Hiring programmers with a take-home test

There’s no perfect process for hiring great programmers, but there are plenty of terrible ways to screw it up. We’ve rejected the industry stables of grilling candidates in front of a whiteboard or needling them with brain teasers since the start at Basecamp. But you’re not getting around showing real code when applying for a job here.

In the early days of the company, we hired programmers almost exclusively from the open source community. I simply tapped people I’d been working with on the Ruby on Rails project, and I knew that their code would be good, because I’d seen so much of it! This is how we hired Jamis, Jeremy, Sam, Josh, Pratik, Matthew, and Eileen.

But if you only consider candidates from the open source community, you’re going to miss out on plenty of great programmers who just don’t have the time or the inclination to contribute code to open source.

And unfortunately, it’s rarely an option for candidates to submit code from a previous job with an application to a new job. Unlike design, which is at least somewhat out in the open, commercial code is often closely guarded. And even if it wasn’t, it’s often hard to tease out what someone was actually personally responsible for (which can also be a challenge with design!).

So what we’ve started to do instead at Basecamp is level the playing field by asking late-stage candidates to complete a small programming assignment as part of the final evaluation process. I’m going to show you two examples of these projects, and the submissions from the candidates that ended up being hired.

Keep reading “Hiring programmers with a take-home test”

Seamless branch deploys with Kubernetes

Basecamp’s newest product HEY has lived on Kubernetes since development first began. While our applications are majestic monoliths, a product like HEY has numerous supporting services that run along-side the main app like our mail pipeline (Postfix and friends), Resque (and Resque Scheduler), and nginx, making Kubernetes a great orchestration option for us.

As you work on code changes or new feature additions for an application, you naturally want to test them somewhere — either in a unique environment or in production via feature flags. For our other applications like Basecamp 3, we make this happen via a series of numbered environments called betas (beta1 through betaX). A beta environment is essentially a mini production environment — it uses the production database but everything else (app services, Resque, Redis) is separate. In Basecamp 3’s case, we have a claim system via an internal chatbot that shows the status of each beta environment (here, none of them are claimed):

(prior to starting work on HEY, we were running 8 beta environments for BC3)

Our existing beta setup is fine, but what if we can do something better with the new capabilities that we are afforded by relying on Kubernetes? Indeed we can! After reading about GitHub’s branch-lab setup, I was inspired to come up with a better solution for beta environments than our existing claims system. The result is what’s in-use today for HEY: a system that (almost) immediately deploys any branch to a branch-specific endpoint that you can access right away to test your changes without having to use the claims system or talk to anyone else (along with an independent job processing fleet and Redis instance to support the environment).

Keep reading “Seamless branch deploys with Kubernetes”

We’ve refreshed our policies

Spring is emerging in the US and as part of our company spring cleaning, we took a peek at our product policies, noticed some cobwebs, and got out the duster.

You can read our current product policies here. Besides rewriting sections to be more readable, we made four substantive changes:

1. We’ve consolidated our policies across all products owned and maintained by Basecamp, LLC.
That includes all versions of Basecamp, Highrise, Campfire, Backpack, and the upcoming HEY. This change mostly affects our legacy application customers, bringing their (stale) terms and privacy policies up-to-date.

2. We’ve added more details to our privacy policy.
Our customers deserve to be able to easily and clearly understand what data we collect and why. We’ve restructured and fleshed out our privacy policy to do just that, while also adding more details on your rights with regard to your information. Just as important are the things that haven’t changed: that we take the privacy of your data seriously; that we do not, have not, and never will sell your data; and that we take care to not collect sensitive data that aren’t necessary.

3. We’ve introduced a Use Restrictions policy. We are proud to help our customers do their best work. We also recognize that technology is an amplifier: it can enable the helpful and the harmful. There are some purposes we staunchly stand against. Our Use Restrictions policy fleshes out what used to be a fairly vague clause in our Terms of Service, clearly describing what we consider abusive usage of our products. In addition, we outline how we investigate and resolve abusive usage, including the principles of human oversight, balanced responsibilities, and focus on evidence that guide us in investigations.

4. We’ve adjusted how you can find out about policy changes.
In 2018, we open-sourced our policies by publishing them as a public repository on Github. One of the nice things about this repository is it tracks all the revisions we make in our policies so you can see what changed, when, and why. For instance, you can see every change we made to our policies in this refresh. You can also decide whether you want to get an email notification when changes are made by watching the repository. We’ll also be announcing any substantive changes here on SvN; if you prefer email updates, you can subscribe here.

As always, customers can always reach us at support@basecamp.com with questions or suggestions about our policies. You can also open an issue in our policies repository if you’d like to contribute! 

The Majestic Monolith can become The Citadel

The vast majority of web applications should start life as a Majestic Monolith: A single codebase that does everything the application needs to do. This is in contrast to a constellation of services, whether micro or macro, that tries to carve up the application into little islands each doing a piece of the overall work.

And the vast majority of web applications will continue to be served well by The Majestic Monolith for their entire lifespan. The limits upon which this pattern is constrained are high. Much higher than most people like to imagine when they fantasize about being capital-a Architects.

But. Even so, there may well come a day when The Majestic Monolith needs a little help. Maybe you’re dealing with very large teams that constantly have people tripping over each other (although, bear in mind that many very large organizations use the monorepo pattern!). Or you end up having performance or availability issues under extreme load that can’t be resolved easily within the confines of The Majestic Monolith’s technology choices. Your first instinct should be to improve the Majestic Monolith until it can cope, but, having done that and failed, you may look to the next step.

Keep reading “The Majestic Monolith can become The Citadel”

Why HEY had to wait

We had originally planned to release HEY, our new email service, in April. There was the final cycle to finish the features, there was a company meetup planned for the end of the month to celebrate together, we’d been capacity testing extensively, and the first step of a marketing campaign was already under way.

But then the world caught a virus. And suddenly it got pretty hard to stay excited about a brand new product. Not because that product wasn’t exciting, but because its significance was dwarfed by world events.

A lack of excitement, though, you could push through. The prospect of a stressful launch alongside the reality of a stressful life? No.

That’s not because we weren’t ready to work remotely. That we had to scramble to find new habits or tools to be productive. We’ve worked remotely for the past twenty years. We wrote a book on working remotely. Basecamp is a through and through remote company (and an all-in-one toolkit for remote work!).

But what’s going on right now is about more than just whether work can happen, but to which degree it should. We’re fortunate to work in software where the show doesn’t have to stop, like is the case in many other industries, but the show shouldn’t just carry on like nothing happened either.

About half the people who work at Basecamp have kids. They’re all at home now. Finding a new rhythm with remote learning, more cramped quarters, more tension from cooped-up siblings. You can’t put in 100% at work when life asks for 150%. Some things gotta give, and that something, for us, had to be HEY.

And it’s not like life is daisies even if you don’t have kids. This is a really stressful time, and it’s our obligation at Basecamp to help everyone get through that the best we can. Launching a new product in the midst of that just wasn’t the responsible thing to do, so we won’t.

Remember, almost all deadlines are made up. You can change your mind when the world changes around you.

HEY is going to launch when the world’s got a handle on this virus. When we either find a new normal, living within long-running restrictions, or we find a way to beat this thing. We’re not going to put a date on that, because nobody knows when that might be. And we’re not going to pretend that we do either.

In the meantime, we’ll keep making HEY better. We’re also going to put in time to level up Basecamp in a number of significant ways that have long been requested. The work doesn’t stop, it just bends.

If you wrote us an email to iwant@hey.com, you’re on the list, and we’ll let that list know as soon as we open up. If you think you might be interested in a better email experience when that’s something we all have the mental space to think about again, please do send us a story about how you feel about email to iwant@hey.com.

Stay home, stay safe!

Working remotely builds organizational resiliency

For many, moving from everyone’s-working-from-the-office to everyone’s-working-at-home isn’t so much a transition as it is a scramble. A very how the fuck? moment.

That’s natural. And people need time to figure it out. So if you’re in a leadership position, bake in time. You can’t expect people to hit the ground running when everything’s different. Yes, the scheduled show must go on, but for now it’s live TV and it’s running long. Everything else is bumped out.

This also isn’t a time to try to simulate the office. Working from home is not working from the office. Working remotely is not working locally. Don’t try to make one the other. If you have meetings all day at the office, don’t simply simulate those meetings via video. This is an opportunity not to have those meetings. Write it up instead, disseminate the information that way. Let people absorb it on their own time. Protect their time and attention. Improve the way you communicate.

Ultimately this major upheaval is an opportunity. This is a chance for your company, your teams, and individuals to learn a new skill. Working remotely is a skill. When this is all over, everyone should have a new skill.

Being able to do the same work in a different way is a skill. Being able to take two paths instead of one builds resiliency. Resiliency is a super power. Being more adaptable is valuable.

This is a chance for companies to become more resilient. To build freedom from worry. Freedom from worry that without an office, without those daily meetings, without all that face-to-face that the show can’t go on. Or that it can’t work as well. Get remote right, build this new resiliency, and not only can remote work work, it’ll prove to work better than the way you worked before.

Live Q&A on remote working, working from home, and running a business remotely

In this livesteam, David and I answer audience questions about how to work remotely. At Basecamp we’ve been working remotely for nearly 20 years, so we have a lot of experience to share. This nearly 2-hour video goes into great detail on a wide variety of topics. Highly recommended if you’re trying to figure out how to work remotely.

A live tour of how Basecamp uses Basecamp to run Basecamp

David and I spent nearly 2-hours giving a livestream tour of our very own Basecamp account. We wanted to show you how Basecamp uses Basecamp to run projects, communicate internally, share announcements, know what everyone’s working on, build software, keep up socially, and a whole bunch more. Our entire company runs on Basecamp, and this video shows you how.

Remote Working: The home office desks of Basecamp

People are always curious about work-from-home (WFH), remote working setups. So, I posted a Basecamp message asking our employees to share a photo of their home office, desk, table, whatever. Here’s what came in.

First, the ask:

And the answers, in the order they came in:

Keep reading “Remote Working: The home office desks of Basecamp”

How we acquired HEY.com

Back on June 9, 2018, I cold emailed help@hey.com:

Hey there

Curious… Would you entertain an offer to sell hey.com? I'd like to use it for something I'm working on, and willing to make you a strong offer.

Let me know. Thanks!

-Jason

And that’s where it all began.

For the 25+ years I’ve been emailing, I’d say close to 95% of those email began with some variation of “Hey [Name]”. So when it came time to think about a name for a new email system we’d be building, HEY was a natural.

Further, the “Hey!” menu in Basecamp 3 holds your notifications for new messages, chats, to-do assignments, automatic check-in prompts, boost summaries, and the like. So we already had some prior art on Hey being a place for communication.

But hey.com – that would be an amazing email address, and, we rightly assumed, hard to get. But what the hell – if you don’t ask you don’t get, so I sent the email, crossed my fingers, and waited.

The same day I emailed, June 9, 2018, he replied. Turns out we’d actually talked before on This Week in Tech, way back when. This was his first email back to me:

Hi Jason:

Thanks for reaching out, I've always respected your business accomplishments and your writing. You may not remember but we spoke briefly a couple of times when I was at TWiT.

As you might imagine, I've gotten a number of offers and inquiries about HEY.com over the years. Usually I ignore them, but very happy to chat with you about this or any other topic. I'm on cell at ###-###-####.

Thanks!

Dane

So we set up a call and had a nice chat. Really nice guy. A few days later, I made an offer.

He said no.

So I countered.

He said no.

We were clearly way off. And the momentum went cold. He decided he wasn’t ready to sell. I thanked him for the opportunity and said let’s stay in touch.

Then on August 19, 2019, well over a year after my initial outreach, he wrote me back.

Hi Jason:

Not sure if you're still interested in Hey.com, but I'm in the process of vetting what appears to be a serious inquiry to buy it. The numbers being discussed are notably higher than what you mentioned previously. Given your previous offer I'm thinking you probably won't be interested, but I appreciated your approach and also what you've done for the industry, so I thought I'd let you know as a courtesy.

We caught up via Zoom a few days later, discussed again, and I made another offer. This time significantly higher than our original offer. It was a nervous amount of money.

Things were beginning to heat up, but there was no deal yet. I completely understood – he owned this domain for a long time, and he wasn’t a squatter. Dane used hey.com for his business. It was part of his identity. It was a valuable asset. He needed time to think it through.

We traded a number of other emails, and then I upped the offer a little bit more on September 18, 2019.

A few days later we’d verbally agreed to move forward on an all-cash deal with a number of stipulations, conditions, etc. All were perfectly reasonable, so we asked him to prepare a contract.

There were a few small back and forths, but we essentially accepted his contract and terms as is. We wired the money into escrow, we waited for some Google mail transfer stuff to finish up, and on November 20th, 2019 the domain was officially transferred over into our ownership. Funds were released to escrow, and the deal was done.

This was a long 18 month process, and there was uncertainty at every step. We’d never bought a domain like this, he’d never sold a domain like this. There’s a lot of trust required on all sides. And more than money, hey.com was important to him. And who he sold it to was important to him as well.

But it was truly a pleasure to work with him. Dane was fair, thoughtful, patient, and accommodating. And for that we’re grateful. Business deals like this can get messy, but this one was clean and straightforward. Kudos to him and his lawyer for their diligence and clear communication.

All in we traded 60+ emails over the course of the deal. Toss in a few zoom calls as well.

So that’s the story of how we acquired hey.com. One cold email to kick it off, no domain brokers or middlemen, and a lot of patience and understanding on both sides.

Wait how much was it? I know everyone wants to know, but we can’t say. Both sides are bound by a non-disclosure around the final purchase price. You’ll just have to guess.

As for Dane, he relaunched his brand under a new name. You can check him out at VidiUp.tv.

As for us, this April we’ll be launching our brand new email serviced called HEY at hey.com.

Note: This post was cleared with Dane prior to publishing, so he’s cool with me sharing his name, the story, and the name of his new company.