The Imperial Yaks

Jessica Kerr
Jul 4, 2017 · 4 min read

(continued from Attack Yak; series begins with Taxonomy of Yak Shaving) Sometimes you’re coding along, writing tests as little experiments “this should fail because I haven’t implemented the parser for it yet” — and it fails in a way you didn’t expect. And then you start digging and the parsing library isn’t working how you expected. And that library (it’s our library) doesn’t have a test for this case. Now you need to switch your development environment over. The yak stack is getting deeper. You have encountered …

The Imperial Yaks!

Imperial Yaks, aka the Yak Stack; quote from yakbreeder.com

These are the yaks that stack on top of each other. They all deserve to be shaved. This is a real bug in the library. It needs more tests. Then fix the bug, then deal with the linter and make a PR and wait for its review and do a release… and in the meantime to move forward we must figure out how to get npm to use local dependencies, which is not trivial with TypeScript.

How far do you go? When do you look for a workaround — maybe we can parse this with regular expressions and not use our library. When do you ask “Is this change even worth making?”

Pairing helps. I love pairing because I can be down in the weeds of the syntax and the particular bug while my pair still has part of her brain operating at the level of “why are we doing this again?”

If your original task is urgent: look for workarounds sooner. Never abandon the yak silently; create an issue if you don’t have time to fix it. Leave enough information to reproduce the bug. (This is work.) At the very least, throw something into Slack for tracking.

If the yaks you uncovered are dangerous: they might be more important that your original task. Realize you’re doing something important. Update your team and re-orient.

In the example about that failing test, it’s Rod who hit that last Saturday. He didn’t get his particular goal accomplished over the weekend. But he fixed a bug that was going to hold Clay back. He added tests. I popped in and paired on it, and added a few more pending tests for corner cases, which Rod later fixed. Sylvain merged the changes and did a release. All of us are more concerned with Atomist as a whole than whatever assigned tasks are on our list. That’s our culture.

When I aim for generativity, I can think more broadly about yaks. I can decide whether the yak stack confronting me is worth defeating, or going around. I feel good about creating an issue, if that’s all I can do right now: a warning sign to other people. Or leaving the code a little clearer than I found it: more null checks, an extra test, type declarations (in gradually-typed languages like TypeScript or Clojure).

My yak stack is now deeper than it used to be. Every confusing error I get, I solving it until I’ve made the error more communicative, seen the new message, and then committed that. Or changed the README. When I started at Stripe, after 4 months I felt like I wasn’t getting enough work done, and when I expressed this to others — because when I’m freaking out, it’s my job to ask for help — Julia and Danielle were like, but you’ve been making so many commits! Some managers at some companies look only at assigned tasks, but you can bet all my coworkers saw those README and error message and infrastructure changes and thought “Thank you!” about each one. Stripe has a culture of generativity, so I was fine.

It isn’t just about me and my personal productivity. Teamwork isn’t a race, with each person trying to be faster than the rest of the team.

Yak Racing

In the past, I’ve worked with developers who hoarded information, excluding others from customer meetings, insisting on a code structure that makes sense to them and no one else, turning work into a competition with the rest of us.

This exclusively-personal-maximization is also a danger of the next kind of yak: the Trim Yak.

The Composition

Thoughts and opinions by developers, for developers.

Jessica Kerr

Written by

Symmathecist, developer, speaker, mother, crazy nut. Atomist. Learning and growing. All tweets are mine, licensed CC0. she/her

The Composition

Thoughts and opinions by developers, for developers.

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