Monday, February 22, 2016

Thank You

Back in the day, Joel Spolsky had a very influential tech blog, and one of the pieces he wrote described the kind of software developer he liked to hire, one who was "Smart, and gets things done." He later turned it into a book ( Steve Yegge, who was also a very influential blogger in the oughties, wrote a followup, in which he tackled the problem of how you find and hire developers who are smarter than you. Given the handicaps of human psychology, how do you even recognize what you're looking at? His rubric for identifying these people (flipping Spolsky's) was "Done, and gets things smart". That is, this legendary "10X" developer was the sort who wouldn't just get done the stuff that needed to be done, but would actually anticipate what needed to be done. When you asked them to add a new feature, they'd respond that it was already done, or that they'd just need a few minutes, because they'd built things in such a way that adding your feature that you just thought of would be trivial. They wouldn't just finish projects, they'd make everything better—they'd create code that other developers could easily build upon. Essentially, they'd make everyone around them more effective as well.

I've been thinking a lot about this over the last few months, as I've worked on finishing a project started by Sebastian Rahtz: integrating support for the new "Pure ODD" syntax into the TEI Stylesheets. The idea is to have a TEI syntax for describing the content an element can have, rather than falling back on embedded RelaxNG. Lou Burnard has written about it here: Sebastian wrote the XSLT Stylesheets and the supporting infrastructure which are both the reference implementation for publishing TEI and the primary mechanism by which the TEI Guidelines themselves are published. And they are the basis of TEI schema generation as well. So if you use TEI at all, you have Sebastian to thank.

Picking up after Sebastian's retirement last year has been a tough job. It was immediately obvious to me just how much he had done, and had been doing for the TEI all along. When Gabriel Bodard described to me how the TEI Council worked, after I was elected for the first time, he said something like: "There'll be a bunch of people arguing about how to implement a feature, or even whether it can be done, and then Sebastian will pipe up from the corner and say 'Oh, I just did it while you were talking.'" You only have to look at the contributors pages for both the TEI and the Stylesheets to see that Sebastian was indeed operating at a 10X level. Quietly, without making any fuss about it, he's been making the TEI work for many years.

The contributions of software developers are often easily overlooked. We only notice when things don't work, not when everything goes smoothly, because that's what's supposed to happen, isn't it? Even in Digital Humanities, which you'd expect to be self-aware about this sort of thing, the intellectual contributions of software developers can often be swept under the rug. So I want to go on record, shouting a loud THANK YOU to Sebastian for doing so much and for making the TEI infrastructure smart.

UPDATE 2016-3-16

I heard the sad news last night that Sebastian passed away yesterday on the Ides of March. We are much diminished by his loss.