#6 - Link Roundup, 13 Mar 2020 (well, 16 Mar 2020)
Prioritization; Remote working productivity; Productive disagreement
Hi everyone -
Sorry for the lateness of this roundup. Like many of us, my team switched to into pure-remote mode this week; a move that has a lot of positives (No commute! Coffee we actually like!) but real negatives too (Last minute scrambles; juggling family and work commitments; increased pressure on us to manage effectively in this new environment).
We’re better positioned than most to handle a push to remote. And as disruptive as shifts like this can be, big changes at work can create a moment for us to try new things and reset expectations. If you’ve been toying with the idea of doing one-on-ones, giving more consistent feedback, delegating more tasks and decisions, or making other changes to how your team works, this can be a good time to make one or two of those changes. In the next week I’ll put up a blog post on getting started with one-on-ones; if people are interested I might even do a webcast.
But most of us have read more than enough on remote work or COVID-19 in the past weeks, so let’s make the rest of this late and somewhat briefer link roundup a remote and coronavirus-free zone. The theme that seems to have emerged is productivity - managing our own time, our external communications, and even some of our computing more productively and with higher performance.
Let’s get started!
Too Many Things - Sven Amann
As team members and managers, we all have way too many things on our plate, and the battle to being productive and effective is focussing relentlessly on our priorities and letting less important tasks slide.
I actually generally do a pretty decent job of that - except when workloads peak and I’m much busier than normal, which is of course exactly when I need to be best at focussing on the priorities.
In this blog post, Sven Amann describes going through a process (recommended at least as far back as 1967, but also described in this Manager-Tools episode on prioritization) of timing one’s work for a while - it doesn’t have to be very fine grained, here he put his time into one of 13 buckets - and seeing how it lined up with his most important priorities. Like most of us, the results aren’t especially pretty. Going through this once can be a bit of a sobering process, but it’s a baseline that can be used as a point of comparison. And seeing exactly how much time is spent on tasks that could be done by someone else or done more efficiently can be a way to encourage change.
Remote Working Productivity - Bashayr Alabdullah
The title and context of this post is on remote working, but really it’s about choosing how to focus your time in a productive manner. The five suggestions are:
Maintain daily habits and choose the environment - Find daily habits and an environment that work for you in getting your mind in gear
Prioritize tasks - What are the priorities you have to get done today? This week? This month?
Start a timer - Use something like the Pomodoro Technique - choose one of your priority tasks and set a timer: I’ve seen people use 20, 45, or 90 minutes, depending on the tasks - and focus on the problem exclusively for that period…
Schedule breaks - then take a break.
Batch questions (and answers) - schedule your requests to people you need answered, and answering queries made to you, so as to not interrupt your flow.
The 7 best work and productivity timers for freelancers, workers, and managers - Jory MacKay, RescueTime
Whether you’re timing yourself to keep track of whether your efforts actually match your priorities, or whether you’re using the Pomodoro technique to focus on something for 20, 45, or 90 minutes, you’ll need some kind of timer.
This “Best 7” list is on the blog of RescueTime, which is a company which makes productivity tools, so - spoiler alert! - RescueTime makes an appearance. Even so there’s some nice and free tools on here which I hadn’t known about, and several of which I may end up trying.
Buster Benson on the art of productive disagreement - Buster Benson, Brian Donohue
Why We Need to Disagree - Tim Harford
We’ve talked before about the lack of disagreement on a team (especially a technical team!) being a bad sign, and about how Google’s Project Oxygen found that psychological safety (which is very much about being willing to express disagreement) was one of the most characteristic features of successful teams.
Tim Harford article emphasizes the importance of disagreement, and points out that some of the most catastrophic failures are often due to people being willing to disagree.
Buster Benson, who’s written a book on the subject, gives five guidelines in particular for having productive disagreement. None of the advice given is necessarily surprising, but all take real effort and practice to put into place; and these were the ones he identified as most important in his study, so are likely the most bang-for-the-buck in order to foster productive disagreements:
Use friendly language
Understand first; be genuinely curious about the points being made
Ask honest, open questions
Speak for yourself - don’t assume what the other person is thinking
Use the disagreement as an opportunity to learn something new or find a better third option
Dan Luu makes his second appearance on the roundup, this time discussing how good development and infrastructure blogs are written by some of the big tech companies - and how some of the less successful ones aren’t.
Blogs are really useful ways to share knowledge and to increase awareness of your teams work, but it’s hard to keep them going. The problems identified here are more about a stultifying corporate process around approving blog posts, which aren’t normally an issue in our teams (he says, as he’s been sitting on a team member’s blog post for a week). But he does identify one other feature of organizational blogs that are successful - an internal culture of blogging/long form write-ups.
Does your team have internal writeups - whether presentations or documents - that you have successfully (or not!) been turning into blog posts? I’d love to hear more.
Part of being productive is automating all of the things that can be automated. Here’s a blurb on using github actions to run simple code checks on check in - a good simple use case for getting started with GitHub actions if you haven’t already.
Sometimes digging for the root cause goes all the way to the floor panels.
Cloudflare provides us a history of the URL. If timing had worked out slightly differently, would we all have ends up using UUCP-style bang paths for everything?
In all the hullaballoo about whether or not commercial cloud computing can provide “real” HPC, the needs of the vast majority of research computing often get drowned out - and the flexibility of cloud can often be exactly what is needed. The Jetstream project out of Texas and IU is doing lots of really great work on both the research side and also here providing resources for training computational biologists at small institutions.
And finally, on productivity: exploiting the fine-grained parallelism of OpenMP for higher performance - in Ada.