Zoom out early, zoom out often

Dennis Jarvis [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

A common pitfall of working long hours with high concentration level or stress level is the “yak shaving” effect. You start with a clear goal, dive down into the details and encounter an unforseen obstacle. No big problem, you just need to adjust focus for a moment and fix this little… but wait, in order to fix it, you first need to change this minor circumstance. And this change is prohibited by this effect, which needs to be adjusted, but relies on that. Much later, you’ll wake up from your dive and find yourself happily shaving a yak. But how exactly did you get there?

Avoid the yak

The best approach to counter yak shaving is “zooming out” of your current work in regular, externally triggered intervals and rehashing three aspects of your current work:

  • What do I want to achieve? (“Goal”)
  • What is my current task? (“Task”)
  • How does my task relate to my goal? (“Relationship”)

This “Goal/Task-Relationship” shouldn’t get too complicated. To describe your current Goal/Task-Relationship to a random person that just now arrived at the scene (ok, lets be clear: I’m talking about your boss), you should need at most two simple sentences. Every longer description is a sign of an unclear goal or inefficient steps (tasks) towards it.

To make sure that your Goal/Task-Relationship stays explainable, you could use the Pomodoro technique that partitions your concentrated work into intervals of half an hour (including the rehash phase).

Target fixation

The approach above helps against yaks, but not against target fixation. Target fixation occurs when you are so sure about your goal that you don’t question it even when the cost of achieving it rises to obscene levels. There are many stories I could tell about target fixation, but one sticks out for me because it happened myself and it happened recently.

The tragedy

In the midst of winter, during a cold period, my gas heater for the whole apartment broke down – on a late saturday evening. No amount of reading the manual, trying to turn it off and on again and maintainance routines could bring it back to life. The rooms grew colder. A long, cold weekend lay before me, but I couldn’t just sit it out – I had work to do with a tight deadline. So I frantically contacted one “24h emergency service” after the other with no success at all (this is in a rather big city, the experience really shocked me). My efforts to reach anybody who could help consumed time and nerves until I finally gave up. The backup option was to move to an hotel for two nights and I was ready to pack my things.

The remedy

oil-radiatorBut before I made the final decision to temporarily abandon the place, I called a friend to congratulate him on his birthday, totally unrelated to the heating desaster (it was on my todo list and needed to be done, so why not now?). After he asked me what’s up (he always senses misery) and I told him the whole catastrophe, he laughed and said: “Your problem can be solved with some money and a DIY store: just buy an oil radiator and plug it in – voilà, heating for one room”. I was baffled and excited: ten minutes later, and the store would be closed. In the last minute, I bought the radiator and had enough heat until the gas heater could be fixed during normal working days.

My target fixation is easily explained: “The gas heater broke down so I need to repair it/have it repaired”. The solution is also easy: “You need heating, but not necessarily by that broken gas heater”. It’s the same problem, just different zoom levels. By zooming out (being zoomed out, having somebody else provide the external view) of the narrow problem space I could see the whole picture and solve the real problem, not my perceived one.

Bird’s eye view

To counter target fixation, you have to zoom out regularly. But you need to zoom out even more and ask a different set of questions:

  • What problem do I want to solve? (“Problem”)
  • Can I think of a related, more generalized problem? (“Root”)
  • Have both problems the same cause? (“Cause”)

The “Problem Root Cause” approach helps to find a more abstract formulation of the problem at hand. You basically ask if you really solve a problem or merely a symptom of an hidden cause. In my story, I wanted to solve the problem of the broken gas heater. The generalized problem was lack of heating, regardless of which device it may provide. The cause was identical: cold weather without proper heating. Now I own an oil radiator on reserve.

Zoom out often

You really need to zoom out of your current work, take a few steps back and broaden your view to be sure about your path to the best solution. So my advice is to “zoom out early, zoom out often” (adapted from “commit early, commit often”). If you can manage the bird’s eye view of your path to the goal yourself, you’ll less often fall prey to yak shaving and target fixation.

Depth-first programmers

Just as there are at least two fundamentally different approaches for searching, namely depth-first and breadth-first search, there are also different types of programmers. The depth-first programmer is a dangerous type, as he is prone to yak shaving and reinvention of the wheel.

The depth-first programmer

Let me try to define the term of a “depth-first programmer” by a little (true) story. A novice java programmer should make some changes to an existing code. To secure his work, he should and wanted to write unit tests in JUnit. He started the work and soon enough, first results could be seen. But when he started to write his tests, the progress notifications stopped. The programmer worked frantically for hours and then days to write what appeared to be some simple data-driven tests.

Finally, the novice java programmer reported success and showed his results. He wrote his tests and “had to extend JUnit a bit to do it right”. Wait, what? Well, in JUnit, the test methods cannot have parameters, but the programmer’s tests needed to be parametrized. So he replaced the part of JUnit that calls the test methods by reflection with an “improved” algorithm that could also inject parameters. His implementation relied on obscure data structures that provided the actual parameter values and only really worked for his needs. The whole mess was nearly intangible, a big bloat and needed most of the development time for the unit tests.

And it was totally unnecessary once you learn about “Parameterized” JUnit4 tests or build light-weight data drivers instead of changing the signature of the test method itself. But this programmer dove deep into JUnit to adjust the framework itself to his needs. When asked about it, he stated that “he needed to pass the parameters somehow”. That’s right, but he choose the most expensive way to do so.

He exhibited the general behaviour of a depth-first programmer: whenever you face a problem, take the first possible solution to a problem you can come up with and work on it without evaluation against other possibilities. And continue on the path without looking back, no matter how long it takes.

Stuck in activism

The problem with this approach should be common sense. The obvious option isn’t always the best or even a good one. You have to evaluate the different possible solutions by their advantages and drawbacks. A less obvious solution might be far better in every aspect but obviousness. Another problem with this approach is the absence of internal warning signs.

Getting stuck is an internal warning sign every programmer understands. You’ve worked your way in a certain direction and suddenly, you cannot advance further. Something blocks your anticipated way of solving the problem and you cannot think of an acceptable way past it. A depth-first programmer never gets stuck this way. No matter how expensive, he will pursue the first thing that brings him closer to the target. A depth-first programmer always churns out code at full speed. Most of it isn’t needed on second thought and can be plain harmful when left in the project. The depth-first programmer will always report progress even when he needs days for a task of minutes. He is stuck in activism.

Progress without guidance

This isn’t a rant about incompetent programmers. Every good programmer knows the situation when you suddenly realize that you’re shaving a yak when all you wanted to do is to add a feature to the code base. This is your self-guidance system regaining consciousness after a period of auto-piloting in depth-first mode. Every programmer behaves depth-first sometimes.

This can be explained with the Dreyfus Model of Skill Acquisition. On the first stage, called “Beginner”, you are simply not capable of proper self-evaluation. You cannot distinguish between good and not so good approaches beforehands or even afterwards. Your expertise in the narrow field of the problem at hand isn’t broad enough to recognize an error even when you are working on the error yourself for prolonged times.

In the Dreyfus Model, a beginner needs external guidance. Somebody with more experience has to point out errors for you and formulate alternatives as clearly and specific as possible. Without external guidance, a beginner will become a depth-first programmer. We’ve all been there.

 Be a guide

The real failure in the story above was done by me. Instead of interacting with the novice java programmer after a few hours when I thought he should be done by now, I let him “advance”. I could have avoided the resulting mess by providing guidance and a few alternate solutions for the immediate problem. I would give an overview of the problem’s context and some hints about the general direction this task should be solved.

Every depth-first programmer works in a suboptimal environment. The programmer tries his best, it’s really the environment that could do better.

So, the next time you see somebody working frantically on a problem that should be rather easy to solve, lend him a hand. Be gentle and empathic about his attempt and work with proposals, not with instructions. Perhaps you’ve spared yourself a mess like an unnecessarily extended JUnit library and the depth-first programmer the frustration when his hard work of several days is silently discarded.

Open Source Love Day April 2010

Today, we held our Open Source Love Day for April 2010. Well, to be honest, we tried to. We didn’t achieve that much to present publically and felt really depressed at the end of the day. At least, we can try to explain what went wrong. It all has to do with our own breed of yaks that needed to be shaved today. But first, lets explain the basics.

The Open Source Love Day

We introduced a monthly Open Source Love Day (OSLD) to show our appreciation to the Open Source software ecosystem and to donate back. We heavily rely on Open Source software for our projects. We would be honored if you find our contributions useful. Check out our first OSLD blog posting for details on the event itself.

Today, we reached out to perform the following tasks:

  • RXTX is a fine java library to access the (rather legacy) serial port to send and receive data over the RS232. On our last Open Source Love Day, we proposed a patch for a problem with disappearing emulated COM ports. This happens a lot if you use USB or ethernet converters and unplug them accidentally or because your intranet got shut down. The patch works well, but not perfectly. We noticed that the IOException we introduced gets thrown much too often. Today, we wanted to fix our fix. We only came to the conclusion that the problem might be a lot more complex than we initially thought.
  • Launch4j is another java library/tool we use to deliver production-ready software bundles. It’s a launcher that increases the user experience at the critical “first contact” for Windows users. The project is mature and useful, but out of development for nearly two years now. We want some features in it, so we thought we might build them today. But the yaks didn’t let us.
  • We have an internal tool for our business administration that desperately needs some hugs. So even if this isn’t strictly Open Source yet, we allocated some time to add a few features. But they outgrew their timebox, too.

At the end of the day, we didn’t accomplish anything ready to be released. That’s frustrating to us and has no value to anybody else. We promise to do better next time.

How the yaks got shaved

Every organization has a secret stable where yaks are raised just for the sake of raising yaks. Once a year or so, they need a shave, so you’ll find yourself shaving yaks before you know what’s happening. That’s what happened to us today.

The term “yak shaving” isn’t our invention. It describes the result of a process when in order to accomplish task A, you need to do task B first. Task B can’t be done before tasks C and D both are completed. Task D, you figure it already, is dependent on task E, which in turn… Soon and inevitably, you’ll find yourself shaving yaks because it is what needs to be done to accomplish your todo list.

This is our story: On every Open Source Love Day, we also gather to have a short “Homepage Comittee” meeting. This is our formal approval process to publish content on our website. One improvement we wanted to implement today was an automatic publishing process. It copies the content of our internal Content Management System to our webserver. Simple as that. This was the starting point of an odyssee.

To copy the content, we used wget. But wget in the version of our distribution had a bug (and missed a feature), so we needed to update wget… Soon afterwards, we found ourselves upgrading our main PostgreSQL database (which went incredibly smooth but took forever) and wrestling with certain dependencies of other parts of the system. We realized we are now officially shaving yaks when we got the error message:

You need to have ruby gems 1.3.2 installed. Your version is 1.3.1!

Remember we started with taking a snapshot of our CMS using wget. Clearly, separating our services to more machines would have helped a lot. But that would’ve taken more than one day to do. It’s on our wish list for the next Admin Day.

Let’s conclude this blog post with the insight that we need to timebox our work better when working for the OSLD. And our yaks are shaved and ready for the summertime.