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Motorcycle And Software Maintenance

Robert Pirsig’sZen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance” is one of my fave books of all time. I have a soft cover copy that I bought in the nineties. Because of its infinite depth and immersive pull, I’ve read it at least three times over the years. Thus, when Amazon.com sent me a recommendation for the kindle version of it for $2.99, I jumped at the chance to e-read it and capture some personally meaningful notes from it.

(Published in 1974) the book sold 5 million copies worldwide. It was originally rejected by 121 publishers, more than any other bestselling book, according to the Guinness Book of Records. – Wikipedia

In a nutshell, ZATAOMM is about a college professor (Pirsig himself) who ends up going insane over his obsession with trying to objectively define what the metaphysical concept of “quality” means.

Quality…you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all.

During my fourth read of ZATAOMM, I started noticing how much of the wisdom Mr. Pirsig proffers up applies to the “art” of software development/maintenance:

When you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it and want to get on to other things.

This comes up all the time in mechanical software work. A hang-up. You just sit and stare and think, and search randomly for new information, and go away and come back again, and after a while the unseen factors start to emerge.

Sometimes just the act of writing down the problems straightens out your head as to what they really are.

The craftsman isn’t ever following a single line of instruction. He’s making decisions as he goes along. For that reason he’ll be absorbed and attentive to what he’s doing even though he doesn’t deliberately contrive this. He isn’t following any set of written instructions because the nature of the material at hand determines his thoughts and motions, which simultaneously change the nature of the material at hand.

Any effort that has self-glorification as its final endpoint is bound to end in disaster.

Stuck. No answer. Honked. Kaput. It’s a miserable experience emotionally. You’re losing time. You’re incompetent. You don’t know what you’re doing. You should be ashamed of yourself.

This gumption trap of anxiety, which results from overmotivation, can lead to all kinds of errors of excessive fussiness. You fix things that don’t need fixing, and chase after imaginary ailments. You jump to wild conclusions and build all kinds of errors into the machine because of your own nervousness.

Impatience is close to boredom but always results from one cause: an underestimation of the amount of time the job will take. You never really know what will come up and very few jobs get done as quickly as planned. Impatience is the first reaction against a setback and can soon turn to anger if you’re not careful.

Impatience, stuckness, underestimation, anxiety, and carelessness. These are just a subset of the feelings and behaviors that pervade dysfunctionally soulless organizations whose sole focus is on “following prescribed process and meeting schedule“.

QPS Kings

  1. Zain
    March 9, 2013 at 12:42 am

    I like your nutshell description. And I agree with the role of anxiety as a gumption trap. So much of the consequences of over-motivation can be attributed to the environment itself, I think. Sometimes we just need peace and quiet and no time pressure to do our best work!

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