The Insides are Ugly

He leaned back in his chair, exhaling completely as a wave of relief swept over him. He got the job. Having been an avid user of the platform since (effectively) its conception, he had always dreamt — silently — of making it better, improving it, fulfilling what he had always imagined possible, yet undone. He turned to his phone and looked at the shiny icon eagerly looking back at him on the home screen of his pocket computer.

Matt tapped on the icon, a gateway to a new world. He seamlessly navigated through content, making pixels dance with each swift flick of his thumb. The application worked with him as he expertly maneuvered each and every gesture, as if solving a Rubik’s cube with astonishing ease. With each of his gestures, the app thanked him with an animation or short snippet of text to give him the steady bursts of dopamine that he adored. After his brief stint in timeless fantasy, he returned to the home screen, admiring once again the gateway — the icon — as if waiting for some initiation ceremony in which the icon lifts itself out of the two dimensional plane to congratulate him in the three dimensional world. Instead, he settled for the gratification of sharing his victory with his Facebook friends.

Matt was ecstatic to start. He was working on the mobile application, specifically making client side improvements for the messaging feature that the platform supported — it enabled any user to send a message to any other user. Though not revolutionary (in product or engineering), the opportunity was enough for him. On his first day, Matt finally met his team: a small bunch of mostly new hires, attracted by the company’s elevation to ‘unicorn’ status in the media and the pre-IPO options. He joined his team for lunch and conversation turned technical (as technically happens). Matt’s eyes glazed over as the technical lead for his team used a burrito metaphor for describing a monad with obvious disdain that their language of choice did not support the primitives necessary to make his fantasies possible. Matt didn’t engage. As the rest of the team joined in, exalting the royal monad, Matt tried to keep the word separate from the more familiar ‘gonad’ in his mind.

Matt let the sounds of acronyms and obscure sounding names of applications, once clever and witty, but now sour with time and employee turnover pass into one ear and out the other without resistance. He put together that the messaging team was in the middle of a rewrite of the entire system, abandoning the old, decrepit codebase in favor of the ‘newest hotness’. Apparently the new language made heavy use of monads. During a planning meeting that week, Matt naively asked what features would be worked on the following week. The tech lead retorted that the old system had been deprecated, but the new system is not yet ready — they were frozen in time, mystically floating between two unrealities.

Over the next few months, the rewrite was completed, and Matt got to work on new and exciting features for the messaging team. As Matt became more adept in the codebase, he learned all of the quirks of the platform. While the public quickly forgets what has been removed from a product, code lacks this capacity, or at least requires help. Matt discovered that the app supported sending email from user to user instead of in-app messages, users could send a message by texting a particular number that the company owned (this channel lacked the same authorization rules as the in-app chat), and perhaps most disheartening that the noun ‘message’ was actually not used anywhere — everywhere internally they were called ’update’ because the initial intent was sending one-off updates to friends rather than sustained conversations.

Matt came to know, love and hate the product. The application was backed by multiple data centers; due to the nature of distributed systems, potential failures, and how frequently engineers routed and rerouted traffic from datacenter to datacenter, the mobile application often had no stable truth in the world. He had to resort to scraping together the forgotten refuse of shredded paper to assemble some idea of Truth for when a message arrived, when there was a notification and if he should display a push notification. As he noticed these challenges in his work, he became increasingly aware of the sloppy consistency and frequently frustrating edge cases that existed throughout the application.

He no longer played with the app. In an effort to surface these issues, he sought out ways to destroy it, cause it to fail, and shame it. Part of what he was paid to do was find fault and imperfection — his view of the app became tangled in the 1% edge cases that he tried to elicit and coax out of their dusty corners. As he narrowed in on the application’s shame, he found his own mind changing. Neurons that fire together, wire together. Matt began finding the edge cases in his day to day life, his work, his coworkers, his wife and family. He became fixated on the inconsistencies and deceit — the application’s incorrect push notification became his wife’s unneeded request, the failed network request became the lapse in communication among coworkers.

The errors gained momentum. Matt looked inwards and found the same 1%. The small fraction that he hid even from himself. Human problems are much messier and debuggers much less effective. The sea managed to get lost in the tide pool as Matt dwelled on the scum that gathered in stagnant water.

He returned home after a day of work, sitting on his couch, greeting his wife with vague indifference. He retrieved his phone from his pocked, unlocked it and noticed a notification from the app; he opened it, desperately searching for an invitation to fantasy. Matt didn’t see any notification — no new interactions, no dopamine burst. He frantically refreshed the app waiting for serendipity. When none came, he closed the app and locked his phone secretly hoping that it might be the last. As Matt sank into twisted thought, tens of millions of human people retrieved their mobile computer, opened the application, and smiled with glee as they entered into the promised land Matt constructed.

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