I just got back from a long weekend vacation and am still getting settled and back into the swing of things, so this is going to be another relatively short post. I’ll soon return to your regularly scheduled extended rants and code-cast posts, but I need a little slack in the meantime.
For the last six months or so, I’ve been making a 5 hour drive twice a week. This has provided me with a lot of opportunities to listen to books through Audible and Overdrive, and I’ve been listening to a lot of non-fiction stuff that runs the gamut from tech to sociology to science. Recently, I took a suggestion from a comment in a previous post and read/listened to “Getting Things Done.”
I have two degrees (Bachelor’s and Master’s) in computer science, so it’s probably no surprise that I place a fairly high degree of value on the background that all of this course work provided. That being said, my experience was that you learn some pretty unfortunate ‘lessons’ in CS degree programs. To name some that I learned (and later had to unlearn):
Writing readable code is for weaklings. Writing your entire loop logic inside the loop guard condition FTW!
You get partial credit for non-running (or even non-compiling) code if you add a lot of vacuous comments.
All programming projects can be wrapped up in a month or, in extreme cases, a semester.
Source control is an important thing, theoretically, but it doesn’t solve any actual problem you have.
There are no consequences to making an enormous mess of your code in the hour before your deadline as long as it hits the predefined benchmarks because you’ll never look at it again in your life.
Performance and accuracy of results are all that matter.
Staying up for 36 hours straight to wheeze across the finish line is how heroes get it done.
All you need to deliver is a bunch of source code files that compile.
First of all, I’d like to point out that these aren’t things that a professor sat me down and said at any point and, in fact, if shown this list, they’d probably say, “those things aren’t good lessons.” But these were the lessons I learned by virtue of the incentives to which I was exposed and how I was rewarded or penalized for my actions. There’s a lot of room for improvement, but I’ll come back to that later.
The common theme that drives this list of less-than-awesome lessons learned is that the academic environment and the theory that it tends to teach lend themselves to non-representative situations, contrived for the purpose of teaching a specific lesson, such as how to implement Alpha-Beta pruning or how state machines work. The best ways to drive these points of instruction home don’t correspond with workaday dev concerns like “write me a web service that triggers a database update and keep it relevant when I change my mind every month or so.”
But one lesson that I did take away that has served me very well is, “do what’s necessary to get a D instead of an F, save that off for reference, and once that’s secured, go for the C, save, etc.” In a lot of classes, we’d submit coding assignments that would run against some kind of benchmark, and it was something like, “if you satisfy 60 of the 100 conditions you get a D, 70 of 100 and you get a C, etc.” And I learned that you mitigated a lot of risk by making it your top priority not to fail or get a 0, and then improving from there. This way, if the time ran out, you’d be less like an action hero trying to defuse a bomb before the timer goes off and more like a fussy dog show entrant trying to put a few last minute touches on your dog that would improve its chances of being judged better than the other dogs, whatever that entails.
This early lesson to which I was first exposed as an undergrad, around the time the Agile Manifesto was being written, was really the precursor to concepts like iterative development and thin-sliced, end-to-end goals for software. It taught me, through real, meaningful incentives, to make sure that I secured at least some value before chasing unicorns like an A+ off into the sunset. If there were 2 minutes left to submit the assignment, I wanted the backup plan to be an A- rather than a zero.
So what does any of this matter to you grizzled software veterans a decade or however long into your careers? Well, bear in mind that there’s always an A- (or B or C or whatever) out there when a bunch of work gets thrown your way. That web service you’re tasked with writing isn’t all or nothing. Not even a phone app that shows you the time is all or nothing (if push comes to shove, and app that tells you whether it’s AM or PM is better than nothing). Things can always be pared down and scope can always be adjusted, assuming you design towards modularity.
The overriding message of this post is that you should always, always, always look at the beginning for ways that you can secure yourself intermediate grades between 0 and A+ on the way to calling your software done; it’s the only reasonable way that you can manage expectations and adjust on the fly with a software project, apart from getting your customer to agree to indefinite delays. But, for a bit of fun, I’ll leave you with a series of ideas for how college CS curricula might better prepare students for actual development gigs. These might make you laugh to think about, but they’re actually things that could add some value:
One assignment in every programming class starts you off not from scratch or from professor-written template code, but from whatever pile of mess some students turned in last semester (teaches you what an unkindness it is to make a mess in code)
Every assignment requires students to update a single, shared text file whenever they’re testing against the benchmark and they get dinged if it gets out of sync (teaching about file contention and merge conflicts)
There are one or more assignments during the course of the curriculum that simply cannot be totally completed (teaches students to prioritize while working against unrealistic parameters)
There is some code that you carry over semester to semester and thus have to live with for years and/or there is a class where each assignment builds on the code of the last one but requires refactoring (teaches writing code with the idea of maintaining it)
Lock kids out of the computer lab between 1 and 6 AM. (Teaches you that you’re going to work at places where juvenile heroics simply aren’t feasible for reasons ranging from the fact that this is a bad idea to the fact that the facility may be locked down at night)
All homework/project submissions are real-world deliverables along the lines of an actual phone app, web app or MSI installer (teaches that there’s more to delivering software than writing code)
I’m going to perform a slight experiment on myself in this post. As I type this second sentence, I have only a general idea for a post in mind, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this will be a relatively short post. I won’t come back and edit this paragraph if it turns out not to be, however. I’ll just look stupid. I’m going meta here because my posting cadence has slipped and I’m going to aim to combat that by mixing in some relatively short posts that are quicker to write and read. I’ve tried this before, and it’s sort of like a yo-yo diet where I cut back for a bit and then just kind of bloat back out to where I was. Anywho…
Over the course of my career a fairly common thing that I’ve done at a new company is to set up a wiki for collaboration. Almost invariably, this wiki replaces or, at least, aims to replace a series of Word documents. It’s as though there’s some kind of knowledge collection progression that goes, “nothing, README, Word, Wiki (or, perhaps, Sharepoint),” and I make my home at an organization just long enough to say, “hey, there’s a better option than shared drive/source controlled Word documents.” Why is the next step better? Searchability, not needing that “version history” table at the top, sane linking, changing the emphasis to content over styling, etc.
But, I had a thought today that I’d been sort of missing the point all these years. It’s not that wiki isn’t good, by any means, as a collaboration tool, but it’s that I’m often using it to mitigate the symptoms rather than treat the illness. If, as a developer, you find yourself opening Word to document a process, you’ve failed. If you optimize by documenting in a wiki, you’re just failing in a more searchable, sophisticated, and open-source way (unless you use Sharepoint, and then not open-source and maybe not sophisticated… hiyo, just kidding, but kind of not kidding.)
Is this a harsh thing to say? Certainly. Could you argue that I’m link baiting once you hear what comes next? Probably. But I think there’s an element of truth if you allow yourself to de-stigmatize the word “failure” and interpret it without a value judgment. For instance, today, I failed at being someone with 10,000 RSS subscribers to my blog. It’s true, but not damning. Developers documenting things with Word fall into this same category. You’re failing when you do this, and what you’re failing to do is automate.
I’ve blogged about a similar line of thought with code comments in the past. Comments in method bodies are basically developers saying, “I’m going to punt on making this code expressive and just kinda cheat by explaining this mess in English.” So it goes on a broader level with Word documents. Why do you write Word documents, after all? It’s to explain how to setup your development environment or how to perform a deploy. Maybe it’s to document what needs to happen whenever you add a new feature to the code base or in the event that you need to rollback to a previous version of the application. Whatever it is, you’re faced with some kind of procedure and you declare, “there’s a precise sequence of instructions that needs to be executed, and, as a programmer, I’m going to write them in English and use the next poor sap that happens on them as the runtime interpreter.”
I mean, think about it. If your process is defined well enough to merit a series of numbered steps in a Word document, it’s probably defined well enough to automate. Now, it might be that it’d take you three months to automate and 30 minutes to make the Word document. It might be that there are steps you lack the authority or permission to automate (or even do). It might be that you’re making a user manual or API document. There are any number of practical reasons that you’re not some kind of failure as a person for cracking open Word and explaining how to do something with a computer. You’re not a failure, but you have failed. For whatever reason, you’ve failed to automate. So next time you find yourself reflexively starting Word to make some sort of “writeup” about a technical thing, pause and ask yourself, “would automation of this process be possible and worthwhile?” It might not be, but then again, you might be surprised to find that the answer is “yes.”
Someone sent me a link to the video shown after this paragraph the other day, and I watched it. I then tweeted the link and sent it to a few of my coworkers because I figured it would make people laugh. It’s really funny, so give it a watch. But weirdly, I didn’t laugh. I watched it over and over again, mesmerized. I recognize that it’s funny and I find it funny, but I didn’t laugh.
This video is really a work of genius because it captures some incredible subtleties. There are two common archetypes captured nicely here in the form of the protagonist’s supposed allies: his boss and the project manager. I’ll give them names in their own sections below, along with the client characters. And then there are conversational tactics that bear mentioning.
This all revolves around a protagonist with whom any introverted person can identify. There’s nothing to indicate, per se, whether he’s introverted or extroverted, but the precision, the mannerisms, the posture — all of these scream “programmer” (or at least “engineer”) and so goes the association with introversion. The protagonist is the sole bulwark of sanity against a flood of idiocy, misunderstanding and general incompetence. You probably relate to him, having attended a meeting where all of the gathered C-levels and analysts thought you were being an obstructionist malingerer because you wouldn’t install Angry Birds on the meeting room’s television.
So who are the players?
In a way, I liken the smarmy project manager, Walter, to former British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, most remembered for his foreign policy of appeasement leading up to World War II in which he sought to dampen the aggression coming from the Axis powers by essentially “befriending” them. In this particular video, Chamberlain, the project manager, is presumably along to bridge the gap between the non-subject-matter-expert customers and the total-subject-matter-expert protagonist (and whose expertise makes the video eponymous). That’s not really why he’s there (though he doesn’t realize this), and I’ll get into that later as I’m describing tactics.
Chamberlain perceives that his best interests are served by simply agreeing to whatever is happening on the other side of the aisle, improvident though this may be. On some level, he’s probably aware that this strategy is stupid, but, hey, that’s a problem for later. He thinks his boss will skewer him if they don’t get the contract, so the fact that it’s going to be hard or impossible to deliver (what Expert is trying to tell him) just means he’ll later throw someone (i.e., Expert) under the bus.
The “design specialist,” Justine, is a mildly interesting character. She generally looks at Expert with some degree of respect and looks slightly uncomfortable when the rest of the characters make fun of Expert. At one point, to Expert’s delight, she even understands his point, and she visits him after the meeting out of genuine interest in the project and what is probably a “one pro to another” kind of overture. She’s the only character in the room that sees any value in Expert, and she probably recognizes that his subject matter knowledge exceeds hers and has value. If it were just her and Expert, she would probably listen attentively. I call her Dilettante because she seems to be the type of person you encounter with a bit of knowledge in a variety of fields and a genuine interest in improving.
The client’s boss is a classic MacLeod Clueless, and a simple idiot that isn’t very interesting. She’s the classic archetype of an over-promoted middle manager whose value is clearly wrapped up in company tenure. She spouts nonsensical jargon, torpedoes her firm’s own interests throughout the meeting, and serves up her position and her firm’s money for easy pickings by any MacLeod sociopath that happens along. She’s demanding something that she doesn’t understand in a way that makes no sense, and she’s willing to pay any huckster that comes along and sells her the magic beans she’s seeking.
Big Boss Man, to whom Chamberlain reports, is a classic MacLeod Sociopath. He likely has a fairly good handle on the situation and is of the opinion that the clients are idiots, but he has an intuitive understanding of the politics of the situation. Expert is flummoxed by the stupidity of the client proposal, and Chamberlain is simpering in an effort to show his boss his value as a diplomat, believing that the customer is always right and believing that Sociopath also believes that. Sociopath doesn’t. He knows the clients are idiots, and that Chamberlain is also kind of an idiot (for evidence of this, look at his expression at 6:14 where he clearly thinks the discussion of cats and birds as lines is dumb and simply ignores the client).
This doesn’t result in him rushing into defend Expert, however. That’s counter to his best interests, which I’ll address as a tactic, but he also finds Expert somewhat distasteful. Sociopath has navigated his way ably to money and power and a position atop the corporate hierarchy, but it is probably a slight annoyance to him that he may not be the smartest guy in the room. He knows that in Expert’s area of expertise, he’s nowhere near Expert, and while that’s fine, his inability to compare their relative intellectual worth across subject areas is a source of irritation.
So, the ostensible point of this meeting and no doubt many in which you’ve sat is to define the parameters for a project and then successfully launch that project. But, if you were to read the subconscious goals of the players, they would go something like this:
Chamberlain: I want to get the client to sign off no matter what, and I want Sociopath to think it was my heroics that made this happen.
Buffoon: I want to order people around and show off.
Sociopath: I want this to be over quickly so I don’t have to listen to Buffoon and Chamberlain.
Dilettante: I want to learn on the job without it being apparent that I’m doing so.
Expert: I want to define parameters for this project and successfully launch it.
Sociopath knows that getting Buffoon to agree to the project is a veritable certainty going into the meeting, and he knows that Chamberlain’s presence is valuable, but not for the reasons that Chamberlain thinks. Chamberlain thinks he’s there because he’s a “straight shooter/smooth talker” that “speaks Expert” but Sociopath just wants him there because he understands how to butter Buffoon’s bread — by causing Buffoon to think she’s won an exchange and humbled an Expert. He’s there because Sociopath knows he’ll team up with Buffoon to laugh at Expert. Dilettante is just window dressing.
So what are the tactics by which this happens? What makes this so cathartic for engineers and programmers to watch? Well, there are a number of things occurring here.
Seizing on the only part of an explanation you understand
There’s nothing to level the playing field quite like ignoring most of what someone talking to you says and seizing on some minor point. This has two advantageous for purveyors of rhetorical fallacy. First and foremost, it lets you pivot the discussion in a way that you find favorable, but secondly, it implies that your opponent has babbled on and on and over-complicated the matter (ala Reagan countering Carter — folksy and relatable countering egg-head). Near the beginning, Expert gives a detailed explanation, avoiding saying that it would be impossible to draw red line with green ink by talking about color blindness. It’s a long-winded, but technically accurate way of saying “that’s pretty much impossible,” and all Buffoon takes away from it is “so, in principle this is possible.”
Talking down to the expert because you don’t understand
When Expert asks Buffoon to clarify what she’s talking about with “transparent ink,” she patronizingly says she thought that he’d know what “transparent” means and that he’d better know what “red” means if he’s an Expert. A little later, she doesn’t understand what perpendicular means and when Expert accidentally exposes that, she blames him for not understanding her nonsense. It’s a relatively standard approach to strike first in blaming the other for a miscommunication between two parties, but it’s especially vitriolic in a case where the party in the driver’s seat is covering inadequacy.
Begging the question (and perverting the role of experts)
I’ve encountered this myself, in my travels, and it’s certainly on display here. People assume (from ignorance) that a certain outcome is possible/feasible, and then seek out an expert to make it happen. When the expert explains that they’re misguided or trying to do something ill-advised or impossible, they adopt the stance, “I thought you were an expert, and you’re telling me you can’t do this?” Chamberlain does this throughout the clip.
This mostly comes from Sociopath and somewhat for show, but this is the tendency of those unskilled in a subject to assume that the subject is pretty simple and to generally devalue the knowledge of experts in that field. As more knowledge is acquired, so is respect for experts and humility. Sociopath dresses Expert down, particularly at the point where he says, “look, we’re not asking you to draw 20 lines — just 7.” Buffoon also does this once when she draws a triangle as an example of three perpendicular lines (“move — let me do it!”) Being the only Expert here and thoroughly outgunned and unaware of the real agenda, Expert is absolutely buried in an amplified echo chamber of Dunning Kruger.
These players and these tactics are painfully relatable. People in our line of work look at this ruefully and laugh because someone finally gets it and understands how silly the players seem to them. But introversion, lack of interest in office politics, and professional integrity are what hamstring us in such situations. I mean think of it this way — you cringe because you’re right there along with Expert, wanting these idiots to understand that red pens don’t draw green lines. You want to speak rationally to them and use analogies, diagrams and metaphors to make them see your point.
What you don’t do is turn the Dunning Kruger around on them and start telling them that they’re really going to need pure red lines if they want to maximize their verticals and strategize their synergies. You don’t tell them that kitten lines were so 2011. You don’t interrupt Chamberlain when he says “any fool can criticize” to say that you’re okay with the clients’ criticism and how he dare he call them fools. You don’t ask Chamberlain, if his title is “project manager,” why can’t he “manage” to define a clear spec.
You don’t do any of these things. Neither do I. Neither did Expert. Instead, we all do what he did in the end, which is to say, “sure, whatever buddy, I give up.” Extroverts extemporize and thrive in situations like this fueled with BS and beyond their control (though, Sociopath, who is controlling it, may be an introvert). We find ourselves at a loss for words, and utterly demoralized. Our credentials, our competence, and the validity of our very profession called into question, we bleakly resign ourselves to the madness and go home for a beer. We do that for a while, at least, and then, eventually, we Quit with a capital Q.
Perhaps that’s why I didn’t find myself laughing while watching this. Poor Anderson, the Expert, isn’t having an experience that he’ll submit to the Daily WTF and move on — he’s figuring out that his professional life is miserable. And the reason it’s miserable is because he’s realizing that expertise, ideas and results aren’t really the backbone of good business; in the land of the extroverts, egos and social capital are king.
I’ll admit as I type the first sentence of this post that I don’t know whether this will conclude a two-part “mini-series” or whether I’ll feel compelled to write further posts. But I wanted to write the follow up that I hinted at to the post I wrote about introversion for programmers (well, specifically me). Tl;dr refresher of that post is that social situations are exhausting for me because of their inherent unpredictability as compared to something like the feedback loop of a program that I’m writing (or even the easily curated, asynchronous interaction of a social media vehicle like Twitter). The subjects I left for this post were “Erik as a problem solver and pattern matcher,” consensus meetings, and two exceptional social situations that I don’t find tiring. The challenge will be spinning these things into a coherent narrative, but I’ll take a crack at it.
Whenever I look in my Outlook calendar and see something like “Meeting to Discuss Issue Escalation Strategy,” I am struck with a surprisingly profound feeling that life is filled with senseless waste, the way one might look in dismay at his sunglasses floating down a river he accidentally dropped them into. I see an hour or two of my life drifting away with no immediately obvious reclamation strategy. My hypothesis is that this is the sort of standard introvert take on what I’ll call “consensus meetings” rather than what many programmers seem to think of as a programmer take on them. As Paul Graham points out in one of my all time favorite posts, “when you’re operating on [a programmer’s] schedule, meetings are a disaster.” But I’m not really a maker these days anymore; for the time being, I’m a manager. And I still find these meetings to be a disaster.
Extroverts draw energy from social situations and become invigorated, while introverts spend energy and become exhausted. And, when I’m talking about social situations, I mean drinks and bowling with a group of friends. Introverts like me enjoy these nights but find them tiring. Now, apply this same sort of thinking to adversarial situations that are veritable clinics in bike-shedding. A bunch of introverts and extroverts gather together and set about deciding what the organizational flow chart of issue escalation should look like. Should it start at Tier 1 support and be escalated to the manager of that group, then over to internal operations and on up to Bill in DevOps? Or should it go through Susan in Accounting because she used to work in DevOps and and really has her finger on the pulse? Maybe we do that for 2 months and then go to Bill because that’s not really sustainable in the long term, but it’s good for now. And, we should probably have everyone send out a quick email any time it affects the Initrode account. And… ugh, I can’t type anymore.
So here sit a bunch of extroverts and me. The extroverts love this. People in general love having opinions and telling people their opinions. (I’m not above this — you’ve been reading my rants here for years, so there’s clearly no high ground for me to claim.) But it’s the extroverts that draw energy from this exchange and work themselves into a lather to leave their marks on the eventual end-product via this back and forth. The more this conversation draws on, the more they want to interject with their opinions, wisdom and knowledge. The more trivial and detailed the discussion becomes, the more they get their adrenaline up and enjoy the thrill of the hunt.
I on the other hand, check out almost immediately. From an organizational realpolitik perspective, these meetings are typically full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. The initial meeting organizer turns on the firehose and then quickly loses control of it as the entire affair devolves into a cartoonish torrent of ideas being sprayed around the room as the hose snakes, thrashes, and contorts with no guiding hand. Nobody is really capturing all of this, so the extroverts leave the meeting flush with the satisfaction of shouting their opinions at each other, but most likely having neglected to agree on anything. But, my inclination to check out goes deeper than the fact that nothing is particularly likely to be accomplished; it’s that neither the forum, nor the ideas and the opinions are interesting or important to me.
I earnestly apologize if this sounds arrogant or stand-offish, but it’s the honest truth. And this is where the part about me being an introverted problem solver and pattern-matcher comes in. The meeting I want to have is one where I come prepared with statistical analysis and data about the most efficient flows of information in triage scenarios. I want performance records and response times for Bill and Susan, including in her former role in the case of the latter. I want to have synthesized that data looking for patterns that coincide with issue types and resolution rates, and I want to make a recommendation on the basis of all of that. To me, those are table stakes to the meeting. Whoever has the best such analysis should clearly have his or her plan implemented.
But that’s not what happens in extrovert meetings. As soon as the meeting organizer loses control of the firehose, we’ve entered the realm of utter unpredictability. I start to present my case study and the patterns I’ve noticed, and then someone interrupts to ask if I captured that data using the new or old ticketing system. And, by the way, what power point template am I using because it’s really snazzy. And, anyway, the thing about Susan is that she’s really not as much of a people person, but Doug kind of is. Now the extroverts are firmly in command. All prior analysis goes out the window, and, as people start jabbering over one another reasoned analysis and facts are quite irrevocably replaced with opinions, speculation, gossip, and non sequitur in general. The conversation floats gently down stream and washes up on a distant shore when everyone decides that it’s time for lunch. All of the analysis… unconsidered and largely ignored.
And that, the extroverts taking over and leaving me to space out, is the best case scenario. In the worst case scenario, they start peppering me with a series of off-topic, gotcha questions to which I have to reply, “I don’t know off the top of my head, but I can look into it later.” This puts me at a huge disadvantage because extroverts, buoyed by the rush of the occasion, have no qualms about guessing, fudging, hand-waving, or otherwise manufacturing ‘analysis’ out of thin air. When things take this kind of turn, and someone else “wins the meeting,” it’s even more exhausting.
Regardless of which kind of meeting it is though, the result is usually the same. After lunch and everyone has a chance to forget the particulars of the discussion, it becomes time to email the real decision maker or chat one on one with that person, and re-present the analysis for consideration. Usually at that time, the analysis wins the day or at least heavily informs the decision. The meeting robbed me of an hour of my life to accomplish nothing, as I knew it would, when I looked sadly at my Outlook calendar that morning.
There are two kinds of meeting that have no chance to fit this pattern, however (I’m omitting from consideration meetings that are actually policed reasonably by a moderator to keep things on-agenda, since these are far more rare than they should be). These are meetings where I’m passively listening to a single presenter, or actively presenting to the group. It’s not especially interesting that I’d find the former kind of meeting not to be exhausting since it’s somewhat akin to watching a movie, but the latter is, apparently, somewhat interesting. Presenting is not exhausting to me the way that a night out at a party is exhausting. There are sometimes pre-speech/talk jitters depending on the venue, but the talk is entirely predictable to me. I control exactly what’s going to be said and shown, and the speed at which I’ll progress. There is a mild element of unpredictability during the Q&A, but as the MC for the talk, you’re usually pretty well in control of that, too. So, that is the reason I find typical corporate meetings more exhausting than presenting in front of groups.
A strange thing, that. But I think in this light it’s somewhat understandable. Having reasoned analysis, cogent arguments, and a plan is the way to bring as much predictability (and, in my opinion, potential for being productive) to the table as possible. For me, it’s also the way most likely to keep the day’s meetings from sucking the life and productivity right out of you.
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