September 9, 2018

Four principles from four people (part 1)

I’ve been extremely privileged to have worked with so many different people, in so many different contexts. Being exposed to such diversity has greatly benefited me and enriched my world view. But there’s also a little bit of everyone I’ve internalised - little tools, values and principles for which I am grateful.

You get to learn a lot about a person just by pairing with them on a technical problem or even collaborating on something more strategic1. You experience their idiosyncracies and philosophy. And in doing so, a little bit of your own idiosyncracies surface, like looking into the proverbial “mirror”.

I’d like to share four principles I picked up from four people that have had tremendous impact on me and how I approach work. Here below, I’ll introduce the first two.

Go fast

Embodied by a certain ridiculously charismatic, Irish-American developer who wasn’t afraid of using some cusswords to get his point across2, from whom I learnt pretty much most of everything I know now. Although this principle was not stated so explicitly, upon reflection I realised a lot of my own approaches to software development has been deeply influenced if not learnt directly from him. Let’s see if I can lay out the main ideas below:

Adopt a bias for action. Not every decision has the same impact, so minimise its cost and overhead. It’s perfectly acceptable (and fun) to play rock-paper-scissors with your pair to make low-impact decisions. This blew my mind the first time. But I’ve used this often, though people sometimes find it unnerving that I make some tech decisions by chance.

What’s the thinking behind this? Well, a lot of details in software development are indeed trivial from a larger perspective. Which test runner should we use? What should I really name this function? Who cares, they both have minimal impact and cost little to change. Another thing to understand is that when starting a new project, feature or change you will be at the highest level of ignorance such that you might not have the right understanding to competently choose one over the other: a random choice is just as good as an ignorant choice.

When framed this way, it follows that even making the wrong choice is valuable because it will reduce your level of ignorance. The trick is reducing the impact of wrong choices so you’re free to make mistakes for learning. There are techniques and practices you can adopt to achieve this and it’s pretty much what all Agile, Continuous Delivery, Lean and DevOps is about in principle.

Make feedback a first-class citizen. Invest heavily in the things that will give you the right level of information very quickly. On a technical level, this means Test-Driven Development and Automation. Ask yourself: what is the expected impact of this decision and how do I verify it? Write that automated test, make friends with your testers and users, push for read access to environments, send those emails to other teams and managers. This applies to meta-decisions too: retrospectives and one-on-one sessions create a feedback loop for how you’re working as a team.

Leverage the last responsible moment3. You will always have more or a higher grade of information later in time than you do right now. Given this, your best bet at making an informed decision is later, so all decisions that can be deferred should be. Seems simple, but I’ve found the difficulty is actually in deciding whether you can afford to defer it. Two things are helpful in this regard: divide-and-conquer and maximising options.

The first approach is about investigating whether you can break the decision down into smaller, low-impact ones. For example, what if you simply load the data from a flat text file in memory for now instead of committing to using a particular database? The second approach is about making the choices that will yield you more options. How about an interface or container object to abstract some details instead of a direct interaction? In a way this is closely related to the divide-and-conquer approach too because the former will likely yield more options anyway.

Go slow

There are very few people who are so brilliant and smart that they consistently and effortlessly outperform everyone else. Give a smart person a task and they will complete it to perfect specification in very little time. But rarer yet are people who seem to possess innate wisdom and endless compassion. The following principle I learnt from someone who embodies the latter, who I consider a role model and had the tremendous privilege of being mentored by at first, but then in more official terms as my boss.

To be precise, the principle is better stated: go as slow as you need to. Though it may seem in contradiction to the first principle, it’s actually quite complementary.

Tasks, goals, missions, objectives. They suffer from a certain effect: that once they are explicitly declared, they collapse the problem space and obfuscate the a priori assumptions that were necessary to produce them.

There are always numerous ways to tackle a problem. One way is to solve the immediate, first-order situation that you’re presented with: if a building’s on fire, use the buckets you have to put it out.

An alternative is to take a step back and consider the context and processes that led to its emergence: the building is on fire, rebuild it with fire-resistant material or better yet, move it out of the volcano it’s in.

This requires a deeper wisdom and discipline than the first-order “task” oriented thinking4. It is worth taking a detour and spending the time to consider and work out a strategy to tackling these second-order problems. The kicker here is that learning a problem takes time to struggle with it. Something I didn’t quite grok for ages because my de facto urge is feeling pressured to get the result as quickly as possible when presented with a challenge5.

What does this actually look like in real life? It means, spending the time to set up Continuous Delivery and path to production6 right (including the time it takes you to learn it). Or putting in effort to position a solid proposal for project that gives value not just to the client, but to the people working on it too. It means taking some longer detours to build some second-order tools to help you produce the first-order thing in higher quality, but faster later.

Learn that new technique, fail and master it. Didn’t meet your sprint commitments? There’s always next sprint, really. If something needs to absolutely be done, then trust that it will need to get done. If not now then later, armed with better understanding and more mastery.

There is tremendous value in going slow.

  1. I guess this is a euphemism for making slide decks together. [return]
  2. Truly demonstrable value in expressing your authentic self. [return]
  3. [return]
  4. There was a time when I felt very strongly that my worth is tied to how quickly I can tick off boxes and objectives (and I still regress sometimes). The problem is that completing tasks quickly doesn’t imply that they are valuable or even the right things to do. [return]
  5. This often leads to a Sisyphian cycle of frustration-then-catharsis. [return]
  6. This is one of my pet peeves. There have been so many projects that have lacked this basic concept of a “path to production”. Oh well, maybe the real path to production was all the friends we made along the way. [return]

© Sett Wai 2018