It's only words... and assumptions; and priorities; and... ouch!

February 6th, 2018 by Diana Coman

On the very first of December 2017, a man whose knowledge I admire started publishing the FFA (Finite Field Arithmetic) series on his blog. Having previously struggled to actually follow in the immense log the scattered bits and pieces and discussions and rants and what-not on the topic, I was absolutely delighted that he finally took the time and committed to this weekly series. I was (and am) also grateful that he decided to put in the significant effort for this last but crucial step of writing software: documenting it essentially, providing at the very least a single place for the interested reader to start from.

As my delight is not of the mere words type, I proceeded to adjust my schedule to fit in a weekly dose of FFA. So I looked around at my madness of a weekly schedule, cut and put away various things that were not quite as important as I considered FFA to be, cleared up Saturday afternoons and set that time aside specifically for FFA reading and practice. As the FFA chapters were meant to be published every Friday as per their author's own statement of intent, I considered Saturdays to be perfect fit: fresh chapter ready to be read and enough time to digest it properly until the following week and the following installment. In a word, perfect, right? Sadly, it turned out I was wrong.

It really took only three weeks for the Friday FFA to become... the Saturday FFA. And this was indeed a change half-sort-of-announced in the logs1 - I recall it as a statement from Stanislav along the lines that he *might need to* delay the FFA chapter because of work load. This statement in any case didn't sound AT ALL like a loud and clear "from now on FFA will be published on Saturdays because workload far exceeds expectations and I'm only human, sorry". As I consider public complaints to be rather futile, I did not even complain about it - in hindsight I suppose I really should complain more, if not for any effect (I still doubt any effect) then at least for the record. For MY future record especially.

Going back to this sliding of Fridays into Saturdays, the very unpleasant effect for me was of course that my painfully cleared time on Saturday afternoons was all of a sudden not fit for purpose anymore. And not just because "no FFA this week" but consider this: one can slide, sure; this week I'll read last week's FFA chapter and so hopefully I can at least still use the whole setup; except... certainly not fresh anymore, certainly not exactly keeping up to date, certainly not solving the puzzles as intended before potentially seeing other people's attempts in the chan if nowhere else. And to top it all, this week a monster chapter2 further stretched the schedule anyway: by the looks of it one week slide behind with the reading will still not be enough to avoid being left stranded. So what am I supposed to do exactly to be able to follow FFA? Honestly, my current approach - and I really don't see another - is simply to say: fine, stuff this "follow" idea, it's *way too costly* simply, not going to happen. Let it run its course and when it's finished and all ready, there will hopefully still be time to go and take it chapter by chapter, as possible. At least once it's there, one can make a plan on eating and digesting it, without further surprises to blow up one's plan.

Note that this has nothing to do with the FFA itself. In particular, this is NOT in any way saying that Stanislav "should have" done more work or different work or whatever other work. The whole sticking point really is on the planning and communications side and this came to the forefront even more visibly only yesterday through the "hardware debacle" for I can't call it in any other way. As far as I can grasp from the log itself, the work there behind the scenes was again done and done well as Stanislav always does it. However, the last step, the 20% that kills the whole other 80% was botched beyond belief and the saddest part of it is that Stan himself does not even see how or why exactly he ended up in the hot soup.

From previous practical experience I can say that it almost never helps to tell a man what he can't see for himself. There is a reason for that particular blind spot of his eye and that reason is not addressed through someone else's explanation. Nevertheless, I'll say - for my future records mainly - only this: assumptions made but not explicitly stated for the other party to accept or challenge are a way of shooting yourself in the head; conflicting deadlines and/or requests are to be shouted from the rooftop as soon as spotted; in this horribly limited reality of human life, practical costs can and do quite often trump ~everything else. The unexpected in particular tends to have a horrible cost, so the best thing you can do for those you work with is to make sure you don't add to their share of the unexpected. Otherwise put, please, please make sure that they really can trust your exact words at any moment as much as they can trust your finished product: any assumptions clearly stated and defended if needed, any limitations made clear from the start, any change to previously promised issues clearly argued, any priorities made explicit, any implications of new developments (be it new requests or anything else) stated as soon as identified. This being said, communication is of course a not-exactly-precise activity and one in which I certainly do not presume to give advice to anyone. I simply listed there the main parts that I found myself adding to my own "communication manual" over the years - it's been of use to me and that is enough reason for it to be here but if you, reader, find anything of use for yourself in there too, that's even better really.

  1. I can't even find it now, all I could come up with was Mircea Popescu's later surprise at this development...  

  2. Similarly to previous schedule stretching, this was also announced as a mere "thinking of" rather than "previous planning was totally inadequate for these here reasons; new plan as follows with x, y and z measures taken to avoid repeat of same mistake; sorry and thank you for sticking around." This time however, I decoded the message better given previous experience so I was at least *expecting* no FFA this Saturday basically, what can I say.