Why You Should Figure Out How To Pay For Abstraction Layers


Thursday, 8.07pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The brain is a wonderful organ. It starts working the moment you get up in the morning and does not stop until you get into the office. – Robert Frost

I am not a fan of suits.

I feel like I have to wear them at certain times, because that’s what people do.

But really, there is very little reason in stuffing oneself into polyester or cotton, wearing uncomfortable shoes and constricting the flow of blood to your brain.

The same goes for offices. Why would you leave one box to travel in another box on wheels to then spend the day in a third box?

Wouldn’t it be easier just to stay in the first box and get on with work?

Clearly none of these questions have a right answer – the rules are made by the people who pay you and so you must follow them in order to be paid.

But what if you’re making the rules – how should you arrange things so that they are good?

If you watch a craftsperson at work – say a good joiner constructing a wardrobe – you’ll notice something about them.

They’re not on the phone chatting with their phones held between shoulder and ear, while marking off their gear or fitting a door.

They work in silence, perhaps with some music on in the background, but on the whole fixed on the task – taking care and watching to make sure edges line up and doors close smoothly.

Much of the work we do is craft – and craft nearly always benefits from periods of silence and focus.

The single biggest problem for anyone at work is being interrupted.

An interruption is like an explosion going off in the monastery of your mind.

It stops you doing whatever you’re doing and forces you to pay attention to something else.

If you’ve hired someone to do work for you the best thing you can do is get out of their way and let them do the work.

If they’re young or inexperienced you need to spend time teaching them – and then get out of the way while they practice.

In most organisations there are people who do the work that customers pay for – this is your talent and it creates revenue generating work.

You need to protect and nurture your talent and one way to do this is to think, as Joel Spolsky writes, in terms of abstraction layers.

An abstraction layer is everything you put around your talent to help them focus on the work they need to do.

In programming, for example, that means a comfortable space that they want to spend time in, good machines, and all the books and software tools they need.

Everything else – ordering stationery, sorting out the cleaning, fixing snags – all that sort of stuff needs other people to manage and solve.

Managers need to agree what needs doing with the talent then leave them alone.

That can be hard, because everyone wants to feel like they’re doing real work – but much of the time it’s as important to get the system around the real work working nicely for everything to work.

In your computer, for example, if the hard drive is down and the power supply is failing there’s no point in having a fabulous processor because it just won’t work.

The point is that in any system you need all the components to function – because the one that fails will bring down everything.

If the heating fails and the temperature falls to zero the talent can’t do its job – they need the people who enable them to work just as much as the other way around.

Now, if you work for yourself you’ll still want to think in terms of abstraction layers.

What is it you do that is revenue generating?

What else do you do that isn’t – and how can you get others to do it for you – in effect creating an abstraction layer around yourself?

The fact is that the abstraction layer is a cost – you need to pay to put it in place, just like insulation.

But like insulation it saves your energy.

So the question to ask is not whether you need it but how you can afford to put it in place.

How much do you need to earn to add someone to your staff to help you with certain things.

It’s easy to add talent – it pays for itself because it adds to revenue.

It’s less easy to add the support functions you also need just as much.

In the long run, however, that’s what makes it possible to keep talent.

Whether it’s talent you’re hiring or whether it’s your own talent you’re trying to develop.

Because when it comes down to it what you need is time to do real work without being interrupted.

Or having to wear a suit.


Karthik Suresh

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