When Is The Right Time To Build An App For Your Business?


Saturday, 9.30pm

Sheffield, U.K.

As far as the customer is concerned, the interface is the product. – Jef Raskin

Dragging kids around the city centre and doing shopping is one of the less enjoyable things to do in the world.

Bored kids find inventive ways to act out – causing mayhem of one kind or another, especially when they’re also hungry.

Which is why we headed to a large chain restaurant, where we knew we would get cheap food made from plastic that would probably come quickly – and found a table.

And then, when it was time to order, we used an app.

And it worked perfectly.

Minutes later, the drinks arrived and the food shortly after that, and everything was good with the world.

Normally, I try and take off all the apps on my phone that want to distract me – email is out, social media is banned and whatsap is on mute with no notifications.

Anything that wants to try and interrupt me has to be eliminated.

But, there are times when I want something – a takeaway, a taxi or to order food.

There are certain types of choices that are simple to make – this kind of food from that place, take me from here to there and I want this and that off the menu.

If you look around you’ll see apps and interfaces taking the place of call centers and waiters to help you with those choices.

And they work well, when what you want is simple and can be set up as a menu.

At that point the waiter is no longer required.

The point at which you need someone to get involved is when things start to get complicated or need personalisation.

Like when you need help understanding what something means or does, or if you want to make unusual modifications to your order or you need a customised version that has your kid’s name and favourite character.

The point at which applications start to suffer is when they have to deal with lots of variety.

They are good with things that stay the same but start to struggle when something different happens.

Now, you might argue that you can deal with a different situation by creating a rule – something that helps improve the ability of the system to deal with variety.

This shows up as the option on some menus to change ingredients or the text box at the end of your takeaway order that lets you give instructions to the driver to come round to the side entrance.

But at some point things cross over – where the overhead of dealing with customisation results in a deterioration in the quality of service.

For example, we went to a climbing facility recently that had a ridiculously long, web based, legal disclaimer form.

It took so long to finish that the kids were out of sight and could quite easily have gotten themselves into trouble.

If something bad had happened, all those words wouldn’t have really helped with their liability – they would have closed down anyway if a serious incident happened just because of the negative news effect.

What they should have done was have a short form and get someone from the team to carefully explain how to be safe in the facility instead of hiding behind a legal shield made of cobwebs.

In one case the app or web interface made ordering easy and life easy.

The other case made getting started hard and customers irritated.

The point about going digital is this – the reason you’re doing it is to improve the customer’s experience.

So first you need to do everything to just do better work.

Make better food, create a better climbing environment and operate newer and cleaner taxis.

Then, look at the things people have problems with and redesign your operations to get rid of them by working better – through training staff to spot those issues and removing processes that don’t add value.

And where there is a high degree of variation – where customers are unsure or want a lot of customisation, personalisation or changes – put a real person in front of them, one who knows what they are doing to help them get what they need.

As the quote that starts this post says the interface is the product. In some cases that interface has to be human – and we should start by trying to make it as pleasant an experience as possible.

And then when you’re left with nothing else you can do to improve your service then look at how digital systems can make your customer’s lives easier.

This is what John Seddon calls an IT last approach.

A good rule is to only put digital systems in when customers start saying to you “Do we really need to talk to you to get what we want?”

That’s when you give them the ability to order from you through an app or online.


Karthik Suresh

p.s. Thank you for the feedback and likes on my recent posts.

There will be radio silence for ten days or so as we go off the grid for the summer holidays but the posts will resume after that.

Why Trying To Force Information Into An Order Is A Bad Idea


Friday, 10.16pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Never impose your language on people you wish to reach. – Abbie Hoffman

A few days ago I was writing about why it’s very difficult to put knowledge into some kind of orderly form – but just couldn’t remember where I’d read that before.

The Internet has, however, brought it to me – although through a rather circular route.

As you probably know, if you read these posts, I’m interested in the history of unix.

One of the oldest utilities in the unix environment is an application called dc, which stands for desktop calculator – it even predates the c language.

dc uses something called reverse-polish notation, which means that instead of writing 1 + 1 =, you write 1 1 + and get the answer 2. It’s more compact – using one less operator and you don’t need brackets.

It can be useful when you’re writing scripts and want do quickly do some maths.

The wikipedia entry for dc has a link at the bottom for a paper by Douglas McIlroy, called A research unix reader, where McIlroy talks about how they came up with a way to document their growing system – which came to be known as man pages.

He wrote: ‘The absence of any “logical” grouping of facilities was a deliberate result of discussion. (As encyclopedists have always known, the relationships among knowledge are too various to force into rational linear order.) Retrievability and honesty were the prime concerns.’

So we are there – from wondering about reverse-polish and dc to the concept of information and order.

Now, you may wonder, why think about a concept that is nearly 50 years old?

It’s because even now if you try and document anything or create a system to hold information the chances are that you’ll make a mess of it.

Let’s start with something as simple as knowledge in an organisation.

Do you work in an organisation – have any of us worked in organisations – that have successfully implemented a way to collect and share knowledge between employees?

When you want to know more about something do you head to your corporate information management system?

The papers that pour out of organisations – policies, risk assessments, quality statements – are they ever used to do anything actually useful?

Or are they used to tick boxes to confirm that you have such documents?

Or do you head to the Internet to a collection of disorderly information in which it is almost certain that what you need exists someplace.

It is slightly astonishing, to me anyway, just how that quote from McIlroy is still so relevant today.

All over the world eager young and not-so-young analysts are trying to create databases and spreadsheets, trying to corral and corner data, rather like trying to trap a swarm of bees using a pitchfork.

Yes the columns that make up the pitchfork are solid but they’re not going to keep many of the bees penned in for long.

Or, as the picture shows, it’s like trying to stuff a cloud into a cardboard box.

If you want to create a useful knowledge system you need to let it evolve freely – precisely what has happened with the Internet – and what does not happen with most organisational projects.

But you also need to think about two more things – how you retrieve the information and how you keep it honest.

The retrieval job for the Internet has been taken up by Google – they spotted the solution there.

The honesty point is what threatens to bring the Internet down now – from the problems of fake news to the way in which politicians use the platform to promote policies of hate and division.

But all this is encapsulated in a paragraph of a few tens of words written all that time ago.

This idea that things don’t really change that much is nicely illustrated in Sinclair Target’s blog post about the utility cat.

I love this quote: “My aunt and cousin thought of computer technology as a series of increasingly elaborate sand castles supplanting one another after each high tide clears the beach. The reality, at least in many areas, is that we steadily accumulate programs that have solved problems. We might have to occasionally modify these programs to avoid software rot, but otherwise they can be left alone.”

And cat is important because it is held up as an example of how things bloat and get fat over time – almost as a default.

If you aren’t interested in the programming aspects of this – there is one thing to take away from this post.

When you find yourself trying to control information – trying to create a system to put around it – like a CRM for customer data or database for analytics – breathe to ten and walk away.

In reality the very last thing you should do is think about such things.

The first thing you should do is figure out what your customer needs you to do.


Karthik Suresh

Why Having Less Is A Lot Harder Than Getting More


Thursday, 9.11pm

Sheffield, U.K.

Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants. – Epictetus

Every once in a while you’ll come across someone who knows someone who is doing something with artificial intelligence.

They’re taking data, crunching it, putting it through clever, self-learning algorithms, and coming up with insights that make everything better.

Everything is always getting better – you get more features, better quality, and a richer experience

But it all comes at a price – one that I’m not sure how exactly to take a view on.

On the one hand the relentless drive for the new gives you things like the iPhone and iPad – the culmination of a decade long dream to have an electronic equivalent of paper, just better.

It’s like the scene in The Devil Wears Prada where we learn that the fashion of today eventually results in the cheap clothing of tomorrow.

But, if you have too much of a good thing over time, that is less good.

If you have read The little prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery you’ll remember how, at the start of the book, Exupery talks about boa constrictors.

He saw a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an animal and drew his version (which looks like my figure 2 above) and showed it to grown ups.

They asked him why he was drawing pictures of hats.

But it wasn’t a hat – it was a boa constrictor digesting an elephant – which he tried to make clear by drawing a second picture – 2a in mine.

At which point he was advised to stop drawing pictures and spend time studying instead.

And life sometimes seems like that.

We all start off as slim boa constrictors, unencumbered by food, and happy to take what we get.

And then the meals start and they get bigger and bigger, as our appetites and eyes grow.

If you’re lucky enough to be beyond the first few stages of the hierarchy of needs, then you probably have more stuff than you need, with more coming in all the time.

Eventually, you may also be in a position where there is an elephant in you and there’s no point moving any more, you’re pretty much stuck.

If you look around at your life and work there is probably little you actually need.

Without being completely minimalist – there are probably more pens in your house than you will ever use, more plastic boxes than food you cook – just more of everything.

More just seems to happen unless you’re one of those people that makes an effort to have less.

You’re the kind of person that passes on pens and pads at hotels and conferences.

You recycle all your plastic, never keeping a takeaway container just in case.

And, of course, you return all your shopping bags to the supermarket or only keep the four or five you need for a big shop.

The thing is that if you’re that kind of person you know just how much effort goes into getting rid of stuff.

For some of us it would be much easier if we stayed away from elephants altogether.


Karthik Suresh

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

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