Haupz Blog

... still a totally disordered mix

Badgers

2023-01-22 — Michael Haupt

Gadgets are fun, and even more so when they can make someone’s day.

Back at my previous job, one of my teams (named R2D2) had been working on a long and hairy project. Essentially, it was a complete rewrite of the core piece of Babbel’s language learning experience, the so-called “lesson player”. The project had started well before I joined (that was in August 2020), and was technologically involved. It took the team quite some time to deliver, and the "Universal Lesson Player" has gone live across web, iOS, and Android.

Before leaving, I really wanted to celebrate and acknowledge the success so far by giving a little token of appreciation to everyone who had contributed. It being me, that needed to be appropriately nerdy. I came across a device named Badger 2040: a Raspberry Pi Pico powered little thing with an e-ink display that’s programmed in MicroPython and can be configured as a name tag. Of course this was the right thing.

So I got some 35 of those, and went on a fun ride to prepare all of them until they looked like this (for the technically interested, there’s also a photo of the back):

It’s e-ink, so the display just stays like that. But if a user so desires, they can connect a battery pack and augment the code on the device to, for instance, react to pushing one of the buttons by displaying a QR code with contact information instead of an image. After all, it’s a programmable computer right there, and it even has a variant of the Raspberry Pi’s infamous GPIO capabilities. The possibilities are “endless” once one knows a little Python.

I was able to hand over most of the Badgers at a little release party, and needless to say, people loved it.

Tags: work, the-nerdy-bit

The Perfect Manager

2023-01-06 — Michael Haupt

John Cutler has a little piece on “the perfect manager”, wherein he notes that one key trait of such heroic figures is to shield their teams from bullshit from above. He goes on to question why that would be the norm, because it would imply that BS is the norm.

Obviously, part of my job is to represent the company to my teams, which may involve such shielding, and which more likely involves translating messages from “above” and from stakeholders. Notably, another part of my job is to represent my teams to ”above” and to stakeholders, which may involve translating as well.

Ideally, there is no BS that people need to be shielded from. Ideally, there’s clarity about priorities and their rationale. I would even go so far as to say that ideally, no translation is needed at all. In such a perfect world, people speak the same language and are on the same page about what needs to happen because clarity is established early and with the necessary amount of repetition.

In such a setting, I could just contribute to the work going on at my level, which involves such beautiful things as thinking about and implementing an organisational vision, and caring about people’s growth trajectories.

Patrick Lencioni calls the state in which this is possible because everyone operates with optimal clarity “organisational health”. I really believe it’s worth working towards.

Tags: work

Musical Languages

2023-01-03 — Michael Haupt

I like languages - human and programming languages alike. And I have a sweet spot for “constructed” human languages, such as Esperanto. (I don’t speak any Klingon or Quenya though.)

One interesting niche in the constructed languages corner is the one where the languages are musical.

Olivier Messiaen (one of my favourite composers) used a “communicable language” wherein he mapped letters of the alphabet to note pitches and values. He later added patterns for grammatical aspects and certain frequently used words. The principle of mapping letters to tones, however, only goes so far: essentially, the language heard when playing the notes is still the language in which the original text was written - the musical notation is “just” a different writing system. A sophisticated one, granted, but a writing system.

François Sudre did a more consequential design when he came up with Solresol. Here, patterns of notes represent linguistic concepts. The first note of a pattern denotes one of seven categories; repetition adds topicality; and so forth. There are also rules for grammar. Now there’s a language.

Texts in Solresol don’t sound particularly melodic, but mostly harmless because they only use the seven tones of the scale that are on “white” keys. If I was to give a critique, I’d raise the concern that Solresol doesn’t make use of all twelve tones, making it lack in expressiveness somewhat.

My old colleagues at Babbel have a nice article on Solresol.

Tags: music, the-nerdy-bit

Mieczyslaw Weinberg

2022-12-29 — Michael Haupt

Earlier this year, I went to my first “classical music” concert in a long time, and had an epiphany. I thought I’d been fairly knowledgeable about 20th century composers and music, so reading the name of one Mieczyslaw Weinberg in the programme raised an eyebrow just a little, assuming he was some niche figure.

What an arrogant twit I was.

Turns out Weinberg, born in Poland, was a close friend of Dmitri Shostakovich’s, and that the two entered in a kind of mutual cross-pollination contest. Their music bears some similarity (the older Shostakovich doubtlessly has some influence on Weinberg), but where Shostakovich puts emphasis on rhythm, Weinberg puts it on melody.

Compared to Shostakovich, Weinberg was largely unknown for a long time. His works are growing in popularity, though, thanks to some avid performers who make sure the music is being heard.

And what music it is. Symphonies, operas, chamber music, everything. Weinberg was prolific. I’ve only yet begun to explore the oeuvre (also to pay back for the aforementioned arrogance: this is a gap in my music knowledge I cannot abide).

Some highlights follow.

Weinberg’s second symphony, for string orchestra, is a profoundly sad and thoughtful work rooted in Polish and Jewish songs. This was my first ever exposure to Weinberg’s music, at the aforementioned concert, and I’ve listened to it several times since, finding ever more details in its intricate structure.

The Concertino for violin and string orchestra is quite different, with a more positive overall air to it, even though the melodies are melancholic. It’s captivating from the first moment, with an interesting main theme. The second movement sounds a bit as if it might have inspired John Williams for his soundtrack to Schindler’s list.

Next, the Suite for Orchestra could go down as epigonal to Shostakovich’s famous Suites for Jazz Orchestra. It’s way more witty, though, and has some brilliant humoristic aspects.

Finally, the opera The Passenger (parts 1, 2) tells a chilling story: a former Nazi concentration camp warden who, aboard a ship bringing her to her new life in Brazil, meets one of her victims whom she had thought dead. The encounter brings back memories - and shame. The music employs the large orchestra sparingly (really not like Wagner) and almost steps to the background, leaving all the space to the singers and their (inter)actions. A masterpiece, in my opinion.

There is much more to discover, and I’ll duly catch up with what I can only call an embarrassing omission.

Tags: music

Reporting

2022-12-28 — Michael Haupt

Reporting has a bit of a bad reputation; it’s sometimes associated with micro-management or command-and-control style. The existence of such excrescences notwithstanding, reporting is an inherently useful and good communication tool that helps create transparency amongst team members, in organisations, and “up the chain” alike. Guess what, there’s nothing bad about that.

I found this article very helpful for both engineers and managers, as it clarifies a fair share of the language and concepts around the reporting question.

Tags: work

Time For Something Different

2022-12-26 — Michael Haupt

Average retention of software engineers is actually quite low: “Around 50% of software engineers only stay at a company for two years before switching to somewhere new.” The money topic aside, I’ve spoken to several people who mused that after two or three years in the same workplace, “it’s just time for something different”. Frankly, I’ve never quite understood why that would be imperative.

It’s time for something different because ... ?

It’s time for something different so that ... ?

Asking for those extensions of the “time for something different” was often met with a shrug and an emphasis on the “just”: “it’s just time for something different”.

Back in May, I had a conversation with my coaching trainer Maik, who asked me about my start earlier that month at a new company, and the steepness of the learning curve. (Hint: it was very steep, and that wa expected, good, and fun.) Maik proposed that the learning curve when starting at a new company usually takes the shape of an S curve, plotting amassed knowledge over time, with a very steep gradient right at the beginning as new information comes flying from all directions. It makes sense intuitively: starting a new job, you learn a lot in a short time. Eventually, the curve flattens out at a high level: after a while in the same workplace, you’ve learned all the things needed to be able to do your job really well. Depending on the nature of the job and the complexity of the company, that can be one to three years.

Then what?

Is that, the point in time where someone realises they’re experiencing a flatter learning curve, the moment where they think “it’s just time for something different”?

It could be. But does that something have to be in an entirely different workplace, with all the anxiety and insecurity coming with a new job and environment? Can’t the different be found where you are?

In the rare case where you think you can’t learn anything more about the company, I’d argue that’s actually really good. You can spend less time learning about the company, and more - much more - thinking freely, learning seemingly unrelated things, connecting dots between those, and truly innovating. Having such a vast amount of knowledge at your disposal can lead to emerging new insights - which means you’ve learned something again. The curve flattens, but the weight of what’s learned “up there” can be much heavier than further down the slope.

There are careers like the one of Christian Klein, who joined SAP in 1999, aged 19, and has been working there ever since. He has worked there in different functions over the years, and is now CEO. Without ever having met him to ask him about this, I’m sure he always found something different.

Tags: work

Electronic Music

2022-12-20 — Michael Haupt

Let’s talk about electronic music a bit. Or, its earliest proponents. This is obviously not going to be about 18th century baroque music, right? Nope, it’s the 20th century. I would like to point out two combinations of pioneering inventors, their creations, and composers.

The Ondes Martenot, invented by and named after Maurice Martenot, is, simply put, an electronic string instrument. One single piece of electrical wire, making contact in different places, will produce sounds with different pitches. On the surface, the Ondes Martenot looks like a keyboard instrument, but the keyboard is just a crutch to make the instrument more playable - the wire itself can be manipulated directly to produce all kinds of effects, including glissandi and vibrato.

French composer Olivier Messiaen has made frequent use of the Ondes Martenot throughout his entire oeuvre. One of his earlier works using the instrument is a composition commissioned by the organisers of the 1937 Paris Exposition - it was to be the soundtrack of a modernist light-and-water show (ergo, a successor in kind, albeit more wet, to Händel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks). Messiaen composed a score for no less than six Ondes Martenot: Fêtes des belles eaux. And what a marvel this music is! Imagine the impression it must have made to the ears of people in 1937 who weren’t used to hearing such sounds. Take, especially, the way the music audibly describes the glittering of water droplets, and the joy of the final fountains.

Friedrich Trautwein (German only) invented the Trautonium in 1930. This, plainly spoken, was an early analogue synthesizer, already using many of the techniques that would later be applied by giants like Moog. Trautwein was soon joined by Oskar Sala, who grew to have considerable success as a virtuoso on and composer for the instrument.

One of Sala’s most remembered works is the score to Alfred Hitchcock’s movie The Birds. It deserves special mention: not a single actual bird is heard in the movie. It’s all Trautonium sounds. Remember this when you next watch this movie.

Composer Harald Genzmer wrote large-scale concertos in the classic tradition for Trautonium and orchestra. Here’s one.

Does this all sound a bit odd? Still?

Tags: music

Hire Juniors, Grow Seniors

2022-12-16 — Michael Haupt

Imagine that, on one team, Senior Developer X leaves. The gut reaction often is "We need a Senior to do this work." Now, hiring more senior people takes a longer time, and we must not forget that a Senior still needs to go through the same amount of onboarding as everybody else before they reach a productive level.

How about asking instead: “Who on the team is the next best person after X to do these things that X used to do?” There's your Senior-in-the-making now. Letting them fill the space X left behind gives them a perspective, and a space to grow into. That person is already onboarded and is just shifting perspective.

Of course, "Oh but that person is looking into those other things." OK then, who's the next best person to look into those instead? There's another growth opportunity, and more - a cascade of them.

Yes, that’s a lot of shuffling, and it disrupts the team’s setup and ways of working. (Change does have effects.) But rather than expecting everyone to just carry on and waiting for the hole to be filled with someone who has the right shape, how about morphing the team so that the hole goes away more instantly? There is a need for that work, after all.

More junior people are more quickly hired. Also, they bring fresh perspectives and new ways of thinking. Finally, a company should never be a place for senior people alone - it also has a bit of a societal duty to give more inexperienced people in the job market a place to start and grow.

"Hire juniors, grow seniors."

Tags: work