Far from the Madding Crowd

 

Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, I had not realised it is viewed by many as a book of love stories till recently. How blind was I. Fortunately that blindness fooled me with the desire of re-reading it. Strictly speaking, listening to its audio format. Had I classified it into the category of “girly” books earlier, I might not have picked it up again.

Reading Far From the Madding Crowd some years ago for the first time, I was only drawn to this young lady Bathsheba, admiring her charm, independence and fearless pursuit of establishing herself as a very capable Mistress of the farm inherited from her uncle, in a very male-dominated society. I fear I must apologize to farmer Gabriel Oak and William Boldwood for neglecting them previously. As for Sergeant Francis Troy, I loathe him profoundly, hence it was great that I had not given him much attention in my prior reading of this book. A reminder of the century-old wisdom passed on generation by generation: good characters are far more important than dashing appearances.  

Thomas Hardy was a poet. Naturally his writings are beautifully poetic. His words are so juicy and tasty. At the tip of his pen there were no ordinary affairs in farm matters or in the ups and downs of human relations. Every little movement, feeling and scene are depicted with the most beautiful lush sentences, as graceful and fresh as the English green. Indeed, the picturesque English countryside filled my imagination while listening to this audiobook. That very same green as in the poem And did those feet in ancient time written by William Blake and later to become the hymn Jerusalem:

And did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon England’s mountains green?

I will not cease from Mental Fight,

Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:

‘Till we have built Jerusalem,

In England’s green & pleasant Land.

 

I leave you to enjoy a few pieces by Thomas Hardy from this book.

It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.

A resolution to avoid an evil is seldom framed till the evil is so far advanced as to make avoidance impossible.

She was of the stuff of which great men’s mothers are made. She was indispensable to high generation, feared at tea-parties, hated in shops, and loved at crises.

When a strong woman recklessly throws away her strength she is worse than a weak woman who has never any strength to throw away. One source of her inadequacy is the novelty of the occasion. She has never had practice in making the best of such a condition. Weakness is doubly weak by being new.

What a way Oak had, she thought, of enduring things. Boldwood, who seemed so much deeper and higher and stronger in feeling than Gabriel, had not yet learnt, any more than she herself, the simple lesson which Oak showed a mastery of by every turn and look he gave—that among the multitude of interests by which he was surrounded, those which affected his personal well-being were not the most absorbing and important in his eyes. Oak meditatively looked upon the horizon of circumstances without any special regard to his own standpoint in the midst. That was how she would wish to be.

But what between the poor men I won’t have, and the rich men who won’t have me, I stand as a pelican in the wilderness!

What’s right weekdays is right Sundays!

We learn that it is not the rays which bodies absorb, but those which they reject, that give them the colours they are known by; and in the same way people are specialized by their dislikes and antagonisms, whilst their goodwill is looked upon as no attribute at all.

Now mind, you have a mistress instead of a master. I don’t yet know my powers or my talents in farming; but I shall do my best, and if you serve me well, so shall I serve you. Don’t any unfair ones among you (if there are any such, but I hope not) suppose that because I’m a woman I don’t understand the difference between bad goings-on and good.

I shall be up before you are awake; I shall be afield before you are up; and I shall have breakfasted before you are afield. In short, I shall astonish you all.

Who Moved My Cheese?

 

One Sunday afternoon recently, I decided to unpack the book boxes. Many of them. One by one. It has been a very daunting project. Right now tons of books are scattered on the floor, each of them anxiously waiting for the sentence I hand down: shelving, return to a labelled box, or donation. How mighty the power I am holding over these books. How frightful it is to determine their fate and heartbreaking for me to part with them. Some have migrated across oceans, some travelled together with me, some accompanied me through the darkest times in my life. Who Moved My Cheese and Far From the Madding Crowd are among them. I could not help re-reading them.

My second-hand volume of Who Moved My Cheese has shown its endurance of plenty readings in the past. It is yellow, old, and rough looking. The wisdom in it ages beautifully together with its physical form.  

This little book is written by Spencer Johnson. It tells a parable of four characters: Sniff, Scurry, Hem and Haw, searching for cheese in a maze. The author summarises it very well here:

sometimes we may act like Sniff who sniffs out change early, or Scurry who scurries into action, or Hem who denies and resists change as he fears it will lead to something worse, or Haw who learns to adapt in time when he sees changing can lead to something better! Whatever parts of us we choose to use, we all share something in common: a need to find our way in the Maze and succeed in changing times.

To me, the author passes his insights to us via the notes that Ham wrote on the walls of the Maze. Many of them were for Hem, with the hope that Hem might one day would have the courage to get out of his comfort zone and start searching for a new cheese station.

The more important your cheese is to you, the more you want to hold on to it.

If you do not change, you can become extinct.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

Smell the cheese often, so you know when it is getting old.

Movement in a new direction helps you find new cheese.

When you stop being afraid, you feel good!

Imagining yourself enjoying your new cheese leads you to it.

The quicker you let go of old cheese, the sooner you find new cheese.

It is safer to search in the maze, than remain in a cheeseless station.

Old beliefs do not lead you to new cheese.

When you see that you can find and enjoy new cheese, you change course.

Noticing small changes early helps you adapt to the bigger changes that are to come.

Below is the final summary written on the wall by Haw.

As Santa Claus is approaching, it is the time of the year to reflect and look ahead. What cheese do you crave for? How does your maze look? To paraphrase the verse from a dear friend of mine: what would you like to do in your wildest dream? And do just that!

Can I have a full English breakfast first? That is my wildest dream now, after getting up before 5am, walking for miles with an audiobook, cycling, reading, writing, etc. Perhaps I deserve a bit of proper bacon and sausage.

Site Reliability Engineering

Site Reliability Engineering (SRE) is a collection of articles written by dozens of Google engineers and edited by Betsy Beyer, Chris Jones, Jennifer Petoff and Niall Richard.

This book was not on my list. I had to negotiate (with myself) to remove one book and make space for this one. Why did I choose to read this book?

A week ago, together with a couple of other eBayers, I attended a two-day Service Level Objectives workshop at Google. Google has been offering this workshop to its partner companies, perhaps with some adjustment to align with the partner’s domain of interest. This was our time together.

A couple weeks ahead, one of our hosts sent us a rough plan for the workshop. I fired back, requesting more detailed schedule, breaking down to an hourly basis. My logic is simple: I can walk out (in a polite way) an unproductive meeting at my own workplace easily, but going to another company and checking in etc would be a very high overhead to pay both for me and the host, hence I need to gather enough relevant indicators to evaluate the chance of this workshop being informative and effective to justify the cost. Judging from the detailed description received, I decided this would be very useful to attend. There I went.

After a round of self-introduction, one of our hosts Jian politely asked me why I was there. I gave him the answer, in my typically brutally direct way, with full conviction: I do not let my job title define what I am interested in. I am grateful that Jian received this very well, as in some cultures and places my directness does not go well.

This workshop turned out to be very successful. My hosts were knowledge about the site reliability engineering and beyond. We had numerous discussions in an open and interactive manner. Specially, I appreciate the patience and grace of Robert van Gent, Jian Ma, Gary Luo, and Adrian Hilton in answering my many questions and discussing with me topics about service level objectives, more broadly site reliability engineering and beyond, such as software design reviews and establishing the right processes etc. I highly recommend you to participate if you are interested in this domain and offered the opportunity.

This workshop excited me enough that I decided to read Site Reliability Engineering as my book of this week. The content of the book is vast and way beyond the topic of service level objectives. It contains three main parts, each of which is detailed below.

Principles

Part I talks about the principles, underlying how SRE teams typically work—the patterns, behaviors, and areas of concern that influence the general domain of SRE operations. SRE is not only about risk assessment, management, and using the concept of error budget to quantitatively evaluate the risk tradeoffs and planning. It is also about incorporating reliability during the design phase of a project to watch out for the design flaws that could potentially lead to outage, correcting design issues or building mitigation mechanisms into the design. I love the phase “Hope is not a strategy”.

A few lessons from this part on risk management, error budget and simplicity:

Our goal is to explicitly align the risk taken by a given service with the risk the business is willing to bear. We strive to make a service reliable enough, but no more reliable than it needs to be.  

Extreme reliability comes at a cost: maximizing stability limits how fast new features can be developed and how quickly products can be delivered to users, and dramatically increases their cost, which in turn reduces the numbers of features a team can afford to offer. Further, users typically don’t notice the difference between high reliability and extreme reliability in a service, because the user experience is dominated by less reliable components like the cellular network or the device they are working with.

An error budget aligns incentives and emphasizes joint ownership between SRE and product development. Error budgets make it easier to decide the rate of releases and to effectively defuse discussions about outages with stakeholders, and allows multiple teams to reach the same conclusion about production risk without rancor.

Software simplicity is a prerequisite to reliability. We are not being lazy when we consider how we might simplify each step of a given task. Instead, we are clarifying what it is we actually want to accomplish and how we might most easily do so. Every time we say “no” to a feature, we are not restricting innovation; we are keeping the environment uncluttered of distractions so that focus remains squarely on innovation, and real engineering can proceed.

 

Practices

Part II presents SRE practices at Google. Figures speak volumes. This service reliability hierarchy figure from the book shows the elements that go into making a service available, from the bottom up, from the most basic to the most advanced. Part II covers each level of this hierarchy: practical alerting from time-series data for monitoring; being on-call, effective troubleshooting, emergency response and managing incidents for incident response; a post-mortem culture that supports learning from failure; testing with the attempt to prevent the outage after understanding what tends to go amiss; capacity planning, load balancing to ensure the proper usage of the resource, handling the overload issue and addressing cascading failures; finally development and product launch at the top.

After attending the workshop at which the principles were well covered, I found Part II to be the most significant part of the book. There are vast amount of resources on these topics scattering around online, but this part of the book present them coherently with references. It would save me to search around if I wish to delve deeper into a topic.

Management

Part III covers the management topic on how SRE team works within and with other teams, some best practices for on-call and interrupts, communication and collaboration issues, and finally the evolving SRE engagement model.

 

For people without SRE background in companies like Google but with experience working in other domains, it is worthwhile to read the chapter comparing SRE at Google with lessons from other industries. The discussion here helps to illustrate the similarities and differences in a magnified way.

 

I like one unique point about this book: many chapters start with a set of key questions to ask when approaching a topic. Asking the right questions is of utmost importance. To give you an example, these are the questions for comparing SRE at Google with other high-reliability industries:

  • Are the principles used in Site Reliability Engineering also important outside of Google, or do other industries tackle the requirements of high reliability in markedly different ways?
  • If other industries also adhere to SRE principles, how are the principles manifested?
  • What are the similarities and differences in the implementation of these principles across industries?
  • What factors drive similarities and differences in implementation?
  • What can Google and the tech industry learn from these comparisons?

The appendix presents tools and templates that can be used right out of box. One example is the availability table. Its calculation is straightforward. Availability is derived based on how long a service is unavailable over some period. With the assumption that there is no planned downtime, we calculate how much downtime could be forgiven to achieve a specific availability target. For example, with the availability target 99.5%, the allowed unavailability time window would be 1.83 days per year or 7.20 minutes per day or 18 seconds per hour. This is uptime and downtime-based availability. You can also calculate it as the success request rate. One common theme of this book and the workshop is to figure out what metrics to design and use. Other appendices include best practices for production services, example incident state document, example post-mortem, launch coordination checklist, and example production meeting minutes.

Last but not least, I would like to cover post-mortem analysis. It is vital to have a blameless post-mortem culture, focusing on the underlying issues and not pointing fingers at people. Services and products get so complex that it is rarely one or two persons’ fault that something is broken. In post-mortem analysis, the suggested sample covers these key areas: who are working on addressing the outage, current status of the incident, what has happened, the impact of the incident, what are the root causes, what triggered the incident, how did we detect this, what are the action items that has been taken and will be taken, is the action for prevention purpose or for mitigation, what went well in the light of handling his incident, what went wrong, what were lucky escape, and the detailed timeline from the beginning of the outage to its end. Once again, note the beauty of asking the right questions.

Never Split The Difference

 

I read part of Never Split the Difference during a long-haul flight recently. An overnight long-haul flight serves as a great test of measuring how engaging the reading material is. In this type of settings, the book in hand typically competes for your attention against the in-flight entertainment system, motion sickness, engine noise, people noise, the nausea caused by the smell of reheated airline food and so on. A good book helps to create an artificial world running in parallel to the duration of the flight and eliminate the negative impacts of all these factors. Fortunately, this book brought me that blessing in this flight.

The author of this book, Chris Voss, brought up the book Getting to Yes multiple times. I wrote an earlier post about Getting to Yes. He contrasted the academic born negotiation theories with the insights distilled from his war stories of hostage negotiation in numerous cases. Throughout the book, there are not only successes but also failure cases discussed, and from both what lessons are learned. To me, what attracted me to keep on reading is its storytelling, post-mortem analysis, especially the brutal honesty of the screw-ups. The models and theories presented are experience-driven. Seeing how they were derived helps me to understand how suitable they would be to certain circumstances and how I might want to adapt them.

It is fascinating that Program on Negotiation was setup in 1983 as a university consortium dedicated to the studies of theory and practice of negotiation and dispute resolution. Chris mentioned in this book the great influence this program and its products have had on how people negotiate, with criticism of some methods.

While reading this book, various personal experiences of mine came to mind. I recalled and analysed a few failures of negotiation or, even worse, failures that occurred even before there was a negotiation. One example is to do with a car salesman some years ago. Before entering the discussion regarding the price of a specific car model that I stated my interest in purchasing, I was subjected to a series of questions that were clearly designed to size me up. After answering a few of these questions, sensing that there were even more to come, I felt sick in my stomach because to me the trust was broken. I was forced to justify my action of walking into the dealer. I had to be assertive and direct that I would not have wasted the time of inquiring, had I not been serious (suggesting that the sizing-me-up questions were unnecessary and intruding my privacy), followed by walking away without a deal. Shortly after that, I had a great experience with another dealer. This gentleman calmly answered my questions clearly without being pushy. It gave me the impression that he respected the fact that purchasing a car is a decision of the buyer, not the seller. Over the course of the conversation, the initial trust at a default level that we typically have with a stranger was enhanced rather than shattered with the previous dealer. I think, a high-level of trust leads to good deals, whether the deals are worse or better in the monetary standards alone.

Chris talks a lot about listening, listening, and listening in this book. He gives a number of great suggestions. Here are some examples. You can never listen enough. Have multiple pairs of ears to catch what might have been missed. Listen again to the recording to see what you have missed at the first time. Listen for the choice of words and the tone. Watch for the alignment of the those with the body language.

My teacher John Steinhart also emphasized greatly on listening in his conflict management and leadership courses. Often we only listen to a small fraction of what others say. Then under the disguise of listening, our brains work hard to think what we are going to say at the very first chance available. Sometimes, even abruptly interrupt others. In some cases, one possible cause is too strong a self-centered desire to impress others. This can be very harmful when it comes to effective listening. However, I have worked with very smart people who habitually interrupt others (not in a condescending or rude way) and I gladly welcome their injections of words. People around these superstars usually are willing to give them that allowance because their impatience benefits the discussion. To me, it is my responsibility to find the right way to work with the diverse styles of others.

Here are some of the key lessons from this book to share with you. As usual, quotes are in italic, my words are not.  

A good negotiator prepares, going in, to be ready for possible surprises; a great negotiator aims to use her skills to reveal the surprises she is certain to find.

People who view negotiation as a battle of arguments become overwhelmed by the voices in their head. Negotiation is not an act of battle; it’s a process of discovery. The goal is to uncover as much information as possible.

Don’t commit to assumptions; instead, view them as hypotheses and use the negotiation to test them rigorously.

Be aware of “yes” and welcome “No” as an answer. “No” can bring forth the real underlying issues. Rethink “No” in its alternatives, for example: I am not yet ready to agree; You are making me feel uncomfortable; I do not understand; I need more information etc.

There are three different kinds of “yes”. We need to learn how to recognise which one is used. A counterfeit “yes” is one in which your counterpart plans on saying “no” but either feels “yes” is an easier escape route or just wants to disingenuously keep the conversation going to obtain more information or some other kind of edge. A confirmation “yes” is generally innocent, a reflexive response to a black-or-white question; it’s sometimes used to lay a trap but mostly it’s just simple affirmation with no promise of action. And a commitment “yes” is the real deal; it’s a true agreement that leads to a action, a “yes” at the table that ends with a signature on the contract.

Aim for “that’s right”, beware of “you’re right”. The two are vastly different. The former shows that the counterpart acknowledges that you truly understand his/her thinking and wishes. The latter could mean “get me out of here, or, please shut up”, depending on how it is used.  

Splitting the difference is wearing one black and one brown shoe, so don’t compromise. Meeting halfway often leads to bad deals for both sides.

People will take more risks to avoid a loss than to realize a gain. Make sure your counterpart sees that there is something to lose by inaction.

“Yes” is nothing without “How”. Asking “How”, knowing “How”, and defining “How” are all part of effective negotiator’s arsenal.

This would be the last book on the topics of conflict and negotiation as my one-book-a-week project this year. If I were to pass on only one message about these topics, it would be: embrace conflict and enjoy negotiation. There are gazilions of benefits if approached appropriately.