Hand me downs

Why not follow the boy scout rule when moving on?

pass on

Boy scout rule is well known in extreme programming, people are advised to leave the code in a better state than they found it. I observe this mostly works well for programming but not elsewhere. I have always admired teachers especially the ones that teach the basics. I made it a point that if I understand something after a good deal of effort then I would make it easy for another person by simplifying it. I kept doing this at school and college, I helped people learn tough parts of algebra, chemistry and physics through easy analogies.

When I graduated and got my job, I still carried on with this work of simplifying the tough things I learnt. There was a sudden change in team composition and I had to take up the work of a sysadmin, which was difficult for someone who was in technical support and testing for a year. I spent a lot of time learning to fit in the new role and in the process making sure that the next person getting on to this will require less transition, this is the time I was in for a rude shock; I was told by one of the senior members of the team ‘if you proceed this way of simplifying things and sharing your knowledge, you will soon be out of your job’.

The intentional complexity was hard to accept, especially when the company was trying hard to reduce dependencies on people. The high complexity created many silos in the team which made replacements harder eventually causing the team’s growth to slow down. It gave a false sense of security as people were called experts in their tasks, but not learning anything new as the learning curve was too steep.

Not working together with peers or communities will lead to phase called ‘Expert beginner’ which prevents someone from becoming competent. There is a good writeup about ‘Expert Beginner’. People take pride in the complexity of the their work and put through the new comers through the same phase so that the learning curve is steep and there is still value for expert beginners.

I read an article from ‘British Bird Lovers’ which is about how red robins which are territorial in nature lost out on the learnings it had got to open sealed bottles. The birds which learnt and kept the knowledge to itself gained a lot, but its successors did not learn any. The article finishes well saying ‘Birds that flock together appear to learn faster and increase their chances to evolve and survive’.

The general tendency for people is to pass on what was handed down to them as it is, especially if they spent a lot of effort to make it work for them. If someone has a tough time getting on board at workplace, s/he will tend to keep the on-boarding process the same, largely due to the fear of someone else overtaking or replacing them. In the process creating a culture of territory and stagnation instead of co-operation and shared growth.
Eric Schmidt mentions in his presentation ‘How google works’, that the only way to consistently succeed is to attract skilled people, work as a group, care for the workplace. We should only hand down the best, leave the place better than we find, if we do it that way then together we move ahead.