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Only if my hair is on fire.

I think I need to educate, or re-educate, my cow-orkers to understand what it means when I put on headphones while working. And there are one or two that I really need to tell that I cannot hear them if they come up behind me and speak softly to attract my attention. On the other hand, most of the reason is that I have run out of attention to spare.

There are certain classes of IT problems that end up occupying my entire consciousness and are extremely difficult to let go of when I walk out the door, particularly if they take several days to resolve. Maybe physicists and philosophers have better mental work benches, and can put the work down to re-emerge from their deep congnitive dives without the bends. I can’t.

If the nature of the problem is both time-bound and space-bound, I need to disappear inside my own head. What I mean is when the symptoms of the problem and the behaviour of possible contributors is spread across human-scale rather than machine-scale time, and where more than one thread of operation is in play, where computation is smeared across the possibility space.

I really have no perfect tool for disecting these sorts of problems. My workbench is scattered with a variety of tools for working on different parts of the problem. If you looked over my shoulder you would usually see that I have a text file open called “notes” or “defect xyz”, which is a mix of apparently context-free reminders to myself and a scantily sketched monologue as I propose and reject different theories. You would usually see a paper notepad with faint pencil scribbles, and a variety of abstract diagrams, mostly scratched out. I would probably have an IDE open with code highlighted, and a terminal window showing logs. What you cannot see is what’s in my head: elaborate mental models of what I believe to be the space-like computational state smeared across the problem time. The visible symbols are just reminders, annotations, histories of abandoned models.

There are two implications of this. First, I can’t put it down when I go home, or to eat, or to sleep. A sufficiently complex set of models will take up all my thoughts, there’s just no room in my head for any other sensible responses or rational thoughts. I become a dreamwalking zombie. Second, and possibly most pertinently: if you ask me to take my headphones off and pay attention to you, there’s a very high probability that the mental model currently being constructed will collapse, and I have to start from the beginning again. Your five minute interruption will probably blow an hour or more’s work.

So please. If I’ve got my headphones on, please, please don’t ask me to emerge from my fugue state even if the room is on fire. Only if it has spread far enough that my hair is burning.

2 Comments

  1. Daniel wrote:

    Do your co-workers read your blog ? I mean, not much point saying “please leave me alone if I have my headphones on” if they don’t. Of course, if they do read your blog then they would know that you call them cow-workers, and probably don’t really want to talk to you anyway.

    Wednesday, September 21, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  2. Robert Hook wrote:

    Actually they have and do read this, and we’ve tossed cow-orkers (sourced of course via Scott Adams) around. We are a small and tight-knit team and have discussed openly the delicate juggling act of needing periods of deep concentration in an environment that is inherently crisis-driven. Mostly the headphones work as a signifier of “do not disturb”, but on occasion it breaks down unless we combine it with mentioning during our morning stand-ups that we’re going deep-code diving.

    Wednesday, September 21, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

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