Management Blue Whale for President '08

The Truth Versus Spin


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.

polar bear“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?”

Phil: “200.”

Rands: “200.”

The release was no longer muddled and I was screwed.

Defining Spin

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.

Understanding Spin

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.

9 Responses

  1. I see the fact that “a lot of folks aren’t going to take the time to figure out what the Spin means” as a compelling reason to avoid spin all together.

    This particularly becomes a problem when people desperately want to believe that they understand. This is usually so they can feel that something is under control. Indulging anyone’s delusions of comprehension, and control, may keep everyone comfortable in the short term but will hurt more down the line than shattering the illusions early on.

    Let me beat anyone who would comment that this is precisely why techs have a reputation for being awful communicators to the punch. It probably is.

    That doesn’t let the clowns who are too obsessed with feeling in control to sample the detail off the hook though.

  2. Er, what Phil did is not spin. Spin is lying, plain and simple– lying by omission. The perpetrators of spin like to believe they’re not lying, so they came up with a new word for it, like calling the Estate Tax the Death Tax. It’s an emotional appeal that is not based on facts, but is instead based on what the spinner wants the listener to hear. As Thomas Huxley put it, it’s beautiful theory spoiled by ugly fact. As Nyquist put it, if you don’t do a proper sampling of the data, the resulting answer you get won’t be representative of reality (ie, it will be wrong.).

    What Phil did was present in the finest Tufte fashion what was wrong with the release. It wasn’t spin, it wasn’t cherry picking. He said that there was a problem. It was up to management (ie, you, and ultimately your superiors) to decide if Phil’s problem is a show-stopper. The existence of the bug is what Phil reported; the delay that that reporting brought about is what you decided. You could have chosen to ignore or marginalize Phil, and that’s what a spinner would have done. A spinner would have ignored the ugly fact that spoils what they want to be true and continued straight on ahead, trying to incorporate or subvert Phil’s presentation into that narrative.

    Don’t sell yourself short; spin is what people believe when they are too lazy or too busy to get the facts, and spinners are people who are trying to tell a story so that you won’t get the facts.

  3. Arthur Chaparyan 17 years ago

    Your modesty astounds me. I wish more people were as honest with themselves as you are.

  4. Phil did Spin. If you buy the point of the article… there is “good spin” then that is what he was doing.

    I’m in complete agreement that there are just scads of people out there who spin for nefarious purposes and it was actually these people who started this whole article in my head.

    I’m also in agreement there are scads of people who would rather believe spin than take the time to understand the complete picture. These people get everything they deserve due to their mental laziness.

    But, the point of the piece is to say there is a way to spin for good and that is what Phil was doing. He was picking one significant fact and pitch it as THE reason and it wasn’t THE reason. What was the bug count? How was the documentation? What about localization? All of these things mattered and Phil didn’t know that, but he knew he needed to say something relevant to get everyone’s attention so I didn’t fuck things up badly.

    I hate spin, but it’s everywhere and folks who spin should be aware there are honest and sincere ways to spin and those who read it should constantly question it.

  5. It is my firm belief that polar bears are the guardians of all wisdom and truth in the universe. I have a stuffed toy polar bear perched on top of my dual LCDs, and often discuss difficult problems with him. It warms my heart to see others embracing the True Path.

    More seriously, and on the subject of spin – I agree totally in principle, but I think the wording is a bit shaky. As MMR’s comment indicates, I think the term “spin” has a really bad connotation, which has been deeply intrenched over time. I would suspect that most “thinking people” consider it a mark of honour that they don’t feel susceptible to spin; after all, perceptiveness and seeing many sides of an issue are traits highly regarded among people like engineers and geeks. So you may have a bit of an uphill battle there to reclaim the term.

    For my own part, I find careful application of good-spin to be invaluable. Maybe I’m just in denial about my lying, manipulative bastard side, but I prefer to think of it as “speaking the language of management” ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. Apoch. Well said. I think one of the biggest pieces this piece has is the leap that people can actually see spin can be a good thing.

  7. Spin is important in this story, but I am not sure it is the most important lesson presented. I think it might be worth examining why you went with someone other than your Free Electron when trying to deterine what side you were going to support. Given that Free Electrons are by definition better and more productive, and it appears in this case, more politically aware than previously assumed, why would you choose to listen to anyone else? As a side note, silence is a bad sign in my experience.

    Don’t misunderstand me. Everyone makes a mistake now and then, I’m probably more guilty than most. You clearly know what you are doing. It’s that you know about Free Electrons that makes your error surprising. Is there ever a reason to go against your Free Electron?

  8. sriram pons 17 years ago

    Your article is a good spin… for the idea that is spin. I appreciate that your point of view is really honest. But I predict, it might catch up wild that there might develop a new breed of consultants specializing ISpMS(Integrated Spin Management Systems!) or e-SpMS.

  9. The problem with spin, both positive and negative, is that once you start selecting your facts and putting them in a light that supports your position, you open things up to people selecting facts without any connection to the truth. This is especially common in what bean-counters term “forward-looking statements” — as soon as you predict what people or software will do, the door is wide open for any person with an opinion to set it forth; and once that happens, the prediction that wins is often not the one with the best support from verifiable facts, but the one with the best spin. Alas, you need to predict what people or software are going to do in order to plan for the next week, the next quarter, or the next year, and there is no shortage of bad spin.

    I’ve been in Phil’s position before, but without a Rand to support me. Phil’s argument worked not because he had good spin, but because the people who were listening recognized the facts beneath the spin — in particular, that they were factual statements about the status and ability of the system.

    My interaction went something like this —

    Me: See this graph? Down here across this axis we have the number of simulated users. Up here along this axis we have the server response time. Notice that when we hit about 55 users, the server response time gets silly, and when we hit about 75 users, the server stops responding completely because requests start timing out.

    Manager: But we have 400-odd users, and we expect more than half of them to be online at any given time during business hours.

    Me: Exactly.

    — Later —

    Manager: Our tests suggest that the server will stop responding at about 75 simultaneous users. We should….

    Director-level Spinmeister: That’s not a problem! We’ll roll the application out slowly, so not everyone starts using it at once! That will give us time to tune the performance!

    Me: But when the application is rolled out, people will use it more than they otherwise would because it’s novel, and as soon as we hit 75 users, splat! Besides, we aren’t doing any sort of access limitation, and once you tell one user about it, they’ll spread the word — we can’t control this rollout.

    Spinmeister: Don’t be an alarmist! Everything will go wonderfully! I have faith in our crack engineering team!

    (It didn’t. Spin, meet facts. The numbers I predicted weren’t spot on — they didn’t take network latency and bandwidth into account, which meant that we actually got up to 80 remote users before the thing fell over. But then my numbers didn’t take into account 81 people obsessively clicking “refresh” when the server didn’t respond to them quickly enough either….)