Life


I have been using Twitter for a couple of months now. It is a useful tool to follow people & trends. And a nice toy at times. But there is one thing about it that spoils the experience: it’s just one huge ad.

This tool supposedly invented to help people share what they are doing with friends has become one huge fest of shameless self promotion, a true 21st century global vanity fair. This self promotion seems to be centered on one thing: being “cool”. Maybe it’s the people I follow but in many of the tweets (that are not re-tweets and links) I see a disproportionate amount of words like “great”, “awesome”, “exciting”, “kick ass” and – of course – “cool”. All those messages paint an image that is reflecting our current culture as we already see it through mass media’s twisted lens: everyone is doing something exciting on groundbreaking projects in fancy offices of superb companies, then “chills out” at chic clubs or doing some “crazy” activities. Then goes back again to their “cool” work. Everyone is young, physically attractive, smart and interesting. Everything is “cool”.

This image is not new. It has been the backdrop for most advertising for decades, as vendors promised people entry into the paradise on Earth if they buy a pack of coffee or a fancy car. The change here is that before it was just the advertisers pushing this type of BS out in paid slots and now it is the masses trying to market themselves, their jobs, their lives – and in that and through that live up to the ideal they all try to follow and seem to subscribe to: the un-holy grail of coolness.

The desire to follow this ideal – or anti-ideal rather – is not new, too. Ever since mass media – and especially all-persuasive moving images coming from TV screens – started to push this unreal model of life people wanted to live up to it. But before masses could only buy products advertised and try to imitate the behavior and look of the “stars”. Now they can join the band and broadcast their own version of the “brave new world”. On Twitter. And Facebook. And possibly other sites like it.

In this sense the “social media” both reflect the state of society and amplify the trends that shape it.

I hope this is just a shinny facade people put up there and deep inside they realize life is so much deeper and more meaningful. But some are so good at advertising I start to suspect they believe it.

I have started a videocast with a friend – and manager of a competing software company – Paul Klipp. We have been meeting and discussing agile software development, web applications & related stuff for some time and recently I realized we could turn this into a podcast. Paul has one of those neat Flip Mino HD cams and what was to be a podcast has turned into a videocast. So now you can listen to us discussing those topics bi-weekly under “Scrum for Success” (also available on iTunes).

The last episode covers the FOWA conference we both attended that I have blogged about last week.

The title of this post basically says it all and I could leave it without any content. But this being a blog etc. I feel I should explain further. So here you have it:

It dawned on me today that most of the time we are not thinking, we are merely processing incoming information, in most cases redirecting it somewhere else. For example I get an e-mail and I decide what to do with it, then I send it to someone from our team with a short comment. Or I read a bit of news and I decide to share it on Twitter – copy, paste and it’s done. Or I might decide to share it with friends via e-mail. Or maybe even write something about it.

All this activity – even though it happens in the mind – is not thinking, but processing – reacting to outside stimuli coming in. Thinking is a much deeper thing, which takes time and concentration. Those, in turn, usually require relatively large chunks of time without interruptions from new stimuli firing up the whole processing scheme. Those chunks of time seem to be harder and harder to get these days.

Let me explain.

As anyone who did anything close to meditation will tell you it takes time for the mind to settle – that is for the frantic activity of thought to subdue enough for the mind to regain some clarity. Only then one can do something with it – meditate or pray – or think. That time varies but for me – as for most people – it is somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes. This is – to be clear – not the time needed to think of something, but to get ready to start to think. Then you need some more time to think of anything that has any deeper meaning, sense or value.

But today’s world is full of buzz and staying fully connected all the time hurts this process immensely. The worst is of course when one sits at a computer connected to Internet – then this whole thought-killing processing not only has endless supply of data fueling it, but also can grow and expand to consume all mental energy. For example, an e-mail might contain a word you don’t know, you search the web, find a Wikipedia page on it, read it, in it find 4 more interesting links, open those, read some of them, find new links, then another e-mail comes, then phone rings, then someone types in Skype chat, you read, reply, turn back to e-mail, then someone comes in to your room to ask a question – bam! two hours have passed and you don’t how!

Sounds familiar? Seems today many struggle with exactly this. Huge overload of incoming data and interruptions that doesn’t ever allow mind to even begin to settle. This is why many people get their best ideas now while traveling, because it is usually when their thought process has a chance to go on uninterrupted longer. But portable Internet devices (like the iPhone) and cell phones do all they can to ensure we stay connected even while on the move – and keep on processing.

One more thing worth noting here is that processing is quite pleasurable – you get the feeling you feed info to your brain, and for some of us – me included – this is way way more addictive than any other pleasure. Our advantage is our mind, our edge is our ability to process quick, we win by knowing things sooner and better than others so we get high on sucking info – but we must not forget to stop and think sometimes.

Processing is not inherently evil – it gives us the data we need to come up with ideas or solutions or serve as inspiration. However, to make any use of this data we take in all day we must learn to switch all the incoming lines off – and think. Realizing what you do most of time is not thinking even though it looks similar goes a long way towards consciously finding chunks of time our minds need to think.

So I’m at the Scrum Gathering in Stockholm right now.

Did my talk in the morning – it went reasonably well, did get some very good questions at the end. I think I could improve it now also after what I learned at another talk on the same subject. That talk itself wasn’t very inspiring but the discussion with other participants was very good and informative. Many companies now are thinking how to sell agile software development services, especially how to sway clients away from the fixed bid culture that is doing them no good. Another common problem is how to formulate “agile contracts” – that is contracts that are helping form this kind of relationship. I think we have pretty good standard agreement and model now, but I did pick up a few nice ideas from others that we could possibly use.

Jeff Sutherland had a very interesting lecture on “super-performing teams” that got me thinking seriously on how we could improve the way we measure our productivity. The thing he is saying – and many others have been for some time – that you can achieve more productivity while at the same time cutting the number of hours worked. Seems like impossibility, but from my own experience in agile I know this is true. I just wonder whether we did all we could in that area.

This was also my first time I could see Ken Schwaber in person. In the video from his talk at Google he comes across as a drill sergeant in civilian clothes – when you actually talk to the guy it turns out he is much nicer a person than that. Same with Jeff Sutherland, who also has this kind of military-”warrior”-like appearance – but at least Jeff was actually in the USAF once.

I’m overall positively surprised by the whole event, it will probably be much more valuable for me than Agile Development Practices was a year ago. I think I’ll seriously consider skipping this year edition of it.

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