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2024

Learning From Failures: Leveraging Postmortems for Good

As engineers, we love solving problems and digging into the details. I know that I feel a particular sense of joy when shipping a system to production for the first time.

However, once a system goes into production, it's going to fail. That's not a knock on engineering, that's a fact of our industry. We cannot build a system with 100% uptime, no matter how much we plan ahead or think about.

When this happens, our job is to fix the issue and bring the systems back up.

A common mistake that I see teams make is that they'll fix the problem, but never dig into the why it happened. Fast forward three months, and the team will run into the same problem, making the same mistakes. I'm always surprised when teams don't share their knowledge because if you've paid the tax of learning from the first outage, why would you pay the same tax to learn the lesson again?

This is where having a postmortem meeting comes into play. Borrowing from medicine, a postmortem is performed when the team gets together to analyze the outage and what could have been done differently to prevent it from happening. Other industries have similar mechanisms (for example, professional athletes review their games to learn where they made mistakes so that they can train differently).

One of the key concepts of the postmortem is that the goal isn't to assign blame, but to understand what happened and why. People aren't perfect and it's not reasonable for them to be. This concept is so fundamental that another term you might here for a postmortem is a blameless incident report (BIR).

Are you interesting learning how to run your own BIR process? Drop me a line and if there's enough interest, I'll write a follow-up post!

Getting Started

Every company has their own process when they have an outage, but health process should be able to answer these five questions at a minimum.

  1. What stopped working?
  2. Why did it stop working?
  3. How did we fix it?
  4. What led to the system breaking?
  5. What are we doing to prevent this issue from happening in the future?

Organizations may have additional questions for their process, for example

  • What was the impact? (X customers were impacted for Y minutes)
  • How was this discovered? (Was it user reported, support found it, our monitoring tools paged on-call)

You can always make a process more complicated, but it's hard to simplify a process, so my recommendation is start with the 5 questions and then expand as your team evolves and matures.

What Stopped Working?

For there to be an outage, something had to stop working, right? So what was it? It's okay/normal to be a bit technical here, however, don't forget that this outage caused an impact to our users, so we should strive to explain the outage in those terms.

Another way to think about this is "What stopped working and what impact did it have for our users?"

Here's a not-great answer to the question

The Data Sync Java container stopped working.

While this does capture what stopped working, the details are quite vague. For example, did it not start? Did it start crashing? Was it the whole process that failed or only one part?

In addition, there's not a clear delineation of what the user impact was. For example, could users not log into the application at all? Were there certain parts of the application that stopped working?

We can improve this by including a bit more details in what specifically stopped working.

The Data Sync process was failing to connect to the UserHistory database.

Ah, okay, now we know that the sync process wasn't able to connect to a specific database and we can start getting a sense of why that would be a big deal. We're still not including the user impact, so let's add that bit of detail in.

The Data Sync process was failing to connect to the UserHistory database. As such, when users logged into their account, they could not see the latest transactions for their account.

Much better, now I know that our users couldn't see recent transactions and it was something to do with the Data Sync process.

As a side benefit, if I'm a new engineer to this codebase or team, I know know more about the architecture and that this process is involved for when users start transactions.

Why Did It Stop Working?

At some point, the system was working and if it's no longer working, something had to have happened, so what was it? Was there a code deployment to production? Did a feature flag get toggled that had an adverse effect? What about infrastructure changes like DNS entries or firewall?

This is a key critical step because if we don't know why it stopped working, then we don't have a good spot to start when we start diving into the circumstances behind what led to the outage.

This doesn't have to be a page worth of technical deep dive, a couple of sentences can suffice here. In our outage, the issue was due to a port being blocked by the firewall (where it wasn't before).

There was an infrastructure change for the database that blocked port 1433, which is the default port for the database. Because of this change, no application was able to successfully connect to the database.

How Did We Fix It?

If you've gotten to the point of writing the BIR, then you've fixed the issue and the system is up and running again, right? So what did you do to fix the issue? Did you rollback the deployment? Disable a feature flag? Burn down the application, change your name and get a new job? This is a cool part of the BIR because you're leveling up others that if they run into a similar issue, here's how you were able to get back up and running.

In our example, we were able to unblock the port, so we can answer this question with:

Once we realized that port 1433 was being blocked by the firewall, we worked with the Infrastructure team to unblock the port. Once that change was completed, the Data Sync service was able to start syncing data to the UserHistory database.

What Led To the System Breaking?

This is where the meat of the conversation should take place. In a healthy organization, we assume that people are wanting to do the right thing (if not, you have a much bigger problem that BIRs). So we've got to figure out how did we get here, what were the motivations and why did we do the things that we did?

One common approach is 5 Whys, made popular by the Toyota Production System. The idea is that we keep digging into why something happened and not stop at symptoms.

An example 5 Whys breakdown for this outage could be the following:

- Why did the Data Sync service started failing to connect to the UserHistory database?
    - Because the port that the Data Sync service was communicating with got blocked
    - Why did the port become blocked?
        - One of our security initiatives is to block default ports to lessen the changes of someone gaining access to our systems
        - Why is this an initiative?
            - Our current firewall solution doesn't support a way to have an _allowList_ of dynamic IP addresses. Since most vulnerability tools scan a network, they'll typically use default ports to see if there's a service running there and if so, try to compromise it.
            - Why doesn't our current firewall solution have support for dynamic IP addresses?
    - Why did we not see this issue in the lower environments?
        - The lower environments are not configured the same as our production environment
        - Why are these environments different?
            - Given that lowers receive less traffic than production, we have multiple databases installed on the same server, none of which are on the default port. By doing this, we're saving money on infrastructure costs.
        - Why did the team not realize that the lowers are configured differently?
            - The Data Sync process is an older part of our application that most of the team doesn't have knowledge of.
    - Why did our monitoring tools not catch the issue after deployment?
        - For the Data Sync process, we currently only have a health check, which only checks to see if the app is up, it doesn't check that it has line-of-sight to all its dependencies.
        - Why doesn't the health check include dependency checking?
            - Health checks are used to tell our cloud infrastructure to restart a service. Since restarting the service wouldn't have resolved the problem, that's why we don't have it included in the checks
        - Why don't we have other checks?
            - The Data Sync process predates our existing monitoring solutions and has been stable, so the work was never prioritized.

As you can see, this approach brings up lots of questions, including the motivation behind the work and why the team was doing it anyway. It is possible

What Are We Doing To Prevent Similar Issues in the Future?

The system is going to have an outage, that's not up for debate. However, it would be foolish to have an outage and not do anything to prevent it from happening in the future. If we already paid the learning tax once, let's not pay it again for the same issue.

This should be a concrete list of action items that the team takes ownership of. In some cases, it's work that they can do to prevent the issue going forward. In some cases, it could be working with others to help them fix things in their process.

In our hypothetical outage, we could have the following action items

  • Add Additional Monitoring for the Data Sync process
  • Work with Security to determine approach for securing our database instance
  • Create environment diagram for Data Sync process
  • Create architecture diagram for Data Sync process

Example Blameless Incident Report

In this post, we covered the 5 main questions to answer for a BIR and what good responses look like. In this section, I wanted to go over an example BIR for the database issue that we've been exploring. As you'll see, it's not a verbose document, however, it does capture the main points and this is easily consumable for other teams to learn from our mistakes.

# Title: Users Unable To See Latest Transactions

##  What Stopped Working?
The Data Sync process stopped being able to connect to the UserHistory Database. Because of this failure, when users logged into their account to see transactions, they were not able to see any new transactions.

## Why Did It Stop Working?

A change was made to the database infrastructure to block port 1433. This is the default port for a SQL Server database so when it was blocked, no application was able to communicate with the database.

## How Did We Fix It?

The firewall port change was reverted.

## What Led to the System Breaking?

To improve our security posture, we wanted to block default ports to our systems so that if someone was to gain access, they couldn't "guess" into the connection for the database.

When making these firewall changes, we start in the lower environments so that if there is a problem, we impact dev or staging and not production.

Unknown to the team, in the lower environments, we have multiple databases installed on a server, none of which are on port 1433. Because of this, we had false confidence that our changes were safe to deploy forward.

In production, each database has their own server, running on port 1433.

##  What Are We Doing To Prevent Issues In The Future?

- **Check the environment differences** - Before making infrastructure changes, we're going to check what the differences are in our lower environments vs production.
- **Create architecture diagram** - Since one of the main issues is that the team didn't understand the architecture of the Data Sync process, we're going to create an architecture diagram that covers the flow of the service.
- **Create environment diagram** - To better understand our system, we're going to create an environment diagram that covers the databases at play and how the Data Sync process communicates.
- **Work with Security on Approaches for Securing Database** - We'll work with the Security team to either setup a way to have dynamic IPs work with our firewall technology or to change our Data Sync process to have a static IP.

Today I Learned - Iterating Through Union Types

In a previous post, we cover on how using union types in TypeScript is a great approach for domain modeling because it limits the possible values that a type can have.

For example, let's say that we're modeling a card game with a standard deck of playing cards. We could model the domain as such.

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type Rank = "Ace" | "Two" | "Three" | "Four" | "Five" | "Six" | "Seven"
           | "Eight" | "Nine" | "Ten" |"Jack" | "Queen" | "King"
type Suite = "Hearts" | "Clubs" | "Spades" | "Diamonds"

type Card = {rank:Rank; suite:Suit}

With this modeling, there's no way to create a Card such that it has an invalid Rank or Suite.

With this definition, let's create a function to build the deck.

function createDeck(): Card[] {
  const ranks = ["Ace", "Two", "Three", "Four", "Five", "Six", "Seven", "Eight", "Nine", "Ten", "Jack", "Queen", "King"];
  const suites = ["Hearts", "Clubs", "Spades", "Diamonds"];

  const deck:Card[] = [];
  for (const rank of ranks) {
    for (const suite of suites) {
      deck.push({rank, suite});
    }
  }
  return deck;
}

This code works, however, I don't like the fact that I had to formally list the option for both Rank and Suite as this means that I have two different representtions for Rank and Suite, which implies tthat if we needed to add a new Rank or Suite, then we'd need to add it in two places (a violation of DRY).

Doing some digging, I found this StackOverflow post that gave a different way of defining our Rank and Suite types. Let's try that new definition.

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const ranks = ["Ace", "Two", "Three", "Four", "Five", "Six", "Seven", "Eight", "Nine", "Ten", "Jack", "Queen", "King"] as const;
type Rank = typeof ranks[number];
const suites = ["Hearts", "Clubs", "Spades", "Diamonds"] as const;
type Suite = typeof suites[number]

In this above code, we're saying that ranks cannot change (either by assignment or by operations like push). With that definition, we can say that Rank is some entry in the ranks array. Similar approach for our suites array and Suite type.

I prefer this approach much more because we have our ranks and suites defined in one place and our code reads cleaner as this says Here are the possible ranks and Rank can only be one of those choices.

Limitations

The main limitation is that it only works for "enum" style unions. Let's change example and say that we want to model a series of shapes with the following.

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type Circle = {radius:number};
type Square = {length:number};
type Rectangle = {height:number, width:number}

type Shape = Circle | Square | Rectangle

To use the same trick, we would need to have an array of constant values. However, we can't have a constant value for any of the Shapes because there are an infinite number of valid Circles, Squares, and Rectangles.

Exploring Map with Property Based Thinking

When thinking about software, it's natural to think about the things that it can do (its features like generating reports or adding an item to a cart).

But what about the properties that those actions have? Those things that are always true?

In this post, let's take a look at a fundamental tool of functional programming, the map function.

All the code examples in this post will be using TypeScript, but the lessons hold for other languages with Map (or Select if you're coming from .NET).

Examining Map

In JavaScript/TypeScript, map is a function for arrays that allow us to transform an array of values into an array of different values.

For example, let's say that we have an array of names and we want to ensure that each name is capitalized, we can write the following:

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const capitalize = (name:string): string => {
  return n[0].toUpperCase() + n.substring(1);
}
const names = ["alice","bob","charlotte"];

const properNames = names.map(capitalize);

In our example, as long as we have a pure function that takes a string and returns a new type, then map will work.

What Does Map Guarantee?

Map is a cool function because it has a lot of properties that we get for free.

  1. Maintains Length - If you call map on an array of 3 elements, then you'll get a new array with 3 elements. If you call map on an empty array, you'll get an empty array.

  2. Maintains Type - If you call map on array of type T with a function that goes from T to U, then every element in the new array is of type U.

  3. Maintains Order - If you call map on array with one function, then call map with a function that "undoes" the original map, then you end up with the original array.

Writing Property Based Tests

To prove these properties, we can write a set of unit tests. However, it would be hard to write a single test that that covers a single property.

Most tests are example based in the sense that for a specific input, we get a specific output. Property based tests, on the other hand, uses random data and ensures that a property holds for all inputs. If it finds an input where the property fails, the test fails and you know which input caused the issue.

Most languages have a tool for writing property-based tests, so we'll be using fast-check for writing property based tests and jest for our test runner

Checking Length Property

import fc from "fast-check";

describe("map", () => {
  it("maintains length", () => {
    // This is known as the identify function
    // as it returns whatever input it received
    const identity = <T>(a: T): T => a;

    // Fast Check assert that the following holds for all arrays of integers
    fc.assert(
      // data is the array of numbers
      fc.property(fc.array(fc.integer()), (data): void => {
        // We call the map function with the identify function
        const result = data.map(identity);

        // We make sure that our result has the same length
        expect(result).toHaveLength(data.length);
      })
    );
  });

If we run this test, we'll end up passing. But what is the value of data?

By adding a console.log in the test, we'll see the following values printed when we run the test (there are quite a few, so we'll examine the first few).

console.log
    [
       2125251991,  1334674146,
      -1531633149,   332890473,
       1313556939,   907640912,
        887735692, -1979633703,
       -259341001,  2015321027
    ]

  console.log
    [ 1307879257 ]

  console.log
    []

  # quite a few more...

Checking Type Property

We've proven that the length property is being followed, so let's look at how we can ensure that result has the right type.

To keep things simple, we're going to start with a string[] and map them to their lengths, yielding number[].

If map is working, then the result should be all numbers.

We can leverage typeof to check the type of each element in the array.

// An additional test in the describe block

it("maintains type", () => {
  const getLength = (s:string)=>s.length;
  fc.assert(
    // asserting with an array of strings
    fc.property(fc.array(fc.string()), (data): void => {
      // mapping to lengths of strings
      const result = data.map(getLength);

      // checking that all values are numbers
      const isAllValid = result.every((x) => typeof x === "number");
      expect(isAllValid).toBeTruthy();
    })
  );
});

Like before, we can add a console.log to the test to see what strings are being generated

console.log
  [ 'ptpJTR`G4', 's >xmpXI', 'H++%;a3Y', 'OFD|+X8', 'gp' ]

console.log
  [ 'Rq', '', 'V&+)Zy2VD8' ]


console.log
  [ 'o%}', '$o', 'w7C', 'O+!e', 'NS$:4\\9aq', 'xPbb}=F7h', 'z' ]

console.log
  [ '' ]

console.log
  [ 'apply', '' ]

console.log
  []
## And many more entries...

Checking Order Property

For our third property, we need to ensure that the order of the array is being maintained.

To make this happen, we can use our identity function from before and check that our result is the same as the input. If so, then we know that the order is being maintained.

it("maintains order", () => {
  const identity = <T>(a: T) => a;

  fc.assert(
    fc.property(fc.array(fc.string()), (data): void => {
      const result = data.map(identity);

      expect(result).toEqual(data);
    })
  );
});

And with that, we've verified that our third property holds!

So What, Why Properties?

When I think about the code I write, I'm thinking about the way it works, the way it should work, and the ways it shouldn't work. I find example based tests to help understand a business flow because of it's concrete values while property based tests help me understand the general guarantees of the code.

I find that once I start thinking in properties, my code became cleaner because there's logic that I no longer had to write. In our map example, we don't have to write checks for if we have null or undefined because map always returns an array (empty in the worse case). There's also no need to write error handling because as long as the mapping function is pure, map will always return an array.

For those looking to learn more about functional programming, you'll find that properties help describe the higher level constructs (functors, monoids, and monads) and what to look for.

Finding properties can be a challenge, however, Scott Wlaschin (of FSharpForFunAndProfit) has a great post talking about design patterns that I've found to be immensely helpful.

How Using Vertical Slicing Can Minimize Dependencies and Deliver Value Faster

How do we break down this work?

It's a good question and it can help set the tone for the project. Assuming the work is more than a bug fix, it's natural to look at a big project and break it down to smaller, more approachable pieces.

Depending on how you break down the work, you can dramatically change the timeline from when you can get feedback from your users and find issues much sooner.

In this post, let's look at a team breaking down a new feature for their popular application, TakeItEasy.

A New Day - A New Feature

It's a new sprint and your team is tackling a highly requested feature for TakeItEasy, the ability to setup a User Profile. Everyone is clear on the business requirements as we need the ability to save and retrieve the following information so that we can personalize the application experience for the logged in user:

  • Display Name
  • Name
  • Email Address
  • Profile Picture

Going over the high level design with the engineers, it's discovered that there's not a way to save this data right now. In addition, we don't have a way to display this data for the user to enter or modify.

Breaking Work Down as Horizontal Layers

Working with the team, the feature gets broken down as the following stories:

  • Create the data storage
  • Create the data access layer
  • Create the User Profile screen

Once these stories are done, this feature is done and that seems easy enough. As you talk with the team though, a few things stand-out to you.

  1. None of these stories are fully independent of each other. You can build out the User Profile screen, but without the Data Access Layer, it's incomplete. Same thing with the data access layer, it can't be fully complete until the data storage story is done.

  2. It's difficult to demo the majority of the stories. Stakeholders don't care about data storage or the data access layer, but they do care about the user setting up their profile. With the current approach, it's not possible to demo any work until all three stories are done.

As you approach each story, they seem to be quite large:

  1. For the Data Storage work, it's an upgrade script to modify the Users table with nullable columns.
  2. For the data access story, it's updating logic to retrieve each of the additional fields and making sure to handle missing values from the database.
  3. For the User Profile screen, it's creating a new page, update the routing, and adding multiple controls with validation logic for each of the new fields.

Is there a different way we can approach this work such that we can deliver something useful sooner?

Breaking Down the Work as Vertical Slices

The main issue with the above approach is that there's a story for each layer of the application (data, business rules, and user interface) and each of these layers are dependent upon each other. However, no one cares about any single layer, they care about all of it working together.

Two People Eating Nachos
Seriously, could you imagine enjoying a plate of nachos by first eating all the chips, then the beans, then the salsa?
Photo by Herson Rodriguez on Unsplash

One way to solve this problem would be to have a single story Implement User Profile that has all this work, but that sounds like more than a sprints worth of work. We know that that the more work in a story, the harder it is to give a fair estimate for what's needed.

Another approach to solve this problem is by changing the way we slice the work by taking a bit of each layer into a story. This means that we'll have a little bit of database, little bit of data access, and little bit of the user interface.

If we take this approach, we would have the following stories for our User Profile feature.

Feature: Implement User Profile

  • Story: Implement Display Name
  • Story: Implement Name
  • Story: Implement Email
  • Story: Implement Profile Picture

Each story would have the following tasks:

  • Add storage for field
  • Update data access to store/retrieve field
  • Update interface with control and validation logic

There are quite a few advantages with this approach.

First, instead of waiting for all the stories to get done before you can demo any functionality, you can demo after getting one story completed. This is huge advantage because if things are looking well, you could could potentially go live with one story instead of waiting for all three stories from before.

Second, these stories are independent of each other as the work to Implement Display Name doesn't depend on anything from Implement Email. This increases the autonomy of the team and allows us to shift priorities easier as at the end of any one story, we can pick any of the remaining stories.

For example, let's say that after talking more with customers, we need a way for them to add their favorite dessert. Instead of the business bringing in the new requirement and pushing back the timeline, engineering can work on that functionality next and get that shipped sooner.

Third, it's much easier to explain to engineers and stakeholders for when a certain piece of functionality will be available. Going back to horizontal layering, it's not clear when a user would be able to set-up their email address. Now, it's clear when that work is coming up.

Why The Horizontally Slicing?

I'm going to let you on a little secret. Most engineers are technically strong, but can be ignorant of the business domain that they're solving in. Unless you're taking time to coach them on the business (or if they've been working in the domain for a long period of time), engineers just don't know the business.

As such, it's difficult for engineers to speak in the ubiquitous language of the business, it's much easier to speak in the technical details. This, in turn, leads to user stories that are more technical details in nature (modify table, build service, update pipeline) instead of user focused (can set display name, can set email address).

If you're an Engineer, you need to learn the business domain that you're working in. This will help you prevent problems from happening in your software because it literally can't do that. In addition, this will help you see the bigger picture and build empathy with your users as you understand them better.

If you're in Product or Business, you need to work with your team to level up their business domain. This can be done by having them use the product like a user, giving them example tasks, and spending time to talk about the domain. If you can get the engineers to be hands-on, every hour you invest here is going to pay huge dividends when it comes time to pick up the next feature.

Wrapping Up

The next time you and the team have a feature, try experimenting with vertically slicing your stories and see how that changes the dynamics of the team.

To get started, remember, focus on the user outcomes and make sure that each story can stand independently of one another.

If this post resonated with you, I'd like to hear from you! Feel free to drop me a line at CoachingCorner@TheSoftwareMentor.com!

Today I Learned – The Difference Between Bubble and Capture for Events

I've recently been spending some time learning about Svelte and have been going through the tutorials.

When I made it to the event modifiers section, I saw that there's a modifier for capture where it mentions firing the handler during the capture phase instead of the bubbling phase.

I'm not an expert on front-end development, but I'm not familiar with either of these concepts. Thankfully, the Svelte docs refer out to MDN for a better explanation of the two.

What is Event Bubbling?

Long story short, by default, when an event happens, the element that's been interacted with will fire first and then each parent will receive the event.

So if we have the following HTML structure where there's a body that has a div that has a button

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<body>
  <div id="container">
    <button>Click me!</button>
  </div>
  <pre id="output"></pre>
</body>

With the an event listener at each level:

// Setting up adding string to the pre element
const output = document.querySelector("#output");
const handleClick = (e)=> output.textContent += `You clicked on a ${e.currentTarget.tagName} element\n`;

const container = document.querySelector("#container");
const button = document.querySelector("button");

// Wiring up the event listeners
document.body.addEventListener("click", handleClick);
container.addEventListener("click", handleClick);
button.addEventListener("click", handleClick);

And we click the button, our <pre> element will have:

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You clicked on a BUTTON element
You clicked on a DIV element
You clicked on a BODY element

What is Event Capturing?

Event Capturing is the opposite of Event Bubbling where the root parent receives the event and then each inner parent will receive the event, finally making it to the innermost child of the element that started the event.

Let's see what happens with our example when we use the capture approach.

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// Wiring up the event listeners
document.body.addEventListener("click", handleClick, {capture:true});
container.addEventListener("click", handleClick, {capture:true});
button.addEventListener("click", handleClick, {capture:true});

After clicking the button, we'll see the following messages:

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You clicked on a BODY element
You clicked on a DIV element
You clicked on a BUTTON element

Why Would You Use Capture?

By default, events will work in a bubbling fashion and this intuitively makes sense to me since the element that was interacted with is most likely the right element to handle the event.

One case that comes to mind is if you finding yourself attaching the same event listener to every child element. Instead, we could move that up.

For example, let's say that we had the following layout

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<div>
    <ul style="list-style-type: none; padding: 0px; margin:0px; float:left">
      <li><a id="one">Click on 1</a></li>
      <li><a id="two">Click on 2</a></li>
      <li><a id="three">Click on 3</a></li>
    </ul>
  </div>
li {
  list-style-type: none;
  padding: 0px;
  margin:0px;
  float:left
}

li a {
  color:black;
  background:#eee;
  border: 1px solid #ccc;
  padding: 10px 15px;
  display:block
}
Which gives us the following layout

With this layout, let's say that we need to do some business rules for when any of those buttons are clicked. If we used the bubble down approach, we would have the following code:

// Stand-in for real business rules
function handleClick(e) {
  console.log(`You clicked on ${e.target.id}`);
}
// Get all the a elements
const elements = document.querySelectorAll("a");
// Wire up the click handler
for (const e of elements) {
  e.addEventListener("click", handleClick);
}

This isn't a big deal with three elements, but let's pretend that you had a list with tens of items, or a hundred items. You may run into a performance hit because of the overhead of wiring up that many event listeners.

Instead, we can use one event listener, bound to the common parent. This can accomplish the same affect, without as much complexity.

Let's revisit our JavaScript and make the necessary changes.

// Stand-in for real business rules
function handleClick(e) {
  // NEW: To handle the space of the unordered list, we'll return early
  // if the currentTarget is the same as the original target
  if (e.currentTarget === e.target) {
    return;
  }
  console.log(`You clicked on ${e.target.id}`);
}
// NEW: Getting the common parent
const parent = document.querySelector("ul");
// NEW setting the eventListener to be capture based
parent.addEventListener("click", handleClick, {capture:true});

With this change, we're now only wiring up a single listener instead of having multiple wirings.

Wrapping Up

In this post, we looked at two different event propagation models, bubble and capture, the differences between the two and when you might want to use capture.

Five Tips to Have More Effective Meetings

As a leader it's inevitable that you will have to organize a meeting. Whether it's for updates, 1-1s, or making decisions, the team is looking towards you to lead the conversation and have it be a good use of time.

But how do you have a good meeting? That's not something that's covered in leadership training. Is it the perfect invite? A well honed pitch? Throw something out there and see if it sticks?

Like anything else, a good meeting needs some preparation, however, if you follow these five tips, I guarantee your meetings will be better than before.

Step 1: Does It Even Need to Be a Meeting?

The best kind of meeting is the one that didn't have to happen. Have you ever sat through a meeting where everyone did a bunch of talking, you halfway listened and thought to yourself, "this could have been an email?"

man looking out window
Photo by BRUNO CERVERA on Unsplash

Been there, done that have, and have the t-shirt.

When I think about why we need meetings, it's because we're trying to accomplish something that one person alone couldn't get done. With this assumption in mind, I find that meetings take one of two shapes: sharing information (e.g., stand-ups, retrospectives, all-hands) or to make a decision (e.g., technical approach, ironing the business rules).

Depending on what you're trying to accomplish, then next thought is determine if the communication needs to be synchronous (get everyone together) or asynchronous (let people get involved at their own pace).

For example, if the team has been struggling in getting work done, then it makes sense to have a meeting to figure out what's happening and ensure that everyone is hearing the exact wording/tone of the messaging.

On the other hand, if your intent is to let the team know that Friday is a holiday, then that can be done through email or message in your chat tool.

One way you can figure out if the meeting could have been an email is to pretend it was a meeting and you canceled it. Is there anything that can't proceed? If not, then maybe you don't need that meeting.

Step 2: How Do We Even Know If We're Successful?

Have you ever attended a meeting and didn't know what it was about or why you met? These types of meetings typically suffer from not having a goal or purpose behind the meeting.

Recall from Step #1, we're meeting because there's something that we need from the group that we couldn't do as individuals. So what is it?

When scheduling the meeting, include the purpose (here's why we're meeting) and the goal (here's how we know if we're done) to the description. Not only is this a great way to focus the meeting, it can also serve as a way for people to know if they need to attend or not.

dartboard with darts in it
Photo by Afif Ramdhasuma on Unsplash

This is also a good litmus test to see if you know why there should be a meeting as this forces you to think about the problem being solved and how it should happen. If you're struggling to determine the purpose and the goal, then you're attendees will also struggle.

Step 3: Do You Have The Right People?

A common mistake I see people make is that they invite everyone who has a stake or passing interest in the topic which can make for a large (10+ people) meeting.

Even though the intent is good (give everyone visibility), this is a waste because the more people you have in a meeting, the less effective it will be. A meeting with four people will have a better conversation and get things done more than a meeting with nine people.

Let's pretend that you're at a large party and you see a group that you know, so you walk up to the group, hoping to break into the conversation.

As more people join in the group, they're going to naturally split up into smaller groups, each with their own conversations. The main reason is that the large the group, the less likely you have a chance to participate and get involved. So you might start a conversation with 1 or 2, split off and then start a new group.

Meetings have the same problem. The large the group, the more likely that side conversations will happen and it makes it harder for you to facilitate and keep everyone on track.

To keep meetings effective, be sure to only include the necessary people. For example, instead of inviting an entire team, invite only 1 or 2 people.

At a high level, you need the these three roles filled to have a successful meeting

  1. The Shot Caller - This is the main stakeholder and can approve our decisions. Without their buy-in, no real decision can be made.
  2. The Brain Trust - These are the people who have the details and can drive the conversation. You want to keep this group as tightly focused as possible.
  3. The Facilitator - Generally the organizer, this is the person who ensures that the goal is achieved and keeps the meeting running.

One way to narrow down the invite list is to answer this question:

If this person can't make the meeting, then we can't meet.

If you can't accomplish the goal without them, then they need to be there. I'm such a believer in this advice that if it's the day of the meeting and we don't have the Shot Caller or the Brain Trust, then I'll reschedule the meting as I'd rather move it than waste everyone's time.

Woman presenting task board in front of team
Photo by Jason Goodman on Unsplash

Step 4: Running the Meeting

It's the big day and you've got everyone in the room, now what?

In Step #2, we talked about having a purpose and goal for the meeting. Now is when we vocalize these two things to kick the meeting off. From there, we can seed the conversation with one of these strategies:

  • Asking an opening question to prime the Brain Trust.
  • Throwing to the Shot Caller to frame any restrictions the attendees need to be aware of.
  • Start with a specific person to kick the conversation off.

Once the conversation starts flowing, your job is to keep the meeting on track. For those who've played games like Dungeons and Dragons, you're acting like a Game Master where you know the direction the meeting needs to go to (The Goal), but the attendees are responsible for getting there.

It can be challenging to keep the meeting on track if you're also driving the conversation, so pace yourself, take notes, and get others involved to keep the conversation going.

When leading longer meetings (more than 60 minutes), make sure to take a 10 minute break.

For attendees, this allows them to stretch their legs, take a bathroom break, and to stew on the conversation that's happened so far. For those who are "thinkers" than "reacters", this gives them time to compose their thoughts and have better conversations after the break.

As a facilitator, this gives you a way to think about the meeting so far, identify areas that the group needs to dig into, and if needed, it can break the conversation out of a rut.

Step 5: Wrapping Up - How Do Things Get Done?

As the meeting comes to a close, we need to make sure that action follows next. A meeting with no follow-up is a lot like a rocking chair. Plenty of motion, but no progress being made.

In order to make sure that next steps happen, make sure to define action items with attendees owning getting them done. Action items don't have to be complex, it could be as simple as:

  • Defining stories for the team
  • Sending summary notes to other stakeholder
  • Following up with Person about X.

When defining action items, be wary of items that are scheduling another meeting (e.g. let's schedule a meeting with Team Y to get their perspective). This implies that you didn't have the right people in the room (see Step 3). Also, remember, meetings are to get alignment or to come up with a solution, so what purpose does this follow up meeting have?

As the meeting wraps up, take a few moments to summarize the outcome, verbally ensure that actions items have been assigned and thank everyone for their attention and time.

Congratulations, You're an Expert With Meetings Now, Right?

Running effective meetings can be made easier if you take the time to do the necessary preparation. Even those these steps may seem heavy on the documentation, you'll find that it'll help you focus on the core problem at hand, which helps focus the group, which makes everyone that much better.

By following these five steps, you'll increase your chances of having a great meeting and as you gain more experience, you'll become more comfortable running them.