanted to create with Kubernetes for Developers. Instead of writing about an operational tool for developers, I am aiming at writing about the underlying concepts, systems, and common mechanisms. My goal is to make that information accessible and understandable for new developers. My first (terrible) working title was “Ops for Devs” as a lousy inverse of “DevOps”.

I thought about writing a book in the classic fashion: editor, publisher, etc – but only for a very brief period. I want to take this in a different direction. I want to publish and promote this work to a broad set of new developers. To enable that goal I want to make the content solidly open and freely accessible. At the same time, I also want to get professional editing help (they are such a godsend for writers), so I am aiming to collect all the pieces together as a PDF, ePub, and mobi and make it available for sale as a means of funding an editor, and perhaps some of the other niceties such as graphics and illustration.

The work from Julia Evans and her amazing and accessible Zines has been an inspiration. The comic style isn’t what I feel comfortable creating, but I’m constantly referring people to specific zines as a good intro/starting point for a variety of topics, and as a fun seed that can lead them to digging deeper and more broadly.

Tooling is a bit of an open question. I have written in word processors (Scrivener, MS word, google docs), using markup (reStructured Text, Markdown), and use a variety of publishing/rendering tools (Sphinx, ReadTheDocs, and more recently Hugo). Something that can be stored in plain text and usefully read from there is important to me, so I’ll probably ditch the proprietary word processors and see what I can do with content sourced in GitHub, GitLab, or Bitbucket.

Just recently I started looking at GitBook and LeanPub. I heard some great things about LeanPub recently, but my own experiments haven’t been very successful:

The lack of my success with LeanPub may be a strong constraint on not having 2-factor auth enabled for Github in order to use their service, which just scuttles me – as the Kubernetes organization very reasonably requires 2-factor auth to be enabled. It’s not entirely clear if this is the problem or not though, because when I render sample content I get just a vague “something broke, go check what you changed” message with no details about the failure for me to diagnose.

With the what and where still up in the air, I’ll probably take a little time to look at AsciiDoc and AsciiDoctor for the generation. To get started, I fell back to a tool I’ve loved in the past: Scrivener, and took an initial stab at doing the markup for it in Sphinx and hosting it on ReadTheDocs.

How ever I end up playing it, an editor (or editors) and technical reviewers will definitely fit in. I was disappointed with my “editor experience” using the last publisher I worked with, but I have met so many great editors out there that I think it will be quite possible to find one (or a couple) to work with and pay them directly. Even though I had to back away due to time constraints a few months ago, working closely with the Kubernetes Docs team was a great experience, and really cemented the idea that I could find editorial help outside of a larger publisher.

Having done technical writing on and off for a couple of decades now, I’m very familiar (and slowly getting comfortable) with how fundamentally ephemeral it really is. The content from Kubernetes for Developers may have an 18+ month lifespan in terms of being useful, and when I started the project I expected that to be as short as 12 months for a useful lifetime. Looking at the work six months after publication, and reviewing how the Kubernetes project has evolved – it looks like I managed to nail enough core content that at least half of it will be viable for quite a bit longer.

One of my struggles while writing was the amount of time and effort it took to do good writing for the relatively limited lifespan of the content. Technology changes fast; products and platforms develop and evolve in weeks and months. They change, grow, and yeah – die off as well. I view it as an interesting challenge, and my current thinking is to work on shorter, more directed topics rather than larger, more expansive, volumes of work. I also want to keep a published reference material clear on its biases – what’s experimental and strongly opinionated I prefer to keep or see in a blog rather than what I think of as a cohesive publication.

The space for more exploratory, short, and opinionated efforts is still critical. Where the options are evolving quickly (for example, service meshes and ingress options in Kubernetes) I think it may be better to get at least some “how to” information available, over making it fully integrated and cohesive.

There is no denying the success and value of sites like StackOverflow, of which I’m simultaneously grateful and annoyed. The content on the site is a beautiful example of caveat emptor and the need for critical thinking in reviewing and accepting the answers. It is also an amazing communal resource for information, answers, how-to, and examples. By its very nature it lacks a cohesive voice, style, or guide to what is available – and it is a great resource as it stands. What it does well, and what I find lacking from it, are influencing what I want to write, as well as how I might organize it.

The loose outline that I’m starting with for Underneath Your Code:

  • Where your code runs – what a “process” is
    • Running code in a browser vs. running directly on an OS
  • Operating system basics
    • Processes, file systems, memory, and networks
    • A little deeper on networks: DNS, IP addresses, ports & sockets
    • IP v4 and IP v6, TCP & UDP, DHCP, ZeroConf/Avahi
    • WTF is a 7 layer ISO model anyway, and why do I care?
  • Physical & virtual devices and IO
    • Serial ports, block and character devices, what is POSIX
    • USB and Bluetooth
    • Specialized hardware (GPUs, Accelerators, etc)
  • Practicals for working with processes
    • shell scripts and some of Unix CLI concepts
    • commands, pipes, STDOUT, STDERR, STDIN
    • environment variables, and shell tests
  • Some basics about how operating systems work
    • Init, systems, hierarchy of processes and how they coordinate
    • Kernel vs. user space and permissions, and privileges
    • Memory, Buffers, and the various dials that can be tuned (queue theory)
    • Sandboxing, background tasks, and scheduling
  • Another layer of indirection
    • Containers and VMs
    • Shared vs emulated resources
    • Cloud resources to IoT: you have a budget: CPU, Mem, IO
    • Smaller and smaller bits of computation – microprocessors and embedded devices
  • Physical stuff breaks, all the time
    • Redundancy and consistency
    • Networks, latency, and information theory
    • Why and how these fundamentals expose constraints for development work

Almost all of the topics in the outline could be (and in many cases are) books in their own right. While aiming to make an overview accessible and understandable, I am not covering every corner and case. This may be more sensibly organized as several works. I’m sure I’ll re-organize it several times when I get into the writing and trying to keep a more-or-less consistent narrative.

If you have feedback or thoughts on what would be useful, I’m all ears. You can poke me on social media or leave a comment here.

One thought on “Underneath your code

  1. This all sounds very sensible and like there is a good fit between your expertise, approach, and audience. My only potentially useful thought is that perhaps you should consider teaching this as a course at a local college, you might find the experience both rewarding and informative as an extension of this project.

    Like

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