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May 09 2012

Velocity Profile: Nicole Sullivan

This is part of the Velocity Profiles series, which highlights the work and knowledge of web ops & performance experts.

Nicole SullivanNicole Sullivan

How did you get into web operations & performance?

Accidentally. Years back, I got hired into a company in France that was building a website for one of the major cell phone providers over there. They had some serious performance issues — the site was crashing in Internet Explorer (IE) pretty much any time you interacted with the page. It was a hunt to figure out what was going on because, at that time, there really wasn't a lot of published performance information out there. So, I ended up finding out that filters in the CSS file were causing IE to crash. That hunt to identify the problem and then the subsequent hunts to simplify the page so that other errors wouldn't have such a big impact was really fun. That's what got me into it.

What is your most memorable project?

Optimizing Facebook's CSS back in 2009 was a memorable project. They had 1.9 MB of CSS, which is just huge. That project is when I realized that most performance issues and most code issues are actually human issues. But you have to solve the human issues or the bad code will just keep popping up — sort of like performance Whac-A-Mole.

Another project that was cool was They had a lot of CSS, but more than the quantity, it was really tangled. They would have to rewrite things over and over again, just because everything was so context-dependent. That one was fun because it was neat to see the team end up being able to build things much faster once their front-end architecture issues were removed.

What's the toughest problem you've had to solve?

One of the toughest problems I have to solve, and I have to solve it all the time, is how to make performance and operations improvements work in a legacy world. We don't work in a world where we can just wipe the slate clean and do it right from the start. We work in a world where the website has to stay up and we have to make these changes while everything is running. The balance between keeping the legacy running and managing to do improvements, until the legacy can be removed, is probably the hardest problem. And it happens on almost every project.

What tools and techniques do you rely on most?

The work from the Chrome team has been making me really happy lately. They're pushing the boundaries in front-end code, JavaScript, CSS, and especially dev tools. I was on Firefox Dev Tools for a long time, but there was too much incompatibility between different versions of Firefox and the tools that I absolutely needed to do my job every day. So I swapped, reluctantly, over to Chrome and have actually found that the Chrome Developer Tools have made some substantial improvements in terms of usability and the kinds of information that you can get out of the tools. It's pretty cool stuff.

Who do you follow in the web operations & performance world?

Chris Coyier is constantly experimenting, throwing stuff out there, trying new techniques, trying out the browser stuff, and finding the rough edges where things don't work very well. Tab Atkins and Alex Russell are both involved in Chrome and standards at Google. They're amazing people to follow. Another person is Lea Verou. She really pushes the edge in tooling around CSS and taking the specs and bending them to do things they maybe weren't intended to do. I also follow people who are doing LESS and SASS because the preprocessing languages are an interesting development and have a whole different set of performance constraints.

What is your web operations & performance super power?

I think I do pretty well with CSS stuff. I've been doing it for more than a decade now. Friends will send me CSS issues that they're struggling with and I can jump in and pretty quickly identify why it isn't working. Somehow, I've internalized all of the different bits of the different browsers and just kind of know what to do or what not to do.

Velocity 2012: Web Operations & Performance — The smartest minds in web operations and performance are coming together for the Velocity Conference, being held June 25-27 in Santa Clara, Calif.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20


April 18 2012

Velocity Profile: Hooman Beheshti

This is part of the Velocity Profiles series, which highlights the work and knowledge of web ops and performance experts.

Hooman BeheshtiHooman Beheshti
Vice President of Technology

How did you get into web operations and performance?

Out of school, I ended up with one of the first load balancing vendors, which is where I learned about everything that has to do with the networking and protocol side of the web. From there, I kind of moved up the stack: I helped found a high-performance caching company; then joined a next generation ADC vendor focusing on web acceleration; and then hooked up with Strangeloop, where we focus on advanced front-end optimization (FEO) for web performance. It's been a pretty cool ride, and I'm still learning every day.

What is your most memorable project?

Two come to mind. About 10 years ago, we had a huge problem trying to solve network proximity problems with geo load balancing. The normal DNS-based solutions weren't good enough. We came up with a pretty clever and more accurate way of measuring network proximity. It's a solution I'm still pretty proud of. More recently, and in a completely different direction, I've been involved with projects where we're leveraging the power of Google Analytics in creative ways to keep track of user behavior when it comes to web performance. It's kind of like what Artur Bergman talked about last year at Velocity, but we've gone further and included more things that give us different types of insight. It's a great example of positively exploiting available tools in new and cheeky ways.

What's the toughest problem you've had to solve?

In the world of web performance, measurement remains a huge challenge. There are way too many tools, metrics, and vendors out there, all doing measurement differently, and ironically, all legit! So, the challenge isn't always finding the right thing to measure, it's to understand which subset of metrics to consider based on the situation. Add to that the fact that there's a lot of confusion about this propagated by everyone who thinks their way is the only right way, coupled with the possibility that we may not actually have the right measurement yet, and this becomes an incredibly complex issue. I can't say that we've solved it, but I do keep finding myself learning new things and educating people about these complexities. So, the fact that people are listening and wanting to learn is a positive step toward solving the problem.

What tools and techniques do you rely on most?

I'm a techy geek, so my favorite tools are those that help me be a good sleuth. At the lowest level, the one tool I can't live without is Wireshark for getting and studying network packet captures. We've dubbed it "The Truth Serum" because of how it proves itself to be the ultimate authority when it comes to figuring out what the hell is going on.

In the browser, I use HTTPWatch all the time to study how my browser processes web pages. It's an excellent tool for getting timings, object breakdowns, and HTTP details.

And my favorite performance tool is WebPagetest. I use the public version, we have a private instance, and I even have one on my laptop. It's an awesome tool for getting an as-close-to-accurate-as-possible reflection of how pages perform in real browsers, with real-world characteristics. It has provided, and continues to provide, a great service for the performance industry.

Velocity 2012: Web Operations & Performance — The smartest minds in web operations and performance are coming together for the Velocity Conference, being held June 25-27 in Santa Clara, Calif.

Save 20% on registration with the code RADAR20


June 27 2011

Velocity 2011 retrospective

This was my third Velocity conference, and it's been great to see it grow. Smoothly running a conference with roughly 2,000 registered attendees (well over 50% more than 2010) is itself a testament to the importance of operations.

Velocity 2011 had many highlights, and below you'll find mine. I'll confess to some biases up front: I'm more interested in operations than development, so if you think mobile and web performance are underrepresented here, you're probably right. There was plenty of excellent content in those tracks, so please add your thoughts about those and other sessions in the comments area.

Blame and resilience engineering

I was particularly impressed by John Allspaw's session on "Advanced Post-mortem Fu." To summarize it in a sentence, it was about getting beyond blame. The job of a post-mortem analysis isn't to assign blame for failure, but to realize that failure happens and to plan the conditions under which failure will be less likely in the future. This isn't just an operational issue; moving beyond blame is a broader cultural imperative. Cultural historians have made much of the transition from shame culture — where if you failed you were "shamed" and obliged to leave the community — to guilt culture, where shame is internalized (the world of Hawthorne's "Scarlet Letter"). Now, we're clearly in a "blame culture," where it's always someone else's fault and nothing is ever over until the proper people have been blamed (and, more than likely, sued). That's not a way forward, for web ops any more than finance or medicine. John presented some new ways for thinking about failure, studying it, and making it less likely without assigning blame. There is no single root cause; many factors contribute to both success and failure, and you won't understand either until you take the whole system into account. Once you've done that, you can work on ways to improve operations to make failure less likely.

Velocity 2011 Online Access Pass
Couldn't make it to Velocity? Purchase the Velocity Online Access pass for $495 and get the following: The Velocity bookshelf — six essential O'Reilly ebooks; access to three upcoming online conferences; and access to the extensive Velocity 2011 conference video archive

Learn more about the Velocity Online Access Pass

John's talk raised the idea of "resilience engineering," an important
theme that's emerging from the Velocity culture. Resilience
engineering isn't just about making things that work; anyone can do
that. It's about designing systems that stay running in the face of
problems. Along similar lines, Justin Sheehy's talk was specifically about
resilience in the design of Riak. It was fascinating to
see how to design a distributed database so that any node could
suddenly disappear with no loss of data. Erlang, which Riak uses, encourages developers
to write partition tasks into small pieces that are free to crash,
running under a supervisor that restarts failed tasks.

Bryan Cantrill's excellent presentation on instrumenting the real-time web using Node.js and DTrace would win my vote for the best technical presentation of the conference, but it was most notable for his rant on Greenland and Antarctica's plot to take over the world. While the rant was funny, it's important not to forget the real message: DTrace is an underused but extremely flexible tool that can tell you exactly what is going on inside an application. It's more complex than other profiling tools I've seen, but in return for complexity, it lets you specify exactly what you want to know, and delivers results without requiring special compilation or even affecting the application's performance.

Data and performance

John Rauser's workshop on statistics ("Decisions in the Face of Uncertainty"), together with his keynote ("Look at your Data"), was another highlight. The workshop was an excellent introduction to working with data, an increasingly important tool for anyone interested in performance. But the keynote took it a step further, going beyond the statistics and looking at the actual raw data, spread across the living room floor. That was a powerful reminder that summary statistics are not always the last word in data: the actual data, the individual entries in your server logs, may hold the clues to your performance problem.

Velocity observations and overarching themes

There were many other memorable moments at Velocity (Steve Souders' belly dance wasn't one of them). I was amazed that Sean Power managed to do an Ignite Karaoke (a short impromptu presentation against a set of slides he didn't see in advance) that wasn't just funny, but actually almost made sense.

I could continue, but I would end up listing every session I attended; my only regret is that I couldn't attend more. Video for the conference keynotes is available online, so you can catch up on some of what you missed. The post-conference online access pass provides video for all the sessions for which presenters gave us permission.

Women's MeetupThe excellent sessions aren't the only news from Velocity. The Velocity Women's Networking Meetup had more than double the previous years' attendance; the group photo (right) has more people than I can count. The job board was stuffed to the gills. The exhibit hall dwarfed 2010's — I'd guess we had three times as many exhibitors — and there were doughnuts! But more than the individual sessions, the exhibits, the food, or the parties, I'll remember the overarching themes of cultural change; the many resources available for studying and improving performance; and most of all, the incredible people I met, all of whom contributed to making this conference a success.

We'll see you at the upcoming Velocity Europe in November and Velocity China in December, and next year at Velocity 2012 in California.


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