The Golden Yak

(This post continues from the Royal Yak, and concludes the series A Taxonomy of Yaks.)

When we improve how we work, we make tasks faster. We make progress smoother. This is magnified when we improve how all our team members work, or our whole community. Now and then, though, an improvement turns into something more: a real change. This is what I’m aiming for when I shave a Golden Yak.

Golden Yak

The Golden Yak is the yak that changes everything, the one that alters your reality. Sometimes when you follow a problem all the way down — how do I make this easier? … now how do I make that easier? … now what if this were no work at all? you find a different universe. Making something sufficiently easier can produce a sea change, which changes our behavior.

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Example: git. It changed my behavior. Git gives me logs at my fingertips, where they used to be behind a network connection so I never used them. And it gives me a capability I didn’t have before: separating saving my work from sharing my work. The combination is magic; now I save my work carefully with a story and later read that story.

Continuous Integration. This was a huge yak for the people who first did it. It’s still a lot of work, but we wouldn’t live without it, because we (as an industry) have learned that it smooths our future work. It changes our universe by eliminating the tradeoff between frequent vs safe releases. Automated tests also change our work. They reduce fear, and that’s huge. Tests turn canyons into potholes.

Golden yaks change behavior. They start by making something so much easier that we do it way more, then they give us an option we didn’t have before or eliminate a tradeoff.

Here’s a tiny one: when I find myself typing the same command a lot, there’s the question: create an alias for this? well, I have an alias set up for “open .bash_profile in an editor” and another for “reload the aliases in .bash_profile”. Creating an alias is so easy now, there’s no reason not to. It’s gone from a tradeoff (is it worth it?) to a “duh.” Like making a commit. Don’t even ask, just do it!

Here’s a team-sized one: automate spinning up a new project. This takes away a tradeoff: “this is really a separate thing, I should make a service for it… but it takes so long, I should glom it on to an existing one.” With the Atomist bot, I made it two slack commands and two in-Slack button clicks to create a repo and a channel and a build and a deployment, and bam I have an empty service in production ready for my new endpoint. It makes creating a new service “duh.” That decision is now all about architecture, not about tradeoffs. This yak is shaved once and for all. (until there’s a change in infrastructure. And then I’ll accommodate that change in one place, instead of various documentations and people’s heads.)

Here’s one that might turn out bigger: Dependency management, unsolved problem. Code reuse, not all it’s cracked up to be. I am against creating dependencies for code that happens to be the same, that isn’t business-crucial-same. So, what’s the alternative? Cut and paste, but that’s a lot of work and we often mess it up. 
This is my current golden-yak project: libbits. Maybe this will chew a corner off the nasty problem of dependency management. Atomist has automation infrastructure for modifying code, so I can make a program to do copy, paste, modify for a bit of code that’s handy in multiple projects. And then I can make a program to create that program. I’m following the yak stack, looking for the pot of gold at the end.

Then I’d like to make it easier to make the program that writes a program. Another thing we are making at Atomist is microgrammars, a new way of parsing, somewhere between Regex and a BNF grammar. (I don’t think it counts as a yak when your CEO tells you he wants your help with it.) My personal yak is to put an API on this that is super easy to use, and who knows, we might create a replacement for `sed`.

When are we justified in shaving a Golden Yak? If you don’t work for a development automation company, I don’t know. Getting an automation smooth enough that people use it like breathing is a lot of localized work for a huge but spread out benefit. Still, coding is fun! These yaks make great play.

There’s rarely a direct work-related reason to shave them well enough to find their deep secrets, the surprising wisdom on their shining skin under all that hair. The new way of working that is revealed only after we try it. Change our environment, and thereby change ourselves.

When I sit down to work on a weekend (or some Friday afternoons), I let myself dig into some Trim Yaks, and see how far I can take them. When I do this, I’m studying my own work. As automators, we study our users’ work, right? how they do their jobs. When we automate our own work we learn about our work deeply. Writing code to change code teaches me about code.

Here’s a shortcut to Golden Yak wisdom: cultivate an awareness of what we’re doing while we do it. I learned this trick from a book about how to ride a motorcycle: Devote 5% of your attention to how the work is going, and where it could be smoother. This awareness, then, feeds into our prioritization. And into understanding of our teammates’ experiences.


Yaks are a part of life and of progress.

Pair: We aren’t in this alone, and we can do it better together. Pairing lets us keep perspective on what we’re doing and why. We can use that space to think about doing it better.

Proven usefulness: look for it. Don’t spend a ton of time until you’ve hit a problem a ton of times. Track your yaks and timebox your attacks. Remember it’s about generativity, not all about you. Fill potholes, and shave a little more so your team can share the benefit.

Play: Stay curious. Especially learn about the system you work in, both socially and technically. Learn a little extra each time, about your tools, your system, and your companions on this journey. Interact and automate for the wisdom; for changing us, and thereby the world.

Yaks. They’re so much more than hair.