November 8, 2008 1

Magnificent post of project management, and why Google does it right. More on why untested claims work

By in Time management

Steve Yegge has an insightful post on the Agile programming methodology from the perspective of a googler. Why is this important to academic productivity? Well, most of the things he talks about are related to our previous conversations on why it’s hard to measure productivity, and why people buy into fads about it. For example:

How do we know it’s not more productive? Well, it’s a slippery problem. Observe that it must be a slippery problem, or it all would have been debunked fair and square by now. But it’s exceptionally difficult to measure software developer productivity, for all sorts of famous reasons. And it’s even harder to perform anything resembling a valid scientific experiment in software development. You can’t have the same team do the same project twice; a bunch of stuff changes the second time around. You can’t have 2 teams do the same project; it’s too hard to control all the variables, and it’s prohibitively expensive to try it in any case. The same team doing 2 different projects in a row isn’t an experiment either.

This is also true for academic productivity. So this leaves me in a conundrum. No matter how much we want to find a theory of productivity and test it empirically, nobody is going to seriously do it because it’s impractical. So we are doomed to have a ream of blogs (yes, like this one) talking about it.

Note that contrary to Steve’s case, where companies cover their failures instead of publishing them, we do have some public log of successful behavior (i.e., scientists do have a track record). We lack the (large?) set of things they tried and failed at to achieve their publication.

Well if you can’t do experiments and you can’t do proofs, there isn’t much science going on. That’s why it’s a slippery problem. It’s why fad diets are still enormously popular. People want fad diets to work, oh boy you bet they do, even I want them to work. And you can point to all these statistically meaningless anecdotes about how Joe lost 35 pounds on this one diet, and all those people who desperately want to be thinner will think "hey, it can’t hurt. I’ll give it a try."

This explains why Steve Pavlina gets so much attention. It aims directly for things that people want to believe work. No matter that testing the claims would be either impossible (falsability is good, remember?) or impractical. This kind of reasoning works for anything that is sold online with a long sales page that cites some spectacular successes and a few ‘testimonials’.

GTD is on that list too, by the way.

Surprised by how good the writing is in Steve Yegge’s posts? I am too, but don’t be. It looks people who have spent quality time on functional languages develop super-human writing skills. (note: I have only two observations here :) ).

Note: the post gives a lot of detail on how life is inside Google, and how an academic department may not be that far off. Food for thought.

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One Response to “Magnificent post of project management, and why Google does it right. More on why untested claims work”

  1. Interesting read. Its funny but spending several years working in the IT industry I often see other less scrupulous IT workers who could (and would) easily skew any real world measurement on productivity in this field. Its just way to easy for most IT guys to BS their way through the day, especially when the managers aren’t as savvy as them.

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