My Heroku Values

In the spirit of Adam Wiggins’ inspiring list of Heroku values which was published when he left the company that he co-founded, I wanted to publish a list of my own now that I’ve transitioned away.

My time at Heroku was easily the most valuable learning experience of my life, and I’ll always remember my time there very fondly. I remember upon first joining just how disfunctional and inefficient that it made the jobs that I’d held previously seem in contrast, and I’m hoping that by putting some of these concepts down on paper I’ll be able to reference and re-use them in my future work.

I suspect that at least some of these ideas might be interesting to even those with no relation to the company. Heroku was a place founded and formed by people who came from outside the traditional corporate structure, and what resulted was a mostly divergent branch of structure compared to mostly anywhere else. Even the bad ideas should be novel enough to be intriguing in a mild way (not to suggest that there any here of course!).

I should add the caveat that this is a compendium of values from the entire duration of my stay at the company; not all had been established when I got there, and not all were still in place when I left.

One of the greatest pleasures during work at Heroku was the Heroku product itself. Apps could be created and deployed in seconds, which encouraged innovation by making prototyping easy, and allowed incredibly fast iteration on production products. Every company should have a Heroku-like interface for their developers to use.

I wouldn’t go so far to say that companies should definitively use Heroku, but it is a good way to have one without a major investment in infrastructure. As a company scales, it might be worth putting a self-hosted one in place like Remind has done with Empire or Soundcloud has done with Bazooka (PDF warning). GitHub’s model of deploying experiments and small apps to Heroku and eventually promoting them to more dedicated infrastructure (if necessary) is also worthy of note as a pretty nice compromise between development agility and performance.

Continuing from above, we used our own products wherever possible. Every production app at the company was deployed on the Heroku platform except for a small set of core services that couldn’t be. More internal Salesforce apps were making their way over every year as well, demonstrating that the idea was valuable enough to be organically making its way out and into the much larger parent company.

Every internal app that required a login (e.g. the Heroku Dashboard, the Help system, the add-ons SSO portal) used the same Heroku OAuth provider that’s available to third parties, leaving services loosely coupled and easy to build.

Still one of my favorite accomplishments is that Dashboard (the service that allows customers to log into a web interface and manage their apps) runs off of the same public V3 API available to customers. I can’t even describe the number of bugs uncovered by this technique; bugs that would have otherwise been encountered by frustrated customers or third-party developers.

Twelve-factor methodology provided a very nice set of guiding principles for internal apps so that an engineer could reason about them more easily. Every app got its configuration from the environment. Every app had a Procfile. Every app emitted logs to standard out.

I’ve previously read criticism on twelve-factor which postulates that it’s an artificial set of principles to work around limitations in the platform. I don’t buy this for a second, but I’ll let Randall Degges cover this position because he puts it far more succinctly than I ever could.

Eventually some of us would wish for and try to develop even stronger conventions for building apps (see service conventions), but the relatively straightforward set of twelve-factor principles got us started and would always act as a solid foundation that everyone agreed on.

A fundamental law of the universe is that every engineer will design an HTTP API slightly differently, even if they’re being guided by prior art. This isn’t always a problem, but it’s a challenge if you’re trying to keep an API cohesive when it might be contributed to by dozens of different people. I’ve seen engineers name their new resource /resource_with_underscores even though 78 out of 78 existing resources look like /resource-with-hyphens.

We knew that if we wanted a consistent public API, we needed to codify a set of opinionated conventions, which is why we wrote the the HTTP API design guide based off of the decisions we’d made building the V3 API. The result is that Heroku’s API is one of the most self-consistent HTTP APIs that you’ll find anywhere in the real world.

Twelve-factor offered some convention when it came to deploying new services, but we tried to take standardization much further with our service toolkit Pliny, which was designed to offer a powerful out-of-the-box stack that would be a sane choice for most internal Heroku apps.

The only misstep with regards to Pliny and service conventions is that we should have pushed them earlier and harder. Even the basic form in which the project exists today took the company a long way in that not every new service was a special snowflake of its author’s favorite ideas (previously a major problem), but we could have gone so much further by putting in automatic distribution of updates, more free services (e.g. built-in rate limiting), and service discovery and registration. Internal service frameworks are an important enough problem that most mid-sized I/P/SaaS companies should have dedicated people building them.

If given the opportunity to start a new stack from a blank slate, I might avoid some of Heroku’s current technological staples (e.g. Ruby). One of the few that I would use without a doubt though is Postgres. It’s powerful, flexible, incredibly stable, and has consistently been a pleasure to work with over the years. Having recently had the misfortune to see how other aggrandized database software operates in production, I feel that I now have an especially sober view of just how good it really is relative to other products on the market.

It’s possible that we missed out on some cutting edge technologies that would have offered major benefits, but the resources saved by not jumping on every data store du jour is incalculable. There’s probably still room in Heroku’s stack for an HA store, but it was the right thing to do to delay the introduction of one until a number of mature options were available. In the meantime, we got really good at operating Postgres and it was fine for almost everything.

The only thing better than Postgres itself was our Heroku Data team (known affectionately internally as the DOD, or Department of Data). This team of hugely talented engineers saved my skin an untold number of times as I dealt with pretty messy operational problems 1. I was told a number of times that as the operator of our largest internal database, I was their highest-maintenance customer, and it was true.

One powerful idea was that of ephemeralization, which can be roughly described as “doing more with less”. But aside from doing more, the act of reducing the number of moving parts in a system helps to lower its cognitive burden and made learning it easier. In a similar vein, picking one true way forward from a collection of similar options helps keep engineers productive as they move between components.

A few examples:

  • Pick and choose single “right” technology stacks from a set of like options. For example, prefer Ruby over Python. More generally, try to focus on just Ruby and Go (and Javascript) over the long run.
  • Try to zero in on particular library to perform certain functions. For example, preferring Puma for Ruby HTTP stacks by converting existing installs of Unicorn, or Thin. Using Sequel instead of ActiveRecord.
  • Standardize deployment images so that instead of having individual Chef recipes for every component, all would share only one and be configured purely at the application level.
  • Use a single type of data store consistently. i.e. Postgres.
  • Don’t create internal forks of libraries (this one should be obvious, but it doesn’t seem to be).

Whenever you can use hosted services instead of operating them yourself. Although the cost of infrastructure and bringing a new service online is usually fairly well-understood, the full personnel costs of maintaining that service (i.e. who’s going to upgrade it and migrate data a year down the road) and retiring it when the time comes are rarely considered.

I’ve never had the opportunity to work with so many people who inspired me on such a fundamental level as those who I met at Heroku, especially in my early days there. The company had everything at one point: great leaders, inspiring thinkers, and incredibly ambitious engineers. As someone still relatively inexperienced and new to the technological powerhouse that is the Bay Area, my first few months felt like a constant assault of new ideas about everything from technology to organizational structure. This motivated me to want to build great things and made work and the learning I did there all around exciting.

Instead of doing work for someone, give them the tools necessary for them to do it for themselves. For example, Heroku’s core API service had a private administrative branch that employees with a CLI plugin could use to perform special actions like re-send a sign-up e-mail. This creates a powerful precedent for people to try to do things out for themselves before leaning on someone else. If sufficient coverage is reached, this technique helps to prevent constant disruption on open communication channels so that people have time to work.

Want a new feature or improvement? Send a pull request for it. There is no better way to demonstrate your commitment to an idea. It also had the side benefit of giving engineers a wider insight into how the whole machine works by forcing them to look beyond the narrow confines of the projects that they might maintain day to day.

This obviously doesn’t scale to infinity, but it does scale far further than many people would have you believe.

We shipped our services fast and frequently, and had framework of tooling to make it safe to do so. You’d more often than not see a change go out same day, which kept endless possibilities open for shipping new products or improving existing ones.

This was also something that had to be discovered at the organization level. There was a period in Heroku’s history where projects were hard to ship mostly due to a weak process for getting them across the finish line. This problem was examined and corrected, and today products make it out the door on a regular basis.

At its essence, this one is pretty obvious: hire good engineering talent.

But things get a little more murky when examining them in closer detail. You of course want to look for people who are good at what they do, but it may be even more important for them to be flexible enough to jump in and fix bugs or modify almost any project. This requires a degree of being able to learn independently and figure things out for themselves that not everyone is well-suited for, but if achieved will result in fewer disruptions to the rest of the team and more work output overall. These ideal candidates may not be able to do a good job of inverting a binary tree on a whiteboard and may not have a Stanford education on their CV, and the interview process may have to be adjusted accordingly to accommodate them.

For quite some time we have a team that would sync up once a week and plow through huge workloads for the rest of it. Communication happened largely asynchronously except for the occasional instance where a higher bandwidth channel was more suitable. It was the most productive environment that I’ve ever seen.

Technical culture was fostered, which (I believe) led to a high degree of technical excellence in the products that we produced. This mostly manifested in the way of papers being passed around, general discussions on the engineering mailing list, and plenty of forward-thinking water cooler speculation on how to improve products and internal architecture. For a long time we also held a technical event every Friday called “Workshop” where engineers could show off some of the interesting projects that they were working on. It was designed to educate and inspire, and it worked.

The Agora Collective in Berlin.
The Agora Collective in Berlin.

Traditional organizations generally hold a strong belief that every employee should physically punch in at 9 AM, leave it at 5 PM, and keep that up for 5 days a week year round. At Heroku people would regularly work at home or out of the office. It made very little difference to their productivity, but did have a profoundly positive effect on their overall happiness. For example, I visited my family back in Calgary for weeks at a time two or three times a year, and worked from Berlin for roughly three weeks almost every year that I was at the company.

This is all possible if a company hires well. If you’ve got the right people on your team, you don’t have to keep an eye on them all day because they’ll do the right things themselves.

Admittedly, this one is a little self-indulgent, but I came to appreciate coffee for the first time while at Heroku. For the longest time, there wasn’t even a coffee machine in the office; just Chemex pots, a grinder, and paper filters. The idea was that making coffee would be five to ten minute process, during which there would be time to interact with colleagues who happened to drop by the area. The system worked.

I learnt how to use both Chemex and AeroPress; both of which I continue to use regularly.

The OctoTrophy (dodgeball).
The OctoTrophy (dodgeball).

GitHub has been one of the best pieces of software on the Internet for years, and is the right way to organize code and projects. Companies should be using tools that developers can extend to optimize their workflows and maximize their own their efficiency. With a well-maintained API and healthy ecosystem of supporting tooling like hub and ghi, as well as complementing turn key services like Travis, GitHub is one of those tools.

Time that developers don’t spend supporting custom infrastructure or fighting bad tooling is time that can be used to build your product.

If an engineer needed a new resource for a service being deployed, prototype, or even one-off experiment, they were at liberty to provision it and keep on working, even if that resource wasn’t free. Resources here might include everything from dynos to run an app, to a Postgres backend, to a few extra EC2 boxes for deployment to bare metal (relatively speaking). Having Heroku’s considerable catalog of add-on providers and being completely deployed to AWS helped a lot here in that no internal personnel were ever needed to help with provisioning.

This practice works because despite a nominal cost to the organization, it keeps engineer momentum up and the cost of prototypes down. Hopefully it’s becoming fairly standard practice in many newer companies these days, but it’s an easy thing to get wrong. I’ve previously seen the other side where provisioning a job queue is a multi-month process involving endless meetings, territorial ops people, and mountains of paperwork. Although some care needs to be taken to not shoot from the hip when dropping in new technology, that approach doesn’t help anyone.

Our own version of “devops”, total ownership was meant to convey that a team responsible for the development of a component was also responsible for its maintenance and production deployment. This added mechanical sympathy has huge benefits in that getting features and bug fixes out is faster, manipulating production is less esoteric, tasks that require otherwise tricky coordination (like data migrations) are easier, and generally resulting in every person involved taking more personal responsibility for the product (which leads to more uptime).

Total ownership was instrumental in helping me to improve my skill in engineering, but I’m still a little on the fence about it. While I don’t miss the multi-week deployment schedules, I do miss the regular blocks of daily focus during which I would never have to stop work and deal with an interruption from production.

When I started at Heroku, my manager knew the codebase better than I did, knew Ruby better than I did, and pushed more commits in a day than I would do in a week. During our planning sessions we’d sketch in broad strokes on how certain features or projects should be implemented, and leave it up to the self-initiative of each engineer on the team to fill in the blanks. There wasn’t the time or the interest for micromanagement.

We eventually moved to a place where a virtuous manager was one who didn’t commit code, wasn’t on the pager rotation, and never looked at a support ticket (i.e. probably the situation that most big organizations have). But although technical management wasn’t an idea that lasted, it was a very good place to be an engineer while it did.

1 Thank-you Maciek in particular for stepping in and helping out with my Postgres woes way more often than you should have.

Did I make a mistake? Please consider sending a pull request.