The Importance of Being Interrupted

With apologies to Oscar Wilde, I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts on trying to do mentally difficult things in small highly segmented blocks of time. Some agile devotees advocate a term called Radical Collocation which essentially boils down to sticking an entire team in a single room for the length of the project. While this initially (or permanently depending on your stubbornness) seems to go against the grain of the American worker, there have been several studies that show an increase in team productivity and quality using this approach. I ran across this one (OK, I didn’t run across it, I went searching for it because the project I’m currently working on is using radical collocation) and thought I’d briefly discuss it.

The study found that “the productivity increases were astounding”. This is great news! Of course, like many things that seem to be great, the productivity gained in this study comes from fairly closely following their idea and definition of radical collocation. Specifically, one very critical thing to note about this study is that the teams were not restricted to the war rooms only and in fact had private space that they could retreat to when the situation warranted. Interestingly, the two situations that most warrant it according to the authors are “personal discussions and working solo (typically coding).” In fact, the study came up with 9 types of work that the teams did and 7 of them were best in a collocated space while the two mentioned above “were best done individually and separate from the rest of the team.” (Emphasis mine).

This shouldn’t come as a huge shock but here you have it: types of work that require communication are best done in a situation that facilitates communication and types of work that require either privacy or concentration are best done in a situation that facilitates privacy. I know you’re shocked but having a design discussion with Bob and Bill is best done in a big room with both Bob and Bill. Writing the code correctly and well that implements the result of that discussion is best done without Bob and Bill. But like most good things, too much radical collocation can be a real drag on productivity. Lots of companies that push radical collocation forget that when the rubber hits the road, teams have to have the ability to retreat in order to get things done. When you’re communicating, all being together really works well. When you’re concentrating, minimizing the distractions will always increase productivity.

The project I’m currently on takes radical collocation to its illogical extreme. There is no “private retreat” and I estimate that on average there are 3-5 true interruptions every hour. An increase in productivity on software teams comes from both facilitating communication during types of work that require it and providing for the ability to work uninterrupted for large chunks of the day when necessary. Overemphasizing the former while completely neglecting the latter won’t result in that astounding increase in productivity because the quality of the code that is produced will be much lower. I have no doubt that radical collocation is useful when implemented well. I just don’t think it gets implemented well very often.

Thoughts on Mythology

I’ve been listening to Joseph Campbell’s The Eastern Way in the car and it reminds me of how much I love mythology, the stories and anecdotes that go along with myths, what their effects are on our culture and way of life. The first tape is a comparison of the Western and Eastern mythological structures, specifically China and India in the East and Europe and the Levant including Egypt in the West.

The two Eastern regions are marked by isolation and their mythology reflects that. There has been very little change, both mythologically and culturally in India and China for thousands of years. The mythology of these regions are marked by idols and gods of things around them like plants and animals specific to their region. The Western two areas are marked by constant and often violent change. Both Europe and the Levant have been invaded, conquered and split many times in many ways and this leads to a mythology that revolves around things that are everywhere like the wind or the sun.

The genesis myths of the East are also drastically different from their counterparts in the West. In India, the genesis myth involves a single being that split into two, male and female. The female, always the coy one, changed into a cow while the male changed into a bull. Then the female became a mare, the male a horse. This continued on to populate the world with animals. The myths of the West involve an omnipotent god creating mankind and then the animals and then female companionship. The difference here is striking in that the Eastern myths come to genesis from within God, i.e. we are all part of God and he is within us. In the Western myths, God is separate from man and a great deal farther down the mythological entomology. Campbell argues that this is one of the greatest sources of psychological dysfunction and it’s difficult to argue with him when you consider our god tells us to be one way after having created us to act in an entirely different manner.

I’m enjoying the series so far and hope to continue to expand on ideas that come out of it.

My Mind On A Leash

I’ve been meditating for 3 days now and even in that short period of time, I’ve come to realize how difficult it is to do well. As I walked Scooter Wednesday night, it occurred to me that my consciousness is not unlike an untrained dog on a leash. If you have a dog, you know that when you are initially training (or retraining in our case) your dog to walk on a leash, he wants to make it his walk. However, that’s not the point of a walk (or of training a dog in general). The dog must always know that he is not alpha dog and on walks, this means that he walks beside you on a loose leash, not lunging here or smelling there. Walks can be extremely frustrating for both you and the dog if this goal is not constantly enforced. Also, if the dog cannot walk on a leash with the understanding of the structure, he can never be let off the leash to experience true freedom.

Meditation is like taking your mind for a walk on a leash. The goal of meditation is to achieve control over your mind. If you let it, your mind will go wherever it feels like, uncontrolled and typically badly behaved. Through meditation, you can control your mind. In reality, this is what your mind wants, to understand its place in the world and to know the structure of that world just like a dog is only well behaved when it fits into the hierarchy, not only in his own doggy world but also in yours.

This probably isn’t some amazing insight to people who are experienced with meditation but I keep coming back to it as I notice my mind wandering in both my meditations and in my daily life. My mind is undisciplined and therefore badly behaved. I can’t come up with new ideas either to write about or to develop on in code if my mind is undisciplined. It is my goal over the next 40 days of meditation to gain back the control of my mind that has been lost. If I am successful, I expect to have a consciousness that can not only walk well on the leash of meditation but also often times be let off the leash with no fear of poor behavior. Only through discipline can my mind really experience true freedom. Only through the training of meditation can my mind be allowed to explore freely ideas in a directed manner.

Random Update

Haven’t been writing much of late, not here, not elsewhere and part of that is lack of desire and part of it is lack of energy. The new job continues and I’m down to feeling like the village idiot 3 out of 5 days instead of 5 out of 5. That’s an improvement but not one fast enough.

I never came up with any New Year’s resolutions but I have decided to do something(s) for Lent. Now mind you, I’m not Christian and I’m certainly not religious and God forbid (pun intended) that I ever give something up that I like. However, I see Lent working two ways. You can think of it as an exercise in self-denial or you can see it as the artificial imposition of discipline upon an undisciplined life. I’m going with the latter. I’ve never been long on discipline and so Lent seems like a good time to blame on God what I can’t manage myself.

To those ends, I’m doing two things for Lent. I thought about giving up drinking but let’s be realistic here, shall we? Instead, I’m giving up surfing the internet with one exception: I will still look at Google Finance because in the event of a possible stock melt down, I want to know about it. This is not to say I’m not going to ever be on the web, it’s pretty much required for my job, I’ll still do email and if you send me a link, I’ll read it. But I’m not going to look at my news aggregator, I’m not going to come home after work and see what “News” I missed, I’ll still write on here and I won’t look at ESPN.

The second thing I’m doing doesn’t involve giving up anything but instead deals with taking something on. I’m committing to meditating 20 minutes a day for 40 days starting Wednesday. This won’t be easy but it will be interesting to see if I can do it.

So those are my “I’m not a Christian and I’m not much on giving things up anyway” Lent plans. You got any? Want to join in?

That’s all for the random update. Next time, maybe I’ll talk about our new household addition, Ms. Vincent Van Gogh.