From Weakness to Strength

When I first released SETT, a common bit of feedback I’d get was, “It’s nice, but it’s really slow”. This shouldn’t have been too surprising to me, given that I hadn’t spent any time optimizing it, and didn’t know how to, anyway. So I sat down and decided to fix the problem. Now SETT is extremely fast, despite running on a single server with a 6 year old processor. It’s far faster than WordPress, but still a bit slower than Tumblr, which is incredibly fast.

What happened? Well, I have a policy– when something important is a weakness, I try not just to get it up to par, but turn it into a strength. If you look at decisions I’ve made in my life, you’ll see this over and over again. I was terrible with girls, so I became a good pickup artist. I wasn’t well traveled so I became a nomad. My posting began to become inconsistent, so I doubled up and started posting twice a week on a consistent schedule. I ate a moderately unhealthy diet, so I got very healthy and strict.

This attitude pervades my entire life and my work. Even in SETT you’ll see this all the time. It was slow, so now it’s extremely fast. Scrolling deeply-nested comments was a hassle, so I built what several people have told me is the best nested comment interface they’ve ever seen. It was buggy, so I went overboard with automated testing and QA policies.

Why do I think this is the best approach? Two reasons: accuracy and efficiency.

To find the accurate optimum point, you need to be able to see the entire range. Take healthy eating, for example. I used to eat junk food all the time. I loved doritos and ice cream. Many people would opt for a moderate approach of eating “healthier”. But where is that point? How do I know where I’ll feel and perform best? The answer, I’d say, is to explore the extremes so that you have an understanding of the full range of possibilities. I ate full vegan, raw, and cut out all sugar and flour. I ended up adding well-raised meat back in, as well as 2-3 unhealthy meals per month, because that was the best choice for my lifestyle. I could have never come to that conclusion without exploration of the extremes, though.

Sometimes you’ll find that the extreme is the best choice, which is something you won’t know unless you get there. SETT can render a page in about a hundredth of a second right now. It used to take almost three seconds. People probably would have stopped complaining somewhere around the half-second to one second mark. But since I optimized to such an extreme, I’ve found huge benefits– a couple weeks ago there were five hundred people hitting SETT every minute. Because SETT can render pages so quickly, this was no big deal. We could have handled a thousand visitors per minute without any noticeable slowdown. Without exploring the extreme, I would have kept my assumption that to handle that sort of traffic we would need a high powered server, or at least some decent cloud solution. Nope– my 6 year old server can handle it fine.

There’s also the benefit of efficiency. The time and effort necessary to get to Extremely Good is often not much more than what’s necessary to get to Acceptable. Writing every single day and posting twice a week takes up just a couple hours more per week than writing “once per week, usually”. But now my blog is much better for my readers, and since I blog on SETT, I get more opportunities to test it out. Post quality, as you’ve hopefully noticed, is also way up because of this practice. When I became a nomad, it didn’t really cost more than it would have to take a couple trips a year, and didn’t impact my productivity. But I got to visit 15+ countries instead of 2-3, which was a great learning experience.

Besides accuracy and efficiency, it just feels good to take problems, crush them, and turn them into strengths. I used to hate taking showers in my RV, so I went way to the extreme and joined a great spa downtown. This minor hassle in my day turned into a nice time for relaxation and contemplation. When you have this habit of turning weaknesses to strengths, your brain begins to see problems as opportunities, not hassles.


Back from China, heading out to Vegas this afternoon. Who else is there?

I wrote this before SETT was moved to Rackspace, but decided not to edit it for the sake of simplicity.

Photo is one of the Terra Cotta Warriors. Hope you like photos of China, because that’s what will be at the top of posts for the foreseeable future.






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