Saturday, May 28, 2016

Of Donald Knuth and Lobsters: Stress as a Creative Force

“Lobsters are a soft mushy animal that lives inside of a rigid shell. That rigid shell does not expand. How can the lobster grow? Well, as the lobster grows, that shell becomes very confining. And the lobster feels itself under pressure and uncomfortable. It goes under a rock formation to protect itself from predatory fish, casts off the shell, and produces a new one. Eventually, that shell becomes uncomfortable as it grows again. Back under the rocks… the lobster repeats this numerous times. The stimulus for the lobster to be able to grow is that it feels uncomfortable. Now, if lobsters had doctors, they would never grow. Because as soon as the lobster feels uncomfortable, he goes to the doctor, gets a Valium, gets a Percocet, feels fine. Never casts off his shell. So, I think, what we have to realize is that times of stress are also times of growth. And if we use adversity properly, we can grow through adversity.”

“Pressure pushing down on me
Pressing down on you”
Queen & David Bowie. Under Pressure. Hot Space.

“No pains, no gains.
If little labour, little are our gains:
Man's fate is according to his pains.”
Robert Herrick. Hesperides [1650 edition].

At my last job, as CTO of a large software company, I had the privilege of hosting several industry legends in events we called “The Distinguished Speaker Series”. They usually gave a talk about a subject of their own choosing and answered questions from the audience.

I remember Ken Thompson talking about building the UNIX operating system at Bell Labs and how he was told by his supervisors not to waste time on it! I remember him also talking about his passion for cryptography as he displayed an original Enigma machine from World War II. I remember him talking about the Go programming language and its evolution.

I remember James Gosling talking similarly about the birth of Java. I also remember him talking passionately about his current work on autonomous watercraft used for forecasting weather patterns. I remember feeling jealous about the fact that he gets to swim in the waters off Hawaii to do his work while I get to sit in a dark conference room all day.

But the one speaker that has stayed with me the longest is Donald Knuth, Professor Emeritus at Stanford University, and author of the classic The Art of Computer Programming, a book that is still studied with awe almost fifty years after its publication. Let me repeat that. A computer science book still being studied fifty years after it was first published. Before the age of Internet, before the iPhone, broadband, Facebook, and Google. Before even Microsoft. Before UNIX. I have seen CEOs and CTOs who proudly display their autographed copy of the book in their offices. Fifty years in computer science is about the same, roughly speaking, as a thousand years in normal human years. How many other thousand-year-old books are still taught in colleges and referenced as an authoritative source on scientific concerns?

Professor Knuth is also the author of TEX, a typesetting program that is still used - forty years later - in scientific circles for publishing papers. We are talking about a piece of software that pre-dates PDF, Word, Apple, and WYSIWYG editors. Dr. Knuth will even still send you a check if you find a bug in his code from all those years ago. Every once in a blue moon, some lucky bastard finds himself in possession of a check for $2.56 (“the number of pennies in a hexadecimal dollar”) - an admission by the master that you found a bug in his code. Forty years after the fact. How many other programmers can say the same?

On this particular visit, Dr. Knuth gave a fascinating talk about what he calls "intentional programming" but what struck me most was his response to a question before the speech. I innocently asked when he had been most productive in his entire career. Here's what he had to say:

“If I think back about my own life and I ask what was the period when I did my most creative work, had the best ideas, and somehow things worked out to be wins… I have to say, it was the time when I was under the most stress. I had two babies… two years old, three years old… and I was having trouble with ulcers and I was on all kinds of committees and there were all kinds of things happening… I was supposed to give lectures for the ACM and I hardly had any time to research, but somehow, during those years, I had the most creative ideas I’ve ever come up with.

So, the answer is, of course, to torture you guys. [laughter]

When did Stravinsky write his best music? He was living in a garret in Paris and starving. Well, that’s not really sustainable but there is something about being under pressure that forces you to do the things you really have to do, that you’re called to do. That’s when you do your best work - when you’re responding to this calling.

I’ve met people from Eastern Europe and they did their best work before the fall of communism because they had something to rebel against. Unfortunately, that seems to be the answer but I have to leave it to you managers to figure out how to make it sustainable.”

The comments resonated with me partly because I was doing two jobs at the time. I had recently switched jobs from managing a large engineering team to being CTO but ended up performing both jobs for nine months while we searched for a replacement for my former role. I remember it as one of the most stressful, but also one of the most productive, periods of my career.

Stress is a great stimulator of productivity when applied in reasonable quantities. Of course, too much stress opens the door to destructive psychological and physical traumas but I do believe that a certain amount of tension, a certain amount of stress, a certain amount of pain is required for productivity. There is even a growing body of research out there that shows a historical basis for this thesis. Just compare the number of advanced civilizations that have thrived in the relatively harsh climates of Europe and America to the number that languished in the tropics. The harder you have to struggle, it seems, the more you thrive.

If necessity is the mother of invention, I guess I can argue that stress is the mother of productivity, if not creativity. You could say, a certain amount of stress is, well, healthy. Unfortunately, stress also has a severely debilitating effect on us physically. If you don't believe me, just take a few months off from work to see the difference with your own eyes.

I was lucky enough to take six months off from work last year. Absolutely nothing changed in my life - other than the fact that I didn't go to work every day. The time normally spent at work was replaced by many hours of biking up and down the local mountains and time spent with friends and family. The reduced stress - not having to worry about a thousand things at work - and increased physical activity were amazingly rejuvenating. I quickly lost thirty pounds in weight, shaved forty minutes off my best time on a favorite three hour bike route, and slept like a rock at night. Most importantly, I felt twenty years younger.

I've been back at work for six months now. My exercise is down to two days a week and has been replaced by the usual stress associated with a demanding high tech job. I've gained back almost fifteen pounds already, slowed way down on my bike route, and am happy if I get four hours of sleep a night. Pretty damning evidence, I would say. No, it's not a scientific experiment and it's only one data point but I'll stick with my conclusions.

Unfortunately, most of us don't have the luxury of taking six months off from work. In fact, the few days a year that we do take off for vacation are often spent checking work email, jumping on critical conference calls at odd hours, and getting even more stressed about the projects that are falling behind.

More work, more stress. More success, more work, more stress. It's a vicious cycle. Those who thrive in this world are the ones that can withstand the ever increasing levels of stress. These are also the same people who skimp on their own health and family, working ever longer hours and taking on ever more responsibilities. More success, more work. More work, more stress. More stress, less time. Less time, less rest. Less time, less exercise. Less time, less family, less friends. Less family, more work. It’s a vicious cycle.

Let's face it. Europeans have a much better system when it comes to vacations than we do. Everybody, go away for the month of August. No one in the office(s) means no urgent meetings and no urgent emails that need your attention. Of course, you need a skeleton crew to run operations and keep the place going but the idea of having everyone take vacation at the same time seems so much more efficient and, well, healthy.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

If Your Laptop is Open, You're Not Listening. It's that Simple!

"Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them."
Alfred North Whitehead. 1861-1947.

"The object of life is not to be on the side of the majority, but to escape finding oneself in the ranks of the insane." 
Marcus Aurelius. 121-180 AD.

“If your laptop is open, you’re not listening. It’s [that] simple.”
     @rands on Twitter. Emphasis added.

A colleague forwarded this tweet to me a few weeks after I announced a total ban on laptops and phones in my meetings. I would only allow the devices if they were used for the purposes of the meeting itself - to take notes or to make a presentation. No more seances with people sitting around the table staring at their screens and doing their best to ignore the speaker. No more huddles with half the team mentally absent.

The tweet came as a welcome surprise. It is so obvious yet most of us choose to ignore it. It was refreshing to hear someone else say the same thing and in such simple terms. If your laptop is open, if you’re looking at your phone, you are - by definition - not listening to what I’m saying. It’s that simple.

It’s easy to see this behavior as yet another manifestation of our obsession with multitasking. What's bizarre is that we seem to have all come to the mutual agreement that the "correct" behavior is to multiplex and ignore the meeting for something momentarily more urgent or more captivating.

The human brain, I'm sorry to say, has not evolved to handle multiple simultaneous but unrelated inputs efficiently. By necessity, nay - by evolution, it has learned to tune out one source in order to focus attention on another. That means you’re really not paying attention to the meeting while you read your email. Trust me, you’re not. Unfortunately, we the enlightened denizens of the twenty first century have recently stumbled upon the increased mental stimulation delivered through multitasking. Who cares if I ignore this guy for a few minutes while I pay attention to that email? I can follow both threads and get more work done at the same time.

There is a fatal fallacy in this argument. It just doesn't work. The human brain cannot do it. Period. You have to pay less attention to one input in order to focus on the other. Over an extended period of time, you have to let go of some details in one or the other thread of cognition. You have to drop some bits. Be it texting while driving or staring at your phone while sitting in a meeting, If you don't believe me, try reading a book while you are also pre-occupied with work. How often do you look up and realize you haven't parsed a single sentence in the previous paragraph - even though you "read" every word? If you still disagree with this logic, I would urge you to name two intellectual activities that you can do simultaneously with the same efficiency and attention to detail as doing them one at a time. Any two. Walking and chewing gum at the same time doesn't count, neither does rubbing your belly and patting your head.

I guarantee you that you are tuning one of the two trains of thought out for extended periods. I don't care if you are surfing the web or reading an email or tweeting or checking the stock market or even responding to an alert or debugging your code. You cannot do both at the same time. You are ignoring important details going on around you in the meeting in order to concentrate on the other input. The ubiquity of the information feeds coming at us at Internet speed does not reduce the intellectual capacity required to absorb them. If anything, it increases it as we try to time slice between the streams ever more frequently.

"You must pick up one or the other 
 Though neither of them are to be what they claim"
       Bob Dylan. Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues. Highway 61 Revisited.

Now, since we are talking about attending meetings... The next logical question I have to ask, with no disrespect, is: Which one is more important? If your tweet, your email. your alert, your whatever requires your attention right now - by all means, please step outside and deal with it. Otherwise, please put it down and pay attention to the meeting. If the contents of the meeting are not important or relevant to you, why are you sitting there? Please go away and deal with the more important or urgent matter. When you are done, feel free to come back in. That way, we will all know which part of the discussion you missed, which action items we shouldn't depend on you for. When you sit there, you are giving everyone else in the room the impression that you are engaged, you are understanding their concerns and expectations, you are thinking through the problem. If your brain isn't there in the room, your body might as well not be either. Again - no disrespect intended. It's just human nature to not be able to multitask and the sooner we recognize that and compensate for it, the sooner we will all be more productive.

To be clear, I have personally been one of the worst offenders of this rule for many years. But I have repented. I stopped taking my laptop to meetings in order to resist the urge. The phone, I'm afraid, is surgically attached to my wrist and travels with me everywhere, even the bathroom. But I try not to - I constantly fight the urge to - pick it up during meetings.

The good news is that, in the intervening few months, we have managed to hold some excellent no-laptop no-phone meetings; ones where all attendees actually engaged in the topic at hand and participated actively in the discussion instead of reading their mail, IM’ing, tweeting, checking their stock portfolio, or otherwise distracting themselves.

It was tough going for the first few weeks. I had to keep reminding people of the rule. It was only after a few weeks, though, that I realized we had this whole thing backwards. I shouldn't have to ask you to close your laptop or put down your phone. Either you are interested in the topic of this meeting or you are not. If the former, please participate fully. If the latter, please leave so we know and can find someone else to fill the hole. As the meeting organizer, I should, of course, strive to make the meeting relevant and the decisions concrete. Otherwise, I deserve to be ignored for the latest tweet or alert.  But I shouldn't have to beg you to close your laptop. Just like you shouldn't have to ask me to put down my cell phone. The onus should be on the offender to remedy his or her priority inversion problem. To me, this is a very binary situation. Either the meeting is more important and you should pay attention or your electronic friend is more important, in which case you should step outside and deal with it.

I'm happy to report that my meetings are more engaging, more purposeful, and more collaborative than before the rule was enforced. But the model falls apart as soon as we meet with other teams or other companies. As soon as we see the bad behavior reinforced, as soon as we see someone else "lighting up", we fall right back into the same old bad behavior and bury our heads in our phones too. Just like teenage peer pressure and smoking. If they can do it, so can I. And the whole enterprise falls apart.

Multitasking has become so ingrained in our culture that we take it for granted and fall back into bad habits at the first opportunity. Even our social encounters have suffered the same fate. How often do you look over at the next table and either the husband or the wife or the kids all have their heads buried in their phones? It wasn't until we, collectively and as a society, recognized smoking for what it was - an addictive and cancerous substance with no redeeming qualities - that we finally started to wean ourselves off of it. Even then, the effort took decades and required the re-education of an entire generation. I suspect the same pattern will repeat itself with our current infatuation with the glowing screens of our digital assistants. And, in this case too, the effort will have to start in the workplace.

A computer can multitask efficiently because it has perfect memory. It remembers every single memory location, every single register content, every single block of data on secondary storage, every open network connection - and restores them faithfully every time it returns to a task. Just as importantly, that task is suspended while the computer is busy with something else. Neither of those rules hold true in real life. Any operating systems guy will tell you: try dropping a bit from a single memory location, try corrupting a single register, try returning the wrong disk block, and the processor will screw up the task at hand. The computer can only multitask because it has perfect memory. We don't.

So - Am I cured? No, of course not. My case was more acute than most others. But I am glad to report that the disease is in remission. I have pretty much completely stopped carrying my laptop to meetings and I almost always avoid the temptation to pick up the phone during meetings. Almost always.

Go ahead. Close your laptop. Pick up a notepad. Maybe take some action items. Maybe even act on them later. Or just summarize the discussion for yourself. If you read it a week later, I promise you will realize you had already forgotten some of the finer points. Or forgotten to follow up on something you promised to do.

Let's start by having a "Leave Your Laptops at Home" day. Home, in this case, being your desk at work. Why not a "Step Away from that Phone" day? Let's holster it and leave it parked in your pocket for the duration of the meeting.


Update: Interesting and relevant article in the New York Times on the same topic.

If you enjoyed this blog, you may also want to check out the follow-up I wrote to address readers’ comments as well as broader “digital addiction” issues.