Email. Or Productivity. Pick One.

I’ve always found it hard not to infer causality when pondering the immense productivity of Shakespeare (or Dickens, or Aristotle, or … insert your favourite productive person) and the fact that they didn’t have email. At very least it’s hard to deny that those guys show that email is not necessary for productivity.

Cal Newport explores possible reasons for the inverse relationship that sometimes exists between getting stuff done and the technology that Newport quotes a Pew report describing as “the main digital artery that workers believe is important to their job”. In another post, specifically looking at the US Apollo program, Cal speculates:

[My] guess is that if we could go back in time and outfit the Apollo engineers with e-mail terminals, two things would have happened. First, their work lives would have become more convenient. Second, it would have taken them longer to get a man on the moon.

For grins, I once analyzed possible connections between email use and the productivity of another prolific brain, Donald Knuth. Over a 53-years-and-counting career (which I took to start in 1963 with the completion of his doctorate) during which, among many other things, he published several volumes of The Art Of Computer Programming (TAOCP) and developed a minor piece of software known as TeX, he used email for only 31% of that time. He started using email in 1975 but then stopped again in 1990, explaining that his work required “long hours of … uninterruptible concentration”. Knuth doesn’t say it but it’s probably relevant that 1990 marked the beginning of the AOLer invasion into and resulting demise of Usenet and the end of the early Internet’s glory days of the 1980s. In other words, if you wanted to pick a year when chucking email made sense so as to avoid the explosion of distracting mediocrity that is much of the modern Internet, 1990 was probably it.

The other 69% “non email years” were split between 12 years of his early career which saw him publishing the first three volumes of TAOCP, and the 24 years since “retiring” at age 54. That retirement has seen publication of the seminal work on Literate Programming, plus ongoing work on the rest of TAOCP. Again, correlation isn’t necessarily causation, but the fact that someone as productive as Knuth was afflicted by email for less than a third of his career can’t be pure coincidence.

Wailing and gnashing at Excel

I just tripped over a monu-$%&#ing-mental UI “bug” in Excel (for Mac 2011)! Please permit me to rage against the machine, and perhaps help someone else avoid this gotcha. :-(

In large multi-sheet Excel workbooks, I often use color-coding of sheet tabs to provide some visual grouping of related tabs. And such colouring can be applied en masse by selecting all the relevant tabs together via the usual Shift or ⌘ methods. I just did precisely that to 6 sheets within a 30-sheet workbook. Each of the six contained a table, identical in dimensions to the others, providing related but different functions.

Now colouring the tabs is really just one example of a more general feature of such sheet grouping — i.e. group editing. And it’s a very useful feature, especially when the sheets have common aspects. In my case, each sheet with its table acts like a software function or module, and just like in software it’s not unusual to want make the same kind of change across a set of functions/sheets.

Not unusual, but not always. You can probably guess where this is going. Immediately after colouring the group, I needed to make a change to one of the sheets. It was a substantial change to the formula in every cell within that sheet’s table. I changed one cell, made sure it was correct, and then copy-pasted the change to the rest of the table in the sheet. Or, I thought it was to the rest of the table in the sheet.

You see, when a number of tabs are group selected they remain selected until another tab, outside the group, is clicked. Now that’s fair enough, but far less fair enough is that the fact that the sheets are still grouped is not very obvious. There is a slight change to the shading of the selected sheets, but it’s subtle and doesn’t stand out when neighbouring tabs are also part of the selected group.

So after applying the colour, my group of tabs remained selected, a fact that escaped my Friday-evening-and-been-hacking-Excel-all-day weary eyes. Since I was still operating within one of the grouped sheets, they all stayed grouped, and my edit, intended for only one of the sheets, was applied across the entire group, essentially making all six sheets identical. Although the sheets are related (hence the colouring in the first place), their respective formulae are both different and fairly complex. Wiping out that complexity in five of my six sheets kinda ruined my evening.

Of course Excel left the best bit to the very end. Deciding I hadn’t suffered enough, the world’s most popular spreadsheet program delivered its coup de grâce. Such group edits have no Undo option.

Sweat the small stuff

I recently had to get some air-conditioning work done at home. The first time that was necessary (years ago, after moving to the US from Scotland where a/c means opening the window), we opted for a relatively cheap and local guy. After that was disappointing we moved up to a less cheap but still local company. Most recently though, after further disappointment, we went to one of the the better big firms and that’s who we called this time. A few observations then, applicable to Professional Services as a whole

So it turned out the job required two people. Technician A arrived first, to see what the problem was and I immediately picked up on two aspects of a poor initial impression. I wasn’t looking for them, but they became apparent very quickly. First, he rarely looked me in the eye. There was nothing shady about him; he just didn’t look comfortable doing what he was doing. Second, and much more important, he didn’t put on the little carpet-protecting plastic booties that all other techs from his company had done in the past. 5114N5BiTGL._SY355_OK, small unimportant things. Maybe. He then proceeded to investigate and came up with a (correct) diagnosis. He offered me two solutions; replace a component (cheap but possibly band-aid-like), or replace the entire 20-year-old system (expensive but thorough). Unfortunately, he offered me no help in deciding, and so when I chose to go with the cheap solution (since as a non-expert I was unable to justify the more expensive route), I was left feeling uneasy (because although I’m non-expert, I like to pretend that we engineers can understand anything technical :-) ). So much so that after a weekend of musing, I called the company to ask for a second opinion. Enter Technician B.

Now, Technician B was different from his predecessor from the get-go. He was much more confident, and eye-contact-making. Also, he put on his booties! He then redid the investigation, came up with the diagnosis, but told me there was only one option; the whole system needed replacing. I mentioned the other option, to fix a control board, and he said it was very inadvisable since our old unit was now out of code and its age meant it was probably very inefficient (not least because of heavy calcium build up). I discussed the matter further with him, testing to see if this was simply a sales-friendly technician who’d been primed by his boss with a message of “Client wants to spend more money; go make it happen”. Convinced he was giving me good information, I changed my mind from repair ($600) and ordered the full system replacement ($2000).
The work has since been done and I’m happy with it. Not only that, but the efficiency does appear to be dramatically improved. But, some key. professional-services-transferrable points arising:
  1. Consistency of standards is as important as height. The fact that the two techs acted differently, bootie-wise, undid some of the good impression made by Tech B. I’m not saying it would have been better had neither worn booties, but the fact that the two techs acted differently made me judge not just the bootie-less Tech A, but also the whole company. The lack of standards that are not only high but consistently so, was a black mark
  2. Attitude matters. Neither of the Techs had a “bad” attitude, but Tech A’s uncertain demeanor set him up for increased criticism when he later failed to offer me advice on choosing a solution.
  3. Upselling is neither good nor bad, but the client’s needs make it so. Providing a cheap soution is BAD CUSTOMER SERVICE if the best thing for the client is to buy the more expensive offering. The medical doctor analogy is useful to bear in mind as a guide. If someone goes to the Doc and complains of heartburn, the Doc is doing no one any good by not pointing out that the symptoms are more consistent with esophegal cancer (if, of course, they are).
  4. Little things matter, like the bootie-wearing. In an ideal world, maybe they shouldn’t. Maybe we should never judge books by their cover. But, you know, inept design in a book cover can, by signaling lack of money through lack of serious publisher interest, act as a proxy for poor quality. Of course, a tradesman wearing booties actually does have a purpose in that it stops me getting an earful from my wife when she sees his mucky bootprints on the carpet. But more than that it, like the book cover, can act as a proxy for quality, attention to detail, and piece of mind, all of which the purchaser of high grade Professional Services deserves.

Happy Birthday To Us

Today’s date is not necessarily the best on which to make any kind of announcement, and it’s true that the complexity of growing an international business from a standing start can often feel like an April’s Fool joke, especially when I consider all the silly government-induced things we need to put up with. But it’s true; Verilab is fifteen years old today!

Glasgow Herald, 2000

Mark, Jason and I started in Scotland on this same date in 2000, about a week before NASDAQ peaked and then began its heady fall. (Sorry world, we never meant to burst the bubble.) A year or so later, we opened an office in Germany, and then around 2004 we arrived in Texas. Today we have people in those places, but also in: England, Oregon, Washington, Ottawa, and Quebec. The number of states and countries in which we serve clients is at least double that. Overall, across many hundreds of projects, we have seen all the very best (and not-so-very-best) in the development of advanced silicon system. In fact, I think it’s likely that in Verilab there lives the single most concentrated collection of tool-independent chip verification expertise anywhere on the planet. In pursuit of the goal of helping clients to “tape-out” as quickly and as safely as possible, if we haven’t seen it, it probably doesn’t exist.

Well done and thank-you to all the team, our illustrious alumni, our many-splendored clients and partners, and of course our significant and long-suffering others. Happy Birthday to Us!

Othismos and the fine structure of mastery

As usual I’m tussling with the question: Why are some engineers just so much more effective than everyone else?; my current line of thinking being provoked by a series of books by Steven Pressfield.

First, let’s take with a pinch of salt the current flavor-of-day idea that “10,000 hours of deliberate practice” is both necessary and sufficient to achieve “world class performance”. Even K. Anders Ericsson, one of the academics involved in the research upon which that idea tries to sit, has gone to the length of writing a rebuttal article (MS Word), to try to tone down some of the hype. But let’s at least consider, for argument’s sake, the following as unobjectionable.

To get Really Jolly Good at something (i.e. let’s forget the “being as good as Mozart”, or even the lame “world class” superlatives — we’re just talking about being good enough that the rest of the world can’t ignore us) we should bear in mind that:

  1. Innate “talent” in the form of something like a gene for aptitude in Java or C++ is not, within broad limits, particularly important
  2. What is important is you have to do the thing a lot. Not necessarily 10,000 hours — maybe a lot less, or a lot more — but you can’t get to be Really Jolly Good without putting in a Decent Chunk of hours
  3. You can’t merely “do” the thing. This is the “deliberate practice” component. You have to push hard at it, work at the edges of your ability, get good feedback from an effective feeder-back (a.k.a. teacher/coach/mentor), and generally have an attitude that a Scottish friend of mine once called “borderline mental”.

Now at first sight, the above may appear to be blindingly obvious — work hard at something if you want to improve — but I think that is superficial. What I’m interested in here is what that last item looks like up close, because the more I look the more I reckon that the kind of deliberate-ness required for excellence is not at all like regular, common-or-garden hard work. And if there is anything innate in all this stuff — and the more I look, the more I think there is — it’s not “talent” per se, but my friend’s “borderline mentalness”. To get really good at stuff you have to do it a lot, and you have to do it in a way that most people just wouldn’t tolerate doing themselves. In other words, by definition you’re going to take diligence and hard work to a level that many would consider excessive, and just plain weird. So what exactly does that weirdness look like?

As I continue to read around this topic, and experiment with my own working on stuff, so far I can, on the surface, identify two  broad classes of weirdos. There are those who “love their work”, and those who are “acquainted with pain”. But I say “on the surface” because I think the two components typically arise together. That said, my main interest here is with the second aspect, if only because I think the first one is already being beaten to death in the popular literature to the extent  that many people are being left with the overly simple conclusion that all you have to do is “find your passion” and you’ll be happy every working hour of the rest of your life. I think that’s hokum partly because happiness is a far bigger project that can be fulfilled at work, but specifically because I think that finding one’s passion (even if such a unique-sounding thing existed) doesn’t appear to mean endless working bliss, not if the accounts given by Mason Curry in “Daily Routines” are to be believed. Many acclaimed authors, engineers, artists, and scientists report sustained pain and effort in maintaining endeavours (even though the pain is sometimes punctuated by periods of intense joy). So, if not bliss-inducing passion, then what? What is the deal with “acquainted with pain”?

And so here’s the Pressfield link. Two of the broad areas on which he writes are: how to be creative (e.g. “The War of Art“, “Do The Work” — both highly recommended); and historically accurate military fiction. One of the latter is “Gates of Fire“, a novel about the Spartan/Greek defense of Thermopylae against the Persians. I’ve often used military language in describing mastery, and Pressfield does the same in connecting actual warfare with the war he maintains goes on within an individual as they try to push themselves into their creative work. Pressfield, however, does it far better than I do.

One striking example is his description of the fine detail of the psychology of Greek Hoplite warriors, as they went to battle in their phalanx formations. Via what seems to be pretty rigorous research, backed by interviews with modern soldiers, Pressfield describes that internal struggle that every warrior faces and has to overcome to move forward. It is particularly apparent in that part of the battle known as the othismos (Greek: ὠθισμός, “pushing”). The exact nature and significance of the othismos is debated, but essentially it is that portion of the battle where opposing phalanxes have clashed together and proceed to shove, stab, and generally maim/kill the opponents, in an attempt to break them. OK, but how do 2,500 year old military tactics have any relevance for the modern day craftsman?
To see the connection, consider what those elite warriors represented in terms of training and determination. From early years they had been “trained” in the conventional sense, although that went far beyond merely knowing how to pick up a sword and not to drop one’s shield. Psychological training — and training in the management of personal fear in particular — was included. Then, even after training, they drilled and practiced continually, even in peace time. Then, in time of need, they would march hundreds of miles to engage the enemy. Then, after all that, they would throw themselves into combat conditions that make modern warfare — despite its far higher killing power — appear far less personal.

But there’s more. After all those years of training, and honing, and learning, and drilling, and marching, and fighting, when it came to the point where no normal person would criticize anyone for saying “Enough! No More!”, they executed othismos.  Therein lies an important key to mastery and excellence. There is something about some people that means they declare “Enough! No More!” far later than everyone else. They’re not satisfied with just writing an “acceptable” software design specification; they push beyond that, to write a Really Jolly Good plan (if not a downright excellent one). They’re not satisfied with code that just works. They want it to be clean, robust, “industrial strength”. They’re not willing to shrug when they find there may be a bug in the code library and leave it to someone else to fix; they push past that, digging into the library to find the bug and present the solution.

Crucially, none of this is about training content, or methodology, or “stuff” in general. This is about what is going on inside the individual’s head. It is a highly personal thing that points to a significant component of the difference between the merely average and the elite — the latter are acquainted with the pain of pushing past what the average allow themselves to be satisfied with. The elite, to use another military analogy — the Navy SEALs — embrace the suck.

If this is true in any significant way, one problem is that I don’t think we can teach this. We can certainly amplify it, demand it, encourage it. But I suspect we first have to select for it. Also, I say “if this is true” because I can’t say I’ve fully convinced myself yet. Also, I don’t know what the balance is — between bliss-inducing passion, and tolerance for pain. Pressfield talks of three components of esprit de corps — honor, shame, and love. Those seem to me consistent with a drive to push past one’s boundaries both because doing so is cool, and because not doing so is uncool. So I don’t want to over-stress the othismos angle. But so far, I think it’s one that is being under-stressed and a bit of compensation is needed.

Last point is directly to you dear reader. Do you recognize any of this struggle in yourself? Can you personalize any of this? How hard do you “push” when learning? What about when delivering to an employer or client. Are you aware of hitting your boundaries and pushing against them? I suspect that repeated failure, then used to build strength, goes hand in hand with the above. How often do you try so hard to improve that you fail?

An antidote to passion

Call me a cynical old git, but the whole “find your passion” thing has worn very thin on me over the past few years. It’s not that I think loving what you do and doing it with energy is inherently bad, but it seems to me that once you start focusing on that — on “my passion” — you have to take your focus off the thing you are doing and, just as (if not more) problematic, off the person for whom you are doing  it. Seeking your passion seems reminiscent of “the pursuit of happiness”; a pretty sure way of *not* finding it (or, at least, of discovering that when you do find it, it wasn’t really what you were looking for).

And my Scottish working-class grumpiness was made all the more self-satisfactory over Christmas when, while out for a family walk at Austin’s “Trail of Lights”, I came across a display for this: — “The World’s Platform for Passion”. At home after the walk, I watched their video and frowned, the old phrase, “ex nihilo nihil fit” coming quickly to mind. #besomebody #myass.

But Christmas was months ago. So what brought this to mind? Well it seems the staff at Austin High School are doing a great job in helping the students there build and maintain critical thinking skills. Well done AHS.
By way of antidote to the fluff, I strongly suggest pointing students at Cal Newport’s, “So Good They Can’t Ignore You” And in fact if one of the AHS staff there wants to drop me a note (an email to tommy.kelly at verilab dot the usual company ending is fine) with a name and address, I’ll start your collection by having Amazon send 10 copies to the school.