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Jack Woehr

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What to do, what to do

February 24, 2008

What to do, what to do.

Every action costs money. The taximeter is ticking every minute.

Worse, every step you take in the wrong direction costs you at least twice:
  1. once to go back
  2. once to go forward the way you should have gone

... if indeed you get off that easy. It's always worse when you go wrong because not only do you pay the double time penality, you've missed a slice of your market window.

If we were truly clever beasts, we hominids, we would be paralyzed permanently by indecision. Luckily, we're pretty foolish, and we have been forced to accomodate our decision-making processes to the practice of reasoning from insufficient knowledge.

Reasoning from insufficient knowledge is itself a complex discipline. It has its own internal logic, its own rules, such as:

  1. Take every opportunity to leap from native cunning and guesswork to definitive calculation.
  2. First guess: do what worked last time.
  3. Second guess:
    • There is no second guess.
    • You stop and think here.
  4. Never lose sight of the wisdom of the ages.

They are all part of the epistemological nature of reasoning from insufficient knowledge.

Most software development leaders intuitively grasp Rule 1 above, it's what they do best. The urge to transform all cases into Rule 1 definitive calculations is so great they'll tend to persist a little longer in that pursuit than circumstances warrant. Either that, or deceive themselves into believing that a phenomenon has been sufficiently "explained".

Rule 2 is human nature, so easy. There is no other path aside from divine frenzy, which latter is not recommended in the cubicle farm, though it does occur from time to time.

Rule 3 is a little harder. "Stop Guessing Early in the Process" is a good way to put it. Instead, Think. It hurts, but it is amazing how many manhours of work a team can put in on a problem or feature before someone on the team, occasionally even a manger, pauses to think.

Rule 4 is there in the back of folks' minds, but only intermittently put into practice. Every complete and noteworthy incident in the checkered History of Mankind, every proverb or parable, every bit of advice about the Human Condition ever served pre-cooked by the Ancients to Posterity (that's us) has application in our Art.

Once upon a career, very long ago, a phone call from Our Biggest Customer was passed to your humble correspondent by a thoroughly exceeded CEO. "Tell him anything you like," I was told, "I'd like to tell him to shove it, so it's your turn to talk to him."

The customer had trouble trusting us. We dealt squarely with him, but when his own team underperformed, the team looked for ways to frame us. It had gone back and forth several times, with the customer apologizing, then later flying into a rage again.

I patiently explained the precise dates, times and technical details and pointed out the complete and tested state of our code. Then, when he paused to take a breath. I told him about Dionysius II of Syracuse.

Dionysius I of Syracuse was a brutal tyrant in the 400's BCE. He is mentioned by Ripley's Believe it or Not because he would not let his barber trim his beard but made him singe it with a hot iron instead. The man was, in a word, unpopular.

He didn't even trust his son. He confined him to the palace basement with a woodshop teacher. The future autocrat of Syracuse was busy making birdhouses when news of his father's tragic and entirely natural death by poisoning reached him.

The courtiers weren't sure what to do. The new tyrant was utterly uneducated. So they sent for Plato from Greece (yes, that Plato) who came and not only taught Dionysius II his letters but imbued him with the Ideal.

That went ill with the courtiers, who understood this Ideal to have some connection to public servants not taking bribes. They slandered Plato to Dionysius II, whose mind was, to say the least, unsettled. He loaded Plato with chains and sold him into slavery in Lebanon, whence Plato was quickly ransomed by his students in Greece.

But in Syracuse there was no joy. Dionysius II pined for his tutor and tended to upsed tables and order people beaten in Plato's absence. So the courtiers humbly sent and tempted Plato back to the court of Syracuse, from whence, several months later, he was again expelled in chains.

"The funny thing is," I told the customer, "that Dionysius II was shortly overthrown by people who, in contrast to the tyrant, were able to make decisions and stick to them when the evidence favored those decisions. So it's a management strategy to alternately praise and then abuse your loyal servants, but it's not an effective management strategy."

The customer stayed with us until the project was finished.

Comp Sci candidates, please stay awake in your Humanities req's. It will serve you well later in life.

 

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