Sunday 14 April 2013


The Carnot cycle provides us with a fun little analogy that we can abuse and overextend in any number of ways:-

Energy is turned into work by harnessing and controlling a cycle of heating and cooling; expansion and contraction; increasing and decreasing pressure.

One side without the other provides only transient and worthless motion.

Brought together in opposition; made to alternate; managed and controlled in a reciprocating framework, these transient forces may be tamed and made to perform useful and beneficial work over an extended period of time.

Creative Cycles

In the same way, our innovative capacity does not produce new ideas in a single unbroken stream of creativity, but rather in fits and starts.

Contemplation and intensity must be brought together in alternating opposition:

Contemplation so that the mind may range wide, gathering inputs from disparate sources as one might pick blackberries from a brambly hedgerow.

Intensity so that the mind may delve deeply into the detail, working through the consequences of each decision; picking apart the idea to find it's essence, and turning the idea over and over to find the right terminology  the right language, the right conceptual framework within which it may be best expressed
and exploited.

One phase without the other is unproductive. Bring the two together in alternation, and you get productive work. Manage that alternation, and you can start to exploit our real potential for creativity.

Communication Cycles

There has been some discussion about the utilization and design of shared workspaces to maximise spontaneous communication (prompted by Marissa Meyer's edict banning remote working at Yahoo). In my mind, this focuses on only half of the solution: perhaps unsurprisingly, in light of the theme of this piece, I believe that communication and isolation must alternate.

When working in a totally isolated manner, one cannot determine what is needed, one does not know what is important. When sitting in the middle of a bustling open plan office, one often knows what is important, but one lacks the space and calm isolation needed to actually do anything about it. It is noteworthy that many effective organisations mandate specific periods; specific opportunities for interaction, typically involving food or drink, perhaps we could also mandate specific periods for isolation and calm introspection, a "quiet time" each day free from phone calls, emails and other forms of communication.

This may be unnecessary, however, since the ubiquitous headphone-wearing developers sitting in an open-plan-office provides a very flexible compromise, offering opportunities both for focussed work and for collaboration.

Economic Cycles

As with the small, so with the large. "The era of boom and bust economics is over" was a statement that ran not only counter to common sense, but possibly counter to some sort of law of statistical physics.

To believe that we have any real positive control over the economy is a dangerous conceit. A vague and sloppy influence, perhaps, but not control in any recognisable meaning of the word.

The presence of investment cycles for individual businesses as well as individual people is a well understood fact, as is the web of interactions that exists between those economic actors, and (so I would suppose) the presence of effects that promote the synchronisation of these individual cycles into macroeconomic feedback loops.

Why attempt to eliminate these macro-scale cycles by controlling government spending? Why not, instead, as our analogy suggests, control their amplitude and frequency so that the harm that they do is minimised.

Indeed, as Nasim Taleb points out, a small "bust" can fend off a larger and more damaging one. Targeted cyclical and perhaps aperiodic variations in the tax burden might help stress, (or threaten stress) economic actors in a manner that promotes decoupling and desynchronisation, and inhibits catastrophic modes-of-failure, but, as stated above, it would be dangerously arrogant to assume that we really know what is going on, and what the effect of our actions is, or will be.

So we have to exert control, not in a direct and forceful manner, but in a way that tends to the ecosystem, but does not seek to dominate it.

Anyway, I am straying dangerously far from my area of expertise, and my intuition oft runs astray, so let me leave things here before I go too far off the beaten track.

Friday 5 April 2013

Order of magnitude variations in developer productivity .... for the same person!

I have been in situations where I was (very nearly) 10x more productive than anybody else in the team, as well as in situations where I was (frustratingly) considerably less productive than those around me. Looking back at the last decade or so, I can definitely see periods where my productivity dipped, as well as periods where I was able to maintain consistently outstanding results. The variance is astonishing and shocking.
Over a shorter time-scale, programming, like any other creative endeavour, has tremendous temporal performance-volatility. Performance "in the zone", when I am in a mental flow-state of high concentration is orders-of-magnitude better than when sitting in the doldrums, unable to perceive or engage with the natural semantics of the problem domain. Writers block (to an extent) happens to programmers, too.
There are a number of reasons for these variations:
Firstly, over the long term, sampling effects play a part in (relative) performance. You can expect the quality and dedication of the team that you are working with to vary significantly, so as you move from team to team your baseline for comparison swings all over the place.
Secondly, experience and tools. You are never going to perform as well when you are learning as you are going - I am easily an order of magnitude more productive when using tools with which I am familiar than when trying to learn something new. (But, as per the technologist's typical Catch-22, you need to always be learning something new to stay relevant)...
Thirdly, personal circumstances:- commuting distance, family obligations, (small children), illness, living conditions. All of these have an impact on day-to-day mental alertness and ability to get "into the zone", although perhaps to a lesser extent than the other factors in this list.
Fourth, team dynamics. Some of my highest levels of productivity have been when operating as part of creative, collaborative partnerships, with another highly engaged team member to bounce ideas off, and to debate the merits of various approaches. This produces a creative dynamism that both improves the quality of the end product, and promotes active engagement in the process by both members of the "dynamic duo".
Finally, the big one: enthusiasm and engagement. This is really about organizational dynamics, leadership and psychology and is perhaps the hardest aspect to understand and control. For a programming task where attention to detail and mental engagement with complex systems is critical, the level of enthusiasm and engagement in the problem domain is critical for performance. In those roles where I have "lived the job", and spent every waking moment turning the problem-at-hand around in my head, dreaming about it when I fall asleep at night, I have obviously and significantly outperformed, in comparison to those roles where the job feels like an endless (and pointless) grind with no end in sight. You have to believe in the mission to perform, and that is as much an (external) function of leadership as your own (internal) reserves of fortitude and grit.
In summary, the biggest effect on (long term) performance is probably the existence of total, absolute and life-consuming dedication to the task at hand, as it promotes rapid learning and extended periods in flow-state. Inspirational leadership and creative partnerships do an enormous amount to encourage and support this level of engagement in the work environment, whilst suitable domain expertise and knowledge helps to reduce frustrations and remove barriers to progress. Finally, an absence of confounding factors and distractions in the out-of-work environment also helps.
So, a lot of it is how the job, the organization and the developer fit together. The 10x thing is not about innate skill (except in a statistical sense). As a leader, there are definitely a large number of things that you can do to increase the probability that members of your team will perform at their peak.