Soft, or hard like mud

Soft skills are hard. “They take work to build and work to apply.”

@ruthmalan

The word “hard” describes sciences like physics and chemistry. It is confusing that “hard” can mean difficult, because these sciences aren’t more difficult than the “soft” ones like sociology and anthropology. They’re differently difficult.

The “hard” sciences are hard because they’re solid. We can stand on them. Physical laws are universal laws. They demand rigor, and rigor means proving that assertions apply in all cases, both through deduction and by checking against evidence.

The “soft” sciences are differently hard. They study humans systems, far too complex to make universal causal predictions. Conclusions about one culture or group are valid in some other groups and invalid in others. Rigor in complexity means studying which cases your assertions apply to. It means observing, discerning, and wallowing in context.

I describe my career progression from solving puzzles to growing products like this:

Correctness, puzzles, and the “hard” sciences are hard like rocks. Rock climbing is very technical. It takes a lot of skill and strength and hard work to climb. At the top of the cliff, you know you’ve achieved something specific.

Change, people, and the “soft” sciences are hard like mud. Like wading through goopy mud. Techniques can help, but each depends on the kind of mud. Strength helps, but pushing too hard can get you more stuck. It always helps to be okay with getting messy. When you finally reach that piece of relatively solid ground, the view is still a swamp.

Why would you want to wade through mud?

why does a fish want to swim through water?

People, interrelationships, change — this is our world. Sometimes we can carve out puzzles we can solve for real. The few universal laws we can find are priceless. But the rest of it — life is in the mud, in the deep context. The skills to navigate it are not easy. They are not satisfying in the same way, either. But they are how we find meaning, how we participate in a system bigger than our own self.

I am okay with getting messy.

Knowledge resides in teams

The magic of a gelled team is that they know how to work together, and together, they know how to do particular work. The members don’t know how to work together; the team does.

These learnings don’t reside in the members individually, the learnings are in the interrelations.

A shared know-how is jointly constructed between the participants. This shared know-how does not amount to the sum of the individuals’ know-hows nor does it strictly “belong” to any of the participants…. It involves instead the practice of coordinating sensorimotor schemes together, navigating breakdowns, and it belongs to the system the participants bring forth together: the dyad, the group, the family, the community, and so on.

“Linguistic Bodies The Continuity between Life and Language” Ezequiel A. Di
Paolo, Elena Clare Cuffari, and Hanne De Jaegher, quoted by @theblub

If you’re a director who gets to decide which teams stay together and which break apart, you have a lot of power — and very little control. Power can bust up symmathesies, but not build them or repair them. Other levels of hierarchy can set up conditions for success, but teams grow from within.

Leaving a company is scary because we know how to be in that company. Our own knowing-how-to-be exists partly in our interrelations there. Finding a new job means discovering a new way, a new self, to be in the new place. With families, even more so – this is part of what makes divorce so scary. If you’re in an unhealthy system and can’t imagine anything else, this is normal.

When you do get to be part of a healthy team, or a healthy family, appreciate it. Cherish it and nourish it.

Inner coherence vs usefulness

Around 1900, when modernist art was emerging, art historians talked about the significance of art in context: the painting is not complete without the beholder.

Before that, the beholder wasn’t so important. People looked for art to express some universal truth through beauty.

Before cultures and artists considered the role of the beholder, they made art that didn’t need you. The art has inner coherence.

A lot of software development aims for inner coherence. Code that is elegant, that is well-designed and admirable on its own.

I used to like that, too. But now I want to think about code only in context. Software is incomplete without use.

If my code is full of feature flags and deprecated fields for backwards compatibility, that’s a sign that it is used. The history of the software is right there to see. I don’t want to hide that history; I want to make it very clear so that I can work within it.

My job isn’t to change code, it’s to change systems, so that we can adapt and grow increasingly useful instead of obsolete.

This old painting may be beautiful, but it doesn’t affect me the way Gustav Klimt’s work does. (some drawings, NSFW) He was one of the early modernist artists to speak of contextual, rather than universal, truths.

Within our teams, contextual truths have the most power. In my software, it’s a contextual coherence of its larger system that I care about.

Tiny dramas, tiny deploys

It is better to practice risky things often and in small chunks with a limited blast radius, rather than to avoid risky things.

Charity Majors, “Test in production? Yes

Charity is writing about deploys. Not-deploying may be safer for tonight, but in the medium term it leads to larger deploys and bigger, trickier failures.

In the long term, slow change means losing relevance and going out of business.

In relationships, the same applies. If I have some feeling or fact that my partner might not like, I can say it or not. It never feels like the right time to say it. There is no “right time,” there is only now. There is positive reinforcement for holding back, because then our evening continues pleasantly. No drama.

This leads to an accumulation of feelings and facts they don’t know about. Then when it does become urgent to talk about those, they react with feelings of betrayal: Why didn’t you tell me about this sooner?

In the long term, lack of sharing means growing apart and breaking up.

My new strategy in relationships is: tiny dramas, all the time. The more tiny dramas we have, the fewer big dramas. Also we get practice at handling drama in a way that is safe, because it’s minor. I take any mental question of “should I say this?” as a clue, an opportunity! Yes, say it. Unless it’s a really bad time, it’s the best time.

And the complementary strategy: whenever my partner tells me something scary, like something I did that they don’t like or some feeling they had that might upset me, my first response is “Thank you.” Usually it is not a drama anyway, it’s fine. When I do have feelings about it, we can talk about them. Reassurance helps a lot, especially when I recognize and appreciate the risk they took by telling me in this moment.

If a small deploy causes failure, please respond with “Thank you for not making this part of a bigger deploy.”

We have built a glass castle, where we ought to have a playground.

Charity again, on our lack of safe tooling and therefore fear of production

Reductionism with Command and Control

In hard sciences, we aim to describe causality from the bottom up, from elementary particles. Atoms form molecules, molecules form objects, and the reason objects bounce off each other is reduced to electromagnetic interactions between the molecules in their surfaces.

Molecules in DNA determine production of proteins which result in cell operations which construct organisms.

This is reductionism, and it’s valuable. The elementary particle interactions follow universal laws. They are predictable and deterministic (to the omits of quantum mechanics). From this level we learn fundamental constraints and abilities that are extremely useful. We can build objects that are magnetic or low friction or super extra hard. We can build plants immune to a herbicide.

Bottom-up causality. It’s science!

In Dynamics in Action, Juarrero spends pages and pages asserting and justifying that causality in systems is not only bottom-up; the whole impacts the parts. Causality goes both ways.

Why is it foreign to us that causality is also top-down?

In business, the classic model is all top-down. Command and control hierarchies are all about the big dog at the top telling the next level down what to do. Intention flows from larger (company) levels to smaller (division), and on down to the elementary humans at the sharp end of work.

Forces push upward from particles to objects; intentions flow downward through an org chart

Of course when life is involved, there is top-down causality as well as bottom-up. Somehow we try to deny that in the hard sciences.

Juarrero illustrates how top-down and bottom-up causality interact more intimately than we usually imagine. In systems as small as a forming snowflake, levels of organization influence each adjacent level.

We see this in software development, where our intention (design) is influenced by what is possible given available building blocks (implementation). A healthy development process tightens this interplay to short time scales, like daily.

Software design in our heads learns from what happens in the real world implementation

Now that I think about how obviously human (and organization) intention flows downward, impacted by limitations and human psychology pushing upward; and physical causality flows upward, impacted by what is near what and what moves together mattering downward; why is it even strange to us that causality moves both ways?

Probability Spaces as reality

In Dynamics in Action, Alicia Juarrero describes human action as a selection, a sample, from probability space. Everything we could do, and the likelihood of each, is a function of our situation, our habits, and our intentions. From this we select some action in each moment.

Karl Popper calls these possible actions propensities, and he asserts that they are as real as electromagnetic fields.

You can’t see fields, but they’re real. You can measure their effects. What if the probability space of human action is just as real as fields?

It’s harder to measure this probability space; we get one sample. (There’s more we can do, but that’s another topic.) But if we take this probability space of action as real, what possibilities would that open for our thinking?

Treat “what happened” as a collapse, an oversimplification, of a higher-dimensional reality of everything that could happen.

How is this useful? Well, we can see our work as shaping that probability space. When I create software for other people to use, I’m shaping the probability space of their actions. When I ask questions, I’m opening (or narrowing) possibilities in the set of their possible actions. When I push “like” on Facebook or twitter, I’m bumping the probability of a person repeating that sentiment. We can start imagining the effects of our choices on probability spaces, instead of on concrete behavior (in a way more concrete, more mathematically modelable, than “influence”).

I can ask my child, not “why did you do that?”, but “what other actions also made sense to you, that you didn’t happen to go with?” and “what factors in the situation made this particular action feel more cromulent than sometimes?” We are not only what we do; we are everything we could do.

It’s like this example from Wardley’s book: if you could only see a projection of the chess game — what piece moved, but not from where or two where, if you didn’t know the board existed — then you can’t have as much strategy. Maybe if we accept probability spaces as part of reality, we can work toward illuminating them and influencing them, instead of projecting reality down into only what happened.

Look for this in yourself and others. Tell me if you find anything interesting!

One skill is not enough

It takes more than one skill to be useful these days.

Development, communication, writing, interviewing, management, business — these skills don’t do anything by themselves.

Developing what? communicating what? Which business? You need a domain of expertise to apply these abstract skills to.

I can’t communicate what I don’t understand. Nor develop good software in a foreign-to-me domain. Nor run a business without a particular business to run.

Today on On Being, they remarked that the straight-line path to success is outdated. Good grades may open a few doors, but grades aren’t success.

Find many different mentors, take not-normal paths. This is where we get interesting, and where real opportunities emerge.

Adding qualities to systems

The other day there was a tweet about a Chief Happiness Officer.

Later someone remarked about their Agile Transformation Office.

It seems like we (as a culture) think that we can add qualities to systems the way we add ingredients to a recipe.

Systems, especially symmathesies, aren’t additive! Agility, happiness, these are spread throughout the interactions in the whole company. You can’t inject these things, people.

You can’t make a node responsible for a system property. Maybe they like having a human to “hold accountable”? Humans are great blame receptacles; there’s always something a human physically could have done differently.

How religion is important

I begin to wonder whether I am mad or have hit on an idea which is much bigger than I am.

Gregory Bateson

As someone who grew up in a religion and then let go of it in my mid-twenties, it’s easy to say, religion is a useless fiction that persists because a powerful group finds it useful.

Bateson (an atheist in a family of atheists) has a bigger idea. He believes that religions exist to hold the “everything else” of whether and why we should do a thing. To hold all the systemic and invisible-to-consciousness reasons for an action. They are the foil to strait-line purpose.

“Supernatural entities of religion are, in some sort, cybernetic models built into the larger cybernetic system [our culture] in order to correct for noncybernetic computation in a part of that system [our conscious, purposive minds].” (this from a letter; thanks to @gdinwiddie for leading me to it.)

As people in our (capitalist) culture, we aim to meet goals. Those goals accomplish something, and have some side effects that are very hard to notice or measure. Bateson proposes that religion is designed to account for all of the rest of those effects.

Can we come up with a way to notice the effects of our actions, wider than the progress toward our goals, that is not based on the fiction of existing religions?

Five levels of learning

Gregory Bateson talks about distinct levels of learning. From behavior to enlightenment, each level represents change in the previous level.

Zero Learning: this is behavior, responding in the way you always do. The bell rings, oh it’s lunchtime, eat. This does not surprise you, so you just do the usual thing.

Learning I: this is change in behavior. Different response to the same stimulus in a given context. Rote learning is here, because it is training for a response to a prompt. Forming or removing habits.

Learning II: this is change in Learning I; so it’s learning to learn. It can be a change in the way we approach situations, problems, relationships. Character traits are formed here: are you bold, hostile, curious?

For example — you know me, so when you see me you say “Hi, Jess” — zero learning. Then you meet Avdi, so next time you can greet him by name — Learning I. Lately at meetups Avdi is working on learning everyone’s names as introductions are happening, a new strategy for him: Learning II.

Bateson sees learning in every changing system, from cells to societies.

In code — a stateless service processes a request: zero learning. A stateful application retains information and recognizes that user next time: Learning I. We change the app so it retains different data: Learning II.

Learning III: This is change in Learning II, so it is change in how character is formed. Bateson says this is rare in humans. It can happen in psychotherapy or religious conversions. “Self” is no longer a constant, nor independent of the world.

Letting go of major assumptions about life, changing worldviews, this makes me feel alive. The important shift is going from one to two, and accepting that both are cromulent: my model is, there are many models. It is OK when a new model changes me; I’m not important (for whatever version of “I” is referenced).

Learning IV: would be a change in Learning III. Evolution achieves this. It doesn’t happen in individual humans, but in a culture it could. Maybe this is development of a new religion?

I wonder where team and organizational changes fall in this.

  • Zero learning: “A bug came in, so we fixed it.”
  • Learning 1: “Now when bugs come in, we make sure there is a test to catch regressions.”
  • Learning II: “When a bug comes in, we ask: how could we change the way we work so that this kind of bug doesn’t happen?”
  • Learning III: “Bugs will always happen, so we continually improve our monitoring and observability in production, and we refine our delivery pipeline so rolling forward is smoother and easier all the time.”
  • Learning IV: a framework for agile transformation! hahahahahaha