Links 7/31/15

Things I learned from TED: there was a frog that incubated its eggs in its stomach and drop crocs are real. And we’re trying to bring them back

My favorite comment from the Hacker News thread on my open office post:

…[S]omeone mentioned that because they happened to overhear a conversation between two engineers they were able to save weeks of them working on the wrong thing.

Anecdotes like that aren’t signs that open offices are successful or result in “having good communication” – it means you have horrible communication and you got lucky.

I think one’s response to “I overheard a thing and it saved us weeks” stories might be a really good test of attitude towards open offices in general.  Do you see the serendipitous successes, or the implied failures?  The work you didn’t have to do because you learned something, or the work you had to do to process all of the information that wasn’t useful to you?

Speaking of things in the office that are great for some and horrible for others: Ask a Manager talks about dogs in the office.  One woman has deathly allergies and the ADA on her side, but nothing can shield her from the social consequences of being The Lady That Made Them Ban Dogs From the Office.  I’m actually pretty sympathetic to the dog owners on this; they made plans based on promises from the company and losing them could be really disruptive.  Not as disruptive as dying of course, but it’s not necessarily a small thing.  The real problem is an office set up that makes the choices “abandon your dogs” or “kill co-worker”, which is an esoteric example of the general problem of open offices making environmental settings communal.

The obvious side effect is that everyone is operating farther from their optimum on things like light and temperature, but it also reduces maneuverability.  Even if everyone in the room would like dimmer lights it’s a whole thing to poll them and talk to facilities and then repoll to see if you should adjust more.  G-d forbid anyone have different preferences over time.  Where a person with migraines and their own office could just turn the bloody light off when they feel one coming on, they now have to go through some entire thing with HR to set up a response ahead of time and then invoke it, or leave work and get a migraine on the way home anyway.  The company could give them their own office, but that will cause resentment, and they’ll miss information because everything is still built around the idea that information is distributed via the ether.  People talk about how open offices are so dynamic but there’s a lot of ways they make things less flexible.

Some number of hydrocephalics (people with fluid replacing up to 95% of their brain) are completely unaffected and in fact undetected until they get head scanned for other reasons.  Leading explanations include “isolation makes remaining area strong” and “souls”.

Filtering Labor

This is either a subset of interpretive labor or a closely related concept: Filtering Labor.  Suppose one person is generating information, and another person needs a small subset of it, or needs the information in aggregate but not specific pieces.  Who does the labor to filter it down?

Let’s talk about this in a work context.  Recently I was on a thread with four other people.  Everyone needed to get the original few letters, and everyone needed to know the final decision.  But in between those two were 5 or 10 e-mails nailing down some specifics between me and one other person.  The others needed to know the decisions we made, but reading the back and forth was of no value to them.  Nonetheless, they stayed on the thread.  This wouldn’t be such a big deal if they only checked their e-mail once a day because they could skim through the thread, but that’s not how much people check e-mail, and I know it’s not how these particular people were handling this thread, because there were other messages in the same thread that required and received a near-instant response from them.

We could have saved them effort by taking them off the thread, and re-adding them when they were needed, with a summary of the decision.  But that requires looking at every message and thinking “who needs to see this?” What if a message is mostly unrelated to them but not entirely?  How do I know if a decision is finalized enough to be worth summarizing it to them?  It didn’t apply in this particular case, but my general experience at work is that the best moment to send out the summary- when everything has been more or less settled- does not draw attention to itself.  You just go two days without having to make a decision.  Not to mention that knowing what is relevant to others requires information about them- who filters that?

This only gets worse as companies grow.  My job is clearly terrified there will be something somewhere in the company that would be useful to me and I won’t know about it.  One solution would be to make things easy to find when I wanted to look for them (a pull-based system).  You can do some of this with good archiving and search tools, but to make it really work it requires effort from the information producers or some sort of archivist.  Things like tagging, summaries, updating the wiki.  Information producers rarely want to put in this effort (in part because of a justified belief it’s just going to change again next week.  But by the time that’s identifiably not true, the relevant information has faded from memory).  You can attempt to force them but it hurts morale and it really is going to be obsolete in a week.

So my job, and I believe a lot of other large software companies, uses a push system.  I’m on dozens of email lists giving me a stream of updates on what people are doing, sometimes very far away in the org.  I tried to make a list to convey to you all the lists I am on, but it is impossible.  Making the collected output of these lists useful often requires a lot of interpretive labor (e.g. translating a changelist into what a tool actually does and how it might relevant to me).  That takes time, and the farther away from me something in the org is, the more time it takes.  At this point there is no way I could thoughtfully process all of my mail and get anything else done.  It looks like information is being spread more widely, but the signal to noise ratio is so low I’m learning less.

The open office is an attempt to do the same with in person interactions- if people won’t seek out others to give them information they need (in part because they don’t know who needs it or who has it), make it impossible to not overhear.  We know what I think about that.

Some of this comes from a failure to adapt to circumstances.  When you start a company everything anyone does is relevant to you and you will always know about it without any effort on anyone’s part.  As you add people everything is still pretty relevant to them, but it takes more effort to find out about it.  Start-ups start using stand-ups or mailing lists.   The bigger they get, the more effort goes into sharing information.  For a while this doesn’t cost a lot in processing.  People have a certain amount of slack in their day (compiling, between meetings) and everything is close enough to what they work on that it’s easy to interpret.  But peoples projects grow more and more distant, and eventually you run out of slack.  After that every additional piece of information you give them beyond that comes at the cost of them producing actual work.

Which doesn’t mean you should stop: maybe it saves more work than it creates.  But I wish companies recognized the effort this required and started thinking more strategically about what was truly useful. There are already specialists that do parts of this under various names (Project/program manager, technical writer, manager, tech lead), if this was made explicit I think we could save people a lot of effort.

Mission Statement

As you may have guessed from the previous two posts I’m not happy at my current job and looking for a better one.  Some of that is figuring out what kind of environment I work best in and some of it is developing skills, but I also needed to figure out what problems I wanted to solve.  This was where So Good They can’t Ignore You was so helpful- it helped me realize I needed to look at what would make me feel most impactful, rather than what I would find entertaining.

I know what things interest me: health, poverty, education, psychology, video games, mental health, nutrition, medicine… but no one else seems to think these things are as linked as I do.  I think I finally what they have in common, for me: they waste potential.  People who could have done great things die or don’t have the money to pursue them or are too sick or pained or no one will teach them the necessary skills.  That’s tragic.  That’s loss on an enormous scale.

I don’t find anti-poverty work as emotionally compelling as the intricacies of mental health or CFAR.  But if I bother to think it through, I realize there’s a lot of people who will never get to the level of calibrating their predictions because they’re starving, or because all of their mental energy is going to keeping them from starving.  In a very real sense, giving money to poor people is one of the most effective rationality-raising interventions possible.

So that’s my goal. Remove things that are keeping the most people from being all they can be.

Thoughts on So Good They Can’t Ignore You (Cal Newport)

Recently I read So Good They Can’t Ignore You.  I have well known trouble distinguishing “things the book said” from “thoughts I had while reading it”, so I’m just going to tell you what I thought and if you’re interested you can track down the book and see how original this was.

The book’s official tagline is “Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work” and it frames itself as anti-passion, but Newport eventually admits that’s a marketing hook.  Mostly his thesis is that passion alone will not make you happy, and skill can be used to extract concessions from your employer that make life more pleasant, so you should focus on skill.  Passion is a great driver for developing skills so that seems like a weak criticism of passion (he puts all the positive aspects of passion under “mission”), but he also suggests that it’s impossible to find something you’re really passionate about until you have a certain amount of skill, so still focus on that.  Given the essentially infinite number of skills available it seems like there’s room for your interests to have input earlier in the process.  I think what he’s really attacking is the idea that your job should be a source of entertainment.  That has given me severe clarity in what I’m looking for job-wise.

The epitome of the jobs-as-entertainment model is “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life”.  That is neither true nor desirable, unless you use a very specific definition of work.  Let’s take this blog.  No one is forcing me to write it.  For the first year I had something like five readers, most of whom I regularly talked to in person.  Obviously it was motivated entirely internally, which is another way of saying “powered by love.”  And yet, it was still work.  Even if you discount all the reading I did as “things I would have read for fun anyway”*, and the thought I put into it as “a thing I can’t stop my brain from doing”, I have to organize my thoughts and translate them to things other people can understand.  I had to configure the page layout so it was neither hideous nor generic.  I had to proofread and correct mistakes.  I had to retype entries from scratch after WordPress broke again.  I had to correct all the typos Beth pointed out to me after I published.  Nothing past writing the first draft could be considered entertaining the way playing Twenty is entertaining, and even the reading, thinking, and first drafts took considerable time and effort.  That sounds like work to me.  And yet obviously I was doing something I loved because there was no other reason to do it. **

Love doesn’t erase the fact that something is work.  It can motivate the work, it can cushion the annoyances of work, it can give you the incentive to continue when you would otherwise give up, but it can’t erase it.  And I kind of resent attempts to try.  I am a grown up human, I do not need swings or field trips to chocolate factories to trick me into swallowing a pill showing up.

How I feel about office scavenger hunts
The canine equivalent of the company picnic

What I do need is a good working environment, clarity around my goals, and the tools to achieve them.   Those are what let me accomplish things, which is the reward I want from work.  An occasional morale event when I we’re all producing really good work together can be really rewarding, but frequent events (like my job has) when I’m unhappy with my productivity feels like… like eating too much dessert when what I really need is a nutritious meal.  My taste buds notice the sugar but I don’t get any of the associated psychological rewards, and it turns into queasiness.  Speaking of which: office candy counts as entertainment but the nutritious-organic-local-cuddled meals at work are productivity aids.  Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Like 80,000 hours, So Good They Can’t Ignore You has a large emphasis on building career capital.  This section isn’t perfect. A lot of the case studies are opportunistic (in the positive sense of the word), and serendipity is not repeatable.   I feel like it’s skipping a critical step without acknowledging it.  It’s also a little too “be a good worker bee until you’re called up to the the big leagues” for me; traditional corporate or academic paths work for a lot of people and the whole “the only thing holding you back is fear” narrative is stupid, but there’s a lot of other paths to success that get a lot less publicity.  But this was still useful.

I have some topics I find both interesting and skills that would be useful in an associated career.  But as you may have noticed, I have a lot of interests, many of which require expensive, brittle credentials to pursue.  It would suck to spend years in school only to get bored with the field. I highly suspect interests are a better predictor of what will be entertaining than what will be rewarding.  What SGTCIY suggests in this situation (actually all situations, but I think it applies to me more than most) is to build capital in things that will be useful in service to lots of interests/goals.  Like, say, programming, a skill and job I already have but really always skated through on raw intelligence and a willingness to do low status work.  Between this book and not getting a job I really wanted I’ve started make deliberate choices and investing.

It’s also really nice to read a career guide by someone with a career that is not writing career guides (Newport wrote the book in between finishing a computer science PhD and starting a professorship), and one with writing skills to boot.  I finished the book in two days because it was just that readable.

*I used to read things with the explicit goal of blogging about them; they were worth blogging about so rarely I stopped.

**I was planning on using the blog as a portfolio for job purposes, but one of the reasons blogging works as a signal of interest and skill is that it’s so costly and low-reward no one would do it unless they loved it.

Why Open Offices? (synchronicity)

If one person is wrong, they’re wrong.  If a lot of people, some of whom got extremely rich off of their wrong ideas, are wrong, there’s a good possibility I’m the wrong one.  At a minimum, it’s useful for me to understand where I’m differing from others.  Open offices are one such puzzle.  To me, they are obviously one step short of Azkaban.  And yet everyone, including some exceptionally profitable companies, uses them.  Why?

At least Azkaban prisoners get their own cell
At least you get your own cell in Azkaban

[I’m going to restrict myself to tech companies because that’s what I know]

One possibility is some people genuinely prefer them.  I keep talking myself up to that, only to read another article about how everyone is miserable and unproductive in them.  I talk myself up again, and find a peer reviewed study detailing their terribleness.   I thought maybe they were for extroverts, but then I heard extroverts complain they couldn’t get any work done in them either (although they were having a lot more fun not working in them than I was).  My friends’ defenses of them/explanations of how they make it work sound more like Stockholm Syndrome, or at best the way I sound when I find a shortcut to finish a useless but mandatory  30 minute training in 5 minutes.  I noticeably improved my situation relative to the 30 minute scenario, but that doesn’t mean those 5 minutes were valuable.  But let’s assume my friends are a non-random subset and there are people who thrive in (some) open offices.  That’s great, if you hire those specific people.  One of my major frustrations with my current employer, Stark Industries, is that their interview process (closed room, no distractions, puzzles to solve on your own) is designed to filter in exactly people like me, and the work environment (completely open, constant distractions, work that sometimes feels more like being a PM* than a programmer) couldn’t be better designed to make us unproductive.

One possible justification for open offices is cost.  I certainly think that’s a larger factor than many companies admit, but if that were the only concern they’d convert to entirely work from home.  Moreover, engineers are really, really expensive, and making us less productive is costly.  The extra space necessary for doors or cubicles could easily pay for itself.  A slightly different explanation is that even if companies were willing to buy doored offices, acquiring office space is lumpier than hiring.  Having more than you need is expensive and it takes time to ramp up after a hiring spree.  That could explain temporary open offices, or roommates, but not stable ones.

Let’s go back one paragraph.  The open office isn’t the only thing I dislike about Stark Industries.  I’m also continually baffled by the fact that my technology company has a workflow designed around synchronous communication, in person if at all possible.  No one has time to answer email or IM thoughtfully because they’re running from one meeting to another, so if you want a response from someone you schedule a meeting.  The correct response to someone ignoring your e-mail is to ambush them in the hallway or, if they’re at a different site, schedule a videoconference.  It took me a very long time to get this, but making a meeting to do something that could have been handled over email is not a failure mode at Stark Industries.  This is how they expect it to work.  This must be how they want it to work, because instant messaging is a strictly easier technical problem than helicarriers, a project we also do.  Information is exchanged at meetings, which means everyone has to process it at the same time and either everyone moves at the speed of the slowest person* or you leave them behind.

What if the open office and the synchronicity are not a coincidence?  If you believe synchronicity is helpful (which Tony Stark clearly does, and which I agree with in some instances), then you’ll want to encourage it.  But as noted above, this is not the natural mode for a wide swath of programmers.  You can hire for it at first, but eventually that cuts you off from too much talent.  Any one individual can be forced to switch modes by being embedded in a group full of the other, but there aren’t enough synchronizers to absorb all the asynchronizers.

But… as much some people like retreating to do their own thing, they also like it when other people respond to them immediately.  They may be held back by empathy, but they’d still like the answer right away.  In an open office, the barriers to demanding an answer are reduced.  For one, you don’t have to leave your chair.  For two, offices and even cubicles have a sense of personal bubble.  You wait to be invited in, and it’s expected you’ll have to wait until they reach a breaking point.  After extensive experimentation I can tell you there is no way to generate that bubble at Stark Industries, and I assume open offices in general.  I once had a co-worker poke his head into the conference room I was hiding in for the sole purpose of asking if I was hiding so I could concentrate.** Open offices also lower the cost to any one interruption.  They do it by interrupting you so constantly you never get into a groove that could be interrupted, but they do technically lower it.***  So even the highly empathetic will feel less reluctance to interrupt co-workers because they are correctly calculating a lower cost to it.  In high doses, perhaps mixed with morale events and a culture that emphasizes meetings over email, this could lead to teams made entirely of asynchronous workers forcing synchronicity on themselves.

What is it about synchronicity that makes every major tech company started in the last 20 years be willing to pay so much for it?   Based on every survey ever and the coding wars study, it’s not improved performance at the object-level tasks of the job.  But work isn’t school, there’s more to it than fulfilling the terms of the assignment.  Maybe open offices lead to less redundancy or wasted work.  Maybe they make charisma and personal connections less important.  Maybe they’re the best way to force programmers to share information in the face of their steadfast refusal to write anything down.  That not only makes people more potentially more productive, it makes them more replaceable.

Bellatrix screaming in her cell at Azkaban
Look how productive she is

None of this makes me love open offices.  For one I’m pretty sure I’m better at synchronizing via technology than speech.  By a lot.  I love Slack because it gives me everything everyone said I would get from open offices, without any of the costs. It gives me a sense of control and in-touch-ness that makes me want to read it. Meanwhile I approach co-workers in person less now than I did when we all had doors, because I’m hyperconscious of impinging on the other people in the room.  But I will say I started doing better at my job when I acknowledged that I was expected to do it synchronously and rolled with it.  Matching the office work style turned out to be more important to productivity than matching my own.  It exhausts me, but at least it’s the exhaustion of having worked really hard.  When I tried to work asynchronously I came home exhausted from doing nothing, which was a much worse feeling.

*Project/program manager.  Job description depends heavily on the team but one of their jobs is to coordinate people with subject matter knowledge.

*Slowest doesn’t mean dumbest.  They may very well take longer because they’re thinking more deeply.

**The answer was yes.

***The economic term for this is bee sting theory.  You’ll work really hard to avoid your first bee sting, and you’ll pay a lot to get rid of it.  But when you already have 10, the work to avoid an 11th just doesn’t seem worth it.

Links 7/24/15

It’s easy to monetize medication: we have lots of new medications all the time.  There’s no real way to monetize medical or surgical techniques: doctors demonstrated ability to grow people new livers in their lymph nodes 50 years ago, still hasn’t been confirmed, much less adopted.

S.O.R.S– Papers, Please crossed with House.  I was super excited about this game but when I played the demo I quit in frustration.  I probably want to read the story summary instead.

Organism doesn’t let the fact that it’s single celled prevent it from having an eye.

Quick review: prokaryotes are very simple cells, like bacteria.  Eukaryotes are more complicated cells, like plants and animals.  One thing that makes them more complicated is they have organelles- very complicated cellular machinery that are probably descended from other single cell organisms the ancestral eukaryotic cell ate.  Scientists are speculating that the eye is one such organism, and it was probably originally photosynthetic (like the precursor to chloroplasts), but evolved into an eye instead.

Start up advice: “Instead of asking “what problem should I solve?” ask “what problem do I wish someone else would solve for me?””

I knew there were sharks that gave live birth, but I thought they were just carrying the egg inside them (meaning the mother gives the fetus all the nutrients it’s ever going to have right at the start). Turns out there are placental sharks (so the fetus is connected to the mother’s blood supply throughout the gestation).  I think this means placentas have evolved more than once.