The high cost of risk aversion
Copyright © 2010 by the author. Used with permission.
This talk was given in the opening session of Balisage: The Markup Conference 2010.
Welcome to Balisage: The Markup Conference 2010. I am delighted to see you all here. This is — someone has probably already told you this — the biggest “Balisage” conference ever. And I hope it will be one of the best. I look forward to Balisage, even as I wonder what, if anything, I can say in the opening that will start the conference off on a the right tone.
They tell me I have to pick a topic ... they tell me ... that’s not fair. I tell me that I have to pick a topic for my talk when we put the conference program together, so I pick one, and then months later I have to turn that topic into a talk. One of these years I’m going to learn that when I pick my topic I should at least make notes on what I think I’m going to talk about. When I sat down to write "The High Cost of Risk Aversion" to open this conference, I thought, “I wonder what I thought I was going to talk about when I wrote that title. There are a lot of possibilities.”
I love conferences, and this conference in particular. I want your help with the culture of this conference. I want Balisage to be friendly and courteous. I want us to be able to respectfully disagree with things we all feel passionate about without being disrespectful or rude, without resorting to mudslinging or fisticuffs, even if that might feel appropriate. What did I just say? Don’t call anybody names and don’t hit anybody. Be passionate but not personal. Challenge the ideas that a speaker has just presented, the logic behind the argument made, or the practicality of the proposals; question the approach, background, and possibly even mastery of the facts. Don’t question the intent or the character of the speaker. And, of course, do all questioning from the microphone, please.
Is it necessary for me to tell you this? Well, it shouldn’t be. But we’ve had a few people who were a little excessively passionate in previous years. So, one of the kinds of risks we take is really getting into it at Balisage.
I haven’t done it, have I? Avoiding risk is not always the way to minimize risk. That’s still my topic, and it’s not what I’m talking about yet.
Alright, I’ll go farther. Avoiding risk is sometimes a way to maximize risk. And that happens particularly, I think, in the technology area. As we become fearful what we do is make things worse, not better. And at least for this week at Balisage, I would like for you to leave some of your fears at home. Be willing to take some risks and to advocate risk-taking. Let’s let go of arguing for perpetual backwards compatibility of everything all the time because it’s too risky to break anything. Let’s let go of advocating the safe path all the time because it’s easy.
Be willing to take some risks yourself. For those of us who are consultants, I am beginning to believe that if you haven’t been fired from at least one consulting project for advocating something that made your client sweat, you aren’t a very good consultant. Okay, how many of you in the audience have ... no, I’m not going to ask. [laughter] But I have.
You know, I’m not actually the conventional image of a risk-taker. (I do have a mirror.) I’m short, and I’m fat, I’m on the trailing edge of middle-aged, and I’m gray-haired. I could bore you for at least an hour with my medical problems, and I don’t swear or spit or drink. But I do take risks — selected risks. I think as a community we are taking too few risks right now, and I think we should reconsider that.
Some of those risks are personal. I was recently at a conference I had not previously attended. The topic was interesting; the program was interesting; the speakers included some people whose works I had read and was quite impressed by; and the location was reasonably convenient. So I went.
And when I got there, not too surprisingly, I didn’t see anybody I knew. (I didn’t see anybody I knew until the second afternoon.) So, there I was, surrounded by interesting people with whom I shared an interest but who I had never met. The least risky thing for me to do, personally at least, was to mind my own business and sit in the corner and listen. And the shy child inside me (it is my opinion that EVERONE has a shy child inside them) wanted to do just that.
But I like conferences; I do conferences. I jumped in. At the first break, I got in line to get a cup of coffee, and I said to the person ahead of me in line, “What’s your interest in ’name the topic of the conference’?” And she answered, “I teach it,” and turned away, got her coffee, and walked away. Oh, well. That was a failure.
So, now I have my cup of coffee, and I’m looking around the room, and there’s a man on the edge of the crowd, not talking to anybody, watching what’s happening in the room. So, I walked over and stood next to him and said, “I don’t know a single person in this room, do you?” And he said, “I know all the ones who matter.” before taking a step away from me. “Oh.”, I said. [laughter] Well. This was not my morning.
I drank my coffee and I realized I had another couple of minutes, there was still a line at the coffee machine, and, well, I needed something to get through the day with these friendly people, so I got back in that line, and I said to the woman in front of me “So, what’s the most interesting thing you’re expecting on the program this afternoon?” And she turned around and said, “I speak tomorrow.” [laughter] And then she said to the person standing behind me, “Becky, how nice to see you!” She grabbed Becky's hand, pulled her past me in line, and said, “Stand with me, so we can catch up.”
This really happened. Ouch. But you know what? I still wasn’t actually bleeding, and I did attend the next two and a half days of the conference. Why am I telling you all this stuff? Is it because the next thing I’m going to tell you is: And the next day I met the new love of my life, and I’ve just gotten back from six bliss-filled weeks on a Caribbean island, I’ve still got sand between my toes; it was wonderful. Well, no. But I did end up meeting a couple of people I will call if I have questions on a particular topic. And I did learn a few things that were interesting and will possibly, even probably, prove useful in the future. It was not a waste of time.
I would like for us at Balisage to have better manners that the people I have just been describing. I would like for us to assume, unlike the people at that event, that if somebody is here, you probably do have an interest in common with them. They might be interesting to talk to, and blatantly snubbing them is not only rude, it is foolinsh because it deprives you of the opportunity to talk with someone you may find interesting if not professionally useful in the future. I would like for you to assume if you don’t know anyone here that your overtures to others will be welcomed, so you will take the risk of talking to people. And if somebody you don’t know startles you by starting to talk to you, I want you to think about how you would like to be treated in that position.
I used to say that managing life and work was a balancing act between three things that are in limited quantity, not only in my life, but in everyone’s life, those three things being time, energy, and money. There’s never enough of any of them, and you can frequently trade one for another. For example, I spend money on having the grass cut at my house. I could spend time and energy on it, but it’s a task I absolutely despise, and there are things I can't pay to have someone do that I would rather do with my energy and time. And as we do projects at work, we frequently also have the opportunity to balance time, energy, and money.
But I’ve actually left something important out of that equation; the real equation is time, energy, money, and risk. It never even occurred to me at my house, for example, when my furnace broke to replace the furnace myself. That was partly about time and energy and money, but it was also about risk. Why did the furnace need replacing in the first place? Because it had a cracked heat exchanger, and if I used it, it might fill the house up with carbon monoxide and kill the occupants. Why didn’t I replace that cracked heat exchanger, or stick some duct tape on it and hope all would be well? [laughter] Because it might then fill the house up with carbon monoxide and kill all the occupants!
I guess I’m very fortunate in that nothing that I do for work could actually kill lots of people. But I can certainly do things that would waste a whole lot of time and energy and money, and have risks to balance in terms of each of those is used. When you start thinking about how you’re going to approach anything, including, for many of you in this room, the way you are going to talk at this conference, think about the balance you are discussing between time, energy, money, and risk.
In a very important, as least important to me, sense, you are all risk-takers. You’ve chosen to invest your time and energy and money and, to some extent, your reputations in Balisage, an event that is far from the center of any of your universes. I suspect that for most, if not all of you, if somebody were to say “What is the conference in your field,” this wouldn’t be it. It would be a conference on some subject matter; it would be a conference about aircraft or pharmaceuticals or libraries or whatever it is that you really do as opposed to how you do it, which is most of what brings us here. I want to make sure you are rewarded for the risks you have taken in coming to Balisage. Balisage is an event at which we are all allowed — maybe encouraged — to think about and talk about our ongoing work, to talk about what we could do better and what we can’t do at all and what we want to do and what we want not to do. This is a place where we can talk about things that don’t work and things that we may not want.
If you’re here, it’s likely that you feel as I do about people telling me what I can do and what I can think about. A few years ago — quite a few years ago now — I was doing work in my kitchen, and one of the things I needed to do was buy a new oven. And I walked into an appliance store and said to the salesman, “Do you have an oven with these three features?” I don’t even remember what they were. And he said to me, “Women don’t want that.” And I stopped and thought about it for a moment and said, “I’m going to walk out of this store, and then I’m going to walk back in, and I’m going to ask the same question, and you’re going to give me a civil answer.” I walked out of the store, and I waited a minute, and I walked back in and looked at a very confused salesman and said, “Do you have an oven with these three features?” And he said, “I’m not aware of any manufacturers who make that.” Okay, that’s a fair answer. And at that point, I was willing to have a conversation with him about what was available and what I could buy and ended up buying something.
That was not a unique experience. I also remember a time, actually not so long ago, when I called the user support line for some software I use on a regular basis and said, “I can’t figure out how to do .... This is what I’m trying to accomplish.” And the person on the other end of the telephone said, “You don’t want to do that.” Now, in fact, I did want to do that! What he really meant was “Our software can’t support that.” And after a little questioning/negotiation, we finally established that and established that we didn’t really need to discuss what I wanted; we needed to discuss what this tool would allow me to do and how. I ended up with an acceptable workaround and filing an enhancement request. I don’t actually know whether enhancement requests to this particular vendor go anyplace but the circular file, but at least they asked for it. And that helps. At Balisage, I hope none of us are going to be told “We don’t want that.” We may be told that nobody knows how to do it.
Daniel Shorr — how many of you know who Daniel Shorr was? Okay, many of the North Americans and nobody else. Daniel Shorr was a reporter and a news analyst and a free speech advocate; a radio commentator, a newspaper reporter, a television reporter — Daniel Shorr was one of my heroes. (I don’t have a lot of heroes.) He died recently so I’ve been reading or re-reading some of his work. One of the things he said seems appropriate. He said:
There are today more pressures than ever to conform, to avoid rocking the boat. I’m prone to advise at least once in your lifetime take a risk for a principle you believe in even if it brings you up against your bosses.
And he said:
It really is true that I would sometimes stand up for a principle at the risk of my job.
But he was honest. He also said:
It is also true that when I lose my job, I get terribly nervous.
I think those are some things to think about. And I am not telling you when you go home you should tell your boss that you really are not interested in how many steps his granddaughter took last weekend, or how much fun your supervisor had on her vacation in Iowa City or Eindhoven or wherever she went. Nor am I suggesting that you insist on getting your way on everything all the time, but rather pick your battles and know what’s important. And take this time at Balisage to think about what’s important in the technology we work on.
I know some people who have a lot of very important data. What do I mean by “a lot”? Well, when they talk about things you can count, the unit is usually millions. How many documents? It’s in the millions. How many searches? It’s in the millions. How many users? It’s in the millions. They have a lot of data,by anybody’s count, they’ve got a lot of data.
And what do I mean by “their data is important”? Well, not only does their organization live off their data, if they and their data cease to exist, there are a whole lot of other people and a whole lot of other organizations who would be seriously disaccommodated and who would have to scramble to find some way to meet this need. So, they have a lot of data that a lot of people think is important. And they have a fifteen-year-old — well, almost twenty-year-old — data lifecycle architecture. Not all the pieces of it are twenty years old, but the way they handle their content is between fifteen and twenty years old.
And they have a group — I think they call it a “team,” but maybe it’s a “task force” or a “committee”; it’s one of these organizational things — looking into new storage options because they’re having a hard time serving their data fast enough for their users. And they’re looking toward getting a big, fancy, new database of the same sort that they’ve already got; only this one will be bigger and better and faster and newer. And the brochure has the word “XML” in it to plug into this architecture and solve all their problems. And most of this task force thinks that’s the right answer because the thing that’s slow is serving the documents, and if they get a bigger, better, faster database, all will be well. And if they get the same kind of database they already have, then all of their training will still be good, and they will still be valuable to the organization because they know how to work in this environment, and it is the least risky thing they can do, and it will solve the problem.
Fortunately, they have an irritant on their task force, and this irritant keeps saying to them, “That’s not safe.” “What do you mean, it’s not safe?” “We have to look at the whole lifecycle; we have to look at receipt and validation and storage and maintenance and archiving and all the things we do with our documents before it makes sense to just replace one component of this architecture.” And my friend (my friend is that irritant, wouln't you know) is hearing, “That’s really risky; that’s going to be really disruptive. It’s going to touch everybody in the organization if we do that; we can’t do that,” to which my friend is arguing, “If you don’t do that, the whole thing may crash. If we don’t look at the whole system, when we remove the bottleneck, we may create a whole bunch of new bottlenecks, and the whole thing may break, besides which this organization does not have the stamina to sustain two major system changes in ten years. And if we use up our once a decade major system change on a logically-minor upgrade, we then can’t fix anything else. The least risky approach is very dangerous.” I’m not sure how this is going to come out. I know who I’m cheering for.
We at Balisage are the people who can, should, and often do speak up and say, “The safe approach is unsafe. The emperor has no clothes.” If you’re going along to get along, and that feels safe, be aware that that may be safe in the short run, but it may be very unsafe in the long run.
Let’s talk about Balisage for another minute. There are conferences where all of the presentations are comfortable, safe, and non-controversial; where everybody loves everyone else; where bluebirds flit decoratively through the hallways without soiling anybody; and where anybody who sounds a sour note and talks about anything that doesn’t work or can’t be done is not invited back (quietly behind the scenes so as not to upset the paying customers). You’re not at one of those conferences.
There are conferences where every talk is expected to give the audience members something they can use next week. They want a “take-away” from every forty-five minute presentation of something practical that is implementable immediately. You are not at one of those conferences, either.
This is a place where you should expect to have your ideas challenged and to hear about some work that you don’t understand or that you don’t understand the logic behind or the reasons for. Expect to hear about projects unlike yours and organizations with priorities different from yours. Expect to hear some stuff you don’t quite understand. (I know I will. I read all the papers; I know there’s going to be stuff here I don’t understand. With luck, I will get some of it.) Expect that in the next year or two or three, some of the things that you heard here will come to mind as you are thinking about a problem or decision. It’s possible some of them will actually be practically useful; it is more likely that they will get you thinking about things that will help you in the future, get you out of places where you’re stuck. Expect the payback on Balisage to be real, substantial, difficult to document, and significantly delayed.
As you speak at Balisage, stick your neck out a bit. Tell us about the good stuff: what have you done well? Tell us about the unfinished stuff: what do you want to do next? Tell us about the things that unexpectedly don’t work. Tell us about what you want to do in the future, about what you’re thinking.
We have some first-time speakers. One of the things I really enjoyed this year when the submissions came in is we got submissions from a whole lot of people I’d never heard of. That’s really good! Please don't misunderstand me, I am very happy to see old friends and familiar faces here, but I am particularly pleased to see all of these new people. So, I say particularly to the new speakers, be warned: discussion here will be courteous but lively. People will question your assumptions. They will question your methods. They may agree with you for some very odd reasons. That’s the most disconcerting — when somebody gets up to the microphone and says, “Yes, you are absolutely right because the moon is made of old socks!” (Talk to them in the hallway afterwards.)
Expect lively discussion. Be aware that, at least in my opinion, the best contributions to Balisage will end up on our evaluation forms on both the “best of” lists and the “worst of” lists. When you look at the evaluation form, it asks you to list the talks you liked the best and the talks you liked the least. There are some talks that will end up only on the “best” list, and that’s nice; somebody gave a good talk. I like that. And there are some talks that will end up only on the “worst” list, and well, that happens, and it’s unfortunate. I don’t which it will be, but I expect that we’ll have at least one total dog of a talk this week. But the really good ones will end up in both places because they will polarize people, and that’s what makes people think. That’s what we’re here for. So, welcome to Balisage; let’s start thinking.