Same Procedure as Every Autumn: New Data for the Heat Pump System

October – time for updating documentation of the heat pump system again! Consolidated data are available in this PDF document.

In the last season there were no special experiments – like last year’s Ice Storage Challenge or using the wood stove. Winter was rather mild, so we needed only ~16.700kWh for space heating plus hot water heating. In the coldest season so far – 2012/13 – the equivalent energy value was ~19.700kWh. The house is located in Eastern Austria, has been built in the 1920s, and has 185m2 floor space since the last major renovation.

(More cross-cultural info:  I use thousands dots and decimal commas).

The seasonal performance factor was about 4,6 [kWh/kWh] – thus the electrical input energy was about 16.700kWh / 4,6 ~ 3.600kWh.

Note: Hot water heating is included and we use flat radiators requiring a higher water supply temperature than the floor heating loops in the new part of the house.

Heating season 2015/2016: Performance data for the 'ice-storage-/solar-powered' heat pump system

Red: Heating energy ‘produced’ by the heat pump – for space heating and hot water heating. Yellow: Electrical input energy. Green: Performance Factor = Ratio of these energies.

The difference of 16.700kWh – 3.600kWh = 13.100kWh was provided by ambient energy, extracted from our heat source – a combination of underground water/ice tank and an unglazed ribbed pipe solar/air collector.

The solar/air collector has delivered the greater part of the ambient energy, about 10.500kWh:

Heating season 2015/2016: Energy harvested from air by the collector versus heating-energy

Energy needed for heating per day (heat pump output) versus energy from the solar/air collector – the main part of the heat pump’s input energy. Negative collector energies indicate passive cooling periods in summer.

Peak Ice was 7 cubic meters, after one cold spell of weather in January:

Heating season 2015/2016: Temperature of ambient air, water tank (heat source) and volume of water frozen in the tank.

Ice is formed in the water tank when the energy from the collector is not sufficient to power the heat pump alone, when ambient air temperatures are close to 0°C.

Last autumn’s analysis on economics is still valid: Natural gas is three times as cheap as electricity but with a performance factor well above three heating costs with this system are lower than they would be with a gas boiler.

Is there anything that changed gradually during all these years and which does not primarily depend on climate? We reduced energy for hot tap water heating – having tweaked water heating schedule gradually: Water is heated up once per day and as late as possible, to avoid cooling off the hot storage tank during the night.

We have now started the fifth heating season. This marks also the fifth anniversary of the day we switched on the first ‘test’ version 1.0 of the system, one year before version 2.0.

It’s been about seven years since first numerical simulations, four years since I have been asked if I was serious in trading in IT security for heat pumps, and one year since I tweeted:

Social Debt (Tech Professional’s Anecdotes)

I have enjoyed Ben Horowitz’ book The Hard Thing About Hard Things. Farnamstreet’s review is perfect so I will not attempt at writing one. I will focus on one idea I found most intriguing.

I read Horowitz’ book as an account of dealing with hard decisions in general, about having to decide alone, about personal accountability, about having to pick the lesser of two evils.

The idea that stuck with me in particular is Management Debt, and Horowitz also blogged about this.

… management debt is incurred when you make an expedient, short-term management decision with an expensive, long-term consequence.

You accumulate Management Debt if you try to fix an organizational issue quickly by acting inconsistently. Horowitz’ example: You might give an employee a raise in order to stop her from leaving the company. But she had discussed her plans with another employee who then wonders why she stayed; so she feels pressed to explain the reason to him. Then others learn how to blackmail you in order to get a raise, etc..

From my short stint as a manager I am familiar with such situations but I rather like to extend the concept to Social or Political Debt. I believe that we, as human social animals, tend to focus on resolving the conflict right in front of you, rather than considering seemingly abstract consequences in the future.

I am thinking of the expert bombarded with all kinds of requests. As a professional it is hard to avoid them: People who to want to pick your brain and just like to have 5 minutes so you can glance over their problems. For free. Trying to help all of them – on top of working with paying clients – would be the equivalent of trying to copy a full book at the photocopier but yielding to anybody who wants to copy just a single page.

As a fallible human you might give in to the most intrusive requester just to get rid of him or her. You think that explaining your seemingly cold-hearted rationale would take more time and would be more emotionally taxing than just fulfilling the request.

But those people will return with more problems, and their acquaintances will, too. You have incurred debt, and there is interest rate. The moment of refusal might be difficult though, in particular with requests in the blurry area between business and private. How to say No to that alleged or self-declared old friend?

I am a believer in 1) Stating clearly what you don’t want and don’t do (rather than focusing on the positive) without feeling the need to explain yourself and 2) “Principles” – a short list of your values, or guiding principles you always follow. Both need need to be ingrained in your mind so that you react accordingly in case you receive those e-mails and calls out of the blue.

The paradoxical or sad thing is that explanations are most often futile. There are many good reasons – both ethical and business-wise – for not jumping onto such requests. The obvious one being limited time and treating all clients equal, but the best one in my point of view being the value of true expertise: Based on years of experience you might only need five minutes to solve a problem that requires somebody else doing days of research. That’s exactly why those first minutes might be the most valuable.

I am speaking from experience although such things fortunately did happen to me rarely. But when they did, it was freaking me out. I once got a call from an unknown lawyer who was in the middle of installing his very own Public Key Infrastructure; he started asking technical questions before introducing himself. I tried to explain that I was actually charging people for such services, and that I assumed he did not do legal counselling for free either. His response was that he was maintaining all his IT stuff by himself – just this topic was too complicated for him so he needed advice. So services should be free if a professional solves a particularly tricky problem. This defies common sense.

I also thought I had a killer argument, non-refutable. I am actually providing technical information on ‘the internet’ – the same sort of answers or materials I would charge clients for. The difference is that I am not obligated to do this, so I pick this case by case. I believe in open-source-style sharing in a community of like-minded members. I am a believer in demonstrating skills in real time instead of showing off certificates – it goes without saying this might include giving away some valuable advice for demo purposes at the start of a business relationship.

Unfortunately, this demo-for-business argument that is used too often by people who want to milk your know-how forever – just testing how far they can go – without ever really considering a ‘business relationship’. As soon as you tell them the answer to the next question will not be free of charge anymore, they suddenly stop asking.

Fortunately, I get enough feedback by providing so much detailed information for free!!. A few people who don’t get it would not shatter my confidence. Interestingly, people who still challenge me (But then you don’t have time for me??) are those whom I would not consider part of any ‘sharing’ communities or get their spirit in the slightest. I think all those issues belong in the category: Either you get it immediately and communication is based on tacit understanding what is normal and appropriate – or all explanations are in vain.

Many years ago I had been asked literally if I would like to work for free. Corporations send out request for proposals and ask for lots of free concepts and presentations – until they have gathered enough know-how from all the potential vendors invited so that finally they have learned enough from the ‘pitches’ and can do the whole project on their own. Finally I had my antennas finely tuned to all your typical manipulations methods (I have already told X you will do [unpaid honorable engagement] Y – if you don’t, this will get me into serious troubles!). Many people are driven by short-term impulses, not by malice (I have to solve this problem or my boss will kill me!) and they respond to logical arguments: What would you say if you were a paying client and find out that I do free consulting for other people at random? Some manipulators are hopeless cases though, especially if they think they provide something in return that is actually less than useless to you.

Horowitz’ war stories resonated with me more than I expected. He emphasizes dealing with organizationally or psychologically difficult issues head-on. I read his advice as: Better act sooner than later, better state the ugly truth upfront. Better take some decision at all, even if it is just 55% versus 45%. Communicate clearly, don’t use fluffy phrases. Sometimes people explicitly appreciated my way of saying No immediately and unambiguously, instead of endless dithering and not trying to hurt anybody which seems to have become fashionable in times of Networking and You Will Always Meet Two Times.

wine-clarity

Searching my own images for own that would represent both mental clarity as well as difficult decisions – I zoomed in this one immediately. (Vineyards close to my home village, evening at the beginning of May.)

Although this is tagged with ‘rant’ it should not be interpreted as what I actually consider pointless and energy-draining – endless rants about common practices in your industry sector that you cannot change but have to live with. I am in the Love It, Change It, Or Leave It camp. I have also been writing about the past, and often a single annoying event of that sort had made me shift gears.

I believe the best – and most productive – way to cope with weird requests is to either: Respond clearly and immediately using a standardized I-don’t-do reply, then ignore them as an accidental, misguided question that just happened to end up in your inbox; or: to analyze if an aspect of your previous communication might have invited such inquiries, and improve your future communications. And don’t aim at being liked by anybody, anytime.

Anatomy of a Decision (1)

Four years ago I tried something new – I took a decision and started communicating it (some half-baked version of it) without having worked out a detailed plan. One year later I started this blog, reflecting on the journey and this decision. So I celebrate the 4 years anniversary with shameless, self-indulgent nostalgia – reblogging myself. Besides, you might have noticed I did not write much blog posts lately in the personal essay / opinionated piece genre. Perhaps because I don’t want to repeat myself. And I commit the cardinal sin in the visual age – not even an image!

elkemental Force

About a year ago I have taken a decision and I am now taking a leap of faith. This blog is gravitating about this decision and I am writing now about a journey that began a while back.

I am finally working on plan A again after I had been quite successful in pursuing plan B. I am not all sure where to begin with and this is probably the reason I am writing a blog and not a book. So I will simply jump right into the middle of the story and select some menial and totally unspectacular moments that were important to me.

I had studied physics and worked in R&D for some time, then switched to IT. I can – and probably will – talk endlessly about what physics and IT have in common; actually more than what seems to be obvious and actually it is not…

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We Should Get Lost Sometimes – Nicholas Carr on Automation and Us

The Glass Cage is about automation’s human consequences. It is not intended to be your typical book about robots taking our jobs for better or for worse.

Carr gives an intriguing account of the history of automation and robotics nonetheless – from Luddites to Google’s self-driving cars. What we have known intuitively is backed up by research: We cannot all fund robotics startups, and the number of new jobs created through automation has always been low. In spite of success stories of people ‘making money online’ it is the providers of infrastructure (the ones Jaron Lanier calls Siren Servers) who actually make money. Technology changes faster than humans do, taking a ride on Moore’s law – but Carr is not a believer in technology that will automagically serve all humankind:

It strains credulity to imagine today’s technology moguls, with their libertarian leanings and impatience with government, agreeing to the kind of vast wealth-redistribution scheme that would be necessary to fund the self-actualizing leisure-time pursuits of the jobless multitudes.

He wonders why Google has mastered to build a self-driving car – a task once considered too difficult to be automated by any computer ever – but yet didn’t develop software that stops people from texting while driving. Perhaps because stopping distractions would run counter their business agenda? More disturbing than the effect on employment is the way automation may impact our skills, illustrated by the history of avionics. We have come a long way since …

… the deep entanglement between human and mechanism was an elemental source of flying’s thrill,

… and pilots felt physical feedback from the machine. The books starts with a personal anecdote about Carr’s missing the sense of control and involvement when driving an automatic. The Glass Cage is a poetic metaphor for the pilot’s cockpit. Carr returns to a topic he had dwelt upon in The Shallows: the role of maps and clocks as an essential layer put between us and space or the flow of time. In glass-cage-like workplaces former machine operators or soldiers turn into technicians reading and manipulating representations of the world. Automation and tools done right would still give us the feeling to be in control. Electronic airplane controls should rather resemble the older mechanical controls. Clunky yokes that provide sensory information let the pilot feel physical resistance – and are superior to sci-fi-style joysticks. Carr distinguishes between tools that work like mechanical extensions to our body – using the scythe as a prime example – and software-based technology that is experienced as a kind of implacable, alien force that lies beyond our control and influence. Quoting from a 1910 book on aeronautics, designing a plane to be operated is

… a trade-off between stability and maneuverability. The greater a plane’s stability, the harder it becomes for the pilot to exert control over it.

Pioneers as the Wright Brothers voted for a plane unstable as a bicycle, giving the pilot utmost freedom. Carr tries to do technology optimists justice – he is never sarcastic or derisive. He traces the hopes put into ‘software’ back to philosopher Alfred North Whitehead:

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” Whitehead wasn’t writing about machinery. He was writing about the use of mathematical symbols to represent ideas or logical processes— an early example of how intellectual work can be encapsulated in code. But he intended his observation to be taken generally.

‘Automation’ can thus be understood in a very broad sense. I have written about Newton’s geometrical proofs that even Richard Feynman found very hard to reproduce. Now we have been spoilt by the elegant code-like symbols of calculus. Do really miss out if we not haven’t acquired such ancient skills? Carr believes so as we are human beings made to interact with the world directly, not via a cascade of devices and abstractions. A physics professor who has embarked on “a self-imposed program to learn navigation through environmental clues”  finally concluded that the way he viewed the world had palpably changed. Architects felt that they needed to stay away from electronic help or bring in the computer late so that the creative process is not (mis-)guided too early. A photographer tells his story of returning to the darkroom as he felt that the painful manual process forces him to make more conscious and deliberate choices – with a deep, physical sense of presence. The main point here is that these are not sentimental crusaders but people who simply wanted to do their jobs well.

… the real sentimental fallacy is the assumption that the new thing is always better suited to our purposes and intentions than the old thing.

Skills that come easy to an expert are learned the hard way: Pilots’ skills correlate with the time they have spent flying without the aid of automation. Neuroscience provides evidence of dedicated assemblies of neurons developed by such deliberate practice. Automation would remove complexity from jobs and thus opportunities to hone our skills. A recurring theme of the book is how automation erodes what makes us human in the best way – even if we might object: Carr quotes surprising findings by Csikszentmihalyi (of The Flow fame). When people were polled about their current mood at various time they …

… were happier, felt more fulfilled by what they were doing, while they were at work than during their leisure hours. In their free time, they tended to feel bored and anxious. And yet they didn’t like to be at work.

Psychologists call this unfortunate desire for what you ‘actually’ don’t want miswanting. One explanation is that people might pretend to prefer leisure over work as this is the socially acceptable behavior. An ethnographer confirmed Csikszentmihalyi’s theory by giving an account of an ancient tribe:

The Shushwaps did not have to wander to survive. They built villages and developed “elaborate technologies for very effectively using the resources in the environment.” They viewed their lives as good and rich. But the tribe’s elders saw that in such comfortable circumstances lay danger. “The world became too predictable and the challenge began to go out of life. Without challenge, life had no meaning.” And so, every thirty years or so, the Shushwaps, led by their elders, would uproot themselves.

If I had to pick the main virtue venerated in this book – it would be accountability. The soldier dropping a bomb via clicking a mouse feels less responsible.

The congeniality of hand tools encourages us to take responsibility for their use.

The outlook on future wars is gloomy: Automated weapons may save lives, but may at the same time increase the likelihood of wars – just because of that. Machines effectively make moral decisions in everyday life already: Robotic lawn mowers already do it when not sparing small animals a human operator might have spotted.

Who determines what the “optimal” or “rational” choice is in a morally ambiguous situation? Who gets to program the robot’s conscience? Is it the robot’s manufacturer? The robot’s owner? The software coders? Politicians? Government regulators? Philosophers? An insurance underwriter?

I believe that ‘futurists’ might not be convinced though. What Nicholas Carr considers specifically human and worth being protected might strike tech enthusiasts as a shortcoming to be fixed by extending and transforming our bodies and minds. Critics might say Carr resorts to poetry in the last chapter in order to circumvent these questions elegantly. The physicist turned stone-age pathfinder said that …

… “primal empiricism,” struck him as being “akin to what people describe as spiritual awakenings.”

Which is something you can either relate to immediately and intuitively, or dissect it analytically. It strikes a chord with me, but trying to explain it any further leads to Wittgenstein-y struggling with reality:

Only through work that brings us into the world do we approach a true understanding of existence, of “the fact.” It’s not an understanding that can be put into words.

Google’s self-driving cars challenge the distinction between explicit knowledge – that can be cast into code (or words) – and tacit intuitive knowledge of processes. It seems that that this artificial boundary is pushed more and more into the realm of the so-called genuinely human. Carr uses a sonnet by Robert Frost called ‘Mowing’ to demonstrate that

a poet’s scrutiny of the world can be more subtle and discerning than a scientist’s.

As a scythe enthusiast I am biased but he really couldn’t have chosen a better example:

It was no dream of the gift of idle hours, Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf: Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows

Again, I think these lines will perhaps not speak to modern life hackers. Domestic automation would turn our homes more into workplaces – programmed, and dominated by metrics. We apply the

the bureaucratic ideals of speed, productivity, and standardization to our relations with others.

Algorithms collect data that lend themselves to quantitative analysis. Our formerly ‘continuous’ selves are turned into a collection of disjointed junks presented on social medias timelines which deprives us of options for changing our minds and thus for personal growth. Again I remember the proverbial clock from The Shallows, discretizing time. Making technology invisible and unobtrusive is not a solution but just the final stage of a gradual development:

It obscures the way we’ve refashioned ourselves to accommodate the technology.

I have adopted technology as a professional, but sometimes also to respond to changes in the way we socialize today with everyone expecting to manage their lives through screens. Technology, especially networked one, fundamentally changes society. Already the power grid had a subtle impact on engineering culture, business culture, production, and finally living. You cannot fool yourself, and remain independent and self-sufficient in your spare time and just use technology if you have to. Carr states that self-reliance was once considered the mainstay of character. He advocates getting lost sometimes in contrast to Google Maps’ visions:

“No human ever has to feel lost again.” That certainly sounds appealing, as if some basic problem in our existence had been solved forever. And it fits the Silicon Valley obsession with using software to rid people’s lives of “friction.” But the more you think about it, the more you realize that to never confront the possibility of getting lost is to live in a state of perpetual dislocation. If you never have to worry about not knowing where you are, then you never have to know where you are. It is also to live in a state of dependency, a ward of your phone and its apps.

I read Walden at about the same time as Carr’s book – and I am reminded of this quote by Thoreau:

It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time. … In our most trivial walks, we are constantly, though unconsciously, steering like pilots by certain well-known beacons and headlands, and if we go beyond our usual course we still carry in our minds the bearing of some neighboring cape; and not till we are completely lost, or turned round—for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost—do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. … Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

I can relate, your mileage may vary. The Wright Brothers; first powered flight HU98267

Looking Foward to ‘The Glass Cage’ – Random Ambiguous Thoughts

On September 29, Nicholas Carr’s book The Glass Cage – Automation and Us will be released. I have quoted Carr’s writings often on this blog, and his essay All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines might anticipate some of the ideas he is going to explore in this upcoming book.

I read non-fiction books with specific questions in mind. In order to sort out these questions upfront, I am writing a post that may turn out incoherent.

I sense an ambiguity that might be typical for many so-called knowledge workers that spend most of their working hours in front of a computers. We feel some playful affection to the gadgets we use but silently we dread our growing dependence on them – and we seek escape in dreaming up alternate realities as artisans working with real stuff.

If you believe the geek turned craftsman is just a cliché – read this story about a software developer turned carpenter:

This is when I realized that I’d rather be looking through the window of a cool building, than the window of an LCD laptop.

Hadn’t technology evolved in the way it did in the past decades my job would be fundamentally different or not exist at all. I define the ability to work with clients in a remote fashion as an absolutely essential part of my job, and I am determined to prove that it is not only the IT industry and companies like Automattic whose way of working has been transformed: We have recently started our first heat pump planning project that will not include any on-site meetings. So I am not in a position to question the [allow for a buzz word] disruptive nature of technology.

But proliferation of working remotely cuts both ways: I have been able to do my IT security troubleshooting for clients ‘anywhere on this planet’ – so of course professionals living in countries with lower loving costs, and this lower hourly rates, could do as well!

However, I am not interested in following that train of thoughts. Probably I am too optimistic but I think I was able to constantly move my professional away from anything to-be-standardized. I have seen attempts to standardize consulting failing too often. So I am still waiting for the human-like bot to replace me. Consulting is people’s business no matter how much technology helps to mediate it – just as social media is a success because of the social part.

But I cannot deny that automation became an essential part of my personal version of the alternate artisanal reality: In the last two posts I mentioned my playing with database servers – all targeted to further automating data collection and evaluation for heat pump systems.

Would I want to stand outside in the cold and reading off data from a display myself for hours?

To some extent I probably would. I am eager to read The Glass Cage especially because of this quote:

Drawing on psychological and neurological studies that underscore how tightly people’s happiness and satisfaction are tied to performing meaningful work in the real world, Carr reveals something we already suspect: shifting our attention to computer screens can leave us disengaged and discontented.

It took me a time to realize that the reasons I use in defence of automation are all tied to my work. I have never been your typical computer freak or early adopter of gadgets who is interested to play with new technology ‘just because’. I am rather reluctant of using many appliances that are said to make our lives so much easier and allow us to ‘focus on what we really want’ and ‘get rid of the repetitive grunt work’.

I use a scythe to cut the grass. We don’t have an egg cooker, an electrical bread cutter, or a dryer. I could say I am just energy-conscious or trying to avoid clutter – but these are actually positive side-effects.

The shocking truth is that I like some healthy dose of simple, repetitive work.This even extends to the professional sphere: Against the mantra of focussing on your core business I do accounting and controlling – gleefully. This includes some boring data entry that better interfaces between those distributed software systems might do away with.

Most of the computer technology I finally got to use also as a consumer was actually driven by professional needs. I purchased my first cell phone as I wanted to be available for clients. I am thinking about the purchase of a tablet just because I could test some tools for managing digital certificates. I am considering a better internet connection to handle parallel remote sessions.

But wait – I have loved my Kindle eReader and I was a rather early adopter. However, I loved it because it was a 1:1 replacement of its real-life counterpart – a device just for reading: no internet, no e-mails, and no social media and sharing of inspirational snippets quoted out-of-context.

Is this because I am not a digital native?

In my first jobs as an experimental physicist and materials scientist about 95% of my job was repetitive grunt work: Cutting slices from crystals, grinding and polishing samples of material, adjusting optical components, waiting in front of a not-yet-computerized machine to see the paper coming out, take that paper and copy the curve using semi-transparent sheets, entering data, entering more data, being interrupted by some nasty sound as something broke, spending the next hours repairing the diamond wire saw or the leaky vacuum equipment.

Watching crime shows like CSI makes me laugh: They did a splendid job on making standardized lab work look so cool and sci-fi-style. We used to joke about create an image video for our research showing off the fancy colored laser beams in the dark lab – but that was meant satirical.

Femtosecond Laser and Pulse Compressor - Optics Lab - INRIM

This is why optics labs are crowd pullers at universities’ open days. (Image by Giorgio Brida, Wikimedia)

This combination of 5% thinking hard about the problems and drawing conclusions and 95% lab work was absolutely fine for me. If all repetitive, boring work – manual or computer-based – would be taken away from us, what would happen? Not to our professional selves devoid of jobs but to our human selves?

We could focus on the remaining hard and interesting problems, realize our potentials as humans, don’t we? We would be able to create and take decisions non-stop – until the bots will take over. But I am not quite sure if I would enjoy creating and deciding all the time. I imagine it could feel like jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink and skimming texts instead of reading a long piece.

I have read Life Hacker’s Bible recently – Tim Ferriss might answer you would finally have time to travel the world or learn to dance the tango, after you would have fully outsourced (that is: automated) your self-running internet business. World economy or crisis thereof, job options, realistic development of technology aside: Is this what the majority of people really want?

As I said, I am aware of the ambiguity and those pesky where-to-draw-the line questions. For sure I want high-tech surgery, perhaps a international expert or an AI-driven robot operate on me over that high-bandwidth connection. But I will keep mocking biometric keys for house doors, and sensors that turn on the light if I clap my hands.

Are my clinging to some boring work and my inconsistent argumentation just a shortcoming of our currently carbon-based species – to be replaced or extended by transhuman partly virtual-silicon-whatever beings? I read some books by transhumanists and radical technology enthusiasts – and they did not speak to me. I think I could re-iterate their arguments – this is the necessary pre-requisite for substantial criticism – and they seem to be self-consistent.

But I cannot yet track down why I don’t follow even less radical claims about the benefits of automation and technology. I always imagine myself being among the last human beings fighting the machines in a dystopian future. Perhaps I have seen too many movies or not enough of the good ones.

Anyway, I am waiting for Mr. Carr’s insights.

HAL9000.svg

HAL9000” by CryteriaOwn work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

 

I Picked the Right Blogging Platform! (Book Review: The Year without Pants)

Before starting this blog I compared blogging tools in 2011. These two facts about WordPress and Automattic did win me over:

Now I have read the book on Automattic’s corporate culture:

The Year without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work by Scott Berkun

Scott is a former Microsoft manager and long-term author and speaker. He has been hired my Automattic’s founder Matt Mullenweg to help introducing the first tier of middle-managers ever to Automattic’s so far flat hierarchy. Scott accepted, provided he can write a book about his experience. For him it was a test: Will he still be able to do the work of management and not only write and speak about it?

The book is a blend of personal essay and reflection of work and management in the tech world, and palpable anecdotes from a very peculiar workplace.

He did his duty in the trenches as a Happiness Engineer:

You get access to real tools and work on real things. If you do well, you’re offered a job. If you don’t, you’re not. The many phony parts of hiring, from inflated résumés to trying to say what you think the other party wants to hear, disappear.

At the end of this stint in support Scott admits how much easier work of a writer is – in contrast to the relentless never-ending flow of clients’ tickets:

This pressure made me feel like a wimp for complaining about writing deadlines or tough lecture audiences.

I guess skeptics would say a venture such as WordPress can hardly work – hadn’t they been successful for years now:

The business is firmly grounded in Open Source software. In 2002 18-year old Matt Mullenweg forked the copylefted software used for his own photoblog as its lead developer had left. In August 2003 there were over 10.000 blogs running on WordPress. For an extensive account of WP’s history see this.

The central values of the organically growing WP culture were: Transparency of discussions, meritocracy of authority earned – not granted, and the longevity of the project – which should live forever even if Matt himself would once give it up.

There is free WordPress.org for self-hosters, the service WordPress.com and other products by Automattic – according to Scott the business model was difficult to explain at times.

Based even on my own anecdotal experience of using WordPress.com I can say that it works – I pay for the Custom Design Upgrade for two blogs and think it is a fair deal.

Employees are fiercely independent, curious, and funny individuals, working at locations all over the world.

Many of them are former independent WordPress designers and developers – so probably people who don’t like to be (micro-)managed, who are fine with being paid for results and not for office face time or hours put in.

They do meet in person occasionally, and costs of meetings in real live compensate for savings due to lack of offices.

Matt Mullenweg – whom Scott describes as a renaissance mind with an epicurean desire to understand basically anything – has written down a creed:

I will never stop learning. I won’t just work on things that are assigned to me. I know there’s no such thing as a status quo. I will build our business sustainably through passionate and loyal customers. I will never pass up an opportunity to help out a colleague, and I’ll remember the days before I knew everything. I am more motivated by impact than money, and I know that Open Source is one of the most powerful ideas of our generation. I will communicate as much as possible, because it’s the oxygen of a distributed company. I am in a marathon, not a sprint, and no matter how far away the goal is, the only way to get there is by putting one foot in front of another every day. Given time, there is no problem that’s insurmountable.

Using colorful anecdotes and funny screenshots of WP-internal communications Scott demonstrates which key factors are important to make this work:

Mastery of asynchronous, written communication

Chat-like message exchange is preferred over audio or video calls, and tracking and discussion of work items is done using a blog called P2 (named after the theme used).

The reason for the first is probably surprising – and it might even sound discomforting to those who are stressed out by the constant stream of popups brought up by corporate instant communication tools: WP employees’ communications is based on the assumption that anybody else is working on some items in parallel or having some Windows open. It is not expected that people respond instantly to chat requests and some lag is allowed for – in contrast to the all-encompassing nature of calls.

Everyone understands it’s just a window on the screen and that you may be focusing on other things.

You could discuss pro’s and con’s of online meetings endlessly but I think Scott perfectly nails it:

Most people doubt online meetings can work, but they somehow overlook that most in-person meetings don’t work either.

P2 communications is reminiscent of those legendary nested e-mail threads – I answer inline in redI answer in greenI answer again in blue… I praise collaborators to the skies who are capable of following and processing such nested communications – you can literally do whole projects by asynchronous e-mails.

Everybody at Automattic can on principle read every P2 conversation. This, I guess, provides for self-regulation, and it limits the tactical use of communication tool, such as subtle hints by picking CC recipients etc.

WordPress people compensate for lack of cues in face-to-face communications by letting personality shine through written communications. Scott says that WP internal communications is refreshingly free of corporate world jargon:

No “deprioritized action items” or “catalyzing of cross functional objectives.” People wrote plainly, without pretense and with great charm.

From my few but pleasant encounters with WP’s support team I can attest to that.

WordPress’ culture seems to be positively self-selecting for people who fit in.

Insider humor

Sharing a common sense of humor is in my opinion the single best indicator of how well you will get along – and work! – with somebody. It is even more indispensable in this distant working environment.

Laughter leads to running jokes, and running jokes lead to a shared history, and a shared history is culture. What is a friend, a brother or sister, or a partner but someone you share important stories with?

Also the title of the book is a running joke. For a reason no one could explain later the prompt above the comment box on Scott’s teams’ P2 site turned from What’s on your mind? into

Do you know where your pants are?

No incentives

It was my conviction ever since that any sort of company-internal competition and incentives for individuals or teams will not do overall goals any good. The dissipation of energy invested in facing competition will outweigh the benefits of challenging individuals to go for stretch goals.

So I was delighted to read this:

How do you know if you’re doing a good job? They all shrugged simultaneously and I laughed. Unlike most corporations that emphasize performance evaluations, none of them were particularly concerned. … It seemed to them like an odd question to even ask. … It was not a promotion-oriented culture. Instead they cared mostly about how much value they were getting out of the work.

Frequent shipping of features

Against mantras of quality control and change management new features are rolled out all the time. I believe the reason why this has worked great so far is that risk management best practices are applied in an intuitive way: Features to be shipped are small, or their dependence on other features can be cut down. The overall risk of breaking anything major is negligible – and glitches be fixed quickly based on feedback in the production environment.

I think that all those controls in larger organizations rather prevent people from taking personal accountability – and Scott confirms this:

A major reason it works at Automattic is belief in a counterintuitive philosophy: safeguards don’t make you safe; they make you lazy. People drive faster, not more slowly, in cars with antilock brakes. American football players take more risks, not fewer, because of their padding.

Geeky, but end-user-centric

Probably my impression is due to the fact that Scott has led Team Social that dealt with building features like WordPress JetPack that adds WP.com features on top of the self-hosted version.The team used some funny ‘socialist’ hammer and sickle symbols for their internal site.

His team put in many hours in trying to understand the experience of normal users WordPress wanted to serve – and I think this spirit and the idea to democratize internet publishing can be felt when working with WP. They tried to feel what a user feel who struggles with getting his or her first posting done – as astonishingly:

50 percent of all blogs never publish a single post.

A tricks that help are writing an internal launch announcement for a feature long before it had been launched – forcing you to focus on the value of this feature.

Tame the bureaucrats and policy enforcers

Another pet peeve of mine – I remember myself in a job role that theoretically had demanded of me to chide entrepreneurial small departments that they don’t adhere to corporate standard IT hardware procurement guidelines or that their website they didn’t comply with ‘CI rules’.

The volunteer culture Automattic inherited from WordPress, where contributors were under no obligation to participate, defined a landscape that granted wide autonomy to employees. Schneider and Mullenweg went to great lengths to keep support roles, like legal, human resources, and even IT, from infringing on the autonomy of creative roles like engineering and design. The most striking expression of this is that management is seen as a support role.

T-shaped employees

This means having some very deep skills in a specific area but in addition the abilities to quickly become fairly knowledgeable in other fields – and applying that skills hands-on as needed, just as any in sort of start-up environment.

This is counter the culture (in ‘mature’ corporation) of denying to do X because you are not qualified, it is beneath you, it has not been included in your shop description, or nobody commanded you to do it.

Caveats

The book provides is a much needed real-live positive example of a company who has ‘got it’ – among cheerful analyses of a New World of Work and gloomy critique of debatable implementations (The documentary Work Hard – Play Hard having being one of the finest).

But Scott  warns against trying to copy WP’s culture and tack it on an existing one – e.g. by scheduling company meetings in open space style without and agenda, hoping that employees will simple start working together spontaneously – as they did in Seaside, the artificial settlement that served as the set of one of my favorite movies, The Truman Show. It was a company meeting that

looked more like a party at a very nice but geeky college dorm.

Chances are that in a different culture such experiments would be loathed just as other team morale events or the casual Friday, or any socializing event moderated by external psychologically trained moderators with a questionable agenda.

Conclusion

It is not only possible but beneficial to work on serious and sensitive stuff in remotely dispersed teams of self-motivated individuals. Scott’s account is convincing – he often emphasizes that he had been skeptical: He had considered his earlier success as a manager critically dependent on being in the same room with people and looking them into the eye.

The importance on a common culture and humor cannot be overstated. The most daunting crisis morphs into legends soon to be told by the fireside, if you are still able throw on some Douglas Adams’ or Monty Python quotes or give your test servers funny names such as panic.com.

I don’t think this is an IT / geek thing only – geekiness might help as there is this globally available template of a culture (42!) that fosters common humor. But I don’t see a reason it cannot be applied to other work that is in essence based on shuffling data – and communicating in an asynchronous way already:

The very idea of working remotely seems strange to most people until they consider how much time at traditional workplaces is spent working purely through computers. If 50 percent of your interaction with coworkers is online, perhaps through e-mail and web browsers, you’re not far from what WordPress.com does.

Many stories about famous start-ups are written when they have grown up – when they have scaled.

I am a small business owner by choice and I often ask myself – probably based on bias – does anything good have to scale? Scott answers this question confidently with No:

…greatness rarely scales, and that’s part of what made it great in the first place.

So in summary I consider it a great book, highly recommended if you use Automattic’s products are are just curious, or if you are an ‘office worker’ or a manager of those and thinking about the best way to work as a team.

It is an honest and entertaining manifesto:

The most dangerous tradition we hold about work is that it must be serious and meaningless. We believe that we’re paid money to compensate us for work not worthwhile on its own.

Communist heart

Honoring ‘Team Social’ (Wikimedia)

Career Advice – Borrowing Wise Words from a Sailing Hacker

On researching SSL-related hacks, I have stumbled upon the website of notable security researcher Moxie Marlinspike.

Marlinspike is also a sailor and working on diverse projects, such as Audio Anarchy – a project for transcribing anarchist books into audio format. On his About page he says:

I like computer security and software development, particularly in the areas of secure protocols, cryptography, privacy, and anonymity. But I also secretly hate technology, am partially horrified with the direction “geek” culture has gone.

and

In general, I hope to contribute to a world where we value skills and relationships over careers and money, where we know better than to trust cops or politicians, and where we’re passionate about building and creating things in a self-motivated and self-directed way.

I call myself Subversive El(k)ement, Security Consultant, Search Term Poet, and Luddite in Disguise … how could I not relate

So it was not a surprise that I found myself in total agreement with his career advice.

Moxie’s post starts with

What I want to say, more often than not, is something along the lines of don’t do it;

This is reminiscent of Via Negativa I learned about from Nassim Taleb’s writings. I have also  found it more helpful to state what I don’t like instead of phrasing so-called SMART goals. When planning positively you try to target a small point in the vast space of options – likely to be missed – in contrast to the negative approach of avoiding a subset of options and keeping a considerable part of them in reach.

From the famous Stanford Prison experiment Moxie draws a simpler lesson as an individual – and it seems more palpable to me than that grand discussions about morals and free will:

 … just be careful what job you take, because your job will change you.

You should look at the people working in a certain environment or industry sector and think twice if you want to become like them. This is not self-evident: At times I was dead set to break into a world whose representatives were anti-role-models – but of course I wanted to revolutionize the whole sector. Finally I have found out that it is more rewarding to go where the people are to whom you can relate with.

Moxie talks about choices we all make, and how the first of those, early in our careers, are defined by supporting structures like family, school, or university:

When we arrive at the ends of these funnels, it’s possible that the direction we’re facing is more a reflection of those structures than it is a reflection of ourselves. Self-determination in a moment like that can’t simply be about making a choice, it has to start with transforming the conditions that constitute our choices. It requires challenging the “self” in “self-determination” by stepping as far outside of those supporting structures as possible, for as long as possible.

It is silly to attempt at rushing through our lives, taking conscious decisions as early as possible and trying to cast your perfect CV in stone, as

There’s no rush to get started early on a never-ending task.

Moxie concludes that in relation to the inquiries about career advice, he is:

… likely to respond with something like “if I were you, I’d hitchhike to Alaska this summer instead.”

He advocates

… doing the absolute minimum amount of work necessary to prevent starvation, and then doing something that’s not about money, completely outside of supporting structures, and not simply a matter of “consuming experience”

I can anticipate objections, and you can also find them in the comments on his Moxie’s post. How to pay the bills? How to feed the kids?

Actually I have re-written this post several times because of this – but, alas, I will not be able to avoid all ambiguity. All I want to say is that Moxie’s post struck a chord with me. Though targeted to students it is this classical advice to the younger self that exactly that self might not like. It took me ~20 years to come to that conclusion and act accordingly.

I think the primary target group of articles like this are people who arguably have choices but don’t use them – people who err on the side of caution. I don’t want to downplay the predicament of the single mum working two jobs but rather speak to the unhappy Head Chief Architect Officer of Something Sounding Really Impressive But Actually Doing Unnerving Grunt Work That Just Happens To Be Extremely Well Paid.

I am also not at all trying to evangelize among those who wholeheartedly enjoy their stressful jobs. There is this subtle dance of intriguing yet stressful work and inspiration that makes it enjoyable nonetheless. The big caveat here is that you need to find out on your own what exactly stresses you out in a fatal way – and this is not necessarily straight-forward. It is to be experienced, not to be determined by theorizing.

Based on my experience, anecdotal as it is, I dare hypothesize that there is an impressive percentage of respected middle-class corporate employees who do ponder about an alternative life as that iconic free sailor. My job role had been that of a technical consultant ever since but I had become more of a project psychologist at times. I was to hear surprising confessions – after we had left the formalities of the professional negotiations behind and people started philosophizing over coffee.

Generally speaking, I believe that most of us living in stable democracies are freer than we think. I am saying this as the inhabitant of a country whose primary mentality is not exactly shaped by entrepreneurial spirit and daring. I know how the collective submission to alleged obligations work.

As for using kids as a main counter-argument to a ‘free’ life-style, I was reminded of that most recent controversy about adventurous parents living and rising their kids on boats. – an impossible life for most people. Considering their life-styles too risky gives proof of how warped our sense of risks and probabilities is, and how over-valued spectacular risks of The Uncommon are in comparison to the dull, but near certain health risks of the accepted, sedentary living in a modern civilization.

We do make choices all the way, and be it just choosing the life expected from us by those supporting structures. When we are grown up we don’t have much excuses for not taking accountability – and this does not at all mean a perfectly streamlined career plan.

Quoting Moxie again:

Be careful not to discover a career before you’ve discovered yourself.

The best advice is not to follow any advice (incl. this one), question everything, and decide for yourself.

Still from Kon-Tiki movie

From a documentary about Kon-Tiki (Wikimedia) – not sure if it is the new movie.

This post will be filed under Life – a collection that recently struck me as much too serious and solemn.

In any case – if that happened again, I would just like everybody to know that I have never been happier; and I am weighing my words carefully.