What Would You Do If You Had Absolutely No Pressure To Do Anything


Wednesday, 9.29pm

Sheffield, U.K.

There are no projects per se in the Computing Sciences Research Center. – Ken Thompson

I’ve been watching interviews with unix legends the last couple of days on YouTube – when I have a few minutes spare.

For example, there’s one where Brian Kernighan interviews Ken Thompson.

In case you didn’t already know, Ken Thompson was a co-inventor of unix and Brian Kernighan wrote a number of programs and a series of books that helped popularise the system.

Thompson talks about how he had absolutely no ambition – he went to graduate school because a friend applied for him without his knowledge.

He had no ambition, he said, but he was a workaholic.

He was eventually recruited to Bell Labs where he built an operating system under the radar, because Bell had been bitten by a bad experience with another one.

He wanted to make the system but Bell wouldn’t fund it so the team came up with – (he searches for words here) – a lie that they were creating a patent document creation system so they could get funding for a machine and build their operating system as well.

He talks about how he realised that he needed an editor, shell and assembler to build his operating system and, while his wife and one-year old were away for three weeks, he built each part in a week.

In a different interview with Kernighan and Brailsford, Kernighan describes the environment that they worked in.

Bell had no shortage of funding, as it was supported by AT&T and hosted thousands of researchers who were just allowed to get on and work on what interested them.

Kernighan said that in his thirty years there he was never once told what to do.

Instead, at the end of the year, he would write down on one side of A4 what he had done that year – and the managers would use that to decide what to pay him next year.

Now, what would you do if you had that kind of working environment – one where there was no pressure on you at all?

The temptation is to think that people will goof off. They’ll simply do nothing – take the money and squander their time.

The thing is that being idle is actually quite hard.

Most people will struggle to stop and do nothing at all.

And when you’re given the time to think and work on things that interest you, then you can hardly help yourself from coming up with something new and innovative.

There are very few organisations that understand this – or are willing to take the risk of paying someone to work on what they want instead of what the managers want.

In theory, academia should be the kind of place where you can do that – where you can explore ideas free from pressure.

Except the pressure is there as well, the pressure to publish and be at the top of ranking tables – the relentless competition that governments imagine improves standards and results in innovation.

Except, innovation actually comes mostly from people who are just digging away at something that interests them.

Thompson seems to like the analogy of gardening – you work away at it and then something amazing happens as it starts to bloom.

So what can we do if we want to get some of that working environment for ourselves?

There are two things we need.

The first is a determination to work on the things that interest us – we have to make time for them even if that means working late at night or early in the morning.

And it’s actually even better if what we’re working on isn’t directly linked to reward or payment – we want to focus on being intrinsically motivated – working for the sake of the work rather than working for money.

The second thing that that will help is the presence of constraints – not having enough, not working on the latest kit – because constraints are what lead to innovation as we try and overcome obstacles.

Think about this for a second.

Have you been very busy last year?

With all that busyness, what have you done? And is it something you wanted to do?

As the saying goes, you’re either working on your own goals or working on someone else’s goals.

The time to make time for yourself is probably right now.


Karthik Suresh

How To Get Better At Doing The Right Things


Tuesday, 9.33pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law – Douglas Hofstadter

Many people feel guilty when they’re not busy.

Part of this has to do with expectations – with what you think you should do with your time.

There’s always so much to do – from tidying up to sorting out the finances, and if you’re not doing all that you’re just wasting your time.

A different kind of pressure comes from managers at work who, not being able to see inside your mind, instead watch what you do with your time.

The reason managers like having employees in the office is not so they can help them work better, or coach them, or train them but so they can make sure they’re not goofing off.

How often, when you’re at work, can you put your feet up on the desk and just think before someone comes along and asks you why you’re not working?

But does being busy or working all the time lead to something good – or is there a different model that might be more useful?

Something I remembered reading that might help with this is in Gary Keller’s book The one thing.

He says that there is a myth out there – in fact a lie – that you can lead a balanced life.

Let’s take two things that matter to you as an example: life and work.

Life is a catch all for all the things that are not work: your health, your family, your finances and so on.

Keller has a few models in his book that I’ve adapted in the image above to explore this concept.

First, you could play things very safe and keep things close to the centre line – close to the notion of being balanced.

That means doing things like working your contracted hours and making sure you get there on time and leave on time so that you can spend time with your family.

It means being firm that you make no personal calls at work while at the same time ensuring you take no work home.

That may seem like a good approach but you’ll also end up living a life that is very much in the middle – one where you don’t get too far in work and not too far in life.

That may be just fine or you might end up, decades from now, wondering what might have happened if you had taken a few more risks or tried a bit harder.

Could you be a senior manager or a CEO or running your own startup rather than still working at the same role you were doing two decades ago?

Or you could take life or work to the extremes – you could pay so much attention to one that you completely neglect the other.

This is the life of the workaholic or the permanent party animal. You’ll get everything done and wake up one day to find your family gone or spend your time having so much fun that you find there’s no money in the bank.

Extremes can sometimes lead to fabulous things, but by their very nature they also tend to extreme failure.

This is the story of the people who overextended themselves when money was cheap and who then lost everything when it became expensive again.

This is the Wolf of wall street lifestyle.

Then there is a third way, what Keller calls counterbalancing.

It’s essentially multi-tasking, paying attention first to one thing that’s important and then moving to the other.

The thing is that if you want to achieve anything you have to give it time – you need to be single minded and focused.

Creating new things takes time – whether it’s a business, a new application or working on yourself or your relationships.

You can’t just hack you way to an enduring solution – it often takes time and attention to get things done.

So, if it’s important to you then it’s important enough for you to give it attention – and you need to choose which things you’re going to give your attention to, and then cycle between them.

That means, for example, working really hard at work and then taking a week off to spend with your family with no devices.

It means working a day solid at a hard problem and then taking a few naps the next day during work hours to recover.

The thing that isn’t in Keller’s model is the item in the bottom right, which is also paying less attention to the negative things in your life.

That includes thoughts that pull you down, people that are corrosive and making decisions when you’re low on energy.

If you want to spend time on the thing that are important you also need to decide to spend less time with the things that get you down.

As the quote that starts this post suggests, everything takes longer than you think, and then some.

If you want to get good at anything you need to be prepared to spend five years working at it – because that’s the only way you’ll build up the 10,000 hours of practice you need.

And that’s also why it’s hard to become good at a number of things – because there is only so much you can pay attention to without running out of time altogether.

Keller says that instead of aiming for balance what we should do is aim for counter-balance – the act of moving from one important thing to another.

It’s a dynamic state of balance rather than a static one.

And perhaps that’s the approach that’s more likely to help you build a life you look back on as a good one.


Karthik Suresh

How To Get Better At Doing One Thing Well


Monday, 10.03pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The only way to write complex software that won’t fall on its face is to hold its global complexity down — to build it out of simple parts connected by well-defined interfaces, so that most problems are local and you can have some hope of upgrading a part without breaking the whole. – Eric S. Raymond

I was watching a video of an Indian comedian from the southern city of Chennai.

Everyone in Chennai, he said, is an engineer.

That’s the default profession that your parents want you to go into.

You could choose to be a certain kind of engineer – say a mechanical engineer or a chemical engineer – but when you’re done only a software company will hire you.

Then they’ll train you in a host of languages, get you ready to program in any way the client wants – and then you’ll end up doing everything in Microsoft Excel.

This is the reality of work in business – days, months, years spent doing stuff in Excel.

Lives spent doing stuff in Excel.

The thing is that it’s clearly very hard to get anyone brought up in a Windows environment to think that anything else exists or could possibly be an alternative.

Which is ok – the point is not to ask anyone to do anything they don’t want to do.

It’s to see whether there is something better out there and what that might look like if it were used more widely.

For example, in the unix world one of the core principles is to “write programs that do one thing and do it well.”

The idea is that if you have a number of such programs then you can make unexpectedly cool things happen when you also make them work together – especially if they communicate using a universal interface, like text files.

Now, how would you use such a principle in real life work?

Let’s take marketing, for example.

The biggest mistake people make when it comes to crafting a message is trying to say too much.

Any message should have one clear idea.

You might build on the idea, support it with facts, burnish it with credentials and make it engaging through story.

Through all of that, however, your message has to shine through.

That’s the point of an elevator pitch for your business – being able to concisely summarise what you do well.

The people I see doing well are the ones that have nailed that message – where it’s really clear what they do.

Not all professions or companies are like that, however.

Some do more complicated things that it’s hard to summarise in a nice, easy pitch.

Although that sometimes means that they haven’t taken the trouble to break it down so it’s simple.

It’s hard to tell whether something that looks complicated is actually just so big that no one really knows how it works anymore, or even whether it works at all.

When you think of the concept of doing one thing well there are echoes of the same concept in many different places.

Take the idea of lean service archetypes where what you want to do is work on single piece flow.

That means that one person tries to complete an entire task in one go.

If they can’t do that then they pass “clean” output to the next person to work with.

That’s almost exactly similar to a program that does one thing well and then passes output in the form of text that the next program can use as input.

Almost anything you do can be thought of in these terms, individual, self contained activities that can be connected through a common thread – just as you see in the picture.

The main result of this way of thinking is the possibility of emergence.

When you make something that is big and complicated it ends up doing what you want – hopefully – and is the sum of its parts.

When you make a number of things that are small and self contained and you connect them together, surprising things often happen – something emerges that is more than the sum of its parts.

It seems counterintuitive that doing one thing well may, in the long run, end up helping you do a surprising number of things better than you hoped to do.

And that might feel a little more fulfilling than spending a life trapped inside Excel.


Karthik Suresh

How Do Successful People Have Such Brilliant Ideas?


Sunday, 9.19pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Usually, when you make a decision in life, unless you have access to parallel universes, you can’t truly judge how right that decision was. – Tibor Fischer

I was reading Small is possible by George McRobie, a book about how you can help people help themselves in many parts of the world.

It’s based on the work of E.F Schumacher who wrote Small is beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered and came up with the idea of intermediate technologies.

People in the developed world often find themselves facing two choices – either the latest thing or a classic thing. It’s like middle things disappear.

You can see this in bookshops, he said. You can get new books or classic books. The stuff that was published in between has disappeared.

Schumacher’s argument was that people in developing countries didn’t need either of those things. Or, more accurately, they couldn’t afford the latest things and the old things didn’t help them enough. It’s often the choice between a spade and a tractor – while what they need is something in between.

Schumacher called this intermediate technology and it’s a big thing now.

The thing was, I wondered, what made Schumacher so brilliant? How did he get these ideas that were so far ahead of their time and start a movement that persists to this day?

What made him special?

I was conscious, as I asked that question, that I was probably asking it the wrong way.

It’s circular, really.

Schumacher’s work was novel and had impact – and so I thought it was special and unique.

But, was it because I had heard of him, read his books that I felt that way?

Was it good ideas that led to success or his success in being heard that led to his ideas being considered good ones?

Now, the good thing about where we are today is that the middle is reappearing, at least when it comes to books.

I’ve mentioned the Open Library before and I went there to look for answers to my question and found a book called Our own devices: The past and future of body technology which gives you an insight in the first page.

It suggests that things are created as the “outcomes of a ceaseless interplay of technology, economics and values.”

Now that’s interesting – because the first is the thing we’re most familiar with.

People are always inventing new things, from electronic toilets to aircraft safety devices.

Some of those things make sense – they have a payback that is less or more.

But the thing that makes things take off is the values in the air, the values of the population involved, whether large or small.

Before we go on, the Open Library is an example of a reappearing middle – it has books that you would never find elsewhere – and that’s an interesting shift to spreading knowledge, both old and new.

But getting back to the point, the green movement, for example, has been around for a long time.

I remember going to Switzerland and being looked at as if I had just murdered a kitten when I asked for a plastic bag at the supermarket.

I had travelled there from the UK and this was before we had started to move away from them.

I felt quite put out really.

But now, if someone uses a plastic bag in a supermarket I feel a little put out, a little resentful that they’re destroying my children’s planet.

So I suppose when I come to answer my question at the start of this post – the point is not that successful people have brilliant ideas.

They probably have about the same number of ideas as the rest of us – some bad ones and some good ones.

The first thing that lifts some ideas out of the mass of the rest is whether they make economic sense or not.

Do they have a payback of some kind – would someone invest in that idea?

And then, what makes ideas fly is if they fit with the values of the time.

And those values can be ephemeral, fleeting.

Like crypto-currency a few years ago, and something else now.

But, if you’ve got those three things aligned – a good technology, good economics and a supportive value environment, then you’re set.

Which is why they say timing is everything.

Although, people probably have that wrong.

It’s not about calling the timing right.

What’s important is to be ready for when the time comes.

And then you can also be brilliant and successful.


Karthik Suresh

A Proven Formula For Making Good Decisions


Friday, 6.48pm

Sheffield, U.K.

My formula for success is rise early, work late, and strike oil. – J. Paul Getty

You may remember a few market bubbles that happened in the first decade of the twenty-first century – the tail end of the dot com bubble, leading into a housing bubble and the eventual implosion of financial markets.

For a short time anyway.

Around that time – well, around any time, people look to buy houses.

Whether markets are up or they’re down, we need a place to live.

The Economist at the time had a piece on house prices, examining the economics behind the house buying experience.

If you listen to most people they’ll tell you that property is a safe bet in the long term, “safe as houses”, as the saying goes.

You can never lose with property.

But, of course, you can.

All you have to do is download a chart of historical house prices and look at what happens – some years they go up and some years they go down.

Your return depends on when you get in and when you get out.

And once you get on the house price ride you actually stay in the same place for much of the time because, as your house price rises, everyone else’s does as well.

You stay relatively just as rich or poor as you were when you started – although you may bob closer to or further away from the poor house deprived people standing on the banks watching you ride the price waves.

Anyway, the Economist piece ended with some sage advice about when you should buy a house.

You should buy, they said, when the cost of buying is less than the cost of renting. Or, they went on, if you really want to buy that house.

Now, that is a spectacular piece of reasoning, something that has always stuck with me.

Something that I’m expressing through the formula above.

In case you aren’t familiar with ternary operators – that’s what the first part of the formula shows.

That’s the bit in brackets.

A ternary operator takes two arguments, a and b and evaluates to true or false based on a condition.

So, if “a” is the cost of renting a house and “b” is the cost of buying an equivalent house and a is greater than b, then the formula evaluates to true and you should buy the house.

If it’s the other way around, you should pass.

Now, you can see the implications of this simple observation in many other walks of life.

If you had a choice between being a doctor or an artist, pick the option that gives you more income.

If you have a choice between one girl and the next, pick the one with the nicer mother.

And so on…

If you have a number of criteria, add them up, consider the pros and cons and in Ben Franklin style go with the one that has the longer list of pros.

This first part of the formula is what everyone focuses on – what your parents want for you, what your teachers tell you to consider and what society at large thinks is the right way to operate.

And it leads to some catastrophic blunders.

For example, when you assume that the price of a house will increase forever – and you will always make more money buying than renting – then you will buy at any price.

That’s what creates bubbles.

It’s the greater fool theory – there will always be someone else who comes along and is willing to pay more than you did.

There will always be an “a” to pick up the consequences of your “b”.

And that’s why people end up being miserable at their career as a lawyer.

Or finding that perfect partner who looked like they ticked every box on a very long list ends up wasting a decade of your life.

The balancing part of the formula, then, is on the other side of the two vertical lines – the “or” operator.

The “or” operator moderates the conversation – it says it’s ok to be happy.

And if it’s going to make you happier being an artist than a doctor then it’s ok to have a go at that.

If there is a house that you really want, then you can break the economic rules to get it.

And sometimes, you have to go with the partner you want, regardless of what your parents or society says.

Of course, it would be nice if you could have both – something that has an economically valid basis and makes you happy.

If everything worked out well whatever you did.

But that might be too much to ask.

In the meantime, make a decision with your head or your heart.

Whichever one makes more sense to you at the time.


Karthik Suresh

How Different People Succeed In Different Ways


Thursday 7.50pm

Sheffield, U.K.

That is the paradox of the epidemic: that in order to create one contagious movement, you often have to create many small movements first. – Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference

I had an idea for an essay, maybe a book – something that felt like it might be interesting and worth exploring – something that might even interest someone other than myself.

So, of course, I avoided working on it, instead looking around for what other people have done and written about.

Which led me back to Shawn Coyne and his Story Grid, a way to write books that work.

Coyne is all about structure, about a beginning, middle and end and the five thing you need in each one: the inciting incident, the turning point, the crisis, the climax and the resolution.

That’s 15 core scenes needed in every story.

And then, if you’re interested, he takes you through the maths of writing a novel.

The important bits – your book will have 1/4th for the beginning, 1/2 for the middle and 1/4th for the end.

In a 100,000 word book, you should have roughly 50 chapters of 2,000 words each – spread out as in the ratio above.

Now, this is the easy part of Coyne’s work.

Quickly, very quickly indeed, you get into the work of analysis – mapping a structure which becomes larger and larger and more and more intimidating.

And boring.

This is what Pirsig says about such an approach in Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance – “The first thing to be observed about this description is so obvious you have to hold it down or it will drown out every other observation. This is: It is just duller than ditchwater.”

I sometimes wish I was the kind of person that could work with structure the way Coyne does – but I’m not.

Other people are – and for them it is a way that works.

Now, actually, we need to back into the idea of “The Way” from Coyne’s website.

He talked about Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping point during an interview – and the basic thrust of the tipping point is that in many situations thing happen quietly and calmly until suddenly we reach a point where exponential change happens.

His example here is that of flu – you get the virus and it busily grows inside you.

You don’t feel the effects for a while – as the bugs build up in your system.

Then, at a particular instant, the bugs you have overwhelm your body’s defences and they kick in with a response – a fever and the other things that come along with the flu.

All of a sudden you tip from feeling fine to feeling rubbish.

Now, Shawn Coyne was being interviewed by Tim Grahl, the author of Your first 1,000 copies and he seems to be all about strategy – about finding ways to connect with readers and sell your books.

A lot of people are very good at this.

Tim Ferriss, for example, has what he calls the definitive resource list to writing a best selling book.

The way of strategy is about getting to your goal, getting from A to B.

In this world the goal is to be a bestselling author.

Robert Kiyosaki, the author of Rich dad poor dad wrote about an interview where his interviewer was being sniffy about the quality of one of his books.

He pointed out that the cover of his book said “best selling author” and not “best writing author.”

Then you have Annie Dillard, the author of Bird by bird and The writing life, who writes about writing like climbing a long ladder in the dark – climbing step by step until you emerge above the clouds and are hit by the sun.

That sort of work is an act of faith – the kind of faith Lee Child has when each year, on September 1 (it has to be September 1), he sits down to write the first sentence of his next Reacher book, knowing that with no plan, no plot he will work until it’s done in the next 100 days or so.

Then there is the last way, the one used by people like Vladimir Nobokov or Pirsig’s Phaedrus in Lila – the act of writing in fragments.

Nobokov used index cards and Phaedrus used slips of paper – but the essential idea was that words, concepts, writing went on small fragments.

The work started randomly almost, but over time related fragments could be moved together, ordered and somehow, out of the chaos, emerges something coherent and worthwhile.

This is the way of emergence and having left it to the last, I must say it is the one that most appeals to me.

It is the way of bloggers, of plodders – of the people who do a little each day and find that they have created something over time – something they didn’t plan to create but that emerged because of the daily work they did.

The thing that ties all these ways together is the insight that comes with the tipping point – use the way that works for you but work on it every day.

It takes a while before you build up to the point where things tip and exponential change happens.

But that’s how your way will eventually, hopefully, lead to success.


Karthik Suresh

Why Are We Unable To Admit That Errors Exist?


Wednesday, 9.00pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Debugging is twice as hard as writing the code in the first place. Therefore, if you write the code as cleverly as possible, you are, by definition, not smart enough to debug it. – Brian W. Kernighan

I was reading In the beginning was the command line by Neal Stephenson, again, and he pointed out something rather interestingly obvious.

He wrote “Commercial OSes have to adopt the same official stance towards errors as Communist countries had towards poverty. For doctrinal reasons it was not possible to admit that poverty was a serious problem in Communist countries, because the whole point of Communism was to eradicate poverty.”

It would seem that modern society is almost entirely structured in a way that makes it impossible to admit the possibility of errors.

And I suppose there is a good reason for that – the existence of lawyers.

Where there’s a mistake, there’s blame – and where there’s blame there’s compensation.

And what that situation ends up creating is fear.

Let’s say you think of this in systems dynamics terms.

We start by making something – a product, a meal, something entertaining.

We find users, customers – people who will try it and like it or find problems with it.

We can apologise to those customers, thank them for bringing this to our attention and fix the problem – making our product better.

Or we can deny those problems exist, keeping them firmly in place and, in time, fixing a few but possibly making others worse as a result of all the hiding and denial.

All we can do is hope that the problem goes away – quite possibly making our product worse as a whole, especially when it comes to service.

The former approach would seem the better one but the latter is, unfortunately, the likely one.

Because of fear – fear of getting in trouble, fear of losing customers, but most of all, fear of losing money.

Deming got this – in his book Out of the crisis of the fourteen principles he said were necessary to transform industry was point 8: Drive out fear.

Fear, he writes, impairs performance and leads to economic losses.

It seems almost axiomatic, a law of nature, that an organisation that operates on the basis of fear will never admit it is wrong unless forced to.

Which pretty much sums up how the most powerful organisations in society work – including corporations, governments and religious institutions.

So, a necessary precondition for improvement appears to be the ability to be fearless.

Isaac Asimov was asked once how he could resist the political machinations of his university and he said that the answer could be summed up in two words – outside income.

I wrote some time back about three business models that work these days: getting tipped, staying small or having a patron.

You can only be fearless when you’re not worried about money – or the backlash from something going wrong.

And that’s why openness is a good business model.

If you can build openness into everything from the start – then you educate your customers that you’re open about how you do things.

And the fact is that nothing is bug free – programs aren’t for starters.

And everything we do in the world can be described in the form of a program, an algorithm, a plan, a proposal.

The best laid plans of mice and men, as the saying goes, often go awry.

The reason why free software works is because it comes without a guarantee – you use it entirely at your own risk.

But, ironically, that lack of a guarantee makes it easier to admit there are bugs and fix them when that’s pointed out.

Now, in many cases, guarantees are a good thing – the extreme example here is airline safety.

Every aircraft incident is investigated, and pilots go through checklists to make sure they’ve not missed anything.

Aircraft are really very safe.

So surely having a legal obligation and the huge lawsuits that result from airlines getting it wrong lead to better quality?

That would be the wrong conclusion to draw – for one very simple reason.

Pilots want to get it right because they’re in the same plane as you are.

The consequences of things going wrong end just as badly for them as they do for the passengers.

That doesn’t happen with doctors, architects or car salespeople.

What the research shows is that when you look deeply at any profession – take medicine as an example – literature and practice is rife with errors – with bugs.

The financial crisis of 2008 saw the damage that could be done by a buggy mortgage product sold by people who thought they were very clever.

There is no easy answer to this – but the world is moving in the right direction when it comes to openness.

We’re also, at the same time, moving in the wrong direction as we become increasingly polarised in our views and politics.

But that’s also natural.

As the picture shows, both situations can exist quite happily in the same world.

We need to make choices about where we’d like to spend most of our time.

And that probably starts by keeping things simple and as transparent as possible.


Karthik Suresh

The Case For A More Literate Approach To Management


Tuesday, 8.11pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Let us change our traditional attitude to the construction of programs: Instead of imagining that our main task is to instruct a computer what to do, let us concentrate rather on explaining to human beings what we want a computer to do. – Donald E. Knuth

A lifetime ago I was given the task of understanding and maintaining a 4,000 line program written in c that did some clever stuff related to nanotechnology.

Clearly that sounded like no fun at all and so I spent a lot of time trying to find out how to do a better job – and came across the idea of literate programming.

Literate programming is something that has never taken off, something that is a curiosity, hidden in a dark corner, and ignored.

Unless you’re a certain kind of person, possibly.

Some people are doers – they approach the job with vigour and zest and testosterone and get it done.

If you want a wall knocking down these are the kinds of people you want.

Most of the time, actually, these are the people you want.

Then there are thinkers – people who ponder and wonder and plan – with many ideas about how to get things done but not the kind of people who get their hands dirty.

You probably avoid those kinds of people.

Then there are people in the middle, people who straddle the world of thinking and doing and who find that existing ways of doing things just don’t work for them.

Think about almost anything you spend time on.

There is time spent planning and time spent doing.

There’s always this duality – the thing that emerges and the thing that makes it emerge.

I drew a random number of boxes showing this concept and had no problem filling them with examples.

An interesting example that goes back a long way is the Talmud – the Jewish holy texts – that have what you might think of as a core text accompanied by notes and opinions from Rabbis over the years. You need both to understand the whole.

These days it’s easiest to see how this works when you look at computer programs.

All programs end up being written in a particular language.

Programmers create their code and then add comments to help others understand the flow of the code.

Some very macho programmers believe that comments are unnecessary – they can understand well written code just fine thank you very much.

In such programs you end up with a very big core and very little around it.

Now, Knuth’s discovery was that if he took the trouble to explain what his program did he ended up writing better programs – and so he created an approach called literate programming that tied together the exposition and the program – a little like the Talmud’s commentary and text.

And once you see that it’s better to have the two together than either one on its own you’ll see applications everywhere.

Take managing a project, for example.

You could work out what needs to be done and hand out tasks – give people jobs to do.

Or you could take the trouble to explain why you’re doing this project, what is expected, what the main pitfalls might be – and in general communicate – inform the people working with you.

And then do it again and again – make sure that it’s very clear.

All this takes time and effort, and it’s very tempting to just get on and focus on the tasks and core jobs.

But that’s also how mistakes get made – how things fall between the cracks and you end up with unhappy clients and failed projects.

Maybe trying the two together – taking what Knuth called a literate approach is the right way to go.

Except, that it’s not easy to do. It’s not a quick fix, an easy win.

It asks you to do hard things, like think and write and explain.

Which is why literate programming systems are hardly ever used – it appears that only those who create them use them.

I can see the reality of that.

For example, my interest in Soft Systems Methodology could be expressed as a system to do Literate Management – where we articulate and explain the models that sit behind what we do in practice.

The method I use, however, is customised around my interests – bringing together drawing, programming and management – and it is arguably a literate system that pulls together code and commentary.

But what inevitably happens when you overlap requirements is that the area of possibility decreases.

It’s like climbing mountains.

We all start off on level ground – billions of us are there right at the start.

As you go higher, the number of people that reach each level starts to fall until eventually, you have a few people who make it all the way to the top.

But that doesn’t mean that Literate Management is not something we can try and do more effectively.

If you have kids – it’s the difference between shouting at them and taking the time to talk to them and explain why you need them to do something.

If you manage a person it’s the difference between micromanaging their every move and being a coach and mentor.

When we realise that there is this duality – this layering going on between how to do something and why it needs to be done then we can see that by keeping them together we can get better results from more engaged people.

And the thing is, for some of us, it makes what could be a boring job much more interesting.


Karthik Suresh

How To Make The Sum Of The Parts Philosophy Work For You


Monday, 8.35pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Life is painting a picture, not doing a sum. – Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.

Have you ever had one of those days where you look at everything around you and wonder how it got just so messy?

I’ve had a few of them recently, making me conscious of physical, digital and mental clutter – and that makes me wonder why that is and what to do about it.

Physical clutter is visible, in your face, something you can’t get away from.

We should know how to deal with it by now – using the first two steps of the 5S method.

Look at everything in front of you and tag each item that is not absolutely needed for the tasks you do.

Get those things into a holding area – you’ll go through them later and either throw them away or store them where you can get them if needed.

Look at what’s left and work out how to store it so its clear and simple what goes where.

All you should have in your drawer is a pen, a couple of pencils, a sharpener and an eraser. Maybe a hole punch and stapler.

I currently have around 45 pencils and a ridiculous number of pens – and since I do everything in text files, I’m probably going to need one pencil for the next ten years for the odd drawing here and there.

The same problems affect you when it comes to digital and mental clutter – both just grow and grow until they form monolithic blocks that you just can’t do anything about.

Which is why you have to try so hard to start small and stay small.

All too often we approach problems like the way we put stuff in a drawer.

We put everything in there that we think we’ll need until it’s so stuffed that it’s hard to open – we have those days where something sticks in the back and we just can’t pull the drawer out at all and even when we do get in there we can’t find what we want.

That’s the experience we have in many organisations, trying to get things done or when trying to use software that’s been designed to be the one solution to all our problems.

By trying to do everything we end up finding it hard to do anything.

Why is this the case?

There seem to be two reasons.

First, when we try and solve all the problems we have we create lots of rules for things that happen rarely.

The classic business example here is a checklist that turns into an assurance form with seven signatures.

As a checklist, it helped the person using it make sure they didn’t miss any steps.

As a form, it becomes a way to cover your back – to blame someone else when something goes wrong.

The second reason is that when we build things into closely coupled systems they find it hard to play nicely with other systems.

That’s when you get functional silos in businesses, as teams that work only with each other find it difficult to cooperate with others.

A different model is to have smaller systems that do one thing well and combine them when you need something more.

It’s a loosely coupled system, one that comes together based on need.

In business terms this might be a starting with a team of one or two people and adding resources only when needed.

It’s the opposite of setting up a steering group and governance panel and ten project members who spend all their time discussing process and very little time producing work.

The main difference between a lean, loosely coupled system and a monolithic, tightly coupled one is what happens when you set them free to operate for a while.

The monolithic one does what it’s designed to do – it follows the rules and produces the output as specified.

It doesn’t matter if the output is good or bad – it meets specifications.

A lean system is responsive – it’s able to respond to what’s going on and recreate itself, if needed, to produce output as required.

There’s also a chance that it will do things differently, maybe better than you expected – because the ability of the parts to function independently allows for the possibility of emergence – of something more than the sum of its parts.

I suppose one approach is about being in control while the other is about being responsive to change.

It’s the difference between being a shark and a shoal.

The world has place for both.

You’ve got to decide which approach is likely to lead to success for you.


Karthik Suresh

Is Storytelling Really A Programming Language For Our Minds?


Sunday, 8.24pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Myth is much more important and true than history. History is just journalism and you know how reliable that is. – Joseph Campbell

It’s can be a little dispiriting reading Isaac Asimov’s autobiography It’s been a good life.

This is someone who remembered everything he read or heard, through whom plot and story just flowed with ease and who never had writer’s block.

But he still had to serve his time – eleven years where he didn’t make enough to live off and years of rejections before he became known enough that he could just write and sell.

Asimov was a scientist, a proper one, who could also write science fiction. His fiction had real science in it and the stuff he made up also sounded like science.

He also liked history and his Foundation series is really the story of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire except set in a future galactic period.

As I write these posts I am conscious that there has been a change in the way I think about thinking.

In the very beginning I thought that what might interest people was technical information.

You might be very interested, I presumed, in the rate of glacier melting, the economics of battery storage or the intricacies of obesity-fuel ratios.

I quickly found that even I was having trouble staying interested.

I then moved to a much longer period investigating models – primarily ones around management.

There are so many heuristics, rules of thumb and conceptual models that people have come up with over time and some of them seem obvious and some of them make us stop and think a little.

After a while, however, they all run into the same problem – which is that although they give you a way to describe a situation they don’t really tell you what to do.

We are told that the goal is to be able to think critically, to look at everything and construct an explanation that works in a particular situation which is easy to say and very hard to do.

So, models are worth understanding but so what?

As the saying goes, they’re all wrong, but some are useful.

Now I feel like I’m entering a new phase, one where story and narrative are getting more important.

The reason for this is that I am coming to a belated understanding of the importance of story to our belief systems.

In a nutshell, the story you tell me about what you think is the best way I will get a understanding of what is your reality.

There is a bit (lot) more at this Sunday essay – but it seems to me that stories can be seen as programs we run in our minds.

If we want to understand others we have to understand their stories – not in context or in relation but as stories, unique and complete in themselves.

It’s like the quote I go back to from time to time that “Reality is a shared narrative we choose to believe.”

For many of us stories are reality.

And the way to change our reality is to write new stories.

I wonder if that is a line of thinking worth exploring.



Karthik Suresh

p.s. About the picture: Asimov said that to write you needed thinking time, time in front of your keyboard and the ability to see patterns of story.