The four stages of automation – Part II

One of the core concepts of software development and IT in general is “automation”. By delegating work to machines, we hope to reduce costs and save time while maintaining the quality of results. But automation is not an all-or-nothing endeavor, there are at least four different stages of automation that can be distinguished.

In the first part of this blog series, we looked at the first two stages, namely “documentation” and “recurring reminders”. Both approaches are low tech, but high effect. Machines only played a minor role – this will change with this blog series part. Let’s look at the remaining two stages of automation:

Stage 3: Semi-automatic

If you have a process that is properly documented and you are reminded in a regular fashion, like once a month, you’ll soon find that some steps of the process could be done by a machine, while you as the “human in duty” still pull all the strings that orchestrate the whole thing.

If you know the term “semi-automatic” from firearms, a semi-automatic firearm doesn’t aim or shoot itself, it just reloads automatically after each shot. The shooter still has to pull (and release) the trigger for each single shot. The shooter is in full control of the weapon, it just automates the mundane and repetitive task of chambering the next round.

This is the kind of automation we are taking about for stage 3. It is the most common type of automation. We know it from our cars, our coffee machines and other consumer electronics. The car manages a lot of different tasks under the hood while we are still in control of the overall task of driving from A to B.

How does it look like for business processes? One class of stage 3 utilities are reporting tools that gather and aggregate data from different sources and present the result in a suitable manner. In our company, these tools make up the majority of stage 3 services. There are reporting tools for the most important numbers (the key performance indices – KPI) and even some for less important, but cumbersome to acquire data. Most tools just present a nice website with the latest results while others send e-mails or create pages in our wiki. If you need a report, just press a button or visit an URL and the machine comes up with the answer. I tend to call this class of tools “sensors”, because they acquire data and process it, but don’t decide on the results.

The other class of stage 3 utilities that are common are “actuators” in the sense that they perform tasks on command. We have scripts in place to shut down whole clusters of computers, clear wiki spaces or reset custom fields on important data objects, but those scripts are only triggered by humans.

A stage 3 actuator could even be something small as a mailto link. Let’s say you have to send a standardized e-mail to a known recipient as part of a monthly process. Sure, you can save a draft in your e-mail application, but you can also prepare the whole mail in an URL directly in the documentation of the process:

mailto:nobody@softwareschneiderei.de?subject=The%20schneide%20blog%20rocks!&body=I%20read%20your%20blog%20post%20about%20automation%20and%20tried%20the%20mailto%20link.%20This%20thing%20is%20awesome%2C%20thank%20you!

If you click the link above, your e-mail application will prompt you to send an e-mail to us. You don’t need to follow through – we won’t read it on that address.

You can read about the format of mailto links here, but you probably want to create working mailto links right away, which is possible with this nifty stage 3 service utility written by Michael McKeever (buy him a beer!).

Be aware that this is a classic example of chaining stage 3 tools together: You use a tool to create the mailto link that you use subsequently to write, but not send, e-mails. You, as the human coordinator, decide when to write the e-mail, if you want to adapt it to current circumstances and when to send it. The tools only speed you up, but don’t act or decide on their own.

An important aspect of this type of automation is the human duty of orchestration (which service does its thing when) and the possibility of inspection and adaption. The mailto link doesn’t send an e-mail, it just prepares it for you to send. You have the final word on the things that happen.

If you require this level of control, stage 3 automation is where your automation journey ends. It still needs the competent human operator (what, when, why) – but given a decent documentation (as outlined in stage 1), this competence can be delegated quickly. It is also the first automation stage that enables higher effectiveness through speedup and error reduction. The speedup is capped by the maximum speed of the human operator, though.

Stage 4: Full automation

The last stage of automation is “full automation”, which means that a machine gathers the data on its own, comes up with a decision based on the data and acts on its own. This is a powerful tool, but a dangerous one, too.

It is powerful because you just employed an additional worker. Not a human worker, but a machine. It doesn’t go on holiday, it doesn’t lose interest and won’t ask for a bonus.

It is dangerous, because your additional worker does exactly what it is told (programmed) to do, even if it doesn’t make sense or needs just the slightest adaption to circumstances.

Another peril lies in the fact that the investment to reach the fully automated stage is maximized. As with nearly everything related to IT, there is a relevant xkcd comic for this:

https://xkcd.com/1319/

The problem is that machines are not aware of their context. They don’t deal well with slight deviations (like “1,02” instead of “1.02”) and cannot weigh the consequences of task failure. All these things are done by a competent human operator, even without specific training. You need to train a machine for every eventuality, down to the dots.

This means that you can’t just program the happy path, as you do in stage 3, when a human operator will notice the error and act accordingly. You have to implement special case behaviour, failure detection, failure handling and problem reporting. You have to adapt the program to changes in the environment in a timely manner (this work is also present in stage 3, but can be delayed more often).

If the process contains mostly routine and is recurring often enough to warrant full automation, it is a rewarding investment that pays off quickly. It will take your human-based work on a new level: designing and maintaining an automation platform that is cost-efficient, scalable and adjustable. The main problem will be time-critical adjustments and their overall effects on the whole system. You don’t need routine workers anymore, but you’ll need competent technicians on stand-by.

Examples of fully automated processes in our company are data backups, operating system upgrades, server monitoring and the recurring reminder system that creates the issues for our stage 2 automation. All of these processes have increased reporting capabilities that highlight problems or just anomalies in a direct manner. They all have one thing in common: They are small, work on only one thing and try to do so with minimal dependencies and interaction.

Conclusion

There are four distinguishable stages of automation:

  1. documentation
  2. recurring reminders
  3. semi-automatic
  4. full automation

The amount of human work for the actual process decreases with each stage, while the amount of human work for the automation increases. For most processes in an organization, there will be a sweet spot between process cost and automation cost somewhere on that spectrum. Our job as automaters is to find the sweet spot and don’t apply too much automation.

If you have a good story about not enough automation or too much automation or even about automation being just right – tell us in the comments!

The four stages of automation – Part I

One of the core concepts of software development and IT in general is “automation”, the “creation and application of technologies to produce and deliver goods and services with minimal human intervention” (definition from techopedia).

The problem is that “minimal human intervention” is often misunderstood as “no human intervention”, which is the most laborious and expensive stage of automation that might not have the most economic return on investment. It might be more efficient to have some degree of intervention left while investing only a fraction of the automation work and duration.

In order to decide “how much” automation is the most profitable for the foreseeable future, I’ve established a model with four stages of automation that I can quickly check against the circumstances. In this blog post, I describe the first two stages and give some ideas how to implement them.

Stage 1: Documentation

The first step to automation is to just describe the process in a manner that can be repeated. The documentation itself does nothing, but it enables repetition and scalability, two fundamental aspects of automation.

Think about baking a pie. If you just mix some ingredients and put it in the oven for an arbitrary amount of time, you might produce the most delicious pie ever, but you cannot do it again if you don’t remember all details and, even more tragic, nobody else can bake your pie. In order to give others the secret to your special pie, you have to give them the recipe – the documentation of its production process. Once the recipe is written down (and published), it can be read by many bakers in parallel and enables all of them to recreate your invention (to some degree at least, there are probably still some tricks and secrets left out of the recipe).

While the pie baking process still needs human intervention (the bakers that read the recipe and transform it into a series of actions), it is automated in the sense that it can be repeated with roughly the same result and these repetitions, given enough bakers and ovens, can be performed in parallel.

The economic evaluation of documentation shows that it is really easy to create, fast to change and, given some quality of content, nearly universally understood. If you don’t want to invest a lot of time and money, documenting your processes is the first and most important step towards automation. For a lot of your processes, it will also be the last possible stage of automation, at least until artificial intelligence learns your tricks and interpretations.

Documenting your processes is (no surprises here) the foundation of most quality assurance standards. But it is surprisingly hard to start with. This is not a matter of tools – pen and paper will do in the beginning. It is a shift in your mindset. The goal is no longer to bake a pie. It is to write a recipe while you bake the pie as a reference piece for it. If you want to start documenting your processes, here are three tips that might help you:

  • Choose a digital tool that doesn’t obstruct you. It should be digital because this facilitates distribution and collaboration. It should not hinder you because every time you need to think about the tool, you lose the focus on your process. I’m using a Wiki that lets me type the things I want to say without interference. In my case, that’s Confluence, but Obsidian or other tools are just as good.
  • Try to adopt a narrative structure to describe your processes. Think about the established structure of a baking recipe. For example, there is an ingredients list separate from the preparation instructions. If you find a structure that works for you, repeat and evolve it. It helps you and your readers to stay on track and don’t scatter the information all over the place. In my case, the structure consists of four paragraphs:
    1. Event/Trigger – The circumstance(s) that should be present at the beginning of the process
    2. Actions/Steps – The things you have to do, described in the necessary details for the target audience. This is often the paragraph with the most content.
    3. Result – Description of the circumstance(s) that should be present once you’ve done all steps. In recipes, this is often a photo of the meal/pastry. For first-time performers, this description is important to be able to declare success.
    4. Report – Who needs to be informed? This paragraph is often missing in descriptions, but crucial for collaboration. If nobody knows there is a fresh and delicious pie in the kitchen, it will not be eaten. Ok, that’s a bad example: Pies in the oven announce themselves with their smell. Digital products often have no smell – inform your peers!
  • Iterate over your documentation any chance you get. It is easy to bake your signature pie from memory. But is the recipe still accurate? Are there details that are important, but missing from the description? Your digital tool probably allows immediate modification of your documentation and maybe even informs interested readers about your update. Unchanged documentation is dead documentation. In my case, I always open my process description on a secondary monitor whenever I perform them. Sometimes, I invite others to perform the process for me to review the accuracy and fidelity of the documentation.

If you can open the process description of many of your routine tasks, you have reached the first stage of automation for your work. Of course, there will be lots of things you do that are not “routine” – yet. With good documentation, you can even think about delegation – the art of maximizing the amount of work done by others – without sacrificing essential quality.

In later stages, the delegation target (the “others”) will be machines.

Stage 2: Recurring reminders

If you’ve documented a process with a structure similar to mine, you specified a trigger or event that requires the process to be performed. Perhaps its the first day of the month and you need to update your timesheet or send out the appointment overview for the next weeks. Maybe your office plants silently thirst for some water. Whatever it is, if your process is recurrent, you might think about recurring reminders.

This will not automate the performance of the process, but unburden you of thinking about the triggering event. The machines will now remind you about certain tasks. This can be a simple series of reminders in your schedular app or, like in my case, the automated creation of issues (or todo items, tickets) in your work planning application.

For example, once every few weeks, a friendly machine creates an issue for me to write a blog entry on this blog. It does the same for my colleagues and even sets a “due date” (The due date for this post is today). With this simple construct, some discipline and coordination, we’ve managed to write one blog post every week for more than ten years now.

The machine that creates the issues doesn’t check them. It doesn’t supervise their progress and isn’t offended if we “won’t fix” issues because we are on holiday or the plants are still wet. It will just create the next issue according to the rhythm. It is our duty as humans to check if that rhythm fits or if it should be sped up or slowed down.

If you want to employ really elaborate triggers for your reminders, a platform like “If this then that (IFTTT)” might be the right choice. Just keep in mind that with complexity, there often comes rigidity, which isn’t always desired.

By automating the aspect of reminding us about the routine tasks, we can concentrate on doing them. We don’t forget to write blog posts or to water the plants because the machine doesn’t forget. Another improvement is that this clearly distinguishes between routine (has a recurring reminder) and anomaly. If the special one-time task occurs again, we give it a recurring reminder and adopt it as a new routine task. If a reminder about a routine task is “won’t fixed” often enough without any inclination that it will be required again, we delete the reminder.

Conclusion for part I

If you combine automated recurring reminders with structured documentation, you already gain a lot of advantages and can free your mind from the mundane details and intervals of your routine tasks. You haven’t automated any aspect of your real work yet, which means that these two stages can be applied to most if not all workplaces.

In the next part of this series, we will look at the two stages that become integrated with your actual work. Stay tuned!

Hyperfocus on Non-Essentials

When tasked with managing a complex and potentially overwhelming project, a common behaviour of inexperienced managers/developers is to focus on things that are easy to achieve (“low-hanging fruits”), fun to produce (“cherry-picking”) or within the comfort zone.

This means that in the extreme, the developer exclusively focusses on things that are of no interest for the business client but can simulate progress and results.

This behaviour is an application of the “path of least resistance” and I know exactly what it feels like. Here’s the story why:

When I was fourteen years old, my programming career was already 6 years in the making. Of course, I only wrote code for myself, teaching myself new concepts and new errors alike. My only scale of success was “does it run?” and “is it still fun for me?”. My only programming language was BASIC, first the dialect GW-BASIC (still with line numbers!), then the more advanced QBasic (with named jump markers instead of line numbers).

I grew up in small cities and was basically alone with my hobby. But a friend had a parent that owned an optometrist shop that was interested in using computers for their day-to-day operations. I was asked to write a program to handle the shop’s inventory and sales. The task was interesting, but I had no idea how any shop, let alone this particular one, handles their business. I agreed to build a prototype and work from there.

I knew that this project was bigger and more ambitious than any hobby project of my own before, but it was programming after all – how hard could it be?

My plan was to do two things in parallel: Buy and read a book about real software development with BASIC and try to sketch out the application as as “coded paper prototype”.

The book turned out to be the confessions of a frustrated software developer that basically assured the reader on every page that BASIC was not dead and appended dozens of pages with code listings to every chapter. There was probably a lot of wisdom in this book, too, but it missed me by miles.

The sketch of the application began with a menu of all the things I thought would be necessary, like “inventory” or “sales process”. I also included an “Extras” menu and one thing in the menu should be a decent screen saver. Back in those days, the CRT monitors suffered from burn-in if the same image was shown for a long time and I figured that this application would run all day every day, so it seemed logical and important to have a screen saver that is automatically turned on after some period of inactivity.

Which presented itself as a really hard problem, because BASIC was essentially single-threaded (or at least it was to my knowledge back then) and I had to invent some construct that can perhaps be described as “obscure co-routines”. That was some fun programming!

After I solved the automatic activation of the screensaver functionality, I discovered that I could easily make the actual screensaver that gets shown a parameter. So I programmed not one, but several cool and innovative ASCII art screensavers that you could choose from in the extras menu. One screen saver was inspired by the snake game, another one was “colored blocks” that would appear and disappear to form a captivating mood picture.

That was the state of the application when my friend’s parent asked for a demo. I had:

  • No additional knowledge about application design
  • A menu of things I invested no second thought in
  • Several very cool screensavers that activated themselves automatically. Isn’t that great?

You can probably guess how that demo went. None of the things I had developed mattered in the slightest for the optometrist shop. My passion for my creation didn’t translate to the business very well.

I had worked intensively on this project. I hyperfocused on totally non-essential stuff and stayed mostly in my comfort zone, even if I felt as if I had made great progress.

It is easy to fall into this trap. It is easy to mistake one’s own feelings of progress and success with the external (real) ones. It feels very good to work frantically on things that matter to oneself. It becomes a tragedy if the things only matter to oneself and nobody else.

So what can we do to avoid this trap? If you have an idea, write a comment about it! I hope to hear lots of different takes on this problem.

Here is my solution: “Risk first”. With this project strategy, the first task in a project is to solve the hardest part, to cut the biggest knot or to chart the most relevant area. It means that after the first milestone is a success, the project will gradually become easier. It’s the precursor to “fail fast”, which is a “risk first” project that didn’t meet its first milestone.

It is almost guaranteed that the first milestone in a “risk first” project will not be in your comfort zone, is no low-hanging fruit that you can pick without effort and while it might be fun to work on, it’s probably something your customer has a real interest in.

By starting a project “risk first”, I postpone my tendency to focus on non-essentials towards the end of the project. And with concepts like “business value”, I can see very clearly when my work becomes irrelevant for the customer. That’s when I stop my professional work and my hobby begins.

Key ingredients for the home office

Since March 2020, we transformed from an “on-site” company to a remote company, not particularly because we wanted to, but because the corona pandemic forced us to. Our office is not suitable to ensure transmission safety, so I decided that work from home is the lesser problem. When I say “transform” and “decided”, please bear in mind that these are retrospect notions. The decision was made at Monday, March 16th 2020 and the transformation happened in the next two days.

But there is a real difference between being operable and fully equipped for the situation. We were operable in the remote situation within 48 hours. But we still work on improving our equipment to match the situation that seems to linger a lot longer than initially anticipated. This blog post tries to summarize what we’ve learned since March 2020 in regards to equipping home office workplaces past the makeshift phase.

The fundamentals

The most fundamental ingredients of any office workplace are the table and the chair. If any of those lack in necessary ergonomic features, your comfort will never be the same as in the office (provided that your equipment there is adequate). And this constant discomfort will permeat everything you do.

The chair was easier to detect because it shows up in the video calls, it is part of the “zoom room”. Still, it took some time to order new chairs or transport existing office chairs to the home offices. If you experience back pain or mechanically induced headaches, review your chair thoroughly.

The table was more tricky, because it is typically invisible during video calls. My approach was to retrieve a photo of every home office space and talk about the possible improvements. During these talks, we came up with two solution categories that I want to present.

The notebook workplace

We all had work notebooks as secondary computers before the pandemic. So it was not a problem to start with working from home on that notebook, we’ve done it before. But if all you do is to work directly at a notebook, you might have the best chair and table, your body posture will be suboptimal. We equipped the notebook-based workplaces with the following extras:

  • An external keyboard
  • An external computer mouse
  • One (or better: two) additional monitors
  • A matching docking station, at least to connect to the monitors
  • A notebook riser stand

The last item, the notebook riser stand, was the game changer when it came to multi-monitoring (two or three monitors). It elevates your notebook to the same height as the other displays and might even change its angle. This transforms your notebook from being the CPU unit with cumbersome monitor to a secondary monitor with a CPU. The riser stand doesn’t cost much (if you don’t go overboard with its design) and provides you with more table space and improved displays.

The existing computer workplace

Because we are software developers, we mostly have a very decent computer already fully equipped at home. The only problem: The computer is for private tasks and should stay that way. We want to separate our work environment from our leisure environment as much as possible. But several developers wanted to use their usual “battlestation” for home office work, too.

In this case, we bought a lavish SSD as an additional boot drive for the home PC. This separates the work operating system from the leisure drive as much as the notebook approach. And the existing hardware can be used for both timeslots, much to the comfort of the developer.

The video conference equipment

But regardless of your approach (notebook or existing computer), there are still some things missing that improve the quality of work of yourself and your colleagues tremendously:

  • A good headset, preferably with top-notch comfort and active noise cancelling (ANC)
  • An at least decent webcam

Most notebooks provide a mediocre webcam and some low quality microphone. Do yourself (and your communication partners) a favor and invest in a good microphone. Oftentimes, it is coupled with good headphones. The difference between a good audio setup and an echo-prone makeshift solution is the deciding factor when essentially all communication with your colleagues go through this channel.

The webcam is not as essential as the audio equipment, because it “only” affects your communication partners, but it adds a nice touch to your other equipment. You don’t have to go overboard on it, a model for one hundred euros is already an improvement.

The bottleneck

One thing that can really invalidate most of the other improvements is a small internet connection. This is probably to hardest thing to fix in a timely manner, but give it some thoughts. If your internet connection is too slow for your daily work and communication pattern, it will be a constant annoyance. Just because it takes some time to improve doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.

We will probably remain in this situation long enough to still reap the profit of our effort. And even if not (at least we can hope), nobody ever complained about an internet connection that is a bit oversized.

TL;DR

If you didn’t read the article, here are the major take-away points neatly summarized:

  • Ergonomic chair and table
  • Notebook with external keyboard, mouse and monitor
  • Notebook riser stand
  • SSD for dual boot systems
  • Good headset
  • External webcam
  • “Broadband” internet

If you miss an item from this list for your home office, give it a thought. And if you plan to only think about one item, think about your chair first.

What are your experiences with working from home? What accessory makes your work life better? Give us a hint by writing a comment below. Thank you!

The Bird in the Jungle

When I was a young boy and attending school, there were art classes that I kind of liked. You either were told cool stories about lunatic painters or painted cool pictures by yourself. I still remember one particular assignment that sticks out to me: draw a bird!

In case you ask what this blog entry is all about: It is about project management and expectation management. It will stray a little bit into process territory. But mostly, it’s about a picture of a bird in a jungle.

When the teacher told us the task for the next weeks, my imagination ran wild. Draw a bird! I envisioned a stork-like bird with long legs and a long beak, fishing by a river in a tropical setting. The river would flow through a full-blown jungle with lots of plants and insects and things to discover. The bird would be in the center of the picture, drawing your attention to its eyes as it hovered over a fish in the water, ready for the strike that would provide its supper. But if your eyes follow the water, you would see that the bird is just a piece in a complex ecosystem with lots of untold stories. My pen would tell some of those stories!

We had rougly two hours of art class, so I had to move fast. Because the bird was the essential piece of my picture, I had to draw it last, on top of the background jungle and aligned with all the secondary motives. In the first hour, the jungle grew on my sheet of paper, following the outlined river. If I grew weary of drawing plant leaves, I added a bug or a little snake. Somewhere, a happy little jungle squirrel peaked through the green (Ok, that’s not true. I didn’t know about Bob Ross back then and my squirrel was probably not happy).

The thing was, the art class was suddenly over. My jungle wasn’t completed yet. Worse, the entire river, fish and bird were still missing. The teacher asked me if I misunderstood the assignment. What a joke! Of course I understand, my bird will be majestic – once it is finished next week.

I peeked at the pictures of my classmates. Most of them had some bird-like outlines, a beak or a foot. Nobody had finished their drawing. As far as I was concerned, I was well within expectations. Many classmates took their picture home to work on it in the afternoon. I waited until next week, I was certain about my plan.

Next week came and a sudden realization followed: Most of my classmates had indeed worked on their bird at home. Their drawings were energetic, strong and defined. They looked like black-and-white copies of bird photographies and nothing like the awkward lines from last week. They had traced an image through their sheet and called it a day. Two classmates had even traced the same image and produced essentially identical birds. Those cheaters. Not me!

When half the class had already turned in the assignment, the pressure began to rise for the strugglers. My plans were in jeopardy and I skipped several trees and mountains in the outskirts of the picture to save time. This also meant I had to fade out the picture at the edges to make it seem deliberately.

This art class went over so fast, I still hadn’t drawn my bird when the bell rang. The teacher wanted to collect our pictures, but I had to bargain for a week of work at home. With that much time at my disposal, I could implement my plans. I drew six evenings and half the weekend. My jungle was never right. My river wasn’t as dynamic as envisioned. But most of all, my bird was nowhere near majestic. It was a stork-like bird, but way too small. It didn’t hover over the fish, I had to make it dive into the water to even be near its prey. In the end, I had spend around 20 hours on a two-hour assignment that produced a drawing of a jungle that happened to have a hungry, desperate bird in the middle. Somewhere in the outskirts, a squirrel laughed.

The teacher gave me a mediocre grade out of pity. It was clear I didn’t copy from anywhere. But it was also clear as the water of the river in my jungle that I didn’t follow the instructions at all.

Looking back now, I can smile about the naive boy that set out to tackle a task that nobody asked for while getting lost and receiving an average grade for an enormous effort. You can probably already see that the return on investment was awful.

The interesting thing for me to see clearly now is that the project was doomed from the start. Mostly because I didn’t work on the teacher’s assignment, I worked on my own assignment. And my own assignment was much bigger than the original one, but the time budget was not. If you don’t see it as clearly, just count the words in the teacher’s assignment (“draw a bird” – 3 words) and just the nouns in my plan. Calculate one hour for every noun and you can see how this would never have worked. So this is the first take-away: Always make sure that you work on your customer’s project and not your own. If the customer didn’t use a specific noun in the mission statement, why did we include it in our project plan? In my story, the teacher never even mentioned a “background”. Just a bird. Draw it and be done. Go home and draw the jungle in your spare time.

The next thing that sticks out now for me is that I delayed the essential work (the bird) as much as possible. This is exactly the wrong approach if you want to act at least a little bit agile. Cover the essential things first and fill in the details later. In my today’s work, we call it the “risk first approach”. The most critical part comes first. It might not be pretty, it might not be complete, but it already works. Applying this to my story: If I had drawn the bird first (big and majestic in the middle), I could have called it quits anytime afterwards. Nobody asked for more and my teacher wouldn’t grade the background – only the bird.

The third thing is about expectation management: The teacher expected us to try, fail and cheat at home. Those clearly traced pictures matched the assignment better than my work. I just refused to fail and start over. I didn’t set out to match the expectations of my teacher, I wanted to fulfill my own expectations that were not grounded in reality. I even ignored the grading scheme of my teacher (my customer, but I couldn’t see it that way at that time) and got upset when all my effort just yielded a mediocre grade.

Today, I see all these things and can handle them successfully. As a young boy, those were foreign concepts for me. Between the two points in time, I acquired concepts, terms and words to reflect on the process. But I’m still learning. Perhaps you see something in the story that I haven’t seen yet? Tell me in a comment below!

Nevertheless, I often think about my bird in the jungle as a reminder to keep on track.

Building the right software

When we talk about software development a lot of the discussion revolves around programming languages, frameworks and the latest in technology.

While all the above and also the knowledge and skill of the developers certainly matter a great deal regarding the success of a software project the interaction between the involved individual is highly undervalued in my opion. Some weeks ago I watched a great talk connecting air plane crashes and interaction in a software development team. The golden quote for me was certainly this one:

Building software takes technical skill, but building the right software take human interaction and lots of it”

Nickolas Means (“How to crash an airplane”, The Lead Developer UK 2016)

I could not word it better and it matches my personal experience. Many, if not most of the problems in software projects are about human communication, values, feelings and opinions and not technical.

In his talk Nickolas Means focuses on internal team communication and I completely agree with him. My focus as a team lead shifted a lot from technical to fostering diversity, opinions and communication within the team. I am less strict in enforcing certain rules and styles in a project. I think this leads to more freedom and better opportunities for experimentation and exploration of ways to approach a problem.

Extend it to your customer

As we work on projects in different domains with a variety of customers we are really working hard to understand our customers. Building up open, trustworthy and stable communications is key in forming a fruitful and productive collaborative partnership in a (software) project. It will help you to produce a great software that does meet the customers needs instead of just a great software. It may also help you in situation where you mess up or technical problems plague the project.

The aspect of human interaction in software projects has its place rightfully in the agile software development manifesto:

Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools

The Authors of the Agile Manifesto

Almost 20 years later this is still undervalued and many software developers are still way too much on the technical side. We are striving to steadily improve our skills on the human interaction side and think it proves fruitful everytime we succeed.

I hope that more and more software developers will grasp the value of this shifted view point and that it will increase quality and value of the software solutions provided to all users.

Maybe it will make working in this field friendlier for not so tech-savvy people and allow for more of much needed diversity in tech.

Still thinking about managing time…

Now that I‘ve actually read what I‘ve written a few weeks ago 😉 … I‘ve obviously had some time to reflect. About more models of managing your time, about integrating such models in your daily life, their limits, and, of course, about the underlying force, the “why” behind all that.

While trying to adjust myself to the spacious world of home office, I especially came to notice, that time management itself probably wasn‘t the actual issue I was trying to improve. Sure enough, there are several antipatterns of time mismanagement that can easily lead to excessive spending, something you can improve with simple Home Office installations, e.g. having a clock clearly visible from your point of view – and, sensibly, one clearly visible from your cofee machine… These are about making time perceptible, especially when you‘re not the type of person with absolutely fixed times for lunch, or such mundane concepts.

But then, there‘s a certain limit to the amount of improvement you can easily gain from managing time alone. Sure, you could try to apply every single life hack you find online, but then again, the internet isn‘t very good in accounting for differences in personal psychology. The thing you can do, is trying to establish a few recommendations at a certain time and shaking established habits, but you need to evaluate their effect. Not everything is pure gold. For example, my last blog post pointed to the Pomodoro technique, where one will find that there are classes of work that can easily be scheduled into 25-30 minute blocks. But there are others where this restriction leads to more complications than it solves. Another “life hack” the internet throws at you at every opportunity is having a certain super-best time to set your alarm clock to, and I would advise to try to shuffle this once in a while to find out whether there‘s some setting that is best for you. But never think that you need e.g. the same rising pattern as Elon Musk in order to finish your blog post in time… Just keep track of yourself. How would other people know your default mode?

Now overall, each day feels different a bit, and it‘s a function of your emotional state as well as some generic randomness that has no less important effects on your productivity than a set of rules you can just adhere to. So, instead on focussing on managing your time on a given day, we could think of actually trying to manage your productivity. But then again, “productivity management” sounds so abstract that the handles we would think of are about stuff like

  • what you eat
  • how you sleep
  • how much sports you‘re willing to do
  • how much coffee you consume

and other very profound parameters of your existence. That‘s also something you can just play around a bit until you find an obvious optimum. (Did you know that the optimum amount of breakfast beer for you is likely to be zero?… … :P)

However, if you keep on fine tuning every single aspect for the rest of your life like a maniac, you risk to loose yourself in marginal details, without gaining anything.

So if you‘re still reading – we now return in trying to solve what it actually is that we want to manage. And for me, the best model is thinking about managing motivation. Not the general “I guess I am better off with a job than without one”-motivation, but the very real daily motivation that makes you jump from one task into the next one. The one that drives maximum output from your given time without actually having to manage your time itself. There are always days of unsteady condition, but by trying to avoid systematic interferences with your motivation, you can achieve to maximize their output, as well.

At a very general level (and as outlined above), one crucial ingredient in motivational management, for me, is the circumstance of following a self-made schedule. By which of course, I mean, you arrange your day to cooperate with your colleagues and customers, but it has to feel like as much a voluntary choice as possible within your given circumstances.

Then, there‘s planning ahead. Sounds trivial. But you can be the type of person that plans several weeks in advance, or the one that is actually unsure about what happens next monday – the common denominator is avoiding to worry about a kind of default course of events for a few days in a row. We all know that tasks like to fill out more time than they actually require, so you get some backlog one way or another; but if you manage to feel like your time is full of doing something worthwile, it‘s way easier to start your day at a given moment than when you try to arrange tasks of varying importance on-the-fly.

One major point – which I was absolutely amazed by, when I chose to believe it – is, that you can stop a task at many times, without losing your train of thought, not just when it‘s finished. So often, one fears the expected loss of concentration when he realizes that a single task will not fit in a limited time box. But unless you are involuntarily interrupted, and unless you somehow give in to the illusion that the brain is somehow capable of multi-tasking*, you can e.g. shift whole subsections of a given task to the next morning in a conscious manner, and then quickly return to your old concentration.

On the other hand, there‘s the concept of Maker vs. Manager Cycles. Briefly,

  • Someone in a “Manager” mode has a lot of (mostly) smaller issues, spread over many different topics, often only loosely connected, often urgent, and sometimes without intense technical depth. The Manager will gain his (“/her” implied henceforth) motivation surely by getting a lot of different topics done in a short time, thus benefit from a tight, low-overhead schedule. He can apply artificial limits to his time boxes and apply the Pareto rule thoroughly: (“About 80% of any result usually stems from about 20% of the tasks”).
  • However, someone in “Maker” mode probably has a more constrained set of tasks – like a programmer trying to construct a new feature with clearly defined requirements, or a number of multiple high-attention issues – which he wisely bundled into blocks of similar type – will benefit from being left alone for some hours.

For a more thorough discussion, I‘ll gladly point to the discussion of Paul Graham, as Claudia thankfully left in our comment section last time 😉

Which brings me to my final point. I found one of the strongest key to daily motivation lies in the fundamental acceptance of these realities. As outlined above, there just are some different subconscious modes, and different external circumstances, that drive your productivity to a larger scale than you can manipulate. If you already adopted a set of measures and found they did a good job for you, you better not worry if there‘s some kind of a blue day where everything seems to lead to nowhere. You can lose more time by over-optimization than you could gain from super-finely-tuned efficiency. You probably already know this, but do you also embrace it?

(* in my experience, and while I sometimes find myself still trying to do this, multi-tasking is not an existing thing. If you firmly believe otherwise, be sure to drop me a note in the comments..)

Thoughts about Time Management

Now that we live in a time where many project-driven jobs have been forced out of their natural habitat (i.e. home office), one might more than ever ask oneself, „how do I get the most out of my day?“ This is especially interesting when coordination within a team can not happen ad hoc – as it would be possible in an open office environment – but has to fit into every involved one‘s schedule.

So, maybe, within these constraints, it is helpful to remind oneself of some key principles of how humans and their tasks interact with each other. The following compilation of ideas is largely based on fragments acquired by the author and is in no way fresh, groundbreaking research in any field 😉

1. Parkinson‘s Law and Time Boxes.

Sounding like absolutely commonplace knowledge, it is often circulated that “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” (originally published in 1955). This can be understood by acknowledging that the human mind usually is quite capable of abstraction and, therefore, of solving hypothetical problem statements… given one task, one can find an arbitrary level of depth of sub-tasks and scent out complications between them; all of which stands in the very way of what one might call one‘s claim for „perfection“, whatever that means.

In theory, however, this tendency can be confined somewhat by thinking of any task to only live in a static, smallest-possible „Time Box“. This aims at removing the buffer resources (or „cushions“) around any single task. By defining such a Time Box by first using words that are easy to grasp,and secondly allocating the minimum amount of time one can barely imagine, one can prevent his or her mind from wandering off into these depths of abstraction (e.g. to „make my home great again“ could involve several complicated and hitherto unknown steps, but to „empty the trash bins in 10 minutes“ feels quite palpable, even if it‘s only a minor aspect of the overall picture).

For singular tasks that need to be split up over several Time Boxes, one might use the idea of the „pomodoro technique“ as a guidance, which estimates that productive, uninterrupted work can usually happen in time intervals of about 25 minutes. In any way, the typical length of a work day should be booked out by timeslots completely, as any addition of a „buffer zone“ will probably directly calm the mind in any preceding Time Box („relax, I don‘t have to respect the end of my Time Box that much, that‘s what the cushions are for“). It might even be preferable to book out the whole work week in advance.

The point in all these is not that one can always manage to fulfil one‘s Time Box, but to give a quick and emotional feedback to the mind: „Stay focused or postpone the current Time Box, but don‘t enter a state of limbo in which you feel like working on the issue at hand, but actually create new tasks, and with impunity.“ On the other hand, if one manages to calibrate the Time Box duration to its projected task, one can very well thrive on the motivation resulting from finishing this task, amplifying focus in a most natural way. Leading over…

2. „Eat the Frog“.

The completion of a task usually leads to one of several effects: As mentioned above, one can feel a motivational push and immediate drive to tackle the next problem; or, however, it can lead to a temporary deflation due to the nearing-the-end-of-time-box-stress relief. Also, some tasks might feel so in routine, that they don‘t lead to excitement or fatigue at all. Either way, it‘s nearly impossible for anyone to predict at 9 am in which state of mind he/she is at 3 am. The key in upholding a certain level of progress, then, is to schedule the most off-putting item at the very beginning of every undertaking. It holds both in a general sense of „Risk First“, i.e. „tackle the problem that is potentially hardest to contain first“, and on a daily basis, i.e. „start your day with the most annoying problem (the most sluggish blocker)“. This is described by metaphorically eating a frog (indeed, it‘s a metaphor – it won‘t really help you if you actually devour one).

Solving the „Maximum Risk Time Box“ first has the advantage, that if the the project already unexpectedly starts to go awry in this stage, there still is plenty of time to communicate with one‘s customer, to outsource some duties to other contributors or to generally refine the original vision of the schedule. Of course, the whole point of Time Boxes is not just to put on artificial pressure for its own sake; but to lay out a road map to any given goal – just as when hiking, the need for some re-orientation is usually not to be seen problematic, if it is identified early enough.

Additionally, going to tackle the „Most annoying Thing of the Day“ first, can add some pleasure of feeling some progress early on any given day. Now that the disgusting frog has been eaten out of the way, you can view any other given task of the day as a comparatively low-threshold obstacle, being easier to put on your plate, easier to digest (it‘s still a metaphor). Furthermore, you can actually measure the progress in the superordinate picture by logging the progress of successfully eaten daily frogs.

To be continued…

Of course, such conceptions aren‘t very good advice if they don‘t align well with a specific project or the general psychology of their bearer. You might still need to flexibly adjust time for interruptions (e.g. video calls), and there are still many complications in which future tasks depend on the result of present tasks, so don‘t waste too much time trying to devise the perfect vision of Time Boxes and Frogs-To-Be-Eaten. With enough practice, however, this mindest can very well be useful in giving some feedback of accomplishment back to the architect.

I‘ll keep you updated when some undeniable drawbacks catch my eye.

The emoji checksum

This blog article is a story about an idea, not an actual project report. If it were a movie, it would feature the “based on real events” disclaimer.

The warehouse

Imagine a warehouse of a medium sized company. You would expect a medium sized warehouse, but in reality, the amount of items in this warehouse is nearly as big as in a big company. The difference might be the storage count of each item, but the item count is a big number. So big that each item has its own “item ID”, which is also used as the location identifier in the warehouse. Let’s see three (contrived) examples:

  • 211 725: Retaining screw, 8 mm
  • 413 114: Power transformer, 5 A
  • 413 115: Power transformer, 10 A

As you can see, different item groups have numbers with a large numerical distance while similar items are numerically close. This makes sense for the engineers using these numbers by muscle memory and for the warehouse navigation. If you read the first three digits, you already know where to turn to in the large hall. If you’ve arrived in the general area, the next three digits lead you to the exact storage space.

The operators

But that’s not how it works. The warehouse workers cannot read. Yes, you’ve read that right. The warehouse is operated by humans and the workers are not familiar with digits and numbers. They decipher each digit on their own and cannot cross-check with the article name. They navigate the warehouse with a best-effort approach. The difference between item 413114 and item 413115 is negligible for them. It’s the same thing anyway – unless you can read (and understand) that one of them blows up above 5 Ampere and the other one doesn’t. And this is a problem for the engineers. The difference between a “Power transformer able to take 10 Ampere” and a “Power transformer (5 A), aka molten copper lump” is a successful or a failed project.

So what can you do? Teach the warehouse workers how to read and deal with numbers? Would be a good approach if the turnover rate among them wasn’t so high. What else can we do? We can abstract the problem at hand, apply a suitable solution approach and see if it works.

The abstraction

If you think about the situation in abstract terms, you deal with an unreliable data transmission. You send your item list to the warehouse and receive a collection of loosely related items. That’s similar to sending data over a faulty cable. To mitigate transmission errors, we’ve invented checksums. Each suitable part of the transmission is validated (or invalidated) by a checksum.

In our case, the “suitable part of the transmission” is each single item. We should add a checksum to the item list! Instead of requesting item 413114, we request 413114/7, while item 413115 is requested as 413115/1. Now, we have a clear indicator for wrong or right. But it is still an indicator in a foreign alphabet. If you ignore the difference between 4 and 5, why not also ignore the difference between 7 and 1?

The emojification

But what if we don’t rely on numbers or characters, but on something every human can understand, regardless of literacy level? What if we transpose the numbers into an emoji alphabet? Let 413114 be 😄🌵☁️🌵🌵😄 and 413115 is written as 😄🌵☁️🌵🌵🏠. But more important: The checksum is in emoji, too:

😄🌵☁️🌵🌵😄 (413114)

🚗 (7)
vs.
😄🌵☁️🌵🌵🏠 (413115)

🌵 (1)

Even if you only glance at the emoji series (and fail to notice the difference at the end), you still have to acknowledge that your checksum doesn’t fit. A cactus is no car, regardless of your literacy.

This transposition of numbers into the iconographic realm plays right into every human’s built-in ability to distinguish concrete objects. Numbers, digits and characters are (more) abstract concepts and objects, but a cloud is recognizable as a cloud even if you draw it by hand and without care. The transposition is reversable quiet easily – you only have to remember ten number/emoji pairs (or eleven, if your checksum has an extra character). And nobody stops you from printing both on the item list and warehouse storage boxes:

And the best thing? You don’t even have to invent the transposition yourself. Just use the existing work of others by checking out emojisum by Vincent Batts or ecoji by Keith Turner.

The only thing that is stopping you is that ancient dot matrix printer that prints the item lists on continuous paper.

When everything’s an issue

Years ago, I read the novel “Manna” by Marshall Brain. It’s a science fiction story about the robotic takeover and it features “Manna”, an (artificially) intelligent work management software that replaces human managers and runs the shop. The story starts with “Manna” and goes on to explore the implications of such a system on mankind. It’s a good read and contains a lot of thoughts about what kind of labor we want to do.

The idea that really captivated me was the company that runs itself. Don’t get me wrong: Most organizations are so big that the individual employee cannot see the big picture anymore. Those organizations seem to “run itself” to the untrained eye, but it is still humans that manage the workload. And like all humans, they make mistakes and, perhaps very subtle, infuse their own selfish goals into the process. But an organization that has its goals and instructs its workers (humans and machines alike) directly is an interesting thought for me.

It also is totally unrealistic with today’s technology and probably contains some risks that should be explored carefully before implementing such a system in the wild.

But what about a more down-to-earth approach that achieves the core advancement of “Manna” without many or all of the risks? What if the organization doesn’t instruct, but makes its needs visible and relies on humans to interpret and schedule those needs and fulfill them? In essence, a “Manna” system without the sensors and decision-making and certainly without the creepy snooping tendencies. Built with today’s technology, that’s called an automated work scheduler.

And that is what we’ve built at our company. We use an issue tracking system to manage and schedule our project work already. We extended its usage to manage and schedule our administrative work, too. Now, every work unit in the company is (or could be) accompanied by an issue in the issue tracker. And just like software developers don’t change code without an issue, we don’t change our company’s data or decisions without an issue that also provides a place for documentation related to the process. We’ve come to the conclusion that most of those administrative issues are recurring. So we automated their creation.

Our very early stage “Manna” system is called “issue scheduler”, a highly creative name on its own. It is a system that basically contains a lot of glorified cron expressions and just enough data to create a meaningful issue in the issue tracker, should a cron expression fire. So basically, our company creates issues for us on a fixed schedule. Let’s look at some examples:

  • We add a new article to our developer blog (you’re reading it right now) every week. This means that every week, our “issue scheduler” creates a blog issue and assigns it to the next author in line. This is done some time in advance to give the author enough time to prepare and possibly trade with other authors. Our developer blog has the “need” for one article each week, but it doesn’t require a particular topic or author. This need is made visible by the automatic blog issues and it is our duty to fulfill this need. On a side note: Maybe you’ve noticed that I wrote two blog articles in direct succession. There is definitely some issue trading going on behind the scenes right now!
  • We tend to have many plants in our office. To look at something green and living adds to our comfort. But those plants have needs, too. They probably make their needs pretty visible, but we aren’t expert plant caregivers. So we gave the “issue scheduler” some entries to inform us about the regular watering and fertilization duties for our office plants. A detailed description of the actual work exists in our company wiki and a link to it gives the caregiver of the week all the information that’s needed.
  • Every month, we are required to file a sales tax summary report. This is a need of the german government agencies that we incorporate into our company’s needs. To work on this issue, you need to have more information and security clearances than fits on a wiki page, but to process is documented nonetheless. So once a month, our company automatically creates an issue that says “do your taxes now!” and assigns it to our administrative employees.

These are three examples of recurring tasks that are covered by our poor man’s “Manna” system. To give you a perspective on the scale of this system for a small company like ours, we currently have about 140 distinct rules for recurring issues. Some of them fire almost every day, some of them sleep for years and wake up just in time to express a certain need of the company that otherwise would surerly be forgotten or rediscovered after the fact.

This approach relieves us from the burden to remember all the tasks and their schedules and lets us concentrate on completing them. And our system, in contrast to “Manna” in the story, isn’t judging or controlling. If you don’t think the plants need any more water, just resolve the issue with “won’t fix”. Perhaps you can explain your decision in a short comment for other humans, but our “issue scheduler” won’t notice.

This isn’t the robotic takeover, after all. It’s just automated scheduling of recurring work. And it works great.