Still on the theme of mastery, and further exploring attention and perception, here is another story I like to tell alongside the Master Butcher and the Agassiz fish tales. It is one of Richard Feynman’s stories from his childhood:
One job was really sensational. I was working at the time for a printer, and a man who knew that printer knew I was trying to get jobs fixing radios, so he sent a fellow around to the print shop to pick me up. The guy is obviously poor — his car is a complete wreck — and we go to his house which is in a cheap part of town. On the way, I say, “What’s the trouble with the radio?”
He says, “When I turn it on it makes a noise, and after a while the noise stops and everything’s all right, but I don’t like the noise a the beginning.”
I think to myself: “What the hell! If he hasn’t got any money, you’d think he could stand a little noise for a while.”
And all the time, on the way to his house, he’s saying things like, “Do you know anything about radios? How do you know about radios — you’re just a little boy!”
He’s putting me down the whole way, and I’m thinking, “So what’s the matter with him? So it makes a little noise.”
But when we got there I went to the radio and turned it on. Little noise? My God! No wonder the poor guy couldn’t stand it. The thing began to roar and wobble — WUH BUH BUH BUH BUH — A tremendous amount of noise. Then it quieted down and played correctly. So I started to think: “How can that happen?”
I started walking back and forth, thinking, and I realize that one way it can happen is that the tubes are heating up in the wrong order — that is, the amplifier’s all hot, the tubes are ready to go, and there’s nothing feeding in, or there’s some back circuit feeding in, or something wrong in the beginning part — the RF part — and therefore it’s making a lot of noise, picking up something. And when the RF circuit’s finally going, and the grid voltages are adjusted, everything’s all right.
So the guy says, “What are you doing? You come to fix the radio, but you’re only walking back and forth!”
I say, “I’m thinking!” The I said to myself, “All right, take the tubes out, and reverse the order completely in the set.” (Many radio sets in those days used the same tubes in different places — 2 1 2′s, I think they were, or 2 1 2-A’s.) So I changed the tubes around, stepped to the front of the radio, turned the thing on, and it’s as quiet as a lamb; it wait until it heats up, and the plays perfectly — no noise.
When a person has been negative to you, and then you do something like that, they’re usually a hundred percent the other way, kind of to compensate. He got me other jobs, and kept telling everybody what a tremendous genius I was, saying, “He fixes radios by thinking!”
– Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, pg 19-20
Once again I have quoted rather more of the text, making for a longer read, though hopefully staying within the bounds of “fair use.” (To compensate, please rush off and buy Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman! It is full of such delightful stories, giving insight into one of history’s great — and endearingly playful — minds!)
Discussion: I would like to invite you to join the discussion, using the comments to share how this story strikes you and what insights about architects, architecting or architecture it prompts.
Is this is relevant to architecting — and architecting software-intensive systems at that? How do we create software? By thinking. And if something isn’t working as we expect, or is doing something our users can’t tolerate, how do we “fix” software? By thinking. Ok. So maybe it is somewhat relevant… But we covered that in the comments. Indeed. That was a wonderful discussion (thank you Peter, Gene and Stuart), and it illuminated new insights for me. So we’re done?
First, it would be very useful if you could spend a couple of minutes watching this video and following the instructions, before you continue reading here. I know it is tempting to read ahead, to decide if it is worth watching the brief video, but you will miss the point if you don’t watch it first, before reading on.
Alright, so now that you have watched the video — you did, didn’t you? Can you find the “gorilla” in our “by thinking” story? The gorilla I saw? It may not be the same one you saw (and if so, please do share what you perceived, when you considered the story again, in the comments). But it went like this: I titled the post “By Thinking” and all the discussion went straight to the heart of the piece, and focused on fixing systems, and thinking. Stuart Boardman mentioned stories in the comments, and that hints at but doesn’t quite identify this particular gorilla. Remember, when I quoted the piece, I thought perhaps I should just quote the core story, but decided also to include the encompassing story? Why? What do we learn from that story? Which? About the stakeholder — hello? the customer! — and the important lesson Feynman learned about people who resist an idea becoming its strongest champions, once they “get it.” It’s not just about the system and troubleshooting and being the fix-it-by-thinking hero who saves the day. So we get back to Stuart’s mention of stories. But also this point about personality. How many times have you worked with someone who has that interaction pattern? They resist and devil’s advocate but when they get it, they become loyal advocates for the system (or mechanism/design fragment/design approach/etc.)
Ok, so that “gorilla” was really two gorillas. The point about the stakeholder/customer and the interpersonal aspect to the story, not just the system failure/resilience/system thinking dimension at its core. And a point about us — about our cognitive frailty. That “what we are paying attention to shapes what we perceive and pay attention to.” Does that make sense? Led by the title and the core of the story, we focused all our discussion there, and didn’t notice, or didn’t think it worthwhile to point out — even when prompted with strong hints — how our discussion canalized around the topic suggested by the post title and the repeated phrase in Feynman’s story. Anyway, that introduces the whole body of work on cognitive biases and biases in decision making and judgment.
We will come back to all of these topics — “by thinking” and complexity, resilience and failure, stakeholders and their concerns, stories, persuasion and influence, cognitive biases, and more. Not to mention topics raised in the Master Butcher story around mastery, including system decomposition and finding the natural interstitial lines within the system.
But let me return just for a moment to the stakeholder versus our tendency to focus on the problem our brains seize on. I can’t tell you how many times executives have voiced frustration to us because their architects have just ignored concerns they articulate, and focused on some facet of the problem they have ideas about. This story, and what happened to us, happens over and over, in many different forms. It’s not that we don’t have good intentions, it is that we just canalize. And we have to develop levers to get ourselves to shift! Levers? Questions, for example. Like “what else?” and “why don’t?”
And more. That future posts and discussion will address. Please do join us! Your active engagement makes the learning experience richer for all of us.