100788a81c55bf038fb0798e264e2ec9
Simon @sirupsen

Infrastructure, resiliency and webscale @Shopify

Writing is thinking

Some of my best ideas, most condensed thoughts, and results I'm most proud have come out of the practise of habitual writing. I don't think the value of writing is in the product from the writing. Writing teaches you to think. Writing is thinking.

It's stunningly rare that people just sit down and think about something. There are many ways to think. You can arm yourself with a topic, and go on a walk. You can write a word on a piece of paper, and start drawing, thinking, scribbling. You can sit in a car, look out the window, and think deeply about something. We're extremely hesitant to activate our slow brain—a forcing function can be valuable here. Writing is one.

I attribute a lot of my accomplishments from having spent significant time sitting down to think deeply about a problem. Often, you don't find the answer, but you continuously hone your questions. Perhaps you get stuck, and you start drawing. You call your friend.

I think people spend too much time focusing on the things that are urgent, instead of the things that are important. While important and urgent tasks needs to be dealt with first, don't ignore the leverage you leave on the table because you now have to get it done as soon as possible. I experiment with the idea of thinking in terms of time, instead of in terms of tasks. This forces you to spend time thinking about the important things that are not urgent yet so you can harvest maximum value from these tasks once they have to be completed.

Because most people just don't do this, you will seem like a superhuman. In the lingo of the Pareto principle, thinking about important things can definitely be part of the 20% of activity that causes 80% of your output. I never go into meetings I have set up without a solid amount of preparation. I never go into one on ones without having spent at least 15 minutes thinking and writing.

In "Between the World and Me" the author tells the story of how his grandma forced him to write every time he'd done something bad. Not to school him, but simply to get him to think about it. Writing is thinking, and this thinking about these events, helps build self-awareness. That self-awareness is the reason why Coates is a successful author.

What separates an author from you and me? Is it their writing skills? Often it's not. Many successful writers never had any formal training. They just wrote a lot. More importantly, they lived interesting lives. Successful writers live interesting lives that they put into words. They do this for their own benefit, and to share their lessons with other people. Great writers live interesting lives, write a lot, and are passionate teachers.

There are many ways to think. Writing is one way. Writing is thinking.

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Moral Luck

We all know the things we shouldn't do, but do, because they so rarely cause serious consequences. Let's imagine driving in a car. A lot of things can go wrong. For example, we might have to respond to a text while driving. This is really bad. Most of the time, nothing happens. But then one day, we crash and kill a person because of it. The response by the general public to such action would easily be to incarcerate the person for manslaughter. This is an easy moral stance to take, but they've all done the same thing with no serious consequences. The only reason they can take this moral high ground, is because they've been lucky. This is what moral luck is: you can take a moral position because you've been lucky in the past. Should that person be punished as much as someone who performs drunk driving?

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Killing tasks

If someone is working on a task, at their lead's request, and the lead then decides to cancel it later because they determine it's not critical enough at the time—what's the proper course of action?

One way of looking at it, is that it's the delegatee's problem: it was their task to solve the problem, and as part of that is confirming that it is a problem in the first place. However, when you are assigned a task, there's an implicit assumption that the delegator has already weighed the pros and the cons. That the reason they're delegating in the first place, is typically that they are the person with the most context—which can be a difficult thing to question.

On the other hand, it's the delegator's problem: why did they not think enough through the task to determine it wasn't impertinent? This can be tough however, as the lead is in charge of many areas of responsibility and cannot have full context of all of them. Sometimes they have to take a guess at what's most important, and rely on the team to test their assumptions.

The concern with killing the task from the managerial side is that it may cause bad morale. If you can't trust that the tasks you're being assigned are important, why trust the lead at all? The delegatee may have spent significant amount getting context on something that's later determined to not be important at all. This gives the subordinate a feeling of waste of time, for which there exists no larger opportunity cost.

What if there is value to be had, albeit it being different from where it was expected to be had. It may be to another team, another project—but there is value. Do you say openly "for this project, I don't think this is important, but we can help this other team tremendously if we change it to do X instead"?

This is no easy thing.

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Peer-group syndrome

In a peer-group, a dangerous syndrome can occur: peer-group syndrome. Have you ever found yourself in a situation where you've suppressed your opinion, to let others express their, to make sure you're not off base? Afraid your thoughts are so too far away from the rest of the team? Have you noticed anyone else doing?

This is an important condition to pay attention to, in yourself and your team. It can seem innocent. In a Slack room, you see your boss typing an answer to a question. In response, you stop typing your opinion, waiting to see your boss'. In a meeting situation, you let the senior developer speak before you do. When the group or Slack room comes around to the opinion expressed by the senior member, your move on—never expressing your initial opinion, content with what came out. Your idea may not have been as refined, however, often it can strike a valuable chord in someone else. Plenty of times I've seen junior members bringing a crazy new angle to a problem, where a senior ran with the idea along with the junior—spurring some incredible ideas. It's paramount to create an environment where this can happen.

This syndrome rapidly evolves into contributing to groupthink. Your team gets so used to the behaviour, that they start confusing consensus for the best possible solution. This is rarely true. Some people need to be pushed for their opinion, as they default to silence. Others don't voice it because of peer-group syndrome: letting an opinion form from the group. The senior members may not consider additional solutions because a "decent" solution has unfolded.

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Why don't we break up with our friends?

Everyone has opinions on steering out of relationships:

  • You have to do it in person
  • You can't do it on a special day (birthday, valentines, christmas, ..)
  • If you can't do it in person, a call is second best

.. and an ocean of other implicit social rules. Instead, we let friendships erode spurring many questions on either side. It doesn't matter if people have been friends for weeks, months, years, decades—dimming social channels is the implicit process. Perhaps it's because friendships are not a recognized social institution like sexual relationships, but they're often just as or more important. They can last throughout entire lives, major personal changes, and years apart—something few relationships can claim.

Is this going to change? I doubt it. Am I going to set an example and break up with my friends? I doubt it.

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