Quip: Back to app development #

Though I've mentioned it off-hand a couple of times, I haven't explicitly blogged that I left Google towards the end of 2012¹. I joined Quip, a small start-up in San Francisco that's trying to re-think word processing.

My ​mid-2010 switch to the Chrome team was prompted by a desire to understand “the stack” better, and also a slight fear of being typecast as a frontend guy and thus narrowing my options of projects. However, after several months of working on the rendering engine, I realized that I missed the “we've shipped” feeling created by being on a smaller, focused project with distinct milestones (as opposed to continuously improving the web platform, though I certainly appreciate that as a platform client). I thus switched to the Chrome Apps team, co-leading the effort to build the “packaged apps” platform. We shipped the developer preview at Google I/O 2012, and I'm happy to see that these apps are now available to everyone.

As we were building the platform, I got more and more jealous of the people building apps on top of it. Making samples scratched that itch a bit, but there's still a big gap between a toy app that's a proof of concept and something that helps people get their job done. I also found it hard to cope with the longer timelines that are involved in platform building — it takes a while to get developers to try APIs, making changes requires preserving backwards compatibility or having a migration strategy, etc. In the end, I realized that although I enjoy understanding how the platform works, I don't feel the need to build it myself.

When Bret approached me about Quip in the fall of 2012, a lot of the above clicked together for the first time. It was also very appealing to get to work (with a small yet very capable team) on something that I would be using every day².

My fears of becoming overly specialized were assuaged by being at a startup, where we're always resource constrained and every engineer has to wear multiple hats. Depending on the day, I may be working in C++, Objective-C, Java, JavaScript, or Python. The changes can range from fixing a bug in protocol buffer code generation to figuring out how to mimic iOS 7's translucent keyboard background color³.

My time working on Chrome also turned out to be well spent. Even on my first day I had to dig through the source to understand some puzzling behavior⁴. It's also been interesting to see how quickly my perspective on certain platform (anti-)patterns has changed. When I was working on Chrome, slow-running unload event handlers and (worse yet) synchronous XMLHttpRequests were obviously abominations that prevented a fluid user experience. Now that I work on a product that involves user data, those are the exact mechanisms that I need to use to make sure it's not lost⁵.

I also view browser bugs differently now. Before I took them as an immutable fact of life, just something to be worked around. Now I still do the workaround, but I also report them. This is the biggest change (and improvement) between the last time I did serious web development (early 2010) and now — more and more browsers are evergreen, so I can rely on bug fixes actually reaching users. This doesn't mean that all bugs get fixed immediately; some are dealt with more promptly than others (and don't get me started on contentEditable bugs).

The same benefit applies not just to bugs but also to features. I've been wishing for better exception reporting via the global onerror handler, and now that it's finally happening, we get to use it pretty quickly. It's not just Chrome or WebKit — when we started to look into Firefox support it didn't render Mac OS X Lion-style scrollbars, but shortly after our launch that shipped in Firefox 23, and we didn't have to implement any crazy hacks⁶.

I hope to write more about the technical puzzlers that I've run into, since that's another way in which this experience has been very different from Google. At a big company there are mailing lists with hundreds of engineers that can answer your questions. Now that blogs (and Stack Overflow) fulfill the same need, I'd like to return the favor.

  1. This post a bit narcissistic. The primary audience is myself, 20 years from now.
  2. I'm guessing that Quip has more design docs written than the average year-old startup, since creating them is a chance to do more dogfooding.
  3. And on some days, I fix the espresso machine.
  4. If your HTTP response has a Last-Modified header and no other caching directives, Chrome will cache it for 10% of the time delta between the current time and the last modified time.
  5. Quip auto-saves frequently, but there's still a small window between when a change is made and when a tab could be closed during which data could be lost.
  6. Not knocking the hacks, we have our own share of crazy code, but the less code that we ship to the users, the better.

1 Comment

Post a Comment