To leave one amazing team for another

This is part announcement, part job advertisement, part musing on what it’s like to work with a really amazing team.

I’m leaving PayPal in the first week of August to join the fine people at npm, inc as the architect of the web site. It was actually one of the toughest decisions I’ve had to make, because while npm is the company I absolutely most want to work for, I really, really like my team at PayPal. I can’t think of any other company I’d leave my team for. They are kind, hard-working, honest, visionary but not obnoxiously opinionated. I’ve been given a huge amount of trust while I was there, and I’ve produced some great work. As one of my last acts for the team, I want to find someone to replace me.

For the past year, I’ve been working on KrakenJS at PayPal, doing largely open source development, and supporting application teams internally. The Kraken team is a unique team in a unique spot in the company. Our job is the open source project, advocacy for our internal developers, technological leadership, and creating common infrastructure when we can identify problems that multiple teams have. We do research and experiment with new technologies – both to vet them for stability, and to find places that will be error-prone and require caution or will impact long term maintenance.

I spent most of my year working on internationalization components. This wasn’t exactly assigned work – though someone really did need to do that work, so I jumped in and did it – but there’s a lot of things that need attention and the point of the project is to serve its users needs. It’s not there to enforce an opinion, just to solve problems, and so it does and we do. The team has worked a lot on rough consensus and running code. If someone has an idea, they prototype it and show it off to the team. Ownership is collective, but everyone takes responsibility.

Originally, Kraken was a prototyping tool used internally. The original team was taking a rough stab at some early componentizing and tooling for purely front-end work, but as time passed, the real niche showed up: an enterprise-friendly, structured but not too restrictive framework for making front-end services, first as a prototype for Java services that were not yet ready, and later, to replace those services with a node.js-based front tier. Application teams are now integrated, full-stack teams, building both in-browser and server-side components together. This has allowed a pretty unprecedented pace of development within PayPal, and in the past two and a half years, nearly every customer-facing application has been rewritten. That’s a huge amount of success enabled by the experimentation and resourcefulness of this small team. There are recordings of conference talks about this.

Recently, the team has been merged with some of the core node.js infrastructure team, now responsible for both internal architecture modules and the open source project. While the split loyalties to open source and to the internal company work are annoying, it actually works really well that way. PayPal is credibly the single largest enterprise use of node.js. I think we’ve got more developers using it than any other company, and certainly have based a large portion of our architecture on it. If someone’s having a problem with node, chances are we’ve seen the error and may well have found patterns or workarounds for development problems, and we work on getting bugs fixed upstream.

An example of one of the trickier bugs was diagnostics of a memory leak in io.js. You can see the back-and-forth with Fedor Indutny and my team on that issue, trying to diagnose what’s going on. Credit to Fedor: he knows the source of io.js better than anyone I know, particularly the TLS parts, and made tidy work of fixing it, but instrumenting, diagnosing and tracing that leak was a weeks-long process, starting in-house with monitoring noticing that a service running iojs behaved differently than the version running node 0.10 or 0.12. From there, making diagnostic framework to track what’s going on, and really digging in let us make a bug report of this caliber. Not every – or even many bugs involve that kind of to-the-metal investigation, but the team can figure out anything. They are great, kind, wonderful people.

It’s not all roses. There’s a lot of legacy baggage within the company, as any company that size and age is going to have. Enterprise constraints and organization have their own weight. Some people are resistant to change, and not every developer wants to do an amazing job in the company. Moving to new technologies and ways of doing things still require backward compatibility and migration paths, but having tools like semantic versioning and node.js’s module structure have helped a lot. Tools like Github Enterprise, Asana and Slack and HipChat have their roles in enabling this kind of change.

My workday at PayPal goes something like this:

  • An hour of technical reading – maybe about babel or one of Brendan Gregg’s performance blog posts or one of Thorsten Lorenz’s blog posts or internals of node.
  • Follow up on application crash emails – perhaps chase down a team or two who’s ignoring or doesn’t know their app is crashing, and help diagnose what’s really going on and try to get it fixed.
  • Review pull requests and issues on the Kraken open source project and its modules. It’s not an overwhelming pace, but there’s something most mornings.
  • Work for a couple hours on the modules of Kraken or internal infrastructure integration that most need it.
  • Answer internal support email about node.js and guide developers internally on how to avoid problems.
  • Maybe do a code review of an internal application, and give feedback about problems they’re likely to run into.
  • Advocate for improvements to internal infrastructure.
  • Help people on IRC between things.

In addition, I’ve spoken at several conferences, some of which PayPal has sponsored, some independently. It’s been intense but a very good experience.

It’s been a great honor to work with these fine people. Given the chance to again, there are not many places I would choose over them.