Wednesday, July 18, 2018

"What problem are we trying to solve?"

I was in a meeting with some folks recently where the leader opened the floor for Suggestions.

At this point the meeting got very quiet. Not everyone in the group is an introvert, but everyone felt the awkwardness and no one wanted to speak up and sound dumb.

I'm not sure what was happening in everyone else's minds at that point, but for myself, I wasn't even sure what we were talking about. We were all staring at a blank whiteboard, going to write down "ideas" about ... something.

I finally asked:

"Man I'm sorry, I'm just not following here. What problem are we trying to solve?"

The leader next listed out three problems that he saw as important. We wrote them down and it kicked the conversation into gear. People started engaging with the list, asking, "Is that a big problem?" or  "Here's how I see that problem manifesting."

Sometimes brainstorming sessions or conversation-starters can be too open. We want to not leave anybody out, and seek ideas from everyone, so we cast such a wide fishing net that it's awkward. The conscious people are wracking their brains trying to figure out what the leader is asking for on this fishing expedition.

Next time you're in a meeting that's really hard to follow, and several folks are falling silent, don't assume it's "just you". Throw yourself under the bus in a whimsical way and ask aloud:

"Sorry, I'm lost. What problem are we trying to solve here?"

The next 20 minutes will be a lot more interesting!

Friday, June 08, 2018

Hope is my strategy

One of my favorite tech books is Google's Site Reliability Engineering book. They open with this tongue-in-cheek quote:

  "Hope is not a strategy" --  Traditional SRE saying

This attitude reminds me of the common idea in system administration that anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Murphy's law, "never trust a happy system administrator", and so on.

When your goal as a system admin is "100% service uptime", there's simply no way to meet that goal. You can only fail.

The authors of the SRE book look at the business costs and value to uptime metrics. They propose a different strategy, focusing on an "error budget" instead of a pure 100% uptime unachievable goal. Exposing this error budget allows the business decision makers to align with the inherent constraints engineers face when making speed vs safety decisions.

"Hope is not a strategy" means making our decisions data-driven rather than wishful-thinking-driven.

Operating like this means gathering a *lot* of data. Lots of monitoring, A/B testing, phased rollouts, and so on.

How much data is enough, though?

If you're Google or another big corporation, you can spend a lot of resources on monitoring and benchmarking. There's always more to measure, tweak and improve.

In my own life I can see the effects of wanting more and more data before making big personal decisions. It often means I delay beyond what's reasonable and miss out on opportunities because I'm risk-averse.

There's two sides to this problem:

- Bad: Wishful thinking, blind optimism, recklessness,.
- Also bad: Analysis paralysis, perfectionism, fear.

In 2018 I've faced some hard decisions in my personal life, where I have to make choices every week for how I'm going to live and what I'm going to do. These choices affect others around me as well.

At some point I have to stop gathering data. I don't have the resources to do the exhaustive research I daydream about for every decision. And even if I did, it's pure fantasy to think I can avoid pain and suffering in this life.

This prayer about serenity has really helped me this year:

  God grant me the serenity
  to accept the things I cannot change;
  courage to change the things I can;
  and wisdom to know the difference.

Of course I have to dig in and do the hard work - that's the "courage to change" part. But when decisions are murky, things are unclear, that is where serenity and wisdom come in. That is where hope is my strategy.

Where does your hope lie?

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

What is the place for one-on-one communication in open-source?

One of Red Hat's mantras is "develop in the open". There is an entire website,, with tons of articles about this idea (this article in particular is great).

One aspect of "develop in the open" means keeping conversations as public as possible. Don't email or IM a developer directly; instead, email a development mailing list (possibly using the To: and CC: fields for your intended developer) or public IRC channel instead. It's hard to overstate the community benefits of this, and again explains the benefits in more detail than you could ever want.

Sometimes people send me direct instant messages seeking information, instead of asking in a public channel. I think there is a fear of "spamming the channel" or fear of looking foolish. I can respect people's desire to avoid looking foolish. I've even done the same, and some wise people called me out on it. I suggest that you will not look nearly as foolish as you expected, though. Let's face it, if this topic was so obvious, you would have found some documentation on it already, right :) Maybe things are just hard to figure out! Maybe many other people would benefit from this probably-under-documented information!

In these conversations, I try to steer back into an IRC channel, replying "That's a great question. Would you be ok if we continued the conversation in #channel-that-relates-to-what-we-are-talking-about?" Then I tab over to that channel and say "so-and-so: we were just discussing <my rephrasing of their question>" to give some context to everyone else in the room. Then I answer the question so everyone can see it.

I've been thinking about a corollary to this concept this week: There is also a time for one-on-one IM conversations, and that is when you have to bring up a sensitive topic and you need to build some relational credibility.

Let's say I've noticed a mistake in some code or process. Let's also imagine I do not have positive relational credibility with the person responsible. Maybe this person is a different personality type than me, and we both drive each other nuts. Maybe it's been a pressure-cooker situation for any number of other reasons. If I bring up this person's mistake in a public IRC channel, we just go deeper on the negative spiral, and my behavior can look threatening. I've found it's more effective to bring up mistakes as privately as possible.

Of course we want to default to open and develop in the open. On the other hand, sometimes there is a greater good, where we a trade bit of openness for relational credibility. Once the relationship is there, maybe we'll get a chance to discuss future problems more openly without fear.