Measuring developer productivity in 2019

Until I spent the better part of 50 hours writing this guide about measuring developer productivity, I had little appreciation for how far we’ve come in the past four years. If you’re an engineering manager, there’s a growing body of data that suggests you can make a blanket increase in engineering efficacy. If you’re a great developer, you now stand to earn your due. These are exciting times to be programming.

Additional topics covered in the (admittedly a bit too epic) guide:

If you manage developers, would love to hear what you think of this effort? Is it relevant to you? Anything that could make it better?

Best interview questions to ask candidate interviewees

It’s too hard to find the best interview questions. Even though it’s widely acknowledged that “hiring right” is the make-or-break duty of every growing business, finding the perfect interview question requires sifting through a compendium of books, blogs, and brains.

As a boss, what I want is a broad list of great interview questions, organized by the quality I wish to evaluate (e.g., “hard worker,” “focused,” “team player”). So that’s what I’ve compiled, below.

Read more about the methodology at the bottom of this post, following the questions. tl; dr it involved selectively extracting from all the best books and blog posts I could find in a week of research.

Part one: the most sought-after traits in employees

The most sought-after traits have been broken into four tiers, based on the frequency with which they were mentioned in first-page search results. If you only have an hour for your interview, you probably don’t want to go very in-depth on more than 3 different areas. A popular strategy at bigger companies is to share different areas of evaluation between the team. It helps to ensure that you won’t miss a fatal weakness of the applicant.

If you are going to interview collaboratively, remember that some questions are duplicated between sections. Don’t be that interviewer who repeats a question from the previous interviewer.

Tier One

There is one talent that almost every blog & book regards as critical. Apparently, businesses don’t want to hire a candidate that causes drama and resists management?

  • Team player. Are they friendly, agreeable and upbeat?

Tier Two

These qualities were cited by 75% of publications surveyed, which is to say they are important to virtually every company. “Honesty” is one of the hardest qualities to evaluate in an interview context, but I’ve found a handful of questions to penetrate the interview defenses.

Tier Three

Qualities that were mentioned by roughly half the sources surveyed. Many of the most critical talents Bonanza seeks are located here.

  • Communicator. Do they know how to wield language and be tactful?
  • Leadership. Does this candidate have the tools to be a leader?
  • Ambitious. Every business wants a team that is self-motivated and hard-working
  • Focused. Can they possibly eschew Facebook, Twitter, IM, Hacker News, et al. for eight hours?
  • Problem-solving. Can they work autonomously, surmounting challenges and making decisions lacking manager intervention?
  • Intelligent. Does this candidate have the raw smarts to be proficient at their job?
  • Organized. Can they keep track of the details and prioritize among choices?

Tier Four

These qualities weren’t mentioned as consistently across articles surveyed. It is my personal judgement that they are still important to assess, depending on the role being filled.

  • Passionate. Are they excitable? Do they love their work?
  • Creative. Can they figure out novel solutions to problems?
  • Stable. Loyalty and dependability are essential to team morale.
  • Invested in us. Have they done the homework on the company they’re appyling to?
  • Meat & potatoes. Miscellaneous questions not to forget.

Part 2: My favorite interview questions

This list is the culmination of a week spent combing the internet and popular books for great interview question. I have attempted to choose my favorite versions of the classic questions (e.g., “What’s your weakness?”) such that the version chosen gives the candidate the opportunity to talk in the realm of specific examples.

Do note: some questions apply to more than one category, so are listed more than once. Don’t make a fool of yourself in a collaborative interview by asking the same question twice. Use your communication skills to coordinate questions with your teammates.

Team player, friendly, agreeable, upbeat

  1. What do you think makes a person likeable?
  2. How would a co-worker who likes you describe you?
  3. How would a co-worker who dislikes you describe you?
  4. What qualities in your co-workers bother you most? Do you appreciate most?
  5. If I were to ask your current boss what your greatest strength is, what would he or she tell me?
  6. What do you have Strong Opinions about?
  7. Describe the boss who would get the very best work from you.
  8. What changes have you made in working with others to be more effective at work?
  9. What could you have done to improve your relationship with your worst boss?
  10. What’s a time you disagreed with a decision that was made by your boss? How did you handle it?
  11. Tell me about a time you had a conflict with a co-worker, and how you handled it?
  12. How do you deal with a difficult customer?
  13. What do you feel an employer owes an employee?
  14. Give an example of a time you misjudged someone
  15. When was the last time you were angry?
  16. Can you describe a time when your work was criticized?

Adaptable, flexible, eager to learn

  1. What do you think are the most important attributes of successful people? How do you rate yourself in those areas?
  2. If you could change one thing about yourself by snapping your fingers, what would it be and why? Do you have a plan for
  3. making that improvement?
  4. Tell me about competitor (or similar) businesses you kept up with in your past position. What did you glean from them?
  5. When have you failed? Describe what happened and what you learned from it.
  6. How do you take advantage of your strengths?
  7. How do you compensate for your weaknesses?
  8. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve learned in the past year?
  9. If you were starting college today, what classes would you take? (Alternative: What would you like to learn more about in the next year?)
  10. What books are you reading? (Alternative: What industry publications are your favorites?)
  11. Tell me about the last time you took a risk? Was it the right decision? What did you learn?
  12. How do you keep up with changes in your field?
  13. What was the most useful criticism you received?
  14. How do you measure your own success?

Trustworthy, honest

  1. Have you worked in a position where you felt you weren’t given enough to do?
  2. What was the most useful criticism you received?
  3. If I were to ask your current boss what your greatest weakness was, what would he or she tell me?
  4. Tell me about the last time you had to make an unpopular decision
  5. When have you failed? Describe what happened and what you learned from it.
  6. Tell me about a work incident in which you were totally honest, despite a potential risk or downside.
  7. What’s your greatest fear about this opportunity?
  8. Where does your boss think you are now? [Ed: answer doesn’t matter, smell of truthfulness in response does]
  9. If I looked through your web browser history, what would I learn that isn’t on your resume?
  10. Tell me about some of the gaps in your employment. How did these come about?
  11. May I contact your current employer? May I contact your references?
  12. Why shouldn’t I hire you?

Culture fit, compatible personality

  1. Describe the boss who would get the very best work from you
  2. What will make you love coming to work here everyday?
  3. What type of work environment do you prefer?
  4. What gets you excited outside of work?
  5. If I looked through your web browser history, what would I learn that isn’t on your resume?
  6. Assume that you come to work here. One year from now you go home one Friday evening thinking that accepting this job was the best thing you ever did. What happened during the year for you to feel that way?
  7. How much time per week do you spend working alone? Do you think it should be more or less?
  8. How competitive are you?
  9. Do you have a favorite quote?
  10. What unique experiences separate you from other candidates?
  11. What are the most important rewards you expect to get from your career?
  12. Where do you see yourself in five years?
  13. Which areas of your work are most often praised?
  14. Tell me about the funniest role you’ve had on a job/project?
  15. When you are on vacation, what do you miss most about work?
  16. How would you describe yourself to a stranger at a party?
  17. How do you incorporate fun into your day?

Communicator, tactful

See also: “Team player

  1. Why are you leaving your current job?
  2. Have you given presentations to your peers, either at work or in other contexts?
  3. See that picture frame on the wall? Sell it to me.
  4. What’s a time you disagreed with a decision that was made by your boss? (Alternate: If you know your boss is 100% wrong about something, how would you handle it?)
  5. If you feel strongly about an idea, but a person doesn’t agree with you, what tactics would you use to persuade them?
  6. What’s your greatest fear about this opportunity?
  7. Describe a time where you put in extra effort to make sure a person with whom you were communicating had really understood your point.
  8. Describe a situation in which you dealt with a difficult customer
  9. Why shouldn’t we hire you?
  10. What do you think we could do better or differently?

Leadership

  1. How do you motivate people?
  2. What do you think are the most important attributes of successful leaders?
  3. Tell me about the last time you had to make an unpopular decision
  4. Tell me about the last time you fired someone
  5. How do you decide what tasks to delegate to whom?
  6. How do you bring other team members into your process? (Alternate: How do you get others on board with your decisions?)
  7. Did you inaugurate new processes in your previous position? Tell me about them
  8. Have you been in charge of a budget? How did you balance priorities?
  9. What’s the most difficult part of being a manager for you?
  10. What do your reports find most difficult about your management style?
  11. How do you set expectations with your reports or peers? How do you handle a situation where a report fails to meet expectations (e.g., consistently missing deadlines)?
  12. Describe a situation where you successfully resolved a conflict with a team member.
  13. Would you rather be liked or feared?
  14. Describe a crisis you faced at work. What was your role? How did you resolve it? What were the results?
  15. Do you have a management philosophy? No.

Ambitious, self-motivated, hard-working

See also: “Invested in us

  1. What would your first 30, 60, 90 days look like in this role?
  2. What extracurricular activities were you involved with in college? Since?
  3. What side projects have you done? What was the biggest?
  4. Tell me something that happened at work in the last year that made it a truly great day.
  5. Have you been promoted in past jobs? How did these promotions come about?
  6. Describe a situation in your past job where you were proactive? (Alternate: Give me an example from a previous job where you’ve shown initiative)
  7. When did you first start doing [the job’s requirement]? [Ed note: if they started doing it before required in school, suggests self-starter]
  8. How do you keep up with changes in your field?
  9. How competitive are you?
  10. What are your short range goals and objectives?
  11. Give me an example of a goal you set in the past and how you went about reaching it?
  12. Where do you see yourself in five years?
  13. Do you take work home with you?
  14. How ambitious are you? No.

Focused, tenacious

  1. What are your strategies for making the most of your day?
  2. What do you do when things are slow? (You are lacking for projects)
  3. What do you do when you’re burned out to rekindle your spark?
  4. If you’re struggling with an idea, how do you break through and find a solution?
  5. How do you pass time while waiting for [job specific pause point, like compiling a program]?
  6. Describe a time where you put in extra effort to improve a business process to be more efficient?
  7. What percentage of your time is spent on each of your job responsibilities? [Answer matters less than whether they seem to keep track of it]

Problem-solving, self-sufficient, autonomous, decisive

See also: “creative.”

  1. Describe a time when you were asked to do something you weren’t trained to do. How did you handle it?
  2. Tell me about a time when you made a decision without all the information you needed.
  3. Can you tell me about a time when you discovered a more efficient way to do a routine task? Have you done this repeatedly?
  4. What are some of the Google tricks you use to find answers to your questions?
  5. How do you decide whether to message your boss when you have a tough problem?
  6. How many dentists are there in Poland?
  7. How would you build a toaster for a blind person?
  8. See that picture frame on the wall? Sell it to me.
  9. Tell me about the last time you took a risk? Was it the right decision? What would you have done differently?
  10. Can you think of a time where you were forced to take charge when your manager wasn’t available?
  11. Have you worked in a position where you felt you weren’t given enough to do?
  12. What was the most important task you’ve ever had?

Intelligent, proficient, competent

  1. What are you especially good at compared to others?
  2. Have you been promoted in past jobs? How did these promotions come about?
  3. What’s the one accomplishment you’re most proud of? Why?
  4. What is your greatest professional achievement?
  5. What’s your greatest fear about this opportunity?
  6. Tell me something that happened at work in the last year that made it a truly great day
  7. How would you rate yourself in terms of speed, quality, and self-direction? [Ed: Can they answer a multi-part question?]
  8. In what college courses did you get the worst grades? Why? How do you think it’ll effect your job performance?
  9. Tell me about the last time you took a risk? Was it the right decision? What would you have done differently?
  10. What do you consider to be the most important aspect of your craft?
  11. What do you consider to be the most misunderstood aspect of your craft?
  12. If I asked a co-worker friend what made you most valuable to the team, what would they say?

Organized, detail-oriented

  1. What would your first 30, 60, or 90 days look like in this role?
  2. Tell me about the first 60 minutes of your typical day
  3. What are your strategies for making the most of your day?
  4. Have you been in charge of a budget? How did you balance priorities?
  5. What do you do when you begin a project? How does this help the project go successfully?
  6. What tools do you use to maintain organization? How do you keep lists?
  7. Tell me about a project where you noticed a small detail that made a big difference?
  8. What percentage of your time is spent on each of your job responsibilities?
  9. Describe the top of your desk
  10. Do you always double-check your work? What’s your system for deciding?

Passionate, excitable

  1. What excites you about our company?
  2. What gets you excited outside of work?
  3. Describe the boss who would get the very best work from you.
  4. What are the most important rewards you expect to get from your career?
  5. If you had unlimited money, what would you be doing?

Creative

  1. Tell me about the last time you took a risk? Was it the right decision? What would you have done differently?
  2. Tell me about the last time you found a unique solution to a long-standing problem.
  3. Tell me about the last time you figured out how to save your company money? Did they heed your advice?
  4. Did you inaugurate new processes in your previous position?
  5. What improvements might you make to our business?
  6. Where do you draw inspiration for your craft from?

Stable, loyal, dependable

  1. Why are you leaving current job? Have you brought your concerns with your job to the attention of your boss?
  2. Is this the first time you’ve thought about leaving? What made you stay before?
  3. Why have you had so many jobs?
  4. How do we know you’ll stick around?
  5. Will your current job be surprised to hear you’re leaving?
  6. What aspect of our job appeals to you least?
  7. How does your ideal job stack up to what we’re offering?
  8. Have you been absent from work more than a few days in any previous position?

Invested in us

  1. What about this job most excites you?
  2. What about this company most excites you? (Alternative: What do you know about the company?)
  3. What do you think we could do better or differently?
  4. What advantage do we have over our competitors? (Who are our competitors?)
  5. How does your ideal job stack up to what we’re offering?
  6. Where do you see yourself in five years?
  7. What criteria are you using to choose companies you interview with?

Misc, administrative

  1. Tell me about yourself
  2. Which areas of your work are most often praised?
  3. Is there any question I haven’t asked you that I should?
  4. Salary range expectations?
  5. When can you start?
  6. Are you considering other offers?

Methodology

Settling on the definition for what makes a “great” interview question is a subjective affair. There were a couple rules I applied. I wanted questions that lead the candidate to talk about a specific example; questions like “what’s your management style?” (a common question amongst my sources [1]) are too vague to expect worthwhile insights in return. When in doubt, I considered whether I would be annoyed to get asked the question in an interview (e.g., “Give us one word that describes you“). If so, it’s not on the list. 80% of questions evaluated are not on the list.

Once I decided what I was after, I purchased a handful of Amazon’s top-rated interview books, and visited tens of Google’s top ranked pages on interviewing. Most of my sources are linked in the footnotes [1][2].

Building a dataset from my research, I sought to make two determinations:

  1. What are the top 15 qualities that employers seek in an employee?
  2. What are the most succinct questions to evaluate those qualities?

The first goal was tricky, because often, sources will refer to the same idea in slightly different ways (e.g., “adaptable,” “flexible,” or “willing to learn”). Some qualities, like “problem-solving” and “creative” feel distinct, but related. In these cases, I added links between the two categories to help the reader find related questions.

Still here? Hello!

I’d wager you would pass the “hard-working” and “tenacious” evaluation phases of the interview. So why not check out the many jobs Bonanza is hiring for at the moment? Everyone loves an interview where they know the questions in advance. 🙂

Also: if you have a favorite interview question that I haven’t listed here, please share it in the comments! Around 10% of the questions above were from my personal collection, indicating there are likely still more good questions lurking out there.

Footnotes

[1] Bibliography:

[2] I didn’t start documenting until around half way through my research, so the list isn’t quite comprehensive

Linux touchpad like a Macbook: goal worth pursuing?

Following is my proposal to improve the state of Linux touchpad drivers. It’s a cause I have spent almost a year of my spare time researching in depth. The first section, below, surveys the landscape of today’s available Linux touchpad drivers. The second section (“The Journey Here“) gets into greater depth describing the current failings of available choices. The third section (“The Path Forward“) proposes my best ideas for how we might be able to realize a Linux touchpad driver with polish level matching a Macbook Pro.

A survey of today’s Linux touchpad drivers

For the last 6 months, I’ve been trying to configure a Dell Precision laptop running Arch to get the same feel as the Macbook Pros I loved until the Touchbar Era. I started with the Arch default, libinput. I gave up on it in about a week, when I determined that something as simple as controlling the two-finger scroll speed was not included in the available options. The default was about 3x faster than the comfortable speed I’ve grown to love with my Macbooks. Had I not been disuaded by scroll speed, I might’ve still abandoned ship for the lack of scroll gliding (a feature I never knew I’d been using until it was taken away), which apparently I have Strong Opinions about.

Linux being Linux, I figured that I’d have a universe of touchpad drivers to choose from, each with its own awkward UI that would be confusing and painful to use, but ultimately get the job done. What I discovered instead was all of three options: one of which I had just eliminated (libinput), one that has been abandoned by its maintainers in favor of libinput (synaptics), and a third that was also abandoned by its maintainers, with zero graphical UI left behind (mtrack).

I’m writing this blog because I appreciate the nuances of how the Macbook touchpad performs, but the Touchbar Era has taught me that it sucks to have my user experience tied to the whims of a singleminded hardware company. I want to be part of the solution to create a Linux touchpad driver that’s indistinguishable from the Macbook, and has at least a minimal UI to accommodate the most common differences in user preference. I believe this would bring Linux hardware a big step closer to owning the same panache that makes the Macbook experience special. All evidence collected to date suggests that my mission may well prove quixotic. But if other people care about this, it could get done. I posit my ideas on a path forward here. If you’ve got time and want to learn more about what informs my opinions on the best path forward, read on…

The Journey Here

After realizing libinput wasn’t going to work for me, I found this blog post, whose title seduced me (“The perfect (almost) touchpad settings on Linux”). I went on to write my own follow up blog post, after discovering that the initial blog post left much to be desired compared to the Macbook standard I longed for. When it came to scroll speed and scroll glide, mtrack performed like a champ. Graphical UI be damned, I spent minutes — eventually hours — parsing the documentation. Between the 1,001 options available, I was optimistic about my prospects to recreate my Macbook utopia. And I would’ve done it, if not for the wretched nuisance I’d come to call “Cursor Nudge.” In a nutshell, “Cursor Nudge” is the phenomenon by which the center point of your depressed thumb will glide by a few millimeters as a natural effect of transitioning from the “move cursor” position to the “depress” position. None of mtrack’s 1,001 options could conquer Cursor Nudge, and eventually I grew weary of clicking right next to my target.

Down to my final shot, I really wanted synaptics to work. Yeah, it was abandonware, but it was abandonware that had been forsaken due to its multitude of options. A multitude of options seemed to be what I needed to replicate the Macbook. Initial results were promising: Cursor Nudge was not an issue with Synaptics. In fact, for my first few days using it, I found it pretty bearable. I wouldn’t confuse it with Macbook — not without the smooth acceleration and deceleration. Not with only the slighest twinge of scroll glide. Not with the need to click in the bottom right corner to effect a right click. But it was… probably satisfactory. If not for the bugs. About once or twice a day, when I put my thumb down to click or start scrolling, my open document would jerk toward the bottom of the scrollable viewing area. I Googled it. I installed the xinput listener, captured all my tracking input into logs, and tailed the logs to look for patterns that preceded the bug. And then I wondered, “does Apple still sell the pre-Touchbar Macbook?” Turns out, in what I can only interpret as tacit admission of their wrongdoing, they do. It doesn’t have enough RAM, and much of its technology is 10 years old. But its polish level remains eons beyond what I can replicate with Linux, and I refuse to carry around a mouse.

I also emailed the maintainer of libinput (previously maintainer of Synaptics). I asked him what it would take to write a Linux touchpad driver that would approach parity with the Macbook. His take wasn’t optimistic (“unless you raise enough money to hire at least one full-time developer there’s little point”). I have to imagine this is what naturally happens to a developer that has spent large swaths of a career worrying about backwards compatibility and subtle hardware differences. It sounds like a special type of hell he’s dealing with, and I appreciate the heroics that have gone into making a variety of Linux touchpad drivers almost good enough. But, even though I did eventually cave and buy new old Macbook, I’m not resigned to the imperfections of the current Linux touchpad landscape. A friend of mine who doesn’t even work in tech pointed out to me a month ago that he was reading a random post where they linked to my first blog post pursuing a Macbook-equivalent Linux driver. Somebody besides me cares about this.

The Path Forward

Wherein it becomes apparent that the author doesn’t yet know the best solution.

I think a polished driver could only be delivered within a narrow range of parameters. It probably isn’t going to support laptops older than 3-5 years old. It isn’t going to offer 1,001 options. It may or may not be continuously supported. It may use one of the existing drivers as a starting point, even if that starting codebase isn’t “clean” or well-documented.

Could we build something that works better than existing solutions for 95% of users (= developers) for less than $100k? Probably. Do users (or companies) feel enough pain with the Linux touchpad solutions that they’d donate money (or time) to tackle an esoteric issue? That is what I need to find out.

With a sufficiently enthusiastic response to this blog (todo: define sufficient), I would volunteer my own time to spearhead the non-development aspects of a solution [1]. I could create a Kickstarter page, or help PM or QA development efforts on a driver built to mimic Macbook on the widest possible range of modern laptops. I could donate time to whatever better idea you present. But, first I need a hand to determine: does this actually matter?

Update November 2018: Been putting a lot of time into this cause lately. I’m at about 10 notes and counting so far. I should have a proper blog update to post within the next month.

 

[1] I’d rather be programming this than PMing it, but my programmer brain is currently dedicated to quantifying developer activity and counting lines of code

Alternatives to Xmarks (now discontinued)

Xmarks (nee Firemarks) has been a reliable companion to address my cross-platform bookmarking needs over the past 10 years. As such, I was saddened to receive word that parent company Lastpass has chosen to discontinue Xmarks as of mid-2018. This sent me on a quest to find the best Xmarks alternative, but the first Google result I was presented (alternative.to) when searching “Xmarks alternatives” contained a spate of services that had precious little relevance to users like myself who simply want the means to save bookmarks in a cross-browser compatible extension, with as few other bells and whistles as possible.

After considerable Googling, here are the top three recommendations I’d present to other Xmarks users being forced to abandon ship:

Eversync

There’s good reason that this is the most-cited service you’ll find (alongside Xmarks) when Googling terms like “cross browser bookmarks.” It supports all the major browsers/platforms (including my current laptop, running Chromium on Arch Linux). It has been doing this long enough to have a quaint (read: “embarrassingly outdated”) little website that imputes the difficulty of building a business with via bookmarking extension.

Eversync’s web site welcomes you to the 90s

Most importantly, it’s got impeccable ratings. As of March 2018, it maintains a 4.5 star rating on the Chrome app store with about 3,000 ratings. I consider this an incredible feat, given that greater volume of ratings typically drive a product’s average toward the 3 stars.

The biggest gripe I have with Eversync is that its creators package a collection of junk like “Speed Dial.” If you’re a power user with more than 500 bookmarks, Nimbus (who appears to have purchased the extension from Everhelper at some point) will try to charge you $45/year for the extension (plus Nimbus bloat). Woe that it does cost money to maintain a web service.

Chrome sync

Ok, technically this isn’t a cross-browser solution. But if you’re like me and you only stray outside of Chrome on occasion (usually to test a page I’m developing on another browser), then the simplest way to sync bookmarks is to simply use the browser’s built-in capability. No extensions to download, no potential that you’re going to have to change managers again when software maker abandons their product.

If you choose this option, you will most likely want to visit your browser’s Settings -> Sync settings and disable the properties that you don’t want or need synced on all of your workstations:

Raindrop.io

This option “only” manages 4 stars on 300 ratings in the Chrome app store, so it’s a half-step below Eversync in terms of its user reputation. I’m including it here anyways because its home page inspires me to believe that its developers are actively working on it, and thus its functionality may be more likely to improve compared to Eversync. Further, it’s list of features including “Duplicate finder” and “Broken link finder” indicate a level of product dogfooding (creator using own product = creation of features to maximize user satisfaction) that was largely absent in Xmarks. For what it’s worth, the Pro version of Raindrop is also a few bucks cheaper than the Pro version of Eversync ($5/month for Eversync vs $3/month for Raindrop).

If anyone has firsthand experience with Raindrop, I’d be much obliged to learn your satisfaction level in the comment section below.

Counting lines of code for fun & profit

Those wizards over at Static Object have published a new opus entitled Counting Lines of Code is Garbage, So Let’s Go Dumpster Diving. I believe it’s the most comprehensive analysis online when it comes to reconciling how Lines of Code can be transformed into meaningful measurement and insights.

They also recently published a video illustrating how Static Object consolidates commits to make it easier for developers to follow the activity that’s happening in their repo.

Both of the posts represent a quantum leap forward in terms of Static Object’s ability to explain what it is and why it exists.

Linux with a Macbook Touchpad Feel, Pt 2

Update: Below are what I believe to be the best settings available to tune a Linux touchpad to feel like a Macbook Pro touchpad, but it still isn’t perfect, and a year of research had led me to believe that it can’t be perfect without bigger changes to the underlying Linux drivers. I’ve written this follow up post to explore paths forward.  Original post follows…

Since my last laptop upgrade to a Dell Precision, I have made it an ongoing project to try to match my laptop (running Arch via Antergos) touchpad to the smooth & predictable operation of a Macbook Pro. It has been a long road, but at this point I have a setup that I think compares favorably to a Macbook experience.

In my previous entry, I covered the three available options for Linux touchpads before settling on mtrack as my touchpad driver of choice. In the weeks since, I have walked back this decision due to the jittery behavior of the mtrack driver when one slides a thumb in an effort to click. I frequently found myself barely missing my click target, and that’s no way to live.

So I returned to review my three options. In spite of its halting development progress, the next best option seemed to be the Synaptics driver. The fact that it was initially included as the default drive for Arch added to its credibility.

Having opted for Synaptics, the foremost challenge became locating a single concise & authoritative source to explain all available Synaptics touchpad driver options. Read on for a link to that source. I will also share my current touchpad configuration, with annotations on the updates I made to maximize the consistency & elegance of my touching experience.

Installation

Since Synaptics is the default driver for many Linux distros (including Ubuntu and Antergos, to my knowledge), you might well be running the Synaptics driver already. The easiest way to determine is to run

cat /var/log/Xorg.0.log | grep synaptics

If you see output like the following, you’re in good shape:

[ 16885.807] (II) LoadModule: "synaptics"
[ 16885.808] (II) Loading /usr/lib/xorg/modules/input/synaptics_drv.so
[ 16885.808] (II) Module synaptics: vendor="X.Org Foundation"
[ 16885.808] (II) Using input driver 'synaptics' for 'DLL07BF:01 06CB:7A13 Touchpad'

If not, chances are there is a configuration file for libinput or mtrack that has a lower alphanumeric file name in either /etc/X11/xorg.conf.d/, the first directory Xorg looks for touchpad config files, or /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/ its secondary location. To get your laptop to choose Synpatics over other drivers, you must change the filename of your Synaptics driver config file to have a lower alphanumeric precedence than its competitors. I.e.,

bill /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d $ ls -l
total 16
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root  1350 Dec 25 05:03 10-quirks.conf
-rw-r--r-- 1 bill users 1935 Jan  7 11:03 30-synaptics.conf
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root   951 Dec 20 09:24 40-libinput.conf
-rw-r--r-- 1 root root  1753 Nov 18  2016 70-mtrack.conf

In my case, my Synaptics driver config file lives at /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/30-synaptics.conf. The “30-” that my config file begins with is a lower number than my libinput or mtrack config files contain, so Xorg chooses to use Synaptics and ignore the other drivers.

Configuration

In my past post, I lauded mtrack for going big on configurability, noting the 50-100 different options available on differing versions of mtrack. The good news is that Synaptics has even more options available than Mtrack. The bad news is that you’re not going to find any one complete & accurate source to learn about all of the options available to you.

This page is the best you’re going to find. It’s pretty good.

After reading through the litany of options available, and experimenting in real world usage, the final Synaptics config file I settled on actually implements relatively few custom options:

Section "InputClass"
        Identifier "touchpad catchall"
        Driver "synaptics"
        MatchIsTouchpad "on"
        # Enabling tap-to-click is a perilous choice that begets needing to set up palm detection/ignoring. Since I am fine clicking my touchpad, I sidestep the issue by disabling tapping. 
        Option "TapButton1" "0"
        Option "TapButton2" "0"
        Option "TapButton3" "0"
	# Using negative values for ScrollDelta implements natural scroll, a la Macbook default. 
        Option "VertScrollDelta" "-80"
	Option "HorizScrollDelta" "-80"
        # https://wiki.archlinux.org/index.php/Touchpad_Synaptics has a very buried note about this option
	# tl;dr this defines right button to be rightmost 7% and bottommost 5%
	Option "SoftButtonAreas" "93% 0 95% 0 0 0 0 0"  
        MatchDevicePath "/dev/input/event*"
EndSection

You’ll note that this config file doesn’t setup coasting after a two-finger scroll, since Synaptics enables this by default. The -80 values for scroll delta correspond closely with the rate at which a Macbook will scroll with two fingers. The greatest difference between my Linux and Macbook config is that I have enabled a slight area at the bottom right of my touchpad to function as my right click. After several hours of usage, I’ve found this area sized such that I only end up right clicking when I make an effort to go for the bottom right corner. It’s a handy optimization that prevents me from needing to remove right click from the touchpad entirely.

On to the finer details

The previous post lamented how challenging I had found it to tweak values for the touchpad properties without restarting Lightdm (logging out and logging in again). Since then, I’ve discovered two means that allow experimenting with different touchpad values without requiring a log out/log in cycle. Both methods will allow you to precisely configure your touchpad settings without needing to log out and log back in.

The first method is via xinput, the second via synclient.

Using xinput

The greatest benefit to using xinput directly in changing touchpad settings is that it will work with either the Synaptics, libinput, or mtrack drivers. The second method I’ll outline below (synclient) only works with Synaptics.

To configure your settings using xinput, start by running xinput --list. Note which ID corresponds to your touchpad (for me, it’s ID 13), and then run xinput --list-props id. For example:

$ xinput --list-props 13
Device 'DLL07BF:01 06CB:7A13 Touchpad':
	Device Enabled (142):	1
	Coordinate Transformation Matrix (144):	1.000000, 0.000000, 0.000000, 0.000000, 1.000000, 0.000000, 0.000000, 0.000000, 1.000000
	Device Accel Profile (274):	1
	Device Accel Constant Deceleration (275):	2.500000
	Device Accel Adaptive Deceleration (276):	1.000000
	Device Accel Velocity Scaling (277):	12.500000
	Synaptics Edges (282):	49, 1179, 50, 878
	Synaptics Finger (283):	25, 30, 0
	Synaptics Tap Time (284):	180
	Synaptics Tap Move (285):	67
	Synaptics Tap Durations (286):	180, 180, 100
	Synaptics ClickPad (287):	1
	Synaptics Middle Button Timeout (288):	0
	Synaptics Two-Finger Pressure (289):	282
	Synaptics Two-Finger Width (290):	7
	Synaptics Scrolling Distance (291):	-80, -80
	Synaptics Edge Scrolling (292):	0, 0, 0
	Synaptics Two-Finger Scrolling (293):	1, 0
	Synaptics Move Speed (294):	1.000000, 1.750000, 0.129955, 0.000000
	Synaptics Off (295):	0
	Synaptics Locked Drags (296):	0
	Synaptics Locked Drags Timeout (297):	5000
        ...

Each of these property values correspond to properties you’ll find in the Synaptics configuration documentation. To change a value, you would then use xinput set-prop, for example:

xinput set-prop --type=int "DLL07BF:01 06CB:7A13 Touchpad" "Synaptics Scrolling Distance" -70 -70

You’ll note the first string is the copy-pasted name of my touchpad from xinput --list, the second string is the copy-pasted name of the setting that was shown via –list-props, and all of the settings that follow are the values to be used. After running the command above, when I re-run xinput --list-props id I see Synaptics Scrolling Distance (291): -80, -80, meaning my natural scroll is about 15% faster than before.

Using synclient

One benefit unique to the the Synaptics driver is that it comes with a dedicated utility for configuring its setting values. You can see all current applied settings by invoking synclient. You’ll see something like

$ synclient
Parameter settings:
    LeftEdge                = 49
    RightEdge               = 1179
    TopEdge                 = 50
    BottomEdge              = 878
    FingerLow               = 25
    FingerHigh              = 30
    MaxTapTime              = 180
    MaxTapMove              = 67
    MaxDoubleTapTime        = 180
    SingleTapTimeout        = 180
    ClickTime               = 100
    EmulateMidButtonTime    = 0
    EmulateTwoFingerMinZ    = 282
    EmulateTwoFingerMinW    = 7
    VertScrollDelta         = -70
    HorizScrollDelta        = -70
    ...

Again, you can consult the Synaptics settings documentation to map these esoteric names into actual behavior. Setting a new value is then simply a matter of running synclient VertScrollDelta=-80

Persisting configuration changes

After you’ve tweaked your touchpad to your satisfaction, you’ll need to propagate all your settings changes back into the config file we discussed in step one. The only bit that can make this challenging is if you used synclient, the variable names used by synclient can differ significantly from those that are known to xinput when it goes to configure your touchpad upon login.

If you’re not sure how your synclient values correspond to values you would feed to the Synaptics driver config file, use the steps from the “Using xinput” section above to list all the properties for your touchpad. Here, you’ll be able to see the config setting names that xinput knows for your touchpad, as well as the values it is currently using. For example, xinput --list-props tells me that after tweaking in synclient, I set up my button regions as follows:

Synaptics Soft Button Areas (314):	1079, 0, 760, 0, 0, 0, 0, 0

I can then copy those into my config file 30-mtrack.confas follows:

Section "InputClass"
        Identifier "touchpad catchall"
        Driver "synaptics"
        MatchIsTouchpad "on"
        ...
        Option "SoftButtonAreas" "1079 0 760 0 0 0 0 0"
EndSection

After the setting values have been saved in your configuration file, they will be applied automatically upon restart/login.

Toward a Linux touchpad as smooth as Macbook Pro

Update: After continuing to use my system, I opted for the Synaptics driver instead. Learn why in my follow-up.

As a longtime Macbook Pro user, I’ve grown an insatiable appetite for exceptional hardware+software implementations of laptop functionality like suspend/wake, bluetooth, wifi, and touchpad.  If there’s anything that my past Linux laptops taught me, it’s that these functions are not automatically perfect [insert shock here]. They seem easy & perfect only when they work flawlessly, and they work flawlessly only because Apple employs large teams of experts to test & polish the hardware/software interplay on a Macbook such that it feels perfect.

Since Apple gave me and the rest of the Developer community the heave-ho with its decisions on the latest generation of Macbook Pro [1], it has been a long & harsh journey toward getting a laptop experience that feels as flawless as my Macbook Pro did. But after weeks of experimentation, I wanted to share my current touchpad setup, which feels like it is approaching the buttery smoothness of my past Macbook Pros.

Touchpad options

There are two good articles on setting up a touchpad with Linux (Arch, Antergos, Debian, Ubuntu et al). As these articles explain it, there are three touchpad drivers available on Linux: synaptics (no longer supported), libinput, and mtrack. Preferring to avoid starting with abandonware, I narrowed my search down to libinput and mtrack. The choice between these options was made easier by reading the libinput philosophy not to implement features that aren’t likely to be needed by mainstream users. In their words: “In the old synaptics driver, we added options whenever something new came up and we tried to make those options generic. This was a big mistake… we’re having none of that” Practically speaking, this means that the limit of configurability in libinput is far more limited than the 1,001 settings offered by mtrack.

This isn’t to say that mtrack is a flawless choice. This is not a driver being supported and tested by teams of users & experts. It has no visual settings panel that I’m aware of, all configuration is done via text file. And the correct version to install is initially ambiguous. The officially developed version hasn’t been advanced since 2015, so a popular fork has taken up the torch in recent years. This is why Dayne’s Medium Post recommends installing directly via git. And I recommend the same.

Installing mtrack

Here are the basics to get the latest mtrack installed on your system:

cd /tmp
git clone https://github.com/p2rkw/xf86-input-mtrack.git
cd xf86-input-mtrack
./configure --with-xorg-module-dir=/usr/lib/xorg/modules
make
sudo make install

At this point you’ll have mtrack’s driver files built/installed, but Xorg still calls the shots in enabling it vs other drivers. By default, mtrack’s xorg configuration file gets placed in /usr/shared/X11/xorg.conf.d/50-mtrack.conf, which in my case meant its precedence was lower than both synaptics (placed in /etc/X11/xorg.conf.d, which takes precedence over the /usr/shared/X11/xorg.conf.d directory) and libinput (which initially had an alphanumerically lower file name (40-libinput.conf) than 50-mtrack.conf. To fix these issues, your best bet is to move your mtrack.conf file to a location/filename with higher precedence:

sudo mv /usr/share/X11/xorg.conf.d/50-mtrack.conf /etc/X11/xorg.conf.d/10-mtrack.conf

Once you’ve done these steps, mtrack should become your default touchpad driver after restarting X server. Of course, this being Linux, there is no single answer as to most easily restart X server. These people think that you can simply run startx, but that didn’t work for me without sudo, and when I ran it with sudo, I ended up setting root permissions on a file (~/.Xauthority) that prevented me from logging in. This well-rated response thinks you can sudo restart lightdm, which did work for me (albeit with different syntax since I’m on arch), but still ended up logging me out, so my official recommendation for re-starting X server is unfortunately to log out then log back in. At that point, if you run cat /var/log/Xorg.0.log | grep mtrack you should see a series of messages that show mtrack being loaded. If you don’t, this was the best thread I found for diagnosing what input driver is actually being used. If you find anything interesting, please do post it to the comments.

Crafting the dream touchpad experience

Once you get mtrack functional, then begins the process of creating a configuration file that best approximates Macbook Pro settings.  Here is my annotated config file:

# https://github.com/p2rkw/xf86-input-mtrack
Section "InputClass"
MatchIsTouchpad "on"
Identifier      "Touchpads"
MatchDevicePath "/dev/input/event*"
Driver          "mtrack"
# Sensitivity controls how fast your cursor will move. 1 is the default
Option          "Sensitivity" "1.1"
Option          "FingerHigh" "5"
Option          "FingerLow" "5"
Option          "IgnoreThumb" "true"
Option          "ThumbRatio" "70"
Option          "ThumbSize" "25"
Option          "IgnorePalm" "true"
# This ignores tap-to-click, which causes more problems than benefit in my experience
Option          "TapButton1" "0"
Option          "TapButton2" "0"
Option          "TapButton3" "0"
# If you want a middle-click, then "ClickFinger2" should be value "2"
Option          "ClickFinger1" "1"
Option          "ClickFinger2" "1"
Option          "ClickFinger3" "3"
Option          "ButtonMoveEmulate" "true"
Option          "ButtonIntegrated" "true"
Option		"ButtonEnable" "true"
# "ButtonZonesEnable" means that your trackpad gets divided into three equal sections, where clicking any third of the touchpad sends the click code in "ClickFingerX". Since I didn't want middle-click, the left two thirds of my touchpad are left click, and the right third is right click:
Option          "ButtonZonesEnable" "true"
Option          "ClickTime" "25"
# Ensures that bottom 5% of touchpad doesn't register taps
Option          "EdgeBottomSize" "5"
Option          "SwipeLeftButton" "8"
Option          "SwipeRightButton" "9"
Option          "SwipeUpButton" "0"
Option          "SwipeDownButton" "0"
Option          "SwipeDistance" "700"
# ScrollCoast makes touchpad feel a bit more Mac-like, although it coasts in chunks and isn't relative to speed at which two finger scroll was happening
Option          "ScrollCoastDuration" "600"
Option          "ScrollCoastEnableSpeed" "0.05"
# This sets up Macbook-like natural scroll. If you want to scroll down by swiping your fingers down, reverse the "5" and the "4" here:
Option          "ScrollUpButton" "5"
Option          "ScrollDownButton" "4"
Option          "ScrollLeftButton" "7"
Option          "ScrollRightButton" "6"
# Without this option set to a high value, there are types of click+hold-and-move functionality (most easily reproed by click and then move up-right) that get ignored
Option          "Hold1Move1StationaryMaxMove" "1000"
# Smaller ScrollDistance translates to faster scrolling. ScrollDistance of 10 scrolls a long page in one swipe.
Option          "ScrollDistance" "22"
Option		"ScrollClickTime" "12"
Option		"ScrollSensitivity" "0"
EndSection

In a more perfect world, Wordpest wouldn’t have removed the indentation in that block. It is not the world in which we live.

Future improvements

Compared to the miserable touchpad experience I had endured with synaptics and libinput, it has been delightful to get reliable two-finger scrolling that coasts, and to get my two-finger scroll speed comparable to what feels normal from my time in OS X. Still on my list to try to improve the configuration as I move forward:

  • Fix the couple pixels that touchpad tends to stray when I am setting down my thumb in an attempt to click (classic Linux touchpad annoyance)
  • When beginning a new scroll action while coast is active, scroll occurs at 10x normal speed
  • Setup two-finger scrolling to work as smoothly as OS X, rather than scrolling the page in small, discrete increments
  • Determine if it’s somehow possible to restart X server without getting logged out (unlikely, given how much Googling I’ve done on this topic)

Footnotes
[1] While the touch bar is as bad for programming as numerous developers predicted, it was minuscule amount key travel inherent in their butterfly keys that served as my breaking point. Honorable mentions to the laptop hard crashing every few days, and the touchpad that is so impossibly large as to occasionally pick up spurious input (although their software integration makes that problem occur a fraction as often as it would for a comparable Linux laptop)

Fixed: My i7 Intel Dell Laptop is Ridiculously Slow

Most of the Google results I found when digging around on this subject pointed to usual boring causes of slowness: too many programs being run on startup (which you can test with ms-config if you’re running Windows), anti-virus software, and other boring stuff of that sort. In my case, I had been running Ubuntu so most of those tips are moot. But to be thorough, I did remove practically any and every resident program that was running on what should have been a zippy Dell Latitude E6520 with a i7-2720QM (2.20GHz, 6M cache) processor.

And yet, running a utility that averaged about 5 seconds on my desktop consistently took 30 seconds on my laptop. Except for every once in awhile, when it would take 6 or 7 seconds.

Before splurging for a new laptop, I decided to take a peek through my BIOS settings and managed to stumble across the culprit: the Intel “Speed Step” feature. On my Dell, this was under the “Performance” settings. I guess that the idea of Speed Step is that the i7 powers itself down when it decides you’d like your system to perform like a 486. Whatever the logic is that determines when to power down was clearly NOT working as intended on my laptop. After disabling Speed Step, I have been running for the entire day at speeds very similar to my desktop.

Hopefully someone else thinks to Google for this problem and find themselves helped by a similar approach. FWIW I suppose that this might mean that the laptop uses more battery, but you can be an informed consumer about whether you want to run fast or power-efficiently.

Why’s “open link in new tab” not working in Safari + iOS 10 + iPhone 7?

From the files of “endlessly frustrating problems that Google wouldn’t help me with.”

When I bought my iPhone 7, I couldn’t open links in new tabs in Safari for the first six months I owned it. Whenever I tried to hold a link to open it, Safari would sometimes ignore me, sometimes it would start showing a preview of the destination for that link. Which behavior it chose to do seemed to depend on the whether Mercury was in retrograde.

After much searching, I eventually learned this behavior isn’t a “bug.” According to Apple, it is the “feature” that they have long been marketing as “3d touch.” That is, your iPhone is now paying attention to how hard your touch your Safari links. If you hold a link “hard,” then, instead of popping up the context menu that allows you to open the link in a new tab, you instead get the obnoxious popup preview of the next page.

The solution to being able to pop the standard iOS Safari context menu? Hold on a link in Safari, but do it lightly, tenderly, as if you were stroking a baby dove.

This is what “intuitive UI” has become on the new iPhone.

Turning off 3d touch

If, like me, you find 3d touch to be more of a nuisance than a feature, you can disable it as follows: open Settings, search for “Touch,” and pick what should be the first option in the list:

Then click into the 3d touch option, which can be turned off for a 32% less aggravating mobile experience:

PS bonus fix! Have you had trouble moving your iPhone’s icons around since upgrading to iOS 10.1? Guess why. That’s right, 3d touch. As with the above, to move around app icons on a 3d-touch device, you have to touch them ever so lightly.

I will continue waiting for this to feel like a “feature.”

Evernote vs Quip: A note taker’s detailed comparison

Over the past 5 years, I’ve probably spent more time in Evernote than most any other productivity app. I’ve created thousands of notes across Evernote’s OS X, iOS and web clients, becoming intimately familiar with the limitations of each. Over the years, I’ve periodically tested alternatives, mostly when Evernote obliterates my changes via merge conflicts with unsynched notes. I had high hopes for Onenote when I gave it a few weeks’ test run recently, but ultimately determined it was even more fatally flawed than Evernote (not to mention how difficult they make it to import past work from Evernote).

A couple days ago I discovered Quip. It is a multiplatform note-taking app that apparently started as a collaboration platform, and was acquired by Salesforce for $750m in 2016. It sports a reasonably effective built-in Evernote importer, plus an impressive suite of free features. Based on my initial impressions, I’m giving it even odds to replace Evernote as my note-taking app of choice. Yet, like Evernote, it too comes with a set of warts.

Given how powerful-yet-flawed both products are, I’m going to attempt to enumerate, from a note-taker’s perspective, where each shines. Hopefully this list (ordered roughly by impact on my everyday productivity) helps others decide which set of drawbacks is most forgivable to them.

Evernote Advantages

  • Notes can be displayed in grid while ordered by recency of update or other criteria (Quip only allows user-defined sorting in list view…and only on desktop clients at that. C’mon dudes, allowing notes ordered by recency of update is utterly essential feature)
  • Can navigate from note to note with single click, since list of notes remains visible in left pane even when a note is being edited
  • Better UI for text formatting: resides permanently at top of each note (in Quip, text formatting options are hidden behind a sometimes temperamental popout in left gutter)
  • Support for searching phrases (not just individual words)
  • Essentially instant search
  • Not as aggressive about trying to spam all my contacts during install (unlike Quip — forcing me to manually uncheck every Google contact during iOS install. Not a great approach to build goodwill with a new user, Quip)

Quip Advantages

  • Notes are saved in real time as they’re created (!). The note’s text is automatically synchronized to all devices that have the note open. Not only does this fix Evernote’s most fatal shortcoming (merge conflicts), it also allows multiple people to edit the same document concurrently, a la Google Docs
  • Less janky checkboxes for todo lists. They don’t slow down the note when there are lots of them, they can be copy-pasted without introducing weirdness, and their line gets crossed out when you check off your todo item.
  • Spreadsheets with full Excel-like functionality (functions, etc) are natively supported, and can be inserted inline into any note
  • Code blocks can be inserted into any note (!)
  • Variety of attractive pre-built font themes can be selected and set as default for notes
  • Can use across more than two devices for free (Evernote now charges for this functionality)
  • Note’s edit history can be viewed without paying monthly fee
  • More robust feature set for collaboration (collaboration seems to have been the initial purpose behind Quip’s existence) than Evernote. Can add inline comments to any line of any note.
  • More intuitive interface for working with multi-level lists (arrows to move back and forth between list level, rather than needing to use tab+shift)
  • Can organize notes into subfolders within a notebook
  • No upsells as yet in free version

Both apps allow chatting (because everyone wants to chat in their note taking app…right?), and both allow some degree of collaboration on notes (Quip much stronger here). It’s my goal to use Quip as my primary app for the next couple weeks before I make a final call on the victor. If you have experience with either app, would be delighted to hear your power user tips in the comment section below!