One More Week: First weeks on Firefox Relay

I joined the Firefox Relay branch of the Privacy and Security team on February 9th. It was quite shocking to join a new team in the middle of a sprint, and that has two to three times the people working on it as my previous team. It has been nearly two work weeks since I started, and I’m starting to find my place.

Finn the dog looks up from the floor in the back seat of a car
Finn found his own spot for our car trip. Not shown: two other dogs and four humans.

Relay allow users to create an email alias that they can submit to online services instead of their regular email. Emails sent by the service are forwarded to their “real” email, and they can reply to these emails but not send new ones, which reduces a bunch of possible abuses. Users can create five aliases for free, and can pay for more aliases, and for additional features such as a custom domain. If they no longer want email from that service, they can turn off that alias and stop getting email. In addition, the service can’t use their primary email to figure out who they are on other services, or relationships to other people via email.

Mozilla has a few initiatives where we’re trying to get users to pay for a service directly. The Mozilla VPN is developed by the Privacy and Security team as well, and Pocket is still going strong. The team is growing, with many new hires, and I’m one of the people that have been at Mozilla the longest. There’s also a start-up mentality about announcing new features as part of releases, rather than as they are in development. This is a switch from the “develop in the open” strategy of Firefox and other Mozilla products, and I’m going to err on the side of silence about my feature work as I figure it our. The code remains open source, so the truly curious can see features a few days in advance.

I started preparing to join the new team back in December. I created a team document from our company phonebook, with everyone’s name, profile picture, location, and other information. If they had a GitHub profile, I followed them. I continued working on this after joining the team, adding what they looked like in Zoom as well as their “Video off” images, collecting facts and information, and starting a “interview” list of things I want to know (and can ask, since I’m new). It felt creepy at first, but I believe it has sped the process of putting names to faces, and has helped me navigate meetings with a dozen or more participants.

I am still exhausted at the end of most days. It will take time for me to build my social muscles up again, and be used to multiple meetings a day with several people.

I read through the code back in January, and haven’t repeated that this month. I’m not thrilled with the development process, which requires setting up external services to test everything. At the moment, the application is some light Django plus a bunch of glue between several cloud services, and you need the configured cloud services to do much of anything. Also, the application requires incoming email, which gets forwarded to another email address. Email is hard to fake, but email addresses are easy to acquire, so most testing is integration testing. Difficult development comes with the territory.

I’m worried bugs are slipping through the cracks since most wierdness will only happen in production, and it can be challenging to reproduce bugs locally, even when you have details of the data. I’ve tackled issues like this before, but it should be worth surveying the current development environment and see if there are better tools and techniques for working with code that relies heavily on external services. I also think we’ll need some intense logging and event processing, to find those sharp corners of the internet as we hit them. I’m forming a presentation framework in my head, which means I should start prototyping soon rather than get stuck polish my pitch.

An orchid with 4 or 5 blooms, the bottom one fully open
The third bloom for this orchid

Outside of work, the weather has been predictably unpredictable for February. Some days are crisp and pleasant, others like today are below freezing and windy. The kids had a three-day winter weather break, which seconded as a Covid-19 break, and they are now on a “President’s Week” break. The weather co-operated on Sunday, when we drove an hour to Greenleaf State Park with the dogs and took a long hike near the lake. My wife twisted her ankle a little due to Asha pulling, and my teen got a bit worn down, but otherwise it went very well. We stopped at Donna’s Malt Shop in Bragg, OK, so none of us lost any weight.

Some recommendations:

  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke – This was a pleasant, atmospheric book, with a narrator that figures things out a little slower than the reader, or even comes to the opposite conclusions. It reminded me of The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss.
  • Maintain an orchid – We picked out an orchid for our anniversary a few years ago, and I got a second for an occasion I can’t remember. I’ve thought of orchids as tender hothouse flowers, and learned they instead are hardy as weeds, and will re-bloom if given the occasional drink and time. Our anniversary orchid is on the third bloom, and will be due for a re-potting in a couple of months.
  • sparkmeter/sentry2csv – It exports Sentry issues to a CSV file, which I can then upload to Google sheets for collaborating and sorting. It worked as advertised, even on Mozilla’s self-hosted, sometimes-buggy Sentry instance.
  • Working Effectively with Legacy Code by Michael Feathers – The VPN team is looking at standards for code coverage, a favorite topic of mine. I got to recommend this book, and was thrilled by the table of contents again:
    • Chapter 13: I Need to Make a Change, but I Don’t Know What Tests to Write
    • Chapter 14: Dependencies on Libraries Are Killing Me
    • Chapter 15: My Application is All API Calls
    • Chapter 16: I Don’t Understand the Code Well Enough to Change It
    • Chapter 17: My Application Has No Structure
    • Chapter 18: My Test Code Is in the Way
    • … and it just goes on. It really addresses the stress of testing and development.
  • K Lars Lohn (Two Braids) has posted a new maze, The Ant in the Sunflower, and is starting a Patreon to support his work.

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