Speed or efficiency?

I went to a restaurant for a buffet which was a bit crowded. I thought the service at some of the live counters will be slow but was surprised that the people at the counters were able to serve large number of customers in a short span of time, especially the salad counters.

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I was curious so visited one of the salad counters to see how was it possible for them to serve that many people at once. It was shocking to see that in the name of speed the person at the counter was cutting fruits in such a way that about half of them got thrown away along with the skin and the seeds. If this person had maximized the fruit content then it would have taken 4-5 times the amount of time taken now on fast cuts.

It is very clear that the restaurant can afford to waste as much of half of the food because they still gained from servicing a lot more people than operating efficiently. It was optimized for time not cost.

This is something people don’t understand while choosing tradeoffs, people often choose both cost and speed as key without giving a second thought that both cannot go hand in hand. If the same set of people had to do things much quicker and at a larger scale there has to be expenditures in tools, training and also some change in processes where there will be huge wastes before optimization kicks in. This is what happens in software development teams, often there is a tight budget and an impending doom if something does not happen; leading teams to easy burnouts.

I did not include the word quality here as it is non negotiable, you can do things quick and cheap but with a poor quality of work like serving the fruits with seeds still intact or skins not peeled well. That is not work done, there is no work without quality; eventually it drives away customers.

Next time when you have a debate about speed consider moving the cost sliders.

 

 

 

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Max out

Often I come across questions like ‘is that what the max you can do in that situation?’. During these moments I get tempted to ask questions like ‘I saw you walking to my desk now, why did not you run?’.

I sense that people have misunderstood maximum to be optimal. Optimal is sustainable, maximum is usually followed by a recovery. A spike needs a dip because it is a zero sum game, there is nothing called sustainable peak performance; a peak has to be followed by a trough. heart-rate-1375324_1280

Managers always had a lot of coercive power and traditionally management was done by giving standard operating procedures and instructions. People needed to follow the instructions by the dot and put in the required number of hours without questioning as the supervisor had defined the tasks such a way that not much skill is required to produce a good output. As the output was directly proportional to the number of hours worked with strict supervision, people were made to work as long as possible with scheduled small breaks in between.

This works well as long as the output of a person’s work is directly proportional to the number of hours worked. Does it apply in software development? Nope, it is tough to correlate productivity with the number of hours worked on the task. Not just software, any knowledge work requires people to feel bored once in a while to get to a more innovative state of mind. Knowledge work also requires a healthy state of mind and body.  The proverb ‘An idle person’s mind is a devil’s workshop’ was coined when work meant only physical. There is no way to measure productivity just like no one can ever master a language 100%.

What stayed was the coercive power of the managers and the impression of long working hours & weekend work as productivity indicators. Some managers have gone to the extent of installing software that detects and logs activities which rewards pointless usage of computers while a lot has to be done with discussions, thinking, writing/drawing on paper & sometimes the answer flashes when there was nothing to do after an intensive bout of concentration at the problem in hand.

Maxing out is an option while we are playing sports like athletics where there is a disproportionately long recovery period that makes someone to push themselves so much so that they injure themselves to achieve peak performance. There is another place where maxing out is required, when people are fighting against each other, maxing out is never a peace time activity.

Horizontal gene transfer

Inheritance has played a big role in how kingdoms evolved and civilisations sustained. People passed on their wisdom to their future generations and created a sustained momentum of progress. The progress was largely confined within the family, a great medical practitioner will pass on the knowledge to the kids and make sure they memorise a lot of things and do not pass on the trade secrets to others. Slowly greed took over and instead of greater good, personal wealth and wellness took top priority. This is when territorial population got slowly disrupted by invaders who learnt to break the fragile unity and encouraged personal growth by turning people against their allies and eventually they also fell prey to invasion.

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We think the world belongs to humans, it does not. It belongs to microbes. They are everywhere, in huge numbers and very very resilient. They are inside us, outside and have even learnt to live in hostile conditions. I also read in the newspapers about bacteria developing antibiotic resistance and quite difficult to treat if people get these resistant strains. I was curious on how bacteria develop resistance and stumbled on an article which explained about ‘Horizontal gene transfer‘. Bacteria do not just inherit the resistant genes vertically from their parents but also from other types of bacteria, virus, fungi (the list goes on) which may not even be virulent.

Learning and co-operating with others is what makes someone resilient along with their peers, this is what I inferred from my readings about horizontal gene transfer. If we concentrate only on personal growth and well being then it is just a short amount time before we lose out to groups which learn together. Personal growth is useful only when others around us also grow and sustain that momentum. There is a nice story about growing good corn, a farmer shares the quality seeds with neighbours to make sure cross pollination happens with healthy corn.

Winning alone and winner takes it all is a greedy task, it pushes people into damage control mode and work in transactions. People won’t remember us for our transactions, there is nothing to reciprocate in a transaction. It looks like we will not have a resilience building horizontal gene transfer equivalent for humans. We may eventually fizzle out of existence trying to outsmart each other.

You can only run, you cannot hide

Recently I read an article about NSA’s efforts in identifying Satoshi Nakamoto, who created bitcoin and remained elusive. NSA had spent a lot of resources at its disposal to create a writeprint to for billions of texts around the world and zero in on Satoshi.

Fingerprint plays a huge role in investigations as they provide a reliable identity which is difficult to change, before that identity was based on photographs, height, mole marks etc. So the quest for fingerprinting grew and now it is possible to get voiceprint, writeprint and can work on anything to create a unique signature about a person.

privacy-policy-2499720_640I read about this first in Simon Singh’s Code book, the book talks a lot about how cryptographers had to constantly be on the run to come up with new techniques just to be broken by cryptanalysts who find chinks in the armour, it is a never ending game. One of the interesting reads was about a fingerprinting technique called fist, which is a style arising due to the telegraph operator’s way using the telegraph key. While the messages were encrypted, the operator’s fist gave away the identity of the german troops and by radio frequency analysis the location was also identified. The messages which were encrypted was of no use to the British, but the location and identity proved to be vital  which was invaluable when there were no satellites.

I never took privacy and security seriously, but the more I read about and hear from friends the more insecure I feel. If someone is determined enough and have resources at hand, it is going to be an easy task to violate someone else’s security and privacy. More and more tools to break will be freely available and new technology is going to make current military grade encryptions cakewalk to break. If we need privacy we need to keep running, there is no place to hide.

p.s. Also read about ‘Dolphin attack‘ which takes vulnerabilities to new levels.

Backseat driving

A young businessperson Tamizh (/ˈtæmɪl/) drives to office everyday, the commute is hard and energy draining in peak traffic, when reaching office there has to be a break to cool down and bring the mindset back to work. Tamizh wakes up early morning, checks email, talks to counterparts in other countries and gets a head start for the day even before leaving for office, even during the drive to office the mind does not switch off from work; after a few near misses in traffic due to preoccupation at work, Tamizh decides to hire a driver.

Each driver is unique in driving style, some drive very fast, some keep the occupants comfortable, some drive very economical, some of them race the car. One can only observe a part of a driver’s characteristic when the owner is around. When the owner is not around, it is not possible to understand how they drive. Tamizh is an enthusiast and a very careful & possessive car owner; it was very hard to give the keys of the dream car which was bought after years of hard work.

The attachment to the car did not end there, Tamizh ended doing back seat driving most of the times unless there was an ultra important work related call to be done. Pothole impacts and sudden manoeuvres by the driver were followed by harsh reactions from Tamizh. Eventually both Tamizh and the driver lost their cool and parted ways. The cycle continued, Tamizh was never able to hire a long time driver; there was no way to have an easy commute and save that mind-space.


Scenario 1:

The driver does not notice a speed breaker and jumps over it delivering a bone jarring thud inside the cabin. 

What should be the reaction?

A: Start noticing every speed breaker that might come up on road and warn the driver from there on.

B: Yell at the driver for being careless and complain about the expensive repairs that needs to be done if driven around like this.

C: Mostly the driver knows it is uncomfortable and damaging to vehicle to jump over a speed breaker, conversation is necessary only if it is repetitive.

Scenario 2:

You want to reach somewhere very quick, but you are also a fuel economy freak.

What will you do?

A: Let the driver know when to shift gear and what rpm they should be to achieve best possible pace and economy.

B: Keep complaining to driver that either we are going too slow or wasting a lot of fuel at every opportunity.

C: Choose what is needed, speed or cost and let the driver do the rest. It is not worth the mind-space spent on saving one of them.

Scenario 3:

The car ran out of fuel when leaving for office for an important meeting one day.

How do you react?

A: You always check with the driver that there is enough fuel before leaving for a trip. You never forget to check for fuel or tire pressure whenever you board the car.

B: You freak out and make sure the driver’s day is ruined so that they dread doing the same thing again.

C: Ask the driver to help you get a replacement transport, let the driver know this is not acceptable as it has huge impact on business in an assertive way.

Scenario 4:

You are on a weekend trip to a nice hill station, your driver on seeing a particular road tells you that is unsafe to take your sedan in that road.

What do you tell the driver?

A: You tell the driver that you will teach them on how to drive in this road, give metre by metre instructions.

B: You let the driver know it is your car and you decide what road to take.

C: You are on a leisure trip and not worth the risk, the driver is a professional who drives all the time for living; better to trust the driver and enjoy the trip to the destination.


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Managers & Leaders I have observed often fall in A, B or both A&B responses. They are big time back seat drivers. These are the people who could spend their mind-space on more abstract, complex problems instead of engaging in managing down activity. People who are handed down orders do that downwards and also pass along the stress. It is too contagious that the entire org ends up managing down which means each one either telling the others how to do or yelling at for not doing the what they are told to do.

Imagine all the brain power and productivity if these minds were focussed on managing themselves and their work, it is easily one level up. I am routinely involved in working in software projects which by nature have ambiguous requirements and a fast ever changing complex technical landscape. What worked well a few years ago is no longer valid, it is very very hard to manage down.

Yet many leaders in large organisations want their companies to be agile Agile and they adopt the manifesto but half heartedly so that none of the instruments of managing down never leave their hands. I could not resist sharing this link here, http://www.halfarsedagilemanifesto.org, the author of that page should have been hit hard by this phenomenon.

What about small organisations and startups? Barring a handful, a majority of them manage down. My way or highway and type B responses in the above scenarios are more common. It takes a great deal of maturity to let go of control and move up which pays off a lot in the longer run even if there were shortcomings in the short run. Those who understand this build empires, others continue to barely manage their territories.

Correct me if I am wrong

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Often in discussions at work especially in ambiguous situations, I hear people start with the phrase ‘Correct me if I am wrong’ or similar phrases like ‘This is just my understanding’, ‘I could be wrong here but’ etc.

People’s judgemental abilities are affected a lot by their acquired knowledge and application of their ability(there are 8 types of it), their experience in the field, depth in the language the conversation is going on. If we put 5 people with different backgrounds and experience in an ambiguous situation and feed them with a lot of data, chances are 100%  that each of them will interpret the situation and information to be different.

So there is always a chance that people will disagree with each other’s opinions and when they respond negatively it is never on a person however the tone is, but it is on the idea. Most of the people do not realise this and think this as a confrontation that they must face which is very stressful, so they express their opinions with the starting phrase ‘Correct me if I am wrong’ to be safe when there is a disagreement.

Everything we say is our opinion which is shaped by our experience, abilities and the situation we are in. It won’t be concrete and will change when presented with the facts or perspectives. Carl Sagan expresses this in his book Cosmos where he says scientific community is built of opinions and humility. That is how the community advances, by embracing new proofs and discard their pet theories.

If you are in a situation where people are often using disclaimers, what all could you do?

  • Make sure your tone of response is right and make it clear that the conversations are always about ideas not directed to the individual.
  • Express the discomfort in people using disclaimers for expressing their opinions and set a safe conversation space.
  • Stop using disclaimers in your conversations which some people may try to follow.

Help to co-ordinate the different minds to speak up and take advantage of the collective intelligence which is always better than the sharpest individual in the group.

Showing up

Steve Blank in his commencement speech at Philadelphia university mentioned that opportunities surface to people who are forever curious, show up a lot and treat failure as a learning experience. Not very long ago, it was very easy to get a bunch of people at workplace and get something done. Be it a music interest group, gaming or tech learnings; it was easy for people to look for what is going on around and show up.

Many workplace friendships were born, mentors and mentees found each other and it contributed to an overall well being of the place when people signed up and showed up for things happening around them. The increased urban congestion and the resultant commute plus ubiquitous smart phone distractions contribute to a large share for people losing interest in a lot of things. Getting people interested in something that helps growth is getting increasingly difficult.

Curiosity and showing up to do new things is a valuable trait that everyone has to retain or cultivate. This is what many people have written about getting out of the comfort zone, right now we seek comfort more often and in pockets because of the increase in the difficulty of living a day in urban areas. There is no feeling of enough comfort received that our body and mind refuses to come out of it, such that even showing up for work the next day becomes too difficult.

thumb-1013968_640We are inherently curious, watch a baby explore new surroundings, you will know how curious we were in our early years. That curiosity has transformed into something very trivial over the course of the years to find only simple entertainment which gives an illusion that life is interesting. It is not the lack of attention span which many are claiming unanimously that is on a dwindle, there are people who claim poor attention span but can binge watch ‘Game of thrones’ or play video games for hours together.

The serendipity factor is very underrated, many good things happen by accident meeting a prepared mind. Make sure to plan your urban life such that it does not drain you, don’t compromise on eating well and resting (read sleeping) well;  once that is taken care chances are low that you will feel out of energy in a day. Try showing up at places, ditch that comfort zone or fear of new; see the impact over long time.