Telling Time as an Engineer

Time is the most precious resource. It’s in limited supply, once spent we can’t get it back, and you can’t trade it directly. This might sound a little radical but most global, national, business, and personal problems, seem to me, to boil down to problem of time and who’s time is more important than yours.

Before we can decide how we should spend the time given us, we have to put some thought into the process of analysis of tasks which take time. In software development a considerable amount of thinking has been applied to just this analysis. We usually call it “process management” and “time management”. Many methodologies have been created to solve the problem of time and yet when the rubber hits the road the management of time, which includes task prioritization and effort estimation, is full of errors and random results.

A great example is the Agile Development Processes, which has become the standard as well as declared dead by many of its original creators. Why is this?

Here is a simple example…

A high priority story is pulled from a general backlog and estimated, along with other stories, by an experienced engineering team. A product owner then weighs the cost of the stories based on the effort estimations and value to the business and feed them into a sprint backlog. The engineering team then works on each story, in order of priority, and completes the required stories by the end of the sprint. The work completed is demoed to the stakeholders and everyone is happy as everyone’s time has been well spent.

Well, except this happy plan almost never happens.

Something like 80% of all feature and products are delivered late or not at all. And often when a feature or product is delivered its buggy enough that we regret delivering it on time if at all. I’m sure Samsung engineers are less concerned about deadlines these days and more concerned about taking the time to do their tasks with more quality. Blizzard has made a billion dollar business of never giving dates for games and missing them when they do. Facebook and Spotify just spring new feature on their users without any warning and kill bad ones before they spread beyond a small segment.

It my opinion successful tech companies don’t bother with time management and leave schedules and task estimates to unsuccessful tech companies. I’m not saying successful tech companies don’t do agile or create project plans. I’m saying these are more like historical accounts and data gathered for analysis than pseudo-predictive planning.

Why is task estimation so non-predictive?

The problem is that it’s impossible to know how long a task will take unless you have done exactly that task before. When I worked at Apple Computer (before it was just Apple) we said that in order to to understand how long a project would take you had to build it and then write the schedule.

This is why experienced engineering team is so important in effort estimation. If you get a group of engineers who are a bit long in tooth they can work together to pool estimates on work they have performed previously.

But much of the work of an experience engineering team is work they have never done before. Experience engineers tend to see everything though the lens of previous experience. The result is that effort estimates are inaccurate as they have mistaken a novel task for an nostalgic task. I can’t count the number times I have said, “I thought the problem was X and it would take Y story points, but the problem is really Z and I’m still doing the research so your guess is as good as mine.”

The fact that for novel work your guess is as good is mine is why startups of inexperience engineers succeed with problems that mature companies fail at. The boss says “This problem will take too long to get to market. Let’s just not do it. It’s a waste of time.” The boss also says, “Hey brilliant engineers, you didn’t deliver this product on time! You suck! You’re fired.” Both judgements are typical of mature companies where value has to be delivered every quarter and experimental failure damage previous reputations.

In a typical tech startup, or any kind of new business, if you did the estimates you would have never started down the path. But startups don’t care! They are labors of vision and love usually staffed by people without experience who don’t know better. A good startup certainly doesn’t worry about effort estimates or punish engineers for not being able to tell time.

My advice to any engineering team that needs to worry about time is as follows:

One

You need a mix of experienced and inexperienced engineers on the team. This doesn’t mean old and young as much as people who have done it before and people who have not. Mix your insiders with your outsiders. For example if you’re building a web app bring in a a few mobile devs to the sprint planning. And some interns. And listen to the outsiders. Engage in a real discussion.

Two

If someone in charge wants to know how long a novel task will take from just the title of the task, without any true discussion, walk away. You’re going to give them a wrong answer. By the way good estimates are rarely rewarded–they are expected! But bad estimates are almost always punished. An honest “I don’t know” is always better than “2-3 weeks” or “2-3 story points”.

Three

Remember there is no value in hitting the deadline without quality, performance, or value to the user. In fact I’m always a little suspicious of teams that never miss a deadline. Apps that crash or cutting scope to the point of no visible progress is a hallmark of teams that hit their deadlines. I’m not saying don’t work hard or try to hit your deadline just be tough about the result at the end of the schedule: Give it more time if needed!

Four

The problem with my advice is that everyone wants to know the schedule. So many other functions depend on the schedule. Releasing a product on time is critical to the business. So my final piece of advice, and you’re not going to like it, is let the business set the deadline. Instead of wasting everyone’s time upfront with a broken planning process to arrive at a deadline, get the deadline first and work backward with effort estimates. While time is limited the amount of time we spend on on a task is flexible. We work differently if we have 3 months, 6 months, or 12 months to accomplish a task. Ask any college kid how much time they put into their studies at the end beginning of the semester when time seems unlimited vs the end of the semester when time is in short supply.

Time is always in short supply.

Trolls Are USA

It’s clear that Americans are more divided than ever. Our self-segregating tendencies have been reinforced by the adoption of Internet technologies and algorithms that personalize our newsfeeds to the point that we walk side-by-side down the same streets in different mental worlds.

Before the web, before iPhone, Netflix, and Facebook, the physical limits of radio, television, and print technology meant that we had to share. We had to share the airwaves and primetime and the headlines because they were limited resources.

In the pre-Internet world print was the cheapest communication to scale and thus the most variable. Anyone with a few hundred bucks could print a newsletter but these self-published efforts were clearly inferior to the major newspapers. You could tell yellow journalism from Pulitzer winners just by the look of the typography and feel of the paper in your hands. This was true with books and magazines as well. Quality of information was for the most part synonymous with quality of production.

To put on a radio or TV show you had to be licensed and you needed equipment and technical skills from unionized labor. Broadcast was more resource intensive and thus more controlled than print and thus more trusted. In 1938 The War of Worlds radio drama fooled otherwise skeptical Americans into believing they were under attack by Martian invaders. The audience was fooled because the show was presented not as a radio play but a series of news bulletins breaking into otherwise regularly scheduled programming.

The Broadcast technologies of the pre-social media world coerced us into consensus. We had to share them because they were mass media, one-to-many communications where the line between audience and broadcaster was clear and seldom crossed.

Then came the public Internet and the World Wide Web of decentralized distribution. Then came super computers in our pockets with fully equipped media studios in our hands. Then came user generated content, blogging, and tweeting such that there were as many authors as there were audience members. Here the troll was born.

Before the Internet the closest we got to trolling was the prank phone call. I used to get so many prank phone calls as high schooler in the 1970s that I simply answered the phone with a prank: “FBI HQ, Agent Smith speaking, how may I direct your call?” Makes me crack up to this day!

If you want to blame some modern phenomenon for the results of the 2016 presidential election, and not the people who didn’t vote, or the flawed candidates, or the FBI shenanigans, then blame the trolls. You might think of the typical troll as a pimply-faced kid in his bedroom with the door locked and the window shades taped shut but those guys are angels compared to the real trolls: the general public. You and me.

Every time you share a link to a news article you didn’t read (which is something like 75% of the time), every time you like a post without critically thinking about it (which is almost always), and every time you rant in anger or in anxiety in your social media of choice you are the troll.

I can see that a few of my favorite journalists and Facebook friends want to blame our divided culture, the spread of misinformation, and the outcome of the election on Facebook. But that’s like blaming the laws of thermal dynamics for a flood or the laws of motion for a car crash. Facebook, and social media in general, was the avenue of communication not the cause. In technology terms, human society is a network of nodes (people) and Facebook, Google, and Twitter are applications that provide easy distribution of information from node to node. The agents that cause info to flow between the social network nodes are human beings not algorithms.

It’s hard not to be an inadvertent troll. I don’t have the time to read and research every article that a friend has shared with me. I don’t have the expertise to fact-check and debunk claims outside of my area of expertise. Even when I do share an article about a topic I deeply understand, it’s usually to get a second opinion.

From a tech perspective, there are a few things Facebook, Google, and Twitter can do to keep us from trolling each other. Actually, Google is already doing most of these things with their Page Rank algorithms and quality scores for search results. Google even hires human beings to test and verify the results of their search results. Thus, it’s really hard for us to troll each other with phony web pages claiming to be about cats when dogs are the topic. Kudos to Google!

The following advice is for Facebook and Twitter from admiring fan…

First, hire human editors. You’re a private company not a public utility. You can’t be neutral, you are not neutral, so stop pretending to be neutral. I don’t care which side you pick, just pick a side, hire some college educated, highly opinionated journalists, and edit our news feeds.

Second, give us a “dislike” button and along with it “true” and “false” buttons. “Like” or “retweet” are not the only legitimate responses that human beings have to news. I like the angry face and the wow face but those actions are feelings and thus difficult to interpret clearly in argumentation and discourse. Dislike, true, and false would create strong signals that could help drive me and my friends to true consensus through real conversations.

Third, give us a mix of news that you predict we would like and not like. Give us both sides or all sides. And use forensic algorithms to weed out obvious trash like fake news sites, hate groups with nice names, and teenagers pretending to be celebrities.

A/B test these three ideas, and better ones, and see what happens. My bet is social media will be a healthier place but a small place with less traffic driven by the need to abuse each other.

We’ll still try to troll the hell out of each other but it will be more time consuming. Trolling is part of human nature and so is being lazy. So just make it a little harder to troll.

Before social media our personal trolling was limited to the dinner table or the locker room. Now our trolling knows no bounds because physical limits don’t apply on the Internet. We need limits, like spending limits on credit cards, before we troll ourselves to death.