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I've been online since 1971 and I like to smoothe the way for everyone else. Among other things I co-founded Sympatico, the world's first easy-to-use Internet service (and Canada's largest).

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

A boost for laziness

Many years ago when I was a professional computer programmer, I remarked to my father that all the best programmers were lazy. This got his attention, as he is an incredibly self-disciplined person with an unbeatable work ethic. I explained that in programming the best solutions are usually those that involve writing the smallest amount of software. To come up with such solutions can take considerable thought and creativity. But people who like to think, as good programmers typically do, don’t consider thinking to be work, so the result is good for everyone: they have to do less work, yet what they produce is superior. (Except of course when clueless bosses say things like “I want you to finish one module a week, starting the first week.” For lots more on these issues see the classic book The Mythical Man-Month by Frederick P. Brooks.)

Web 2.0, by giving creative and thoughtful people outlets that don’t require going through organizational gatekeepers (such as corporate or governmental or editorial), similarly makes it possible to accomplish more with less “work”. The result is a shift in the average nature of producers, toward the more “lazy”.

I was reminded of this by Toronto Transit Camp, which took place a few days ago. It was a BarCamp-type event organized by a few volunteers, run fairly cheaply, and thanks to the support of sponsors free to attend. The objective was to come up with concrete suggestions for how the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) could improve its (currently horrible) website (which I refuse to link to). The event was attended by several TTC brass, including its new chairman.

Contrast this with how the TTC had been planning to proceed:  bureaucrats would write a long RFP, etc., etc. Lots of process and lots of overhead, taking most of the effort and expense and leaving little for the actual ideas being sought. And locking out those unwilling to do such “work”.

I don’t think the meek shall inherit the earth, but the lazy might.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Christina said...

Now to convince my manager that my laziness is actually a good thing.

Thursday, February 8, 2007 at 8:01:00 AM EST  
Blogger Bryce said...

I completely agree with you in principle and as someone who had small part in TorontoTransitCamp the intention was to facilitate ideas in what we called "the Solution Playground". I do have concerns around transferring the ideas and energy generated from the campers to the implementation team because I think it will be hard to consolidate into a document.

I do think that BarCamp style events can do alot for public good. TransitCamp had our best idea capturing quotient to date but we need to realize as a community that the ideas fade when the documentation rigor isn't there.

Thursday, February 8, 2007 at 10:43:00 AM EST  
Blogger Rohan Jayasekera said...

Christina, my wife Yvonne says that the solution is for you to call it “efficiency”.

Bryce, that’s a very good point. The TransitCamp wiki doesn’t have as much on it right now as I would have expected. It’s only been four days, but for most people the energy around doing followup activities falls off drastically over time.

I think one solution would be to make the last part of the event a documentation frenzy. For 45 minutes or an hour or whatever, nothing happens except documentation. Session leaders can be assisted in this by other session participants (if not everything that came up got taken down in notes, or the notes were unclear, having the other people handy could be very helpful).

Documentation is one of those things that most programmers hate doing, and others may not be too keen on it either, so doing it all as a group may make it palatable.

Ideally there would also be an after-party that didn’t start till after the documentation frenzy, giving people a good reason not to just duck out after the sessions.

Thanks to both of you for your comments!

Thursday, February 8, 2007 at 4:25:00 PM EST  
Anonymous Christina said...

Documentation is one of those things that most programmers hate doing

So I've noticed. Maybe I'll try the after-party idea with my team.

Thursday, February 8, 2007 at 7:51:00 PM EST  
Blogger Rohan Jayasekera said...

Christina, it just might work. Most programmers hate meetings of any kind, but when scheduled they still show up (no-shows are rare in my experience).

My suspicion is that your best bet is to encourage teamwork as much as possible, e.g. “ok, Bill, I’ll document this half and you’ll do the other”. When programmers make commitments to each other they tend to take them pretty seriously.

If you find that you have to enforce the rule that the session is for documentation and nothing else (no coding, not even to fix a bug found while documenting!), further addressing of motivation is needed. The programmers themselves might have good ideas for that; most programmers accept the need for certain kinds of documentation, even if they don’t enjoy doing it.

Friday, February 9, 2007 at 6:52:00 PM EST  

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