Our release was muddled. I was sitting at my desk talking to a white stone polar bear and trying to form an opinion about the release. The execs were going to ask. Soon.
“Well, QA is freaked out, but QA is always freaked out, so I’ll call that a wash. The UI guys wanted to get the bits out there so we can see what the users think and they don’t have any high priority bugs, so I’ll call that a good sign. The server guys are strangely quiet, but they never say much and they don’t have any bad bugs, either. That should be a good sign, but then why do I have this itch in the back of my brain that says I’m screwed, Mr. Polar Bear?”
The polar bear said nothing, but Frank did. Frank ran the UI group and Frank was tripping over himself happy with the release because his team hadn’t slept in a month and he knew the customers would love their work. In the absence of information, I jumped on the Frank train, ignored the itch in the back of my head, and turned into a True Believer. THIS IS GOING TO BE A GREAT RELEASE PEOPLE.
Two weeks of me singing the praises of the forthcoming release. Dancing in the hallways, getting the troops fired up, planning the launch party. Good times. Gooooood times. I wasn’t sweating it when the execs called me into the boardroom to give my release recommendation. We were ready. Frank said so and I believed Frank.
Execs: “Rands, your release recommendation?”
Rands: “Ship it baby! Then ship the team to Vegas where we are going TO PARTAAA… wait, what is Phil doing here?”
Phil was the server guy. Actually, he was THE server guy. Everyone else followed Phil’s lead because he was our Free Electron. Phil was a quiet guy who I liked, he had no political or managerial aspirations; he was just the most productive engineer I’d ever met. This made his presence in the boardroom… disturbing. I didn’t even know he knew where the board room was.
Execs: “Rands, Phil has brought the following graph. It shows how our performance degrades as the number of connections to the server increases. Looking at this graph, how many concurrent users do you think we can support with the release?”
Rands: “Ummmm… looks like about 50?”
Execs: “And what you would you expect average load to be?”
Rands: “Uuuuuuuuuuuuh… Phil?”
The release was no longer muddled and I was screwed.
Ideally, Truth is an easy term to define. Truth is fact. Fact is provable data that you can count on. The sky is blue. Up is not down. 1+1 = 2. This is the part of the article where I ask all philosophy majors to take a Xanax and chill out. Yeah, I know truth is in the eye of the beholder and the sky isn’t really blue, but go with it for now.
Traditionally, the opposite of Truth is Spin. Spin is a pejorative term that comes out of Public Relations land. Spin is the deliberate selection of facts constructed to prove a specific point. For example, if there was a presidential debate where one of the candidates magically transformed into a blue whale in the middle of the debate, there would be someone from the blue whale’s camp on camera, after the debate, explaining the many benefits to America of being lead by a blue whale. They’d point out, “Are you aware of the average brain size of a blue whale? What do you think they’re doing with all that grey matter? Can you name a single war involving a blue whale?” While the rest of us would be giggling, someone, somewhere would think, “Yeah, I really want a blue whale as President… we could really use a bigger pool in the White House”.
Spin has a bad rap. I know you once sat through a sales call with a bunch of sales guys who were pitching your product and you had absolutely no idea what the hell they were talking about. But Spin can be used for good, and I want to reclaim the word. Go ahead; say it out loud right now… “Spin”. I love its onomatopoeic simplicity and, by the way, you Spin all the time.
Go fire up your mail program and find your last status report. How is it constructed? Probably a series of bullet points around “Things I did last week”, “Things I’m doing next week”, and “Things I’m worried about”. Does it represent everything you did in the last week? I’m not suggesting that you didn’t work, but is that all you did? Probably not, so what did you document in your status report? You document the stuff you were asked to document and you document stuff you just want to tell people about.
A status report is your Spin on the last week. It demonstrates how you carefully select facts from the week to portray a specific version of the truth. Are you lying because you include fact #1, but not fact #2? Maybe, but we’ll get there in a moment.
Status reports are a good test case for Spin. They’re constructed in a specific way for a specific audience. Namely, managers. The managers’ requirement for status reports is a maximum amount of data with minimum amount of investment. This is why they ask for status reports in a specific brief format. Employees look at these minimalist requirements as evidence that this is busy work. “How in the world can he discern what I’m doing in 12 bullet points?” Well, he can’t if you don’t do it well.
Your goal with your Spin is to make it simple, pure, and digestible. A status report is not where you explain the pros and cons of switching from programming language A to programming language B, it’s were you plant the seed of that idea:
“If we moved to Ruby on Rails, our productivity might double”.
A piece of good Spin moves easily from person to person with as little data loss as possible.
“Did you hear Rudy thinks using Ruby on Rails might double our productivity?”
Unfortunately, well-constructed Spin can be used for evil. When you really spin an idea, it can become easy to believe the simple Spin rather than the complex idea behind it. See, Spin is merely pointing you in a direction; it’s not direction itself. Spin-doctors, those guys and gals managing political campaigns, know this. They know that in the absence of information, Spin wins because it’s painfully easy to understand. They know how to turn a simple phrase into the perception of a campaign strategy:
- “We’re not going to cut and run.”
- “He’s the people’s governor.”
- “We’re renewing the promise of California.”
So, what’s the difference between these three bullet points and your status report? Well, how about your status report is intended to actually mean something? This leads us to our next point.
Spin not Sin
What does renewing the promise of California mean? What is the promise and how are we going to renew it? The problem here is not that it’s a vanilla, useless statement, the problem is that a lot of folks aren’t going to take the time to figure out what the Spin means. Fact is, there’s a whole page of detail about what the California Governor has to say about Renewing the Promise of California, but most folks are just going to register the spin “Renewing the Promise of California = Good” and that’s it.
I can’t help it that folks are lazy or just too busy to think for themselves, but I can tell you that Spin is art. The ability to elegantly construct complex ideas inside a few simple words is incredibly hard and those who have the ability to do it are to be admired because they are trying to make the world an understandable place.
As with any skill, there are those who sin with their Spin. They design catchy phrases that stick to anything, but mean nothing. They purposely select or omit facts to construct a delectable lie. I can’t think of good way to quantify Spin other than to say the truth is in the intent. If the person creating Spin believes their simplicity synthesis creates a sincere, factual message then I say trust them.
Regarding the Itch
Back to my muddled release. Why did I ignore the itch and create Spin based on the enthusiasm of Frank the UI guy? Simple. I wanted to believe. Incidentally, this is why you don’t trust car salesmen, but you still listen to what they say. This is why reading bullet points from a presentation is bad and this is why taking Spin at face value is stupid. Brief, high-energy ideas taste great, but if you want a meal, try the details. They’re outstanding and they’re real.
If you think for a moment that I was pissed at Phil, you haven’t been reading the weblog long. Phil, as a Free Electron, determined that the freight train that was our release was in the hands of a madman, namely me. My focused enthusiasm had built up enough Spin that he correctly assessed that the best way to make an adjustment was not convincing me, but the execs. He knew our server didn’t scale and he knew the most efficient way to broadcast that fact was via spinning the executive team.
Phil carefully constructed a graph that zeroed in on the core issue. He walked into the boardroom, put the graph on the big screen, and everyone nodded.
They were spun. The graph wasn’t the entire story regarding the release, but Phil deliberately picked the best fact to illustrate the story. Simple, sincere, and elegant Spin.