It has been about 18 months since my last post. Toward the end of 2015 I started digging deeper into cybernetics and systems analysis, which led me to construct a model and write a paper. I haven’t posted it before now because it isn’t perfect. The funny thing is, I know it will never be perfect but I still have a list of edits to make. I always will.
I would describe the paper as a form of hermeneutical phenomenology. The TL;DR on the model: it provides a basis to qualify systems for further analysis. Writing is a mechanism for me to study the model, but as my investigation varies so does my interpretation of what the paper should say. At the moment I’d like to add some observations around four-color mapping, thresholds and compactness. It’s a more rigorous argument than what I said about the continuum hypothesis, but I may leave that bit in anyway.
Ultimately, the paper is my interpretation of the work I’ve studied. More than read my paper, I’d encourage anyone to review the sources themselves. It goes without saying that I couldn’t have written it in the first place if I weren’t standing on the shoulders of the giants that came before me.
I strongly identify as a technologist and a mathematician, but I would be neither of those things if it weren’t for the broader scientific community. Where I keep seeing people get stuck is celebrating our individual differences along with what we have in common. Humans have a tendency to form tribes and wage war. While I’m always glad to see the sense of belonging communities provide for their members, it’s the tendency to direct hostility toward other groups we should resist. J. Paul Reed wrote a post about this last year. We all have circles we run in where our faces are more familiar than others and it’s easy to get “othered” when we step outside of those environments.
I meet a lot of really smart people at tech conferences who haven’t taken any trig or calculus. If I’m at a math conference I typically get a lot of beginner tech questions from people who are a different kind of brilliant. One conclusion from my paper is the operating environment is the ultimate constraint on a system. We can be local experts on whatever experience we have that’s not the focus of the event. We should also be able to find people that can teach us more about the event’s main topic while we’re there. If you find your experience in a field is making it difficult to learn, try spending more time with newer community members. Their challenges and experiences stand a good chance of providing a fresh perspective.
This past week I spoke at We RISE Women in Tech Conference, which was hosted by Women Who Code Atlanta. I’ve been among the organizers for devopsdays Atlanta for the past two years and have been making an effort to engage the local community more.
I spent most of my time at We RISE on the tools track. G. Ann Campbell gave a great talk on code quality called, “Refactoring with Cognitive Complexity: The New Option for Measuring Understandability.” I’ve used sonarqube for years and have been studying complexity science as part of my cybernetics journey. I felt like I was the target audience for her talk. I really liked Meera Subbarao’s talk, “Know Your Enemy, and Yourself: Demystifying Threat Modeling,” too. I enjoy any talk with maps and Sun Tzu quotes, but the highlights of Meera’s talk were the personal stories she shared about trust and failsafe experiments. Experimental methods are playing an increasingly important sociotechnical role in security as our systems become more complex and adaptive. I’m currently convinced all sociotechnical systems are cybernetic as a byproduct of their complexity and all cybernetic systems are sociotechnical at a coarse enough scale.
Other Kinds of Othering
It’s that kind of talk that got me grouped in with the “complexerati.” The first time I heard the word I knew they were talking about me (among others) and it wasn’t intended as a compliment. Nevertheless, I couldn’t deny it is who I am. I’ve also been called an insight junkie and street academic and I can’t deny those, either. I can get hooked on a phenomena and dig until I’m completely exhausted. I also never finished my undergraduate degree, which leaves me to perform my research in the street, like a busker. I’m not sure busting my chops over the part of my degree I’m missing is constructive feedback, but we can’t expect everyone to be nice to us all the time, either.
I know we can catch people on a bad day so I try to be forgiving when someone gets a bit brisk with me. The complexerati comment led to some helpful advice after a diplomatic conversation. If I’m going to use language that’s specific but unconventional, I should make an effort to translate as I go along. People are comfortable with expanding their vocabulary but we shouldn’t introduce too much new material at once. What I said about cybernetics and sociotechnical systems translates into plainer English as, “any system with people in it is self-steering and any self-steering system will have people in it if we zoom out far enough.” The language isn’t quite as precise but it’s still accurate. Negative feedback can be helpful but we have to keep it constructive.fours
Churchill said, “Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions.” Communication is vital to trust and learning. Our human tendency to zoom in and steer toward our own familiar shores keeps us divided. This is an excerpt of my last post from December of 2015. It would seem my position has not changed.
Instead of focusing on processes we should focus on enabling people to improve themselves. We improve when we learn and we learn when we communicate. If your culture does not foster communication can if foster learning? If you’re not open and honest with yourself, how does that effect your environment?
I could go into more detail about my intentions for next year and may do so at a later date, but my plans are of no use to you as we are different people. I would encourage you to gain awareness of your own situation by challenging the assumptions that have bounded your operation.
We can stay true to ourselves and our own identities while interacting with other communities. We’re members of some and just allies of others. It’s important to respect those boundaries and understand when our experience is welcomed and appreciated, when it’s time to listen and learn, and when it’s just not the time or place for us and we need to move onto something else for a while.
We RISE was about technology and culture, which I believe are at the heart of what I’ve been studying for the past few years. The talks about DevOps and security couldn’t have been more relevant to my work. I felt some of the advice I heard in the keynotes from Jen Bonnett, Safia Abdalla and Estelle Weyl that was specifically targeted toward women was probably good advice for anyone, including me. Both Melanie Crissey and Sandra Persing shared their takeaways from the conference here and here, respectfully. Their posts should help shed some light on how I fit in and what I took away from this women’s tech conference more convincingly than I’ll be able to explain.
A Group Effort
I think this slide I tweeted from Ashley Sun’s talk is the best I can do at summing it up. Ashley gave an awesome talk, during which she showed us how she’s using neo4j for cloud monitoring that gave developers in her organization the ability to manage more of their own infrastructure.
— Chris Corriere (@cacorriere) June 24, 2017
Ashley shared Kelsey’s tweet in an effort to convince us that just because this solution was a good fit for her organization, it didn’t necessarily mean it would work for anyone else. Adrian Cockcroft had made the point that not everyone can be Netflix. Adrian used to work for them, so he might be a little biased. When Kelsey Hightower quoted him, it provided some external validation to the idea. Kelsey works for Google and they aren’t trying to be Netflix, either. They’re too busy being Google.
Greg Poirier pointed out that not everyone can be Kelsey Hightower in his talk at devopsdays Silicon Valley a while back. I felt the point Adrian had about Netflix applies to us as individuals, too. Copying Kelsey’s results won’t give us the experience of walking Kelsey’s path. Some experience with Kubernetes may help you on your own journey, but it will never make you Kelsey Hightower. The same applies for Ashley Sun, Adrian Cockcroft and anyone who’s still reading this. We all have some experience others can learn from because we’re each on our own path. As things change over time and our memories fade, not all of what we remember remains how it was today. This is how the perspective of a novice can give fresh eyes to someone with more experience.
One Step at a Time
This is why Taiichi Ohno was unconcerned when people came from the United States and wanted to study TPS. By the time they had implemented what they had observed, the process at Toyota would have already adapted into something different (if you’d like to read more about it you should check out this book). The game we’re in has no finish line we can cross. The only successful move we can make is to try to support each other as individuals and communities as we’re able, sharing what we have in common.
I had a great time at We RISE Women in Tech Conference and will look forward to it returning to Atlanta again next year.