Quorum sensing

Ever wondered that some of the live wires at the office or school were not those kind when they just joined the place. It was something like they were waiting for a tipping point and their activities became live. I randomly selected a ted talk, How bacteria talk. Bonnie Bassler a biochemist, has observed that bacteria cannot turn on their behaviour until there is enough of them. But how does all the single cell animals know how many of them are around? The answer was that each type of bacteria releases a certain signature chemical molecule into their environment, based on the amount of that specific molecule a bacterium receives, they can determine the population density. This is called Quorum sensing which is also evident for insects where we think they could be intelligent but may be that they just rely on the density of their peers around to do certain tasks.

How can this apply to human behaviour? I have been lucky to move to different places and teams almost every year, which has made me observe teams get started and get going. In one of the teams I have been, we did not know that we had good number of musicians to form a band until we had some event coming in the office. The event allowed the release of signaling molecules from individuals searching for people with similar interests.

This is also true to interests in technologies and pursuing hobbies. As the workplace gets bigger it is more difficult to network and find the right group to be in unless there is enough quorum sensing. Just by someone in the team holding a regular weekly get together for a random topic can spark interests and get people to come together and switch to top gear. I observed that a group’s knowledge and skill level gets amplified if there is effective sharing, effective sharing happens only when people come together, people come together only if something is happening and something happens only if someone takes an initiative. We must make sure our workplace is conducive for quorum sensing to make the best use of everyone’s strengths and skills.

If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea

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Observations of a conference

I was reading Presentation Zen last week which coincided with a conference invite for the weekend. The conference exposed lots of different styles of presenters and the memories of the book still fresh in mind, I made few observations. I observed that the most common one was the bulleted list presentations. Since this was a developer conference the other style which was prevalent was the demo style presentation where the presenters either coded or executed something for the demo. Few of the aspects which I felt did not work well were

  • Bulleted lists and crowded slides, people at the back (just 10-12 rows) were able see only blurred lines and the presenter just kept reading and elaborating on each points. This reduced the involvement from the audience.
  • Time overruns, the organizers have spent some time and effort to line up the sessions in the conference. Some presenters went way beyond the given 30 minutes were sent notes to remind them to finish their talk. This spoiled the presenter’s flow to finish on a high note and I was not sure about the attention span of the audience.
  •  Monitor and Lectern placement was in the corner that many presenters had to walk back from the center of the stage to be sure of the content or to turn around and look at the screen after every slide change. This would have halted the train of thoughts for few presenters.

The ones which worked well were

  • The presenter doing a demo, since it was technical it kept everyone glued on to the presentation.
  • Key messages, one presenter mentioned that “make use of open source software for 80% of your needs; for the remaining 20% needs, innovate and give it back to the society”. This message stayed with people and I noticed many people mention this till the end of the day.

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Running up the stairs

Patents were introduced to encourage inventors to come out in public and get the due credit for the invention. It also granted exclusive rights to the inventor for a certain period to enjoy the fruits of the invention. Though patents are a great way to protect inventor’s effort the laws and enforcements are generally tricky. Some countries have chosen to ignore the Pharma company patents to protect the health of the public as patents were monopolizing life saving drugs.

Paul Graham mentions in his book Hackers and Painters about the copyrights & patents in software and how the laws enforcing them are beginning to threaten intellectual freedom in the field of computers. Laws can be so tight that it can prevent an individual from dismantling something and looking at how it was built. Many people I have met are of the opinion that patents do not have a place in software.

Assume that we work hard and create something,  secure it with a patent and prevent a large corporation from copying it. They can still ignore the patent go ahead with money power to face the lawsuit. So patents for inventors might not guarantee immunity. Then how can we be sure that someone cannot copy our work?

Paul Graham’s answer is to run up the stairs. His analogy was interesting, assume in the computing world the giants are usually large, burly people and startups or individuals are slim and agile; if they are trying to chase us out of existence then it is fairly easy when running downstairs or on the corridors but it is extremely difficult for them to chase when we run upstairs.

The examples are in the profession of sports, arts and music. What a top musician does is so easy to imitate, but she/he can keep coming in with more performances that others find it hard to emulate the success. Innovation is the key skill, the skill cannot be copied. What we need is to find what is tough for others to do and do exactly that. To run up the stairs we need to be strong and healthy, similarly to be ahead at work we need to be strong at what we do.

If we run upstairs chances are high that the competition is always left behind. Here is Paul Graham’s essay which covers the topic of running up the stairs.

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Joy of teaching

Right from the school days I have enjoyed sharing knowledge with others in such a way that it stays with person who receives it. The good side effect it got me was that it made me stronger with the fundamentals. The easiest way for me to learn something was to commit to someone that I will teach the same. The fact that I will be questioned on many aspects made me dive deeper into the subject as well as look at the meta part of it.

I started learning music recently, my progress was really slow. I struggled to understand or visualize many of the concepts like why the chords have to progress in a certain way, how do you identify its minor or major etc. Until I volunteered to teach someone else the basics, I did not dive deep enough to find the physics behind the music. As I begun to teach, my ability to express something which I understood started increasing multifold. Slowly I was able to draw analogies from different subjects to explain music.

How did it help me at the workplace? Periodically signing up for sharing something with the peers helped me to learn a lot. The eustress provides the right push to dive deeper and come to a good understanding. Many of the organizations have a constant turnover of people which means that it is necessary to get new people on board with culture and technology.

Signing up as trainers at the workplace has a good effect. This has two benefits, one it eliminates full time position of trainers, the other is it provides the trainers the right platform to sharpen and strengthen their skills. It also helps to break the monotony of regular job and provides a different view of it. Some of the questions posed to me in the classroom also made me rethink on some of my beliefs and led me to relearn some things, so it is not just learning but also unlearning.

Joy of teaching is as much as joy of learning.

A bad day at work for a programmer

A typical bad day at work for a programmer is to getting stuck. A stuck programmer is easy to spot, s/he is the one who has not moved away from the computer for a long time and if at all moves away is still visibly occupied with thoughts about how to find a solution.

Some of the solutions which I observed are

Discuss the problem with someone else

This is one of the best solutions which always worked for me. Even at times when someone listens to the problem does not help me fix it, just explaining it to someone helped me visualize and articulate better which in turn brought me closer to the solution. This is where pair programming wins hands down.

Read the Manual

While this may sound obvious, I have observed this to be one of the key issues to someone getting stuck. The entire IT population is trying riding on the keywords like convention over configurations, intuitive code, fluent interfaces; that combined with the hello world kind of exposure to tools gives programmers a more than enough confidence to carry on the everyday work. So when getting stuck the immediate response is to try what is obvious or what looks intuitive.

Take your eyes and mind of the problem

Any person’s action at work will first be governed by the conscience and instincts take over later. It is very similar to how we start driving or play instruments, we will be at ease once we are in a productive rhythm. The advantage of this mode where the instincts control our work is that it is very efficient but at the same time it moves us into a very narrow view of the work. When stuck we are stuck just in this narrow view and might not think out of this view (is it sounding like thinking out of the box?). This is similar to sleeping, it is so easy to get back to sleep when the alarm rings in the early morning no matter how difficult it was to fall asleep; if the concentration levels at work has been high and we got stuck then a way out is to come wide awake out of the concentration. Few times I have been stuck at programming from 6PM till bedtime just to wake in the morning and solve that in 15 minutes.

Almost every one of us at the work place have signed up for some sort of deadline, if we get stuck it adds to the stress. We have to use the phrase from “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy“. DONT PANIC

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