Do something small useful now

· February 19, 2024

A long time ago I stumbled over the motto of Bob Bemer and it is both cool, nerdy, and useful


In this post I wanted to unpack, what I think, it means and show you how it can be useful to tackle beasts that you haven’t dared or have the strength to do something about.

I even have a screensaver picture that you can download here

Bob Bemer

First a few words about Bob Bemer who seems to have been a pretty amazing guy, that very few have mentioned.

Born in 1920 he was at his peak when programming and computing really took off and was involved in a few paramount inventions. He calls himself the “Grandfather of” COBOL (according to Admiral Grace Hopper) and the “Father of” ASCII and put the escape sequences into ASCII (\n\t for example).

Yes. ASCII. The man invented text, friends. Sit down and listen.

About the motto

The motto is brilliant in how it is written and what it means. It’s a kind of LISP, as far as I understand:


And I unpack it like this (realizing that I might sound like the aliens in the storage box in Men in Black 2):

DO SOMETHING - this is first and the most important. Let’s just do something rather than be paralyzed by analyzing the situation and just think. Rather DO.

DO SOMETHING SMALL - make sure that the thing you do is SMALL. It’s better than doing something BIG. I promise, a story below

DO SOMETHING, SMALL, USEFUL - it’s good that the thing that we are doing is USEFUL, but honestly SMALL is more important. This channels the inner Woody Zuill in me when he said We spend so much time ensuring that we work on the most important thing when working on something important is enough. Yes - when it’s SMALL. For BIG things priority work is very important.

  • DO SOMETHING, SMALL, USEFUL, NOW - in the end, Mr Bemer tells us to get going. NOW - don’t wait, just DO

A story

Where I’m working right now we have a large legacy code base. Building it takes a very long time, 2 hours ca, and many of the parts that we are building are a bit scary to touch so we have just let it be and live with the fact that the build takes that long.

Having such a slow build is slowing our feedback loop down too much for any agile person’s liking so I asked if there wasn’t something that we could do to make that build faster.

Someone looked into the build and we found a little change that would make our SonarQube static code analysis go a bit faster.

But that is really only taking about 2-3 minutes of the total time. I don’t really see the use.


So we made that change. And the build was a few minutes faster for a few sections. The build now took 1 hour 40 min.

Then, just a few days later someone came up to me and said; we actually played around with parallellizing some of the build steps. But it was a bit messy, so we left it half-done. When asked how much was left they told me a few hours.

Turns out it was a bit more complicated than that. But, they told me, when I looked into parallellizing I thought about getting SSD-disks for our cloud service.


That takes about 30 seconds to change but the weekend to be applied. And it shaves of ca 5-10 minutes more per build step - the build now took ca 1 h and 10 minutes.

Another developer told me that he wanted to update the version of a tool that was old. But it will probably not affect the build time. It did - shave another 5-6 minutes of the build time.


At the fika we happened to talk about this and realized that there are some parts of the build that we do many times over; one for each combination of language and browser we want to support.

That would make a huge impact if we could change that, a developer lamented. But we don't need to support Russian anymore, a product manager said.

That would be useful since it would make the testing scope smaller too.


When we started to investigate making that change we realized that we are building for 3-4 browsers that we are not supposed to support anymore.

All in all, this promises to take the build time down to around 20-30 minutes in total. (To be perfectly honest that’s a calculation that we made - and I’ll update the post here once we see the results).


The thing here is not that we made good changes (although we did). It’s that we made small changes and started to do something.

It is in doing the work we discover the work we need to do is another Woody Zuil quote that I love.

To conclude our journey is just one simple example of what can happen if we let people do something. But remember, that advice from Father ASCII:


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