Notes to self

Not gold alone brought us hither

Apr 3, 2015

We need more Scouts

A typical software development shop in India has one permanent ‘feature’: an army of workers (a.k.a. housekeeping staff) whose sole responsiblity is to cleanup after employees. These are the people whose job is to collect empty coffee mugs or cups from cubicles, refill the coffee machine in the pantry, clean the tables in the pantry after the employees leave coffee or tea stains on them, or dispose the empty pizza boxes once the employees are done eating pizza. Even the chairs around the tables need to be put back in place once the employees who sat on those chairs leave them after pushing them back when getting off the said chairs. When the employees leave the meeting room, they leave the projector on, the lights on, leave the chairs scattered across the meeting room, leave empty coffee cups on the table, leave writing on the whiteboard, leave used tissue on the table, leave whiteboard markers anywhere but in the little tray meant for the markers, leave extra chairs in the room that they pulled from cubicles nearby because there werent enough chairs in the room etc. This shows that people are not paying attention to what they leave behind as a consequence of their actions.

My point is, for some reason, we have been conditioned to believe that cleaning up is not our responisibility. It is someone else’s job to cleanup after they are done doing whatever they were doing. When we see litter, the question we ask is “Why has someone not cleaned this up?”, instead of “Why did someone litter, and how can we educate them to not not do it again?”

While I understand it is much cheaper to pay someone else to do the dirty job (especially when the minimum hourly wages are so low), this comes at a price that we should know we invariably end up paying. For example, I cannot think of places where you can find some quiet and solitude. If a place is safe and clean, then its most likely riddled with an army of workers who keep this place safe and clean.

The solution is for people to change their mindset by embracing the boy scout rule. This applies to programming as well as anything else we do. The rule goes: “Leave the campground cleaner than you found it.” If you can maintain cleanliness of a place over a period of time, then you will do the same to your code, and most other things that you do in life.

As a programmer, the lessons are:

  1. Leave the code more readable and maintainable after every change.
  2. Test your code even if someone else will test it for you later.
  3. When someone reports an issue, stop arguing and pay attention to what caused the person to report an issue, even if it is not a bug.
  4. Try to simplify the deployment steps whenever possible.
  5. Handoff to other functions once you are done. E.g. tell documentation person what needs to change/added.
  6. Finally, ensure that the end user of your application benefits from your change in some way. This is the sole purpose of making a code change.
  7. All of this is possible only if you stop expecting people to automatically cleanup after you.

Nov 13, 2014

Break

After 24 years of working at various jobs, I bid goodbye to by colleagues and began the first full time break of my career. This was not easy, especially because once I announced my decision about a month ago, my team and my colleagues made me feel very special. But this day had to come, and now I am no longer employed and intend to stay this way until I fix a few things. As an engineer, I am trained to spot slow moving disasters in their early stages and that allows me to take my own sweet time to engineer and implement a fix before a lot of damage is done. Spotting issues early allows me to take aim and have a shot at a solution.

The slow moving disasters that I talked about are:

  1. Degrading physical fitness
  2. Lack of quality time with family
  3. Lack of creative satisfaction

Let me explain.

My last job as a software development manager was to manage a devops team of very smart software development engineers that built and maintained customer facing services. While I had fun getting involved in solving interesting problems, the always-on nature of a devops manager role started to take its toll. Due to this constant low level stress, my otherwise healthy lifestyle started to degrade. It started with me missing one or two running and gym sessions every week, and eventually, by the end of last year I stopped exercising. To make matters worse, I started eating unhealthy. Everybody around me was eating unhealthy too (but hey, most of them are half my age) and it took me a while to notice this unhealthy change. In the last 1.5 years, I put on 8 kg and I think health and fitness is too high a cost to pay for any career gain. I need to get back in shape.

At the end of each day, I want to spend time with my family. The fact is, the end of the day brings with it a flurry of activity as my US colleagues wake up, start their day, and emails start pouring in. Don’t get me wrong – I am not saying it is their fault. They too end up going through the same at the end of their day. As a result when its time to go to bed, instead of being relaxed and prepared for a sound sleep, my adrenaline is peaking and it affects the quality of my sleep. And there are late evening calls. There have been times when the kids want to talk to me but I am on a call and have to ask them to leave the room. Children (not just mine, but of so many others in this industry) are conditioned to shut up when they hear “papa is on a call”. I do not want to do this to my kids any more.

Last, but not the least, I found myself caught up in so much paper work and processes that it started to defeat the reason I joined this industry. I love solving problems and I love developing software, but I found myself doing less of it. There must be a way for a middle aged software professional to find joy in this profession. I will need to figure this out.

In this post, I talk about the problems. Tomorrow, a new day will begin and I will start working on solutions. Now I have time on my hands to figure out the next steps. I am looking forward to solving these problems because, after all, I love solving problems.

Mar 17, 2014

Deliberate practice

Ruby Rogues podcast recently had an interesting discussion about how to learn [1]. At the center of the discussion was a wrong, but commonly held notion that talent is genetic. They discussed research about the role of deliberate practice in making of an elite performer. I think this knowledge broadly applies to a number of domains, including to those in knowledge industry. The main source of that information is from a research paper by Ericsson et. al. [2], which is also considered to be one of the main sources of information for Malcom Gladwell’s famous 10,000 hours narrative in his book Outliers. The material presented below is from that research paper by Ericsson et. al., and is paraphrased and summarized for my own understanding. The research matters to me for two reasons: one, I have children who are 7 and 4, and are of age when expert performers are first introduced to the domain in which they become experts in their later life; and second, though I am well past that tender age, am eager to learn anything that applies to individuals of any age. I want to acquire new skills and get better at the ones that I already have.

Not hereditary; but acquired

What are the possibilities and limits of change in cognitive capacities and bodily functions of an individual? Only few abilities are arguably direct reflection of genetic factors, for e.g. height, which may be detrimental to an individual’s success at sport like basketball and volleyball. But in most cases, an expert’s superior performance implies that acquired knowledge and skill are important to attainment of expert performance. The only plausible role for hereditary factors is in the developmental history of an individual. Superior performance by very young children without prior instruction may suggest exceptional promise, leading to an early onset of training. Unique environmental conditions and parental support, rather than talent, are the important factors determining the initial onset of training and ultimate performance. Training can also compensate for disabilities and has a greater impact than often believed possible. What distinguishes expert performers is also more and better organized knowledge, which is an acquired asset.

Following are the phases of development that lead to elite performance. During the first three phases, you need support from external sources, such as parents (for children), teachers or mentors:

  • Phase 1: Starts with introduction to activities in the domain and ends with the start of instruction and deliberate practice.
  • Phase 2: Consists of an extended period of preparation and ends with the individual’s commitment to pursue activities in the domain on a full-time basis.
  • Phase 3: Consists of full-time commitment to improving performance and ends when you either can make a living as a professional performer in the domain, or you quit.
  • Phase 4: You go beyond the knowledge of your teachers or mentors, to make a unique innovative contribution to your domain.

A common theme that flows through the four phases above is of deliberate practice.

What is deliberate practice

The maximum level of performance for individuals in a given domain is not attained automatically due to extended experience. People hit plateaus in skill acquisition, when for long periods they seem unable to attain further improvements. The level of their performance can be increased by making deliberate efforts to improve. This is done by actively searching for methods to improve performance and when they make changes in methods it often leads to clear improvements. The activity one does in order to see improvement is called deliberate practice. The goal of deliberate practice is not doing “more of the same.” Rather, it involves engaging with full concentration in a special activity to improve your performance. Here are the definitions of broad activities that we perform on a daily basis:

  • Work: Public performance, competitions, services rendered for pay, and other activities directly motivated by external rewards
  • Play: Activities that have no explicit goal and that are inherently enjoyable
  • Deliberate practice: Activities that have been specially designed to improve the current level of performance

In contrast to play, deliberate practice is a highly structured activity, the explicit goal of which is to improve performance. Specific tasks are invented to overcome weaknesses, and performance is carefully monitored to provide cues for ways to improve it further. Its practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable. Without the goal of improving performance, the motivation to engage in practice vanishes. Individuals are motivated to practice only because practice improves their performance. It does not generate immediate monetary rewards, but rather generates costs associated with access to teachers and training environments. The long-term consequences of deliberate practice is important because of the cost involved.

Deliberate practice should not be confused with the enjoyable state of “flow,” in which individuals are completely immersed in an activity. Flow is a state of effortless mastery and execution of an activity. This state of diffused attention is almost in contrast with focused attention required by deliberate practice to maximize feedback and information about corrective action. Hence, flow produces a state which allows an individual to enjoy the activity performed, but does not necessarily improve the level of their expertise as a result of performing that activity.

How much is enough

You must maximize the amount of time you spend on deliberate practice to improve performance. International level performers often receive their first exposure to their domain between the ages of 3 and 8, but it is never too late to start. People in their advanced age have seen their performance improve as a result of deliberate practice.

The level of performance an individual attains is directly related to the amount of deliberate practice. Hence, to maximize your performance, you should maximize the amount of deliberate practice. But before you go full throttle, you should also know that this time period extends over months and years. The duration of effective daily practice that can be sustained over such long periods is limited and it is necessary to maintain full attention during the entire period of deliberate practice. Hence, you should start slow and slowly increase the amount of deliberate practice over extended periods of time. You will need to device your own strategy to make it sustainable. Look at examples of successful people in order to come up with your solution. For example, successful authors who can control their work habits and are motivated to optimize their productivity, limit their most important intellectual activity to a fixed daily amount when working on projects that require long periods of time to complete. Too rapid increase in the intensity of practice lead to “overuse and overtraining”, which occur frequently in sports and even in music. Experts carefully schedule deliberate practice and limit its duration to avoid exhaustion and burnout.

In summary, disregard of the effort constraint on deliberate practice leads to injury and even failure. Start slow, and increase the amount of time you spend on a daily basis on deliberate practice. Some of the best performers engage in practice for up to 4 hours per day including weekend. However, you should be aware that they achieved 4 hours practice after a number of years in that domain, so you want to start with 45 minutes or 1 hour a day, and gradually increase the duration over time. The amount of weekly practice for individuals maintaining regular practice increases with age, accumulated practice, and performance. In virtually all domains, there is evidence that the most important activity – practice, thinking, or writing – requires considerable effort and is scheduled for a fixed period during the day. For those exceptional individuals who sustain this regular activity for months and years, its duration is limited to 2-4 hours a day, which is a fraction of their time awake.

More about experts

Individuals who practice more, also sleep longer. They also spend less time for leisure even though they admit that it is the most enjoyable of all activities. Experts are also able to estimate quite accurately the time they allocated to leisure, whereas others underestimate their leisure time.

They also seek out the very best teachers in their domain. Over the years, they have taken formal instruction from more teachers than the non experts.

The organization and accessibility of knowledge has also been shown to distinguish individuals at different levels of expertise in physics, medicine, and social science. Unlike the rapid decay of acquired knowledge seen in laboratory studies, repeated application and use of knowledge over extended periods leads to remarkably good retention of the knowledge even after years or decades of disuse.

Once an individual has acquired a reasonably high level of skill, it is possible for that individual to attain an above average performance or even regain the original performance after a brief period of retraining.

Elite performers maximize the effectiveness of their deliberate activities by engaging in them at a certain time of day, which differs across domains. Scientists and authors consistently choose to use mornings for demanding writing, and athletes prefer afternoons for their most strenuous practice sessions. Research on the effects of the time of day shows that simple perceptual-motor performance is enhanced in the afternoon and early evening, whereas intellectually demanding activities are enhanced in the morning. So pick a fixed time in the day that works for you, and use that time for deliberate practice.

Conclusion

Research shows that the past amount of deliberate practice is directly related to the individual’s current performance. Deliberate practice starts at a low level and increases over time. Even the adult elite performance, with individuals with more than 10 years of practice, is related to the amount of deliberate practice. Domain-specific mechanisms, rather than more general cognitive-motor abilities, are responsible for expert’s superior performance.

Elite performance is a product of a decade or more of maximal efforts to improve performance in a domain, through an optimal distribution of deliberate practice.

References

[1] http://rubyrogues.com/131-rr-how-to-learn
[2] Ericsson et. al. (1993) The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance. (download PDF)

Jan 5, 2014

Balance

A life lesson I learned last year is by watching others go about doing their jobs. It is about effectiveness – and striking a balance between short term and longer term effectiveness. The lesson is: do not give up long term effectiveness in favor of short term efficiencies.

When we look back, it is easy to tell if the balance was right but not as easy when the choice lies in front of us. In such situations, leaning towards long term effectiveness makes it more likely that we will be comfortable with our choices of the past.

Dec 31, 2013

2013

What a year 2013 has been. I quit my job at the company that I worked at for 13 years. Here – with my current employer – I have learned a lot in these ten months. I have seen what I think makes a technology company successful. I have met people who I think are very smart. I have also seen what I think makes smart people make choices that may not be aligned with the grain of a company’s culture. I have seen two bosses at this company in this short span of time. I have seen a lot more…

This is just the beginning. It feels like I will see much more here than what I can imagine. But hey, that’s why I am here.

I have plans for 2014. I don’t know where I will be at the end of the year, but its going to be a ride to remember. People ask what’s the big deal about new year – its just an artificial event. I don’t think so. Because if I do, the year will be just like that – one more year of boredom and routine.

If you have not made a solid plan for this new year, now is the time to do so. Just let your imagination run wild, and think of what you want to achieve by the end of the year. You will be surprised to see your plans and dreams come true. Just be sure what you ask is what you actually want, because there will be no going back.

Happy new year!

Nov 23, 2013

On being a novice

Uncle Bob in a blog post titled Hoards of Novices

Do you remember that first line of code you wrote when you were very young. Do you remember the thrill it gave you to see that line of code actually execute. Do you remember the feeling of power it gave you. You were the master. The machine was your slave, and you could make that machine do anything!

Many of us became programmers because of a moment like that.