Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Why You Care About the Color of the Bike Shed (but Shouldn't!)

In 1999, Poul-Henning Kamp sent an email to an open source software developer mailing list. I came across it sometime around late 2001. To this day, I find the concepts he raised fascinating and have spent a lot of time thinking on them.

This email was in response to the reaction to a proposal to change the BSD sleep() system call to allow it to take fractional seconds. For such a minor change, the response was prodigious and often negative. The reaction was orders of magnitude greater than the change and its effects.

The Bike Shed

In the specific example involving the bike shed, the other vital component is an atomic power-plant, I guess that illustrates the age of the book.

Parkinson shows how you can go in to the board of directors and get approval for building a multi-million or even billion dollar atomic power plant, but if you want to build a bike shed you will be tangled up in endless discussions.

Parkinson explains that this is because an atomic plant is so vast, so expensive and so complicated that people cannot grasp it, and rather than try, they fall back on the assumption that somebody else checked all the details before it got this far. Richard P. Feynmann gives a couple of interesting, and very much to the point, examples relating to Los Alamos in his books.

A bike shed on the other hand. Anyone can build one of those over a weekend, and still have time to watch the game on TV. So no matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, somebody will seize the chance to show that he is doing his job, that he is paying attention, that he is *here*.

In Denmark we call it "setting your fingerprint". It is about personal pride and prestige, it is about being able to point somewhere and say "There! *I* did that." It is a strong trait in politicians, but present in most people given the chance. Just think about footsteps in wet cement.

(You can read the entire email here, and it is worth the time to do so!)

Technology Religion Wars - Endless Bike Sheds

It is a never-ending story in the software world. Religious wars that have no clear "victor" yet battles continue unabated.
  • Emacs versus Vi (Emacs, duh!)
  • BSD verus Linux
  • Agile versus Waterfall
  • XP versus Scrum
  • Compiled versus Interpreted
  • LISP versus Every Other Programming Language Every Invented
  • User Stories versus Market Requirements
  • Python versus Ruby
  • SOAP verus REST
  • PC versus Mac
  • HTML 4 versus XHTML
  • Permission Marketing versus Pervasive Marketing
  • ...
I now refer to any behavior that focuses on meaningless details at the expense of the work to be done as bike shedding.

Bike shedding has gone on so long and in so many guises that, while I think Parkinson and Poul-Henning were correct about its symptoms, I think they were wrong about the cause.

Frustrated Artistic Geniuses

At their core, almost everybody in the software world is extremely intelligent and incredibly creative. To build software, to take nothing but an idea and use it to create an ethereal projection in a virtual space, absolutely REQUIRES intelligence and creativity. From the first point the idea is hatched to finally getting a customer to understand how the incorporeal substance will improve their very corporeal lives demands it, not just of developers (but, perhaps, especially of developers), but also of product managers, sales sales people, testers, and others involved with building software.

We have a huge number of people that are, at the core of their beings, creative geniuses, who are pent up in dingy, gray cubicle farms having their lives scheduled for months based on the roadmap, expected to behave essentially as factory workers.

Can you feel the tension already? But it gets worse!

Being Afraid of the Meaningful

In his latest book, Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?, Seth Godin takes a deep look at the potent fears that make it so hard for us to get out of our comfort zones and the dynamics that have shaped our comfort zones.

As we grow up, we are taught to be afraid of our creativity in so many ways. We are taught that it is important to fit in, to toe the line and to not stick out. Finish school, get started on your career, hunker down and hope for a promotion or two before you head out to pasture. That is The American Dream.

The problem is, the more intelligent you are naturally, the more you recognize that the Dream isn't quite so rosey. You see the holes in the system, the duct tape holding the pipes together. You recognize that it could be so much better.

The more creative you are naturally, the more vision you have for crafting ways to make it so much better. You aren't just paralized with the knowledge that things could be better: you have the means to make it better.

I really do believe this to be true. The people in the software world are that smart and are that creative. I can honestly say that everybody I have worked with in my career has been oustanding and that I really do believe each and every one of them could change the world in meaningful ways. I don't believe that of everybody I have known or worked with!

But what an awesome responsibility. To know that you could change the world! Talk about stepping out of line! Nothing would expose you quite like stepping up and changing the world!

And so the fear Godin talks about pops up, ready to shut the whole thing down. "You couldn't really change the world, you'd probably screw up, lose your job, and get ostracized from the community", goes the inner dialog.

And so most of us don't and we look at those who do as special, different, a cut above us, when all they are doing, to put it in Godin's words, is shipping.

So the Color of the Shed Becomes All Important

A whole class of frustrated, scared geniuses. So much creative talent and passion with so little important work to get done. Is it any wonder that there is a 20X difference in software engineer productivity?

What's left to fill the gap? The color of the shed, of course. Not actually getting the shed built, that's too much like work. Instead, it's talking about building sheds.

It allows me the opportunity to show the world how smart I am but without exposing myself to any real risk (after all, you can't really critique an opinion). I can get lost in the technical minutia of the details without worrying about anything coming back to bite me.

The more I talk, the more comfortable I become with the concept that I'm doing something important without actually doing anything. It also uses up a staggering amount of time, time that doesn't leave me wondering how to make things better.

The irony about the bike shed is that, in appeasing the frustration and the fear, the very act exposes our own short-comings: either our own lack of real understanding or our lack of empathy with the other involved parties. But that doesn't matter, because the tension and the anxiety are eased, so I can handle the cubicle and the calendar another day.

The horror Dilbert talks about is very real!

Overcoming Our Own Bike Shedding

The only way to overcome bike shedding is to do. Any other course may stop the bike shedding, but will likely just lead to some other behavior that will sooth the tension and anxiety but lead to no meaningful change.

Getting meaningful work done will increase the anxiety for a while. You are fighting a lot of both nature and nurture; there will be resistance! But if you know the resistance is there, you can identify it and overcome it.

Find meaning work. Whether it is contributing something to an open source project, helping a friend flesh out an idea for his business (NOT critiquing the idea!), getting help from a friend for your idea, or helping others at work with your skills, the important thing is that you are doing. Not doing to receive something in return, just doing to do it.

The early challenge may be figuring out what to do. We have been conditioned to stay in line for so long that stepping out and doing something on our own may not come naturally. Fortunately, there is often a solution right in front of you. The more you bike shed, the more likely it is to be there.

At some time in the future, you will find yourself thinking, "That is a horrible idea. I better make sure she knows why it is!"


Instead of letting her know why it is such a horrible idea, ask her how you can help her.

It may very well be a horrible idea (unlikely), but by using your vast knowledge and creativity for helping instead of showing off, you force yourself out of the bike shed, into doing work, and, as a result, into a relationship.

As you continue to do this, you'll soon find that there are really very few ideas that are horrible, the bike sheds are getting along fine without you, and you are getting some amazing things done.

You'll also find that those people who once seemed to be a cut above you will become much more human, and you'll recognize how much you actually have in common with them. You may even bump into them along your way.
Photo credit: Paul Downey / CC BY 2.0

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