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?

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