Embracing the beautiful mess

Nobody likes a mess. Especially in the world of software engineering, we always strive to build well-structured systems. No one ever sets out to build a big ball of mud.

Alas, we are constantly reminded that the systems we work in are messier than we’d like. This messiness often comes to light in the wake of an incident, when we dig in to understand what happened. Invariably, we find that the people are a particularly messy part of the overall system, that the actions that they take contribute to incidents. In the wake of the incident, we identify follow-up work that we hope will bring more order, less mess, into our world. What we miss, though, is the role that the messy nature of our systems play in keeping things working.

When I use the term system here, I mean it in the broader sense of a socio-technical system that includes both the technological elements (software, hardware) and the humans involved, the operators in particular.

Yes, there are neat, well-designed structures in place that help keep our system healthy: elements that include automated integration tests, canary deployments, and staffed on-call rotations. But complementing those structures are informal layers of defense provided by the people in our system. These are the teammates who are not on-call but jump in to help, or folks who just happen to lurk in Slack channels and provide key context at the right moment, to either help diagnose an incident or prevent one from happening in the first place.

This informal, messy system of defense is like a dynamic, overlapping patchwork. And sometimes this system fails: for example, a person who would normally chime in with relevant information happens to be out of the office that day. Or, someone takes an action which, under typical circumstances, would be beneficial, but under the specific circumstances of the incident, actually made things worse.

We would never set out to design a socio-technical system the way our systems actually are. Yet, these organic, messy systems actually work better than the neat, orderly systems that engineers dream of, because of how the messy system leverages human expertise.

It’s tempting to bemoan messiness, and to always try to reduce it. And, yes, messiness can be an indicator of problems in the system: for example, people using workarounds instead of how the system was intended to be used are an example of a kind of messiness that points to a shortcoming in our system.

But the human messiness we see under the ugly light of failure is the messiness that actually helps keep the system up and running when that light isn’t shining. If we want to get better at keeping our systems up and running, we need to understand what the mess looks like when things are actually working. We need to learn to embrace the mess. Because there’s beauty in that mess, the beauty of a system that keeps on running day after day.

How did software get so reliable without proof?

In 1996, the Turing-award-winning computer scientist C.A.R. Hoare wrote a paper with the title How Did Software Get So Reliable Without Proof? In this paper, Hoare grapples with the observation that software seems to be more reliable than computer science researchers expected was possible without the use of mathematical proofs for verification (emphasis added):

Twenty years ago it was reasonable to predict that the size and ambition of software products would be severely limited by the unreliability of their component programs … Dire warnings have been issued of the dangers of safety-critical software controlling health equipment, aircraft, weapons systems and industrial processes, including nuclear power stations … Fortunately, the problem of program correctness has turned out to be far less serious than predicted …

So the questions arise: why have twenty years of pessimistic predictions been falsified? Was it due to successful application of the results of the research which was motivated by the predictions? How could that be, when clearly little software has ever has been subjected to the rigours of formal proof?

Hoare offers five explanations for how software became more reliable: management, testing, debugging, programming methodology, and (my personal favorite) over-engineering.

Looking back on this paper, what strikes me is the absence of acknowledgment of the role that human operators play in the types of systems that Hoare writes about (health equipment, aircraft, weapons systems, industrial processes, nuclear power). In fact, the only time the word “operator” appears in the text is when it precedes the word “error” (emphasis added)

The ultimate and very necessary defence of a real time system against arbitrary hardware error or operator error is the organisation of a rapid procedure for restarting the entire system.

Ironically, the above line is the closest Hoare gets to recognizing the role that humans can play in keeping the system running.

The problem with the question “How did software get so reliable without proof?” is that it’s asking the wrong question. It’s not that software got so reliable without proof: it’s that systems that include software got so reliable without proof.

By focusing only on the software, Hoare missed the overall system. And whether you call them socio-technical systems, software-intensive systems, or joint cognitive systems, if you can’t see the larger system, you are doomed to not even be able to ask the right questions.

Rebrand: Surfing Complexity

You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

When I started this blog, my primary interests were around software engineering and software engineering research, and that’s what I mostly wrote about. Over time, I became more interested in complex systems that include software, sometimes referred to as socio-technical systems. That attracted me initially to chaos engineering, and, more recently, to learning from incidents and resilience engineering.

To reflect the more recent focus on complex systems, I decided to rebrand this blog Surfing Complexity. The term has two inspirations: the quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn at the top of this post, and the book title Surfing Uncertainty by Andy Clark. I also gave the blog a new domain name: surfingcomplexity.blog.

In my experience, software engineers recognize the challenge of complexity, but their primary strategy for addressing complexity is by trying to reduce it (and, when they don’t have the resources to do so, complaining about it). By contrast, the resilience engineering community recognizes that complexity is inevitable in the adaptive universe, and seek to understand what we can do to navigate complexity more effectively.

While I think that we should strive to reduce complexity where possible, I also believe that most strategies for increasing the robustness or safety in a system lead will ultimately lead to an increase in complexity. As an example, consider an anti-lock braking system in a modern car. It’s a safety feature, but it clearly increases the complexity of the automobile.

I really like Kabat-Zinn’s surfing metaphor, because it captures the idea that complexity is inevitable: getting rid of it isn’t an option. However, we can get better at dealing with it.

Rehabilitating “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”

There’s a management aphorism that goes “you can’t manage what you can’t measure”. It is … controversial. W. Edwards Deming, for example, famously derided it. But I think there are two ways to interpret this quote, and they have very different takeaways.

One way to read this is to treat the word measure as a synonym for quantify. When John Allspaw rails against aggregate metrics like mean time to resolve (MTTR), he is siding with Deming in criticizing the idea of relying solely on aggregate, quantitative metrics for gaining insight into your system.

But there’s another way to interpret this aphorism, and it depends on an alternate interpretation of the word measure. I think that observing any kind of signal is a type of measurement. For example, if you’re having a conversation with someone, and you notice something in their tone of voice or their facial expression, then you’re engaged in the process of measurement. It’s not quantitative, but it represents information you’ve collected that you didn’t have before.

By generalizing the concept of measurement, I would recast this aphorism as: what you aren’t aware of, you can’t take into account.

This may sound like a banal observation, but the subtext here is “… and there’s a lot you aren’t taking into account.” A lot of things that are happening in your organization, your system, are largely invisible. And those things, that work, is keeping things up and running.

The concept that there’s invisible work happening that’s creating your availability is at the heart of the learning from incidents in software movement. And it isn’t obvious, even though we all experience it directly.

This invisible work is valuable in the sense that it’s contributing to keeping your system healthy. But the fact that it’s invisible is dangerous because it can’t be taken into account when decisions are made that change the system. For example, I’ve seen technological changes that have made it more difficult for the incident management team to diagnose what’s happening in the system. The teams who introduced those changes were not aware of how the folks on the incident management team were doing diagnostic work.

In particular, one of the dangers of an action-item-oriented approach to incident reviews is that you may end up introducing a change to the system that disrupts this invisible work.

Take the time to learn about the work that’s happening that nobody else sees. Because if you don’t see it, you may end up breaking it.

An old lesson about a fish

Back when I was in college [1], I was required to take several English courses. I still remember an English professor handing out an excerpt from the book ABC of Reading by Ezra Pound [2]:

No man is equipped for modern thinking until he has understood the anecdote of Agassiz and the fish:

A post-graduate student equipped with honours and diplomas went to Agassiz to receive the final and finishing touches. The great man offered him a small fish and told him to describe it.

Post-Graduate Student: ‘That’s only a sunfish.’

Agassiz: ‘I know that. Write a description of it.’

After a few minutes the student returned with the description of the Ichthus Heliodiplodokus, or whatever term is used to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge, family of Heliichtherinkus, etc., as found in textbooks of the subject.

Agassiz again told the student to describe the fish.

The student produced a four-page essay. Agassiz then told him to look at the fish. At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it.

I remember my eighteen-year-old self hating this anecdote. It sounded like Agassiz just wasted the graduate student’s time, leaving him with nothing but a rotting fish for his troubles. As an eventual engineering major, I had no interest in the work of analyzing texts that was required in English courses. I thought such analysis was a waste of time.

It would take about two decades for the lesson of this anecdote to sink into my brain. The lesson I eventually took away from it is that there is real value in devoting significant effort to close study of an object. If you want to really understand something, a casual examination just won’t do.

To me, this is the primary message of the learning from incidents in software movement. Doing an incident investigation, like studying the fish, will take time. Completing an investigation may take weeks, even months. Keep in mind, though, that you aren’t really studying an incident at all: you’re studying your system through the lens of an incident. And, even though the organization will have long since moved on, once you’re done, you’ll know something about your system.

[1] Technically it was CEGEP, but nobody outside of Quebec knows what that is.

[2] Pound is likely retelling an anecdote originally told by either Nathaniel Shaler or Samuel Hubbard Scudder, both of whom were students of Agassiz.

Have you seen this before?

Whenever I interview someone after an incident, a question I try to always ask is “have you ever seen a failure mode like this before?

If the engineer says, “yes”, then I will ask follow-up questions about what happened the last time they encountered something similar, and how long ago that happened. Experienced engineers’ perceptions are shaped by…well…their experiences, and learning about how they encountered a similar issue previously helps me understand how they reacted this time (e.g., why they looked in a log file for a particular error message, or why the reached out to a specific individual over Slack).

If the engineer says “no”, that tells me that the engineer was facing a novel failure mode. This is also a useful bit of context, because I want to learn how expert engineers deal with situations they haven’t previously encountered. How do they try to make sense of these signals they don’t recognize? Where do they look to gather more information? Who do they reach out to?

This is the sort of information that people are happy to share with you, but you have to ask them for it, because they’re unlikely to share it spontaneously unless you ask the right questions, because they don’t realize how relevant it is to understanding the incident.

There is no escape from the adaptive universe

If I had to pick just one idea from the field of resilience engineering that has influenced me the most, it would be David Woods’s notion of the adaptive universe. In his 2018 paper titled The theory of graceful extensibility: basic rules that govern adaptive systems, Woods describes the two assumptions [1] of the adaptive universe:

  1. Resources are always finite.
  2. Change is ongoing.

That’s it! Just two simple assertions, but so much flows from them.

At first glance, the assumptions sound banal. Nobody believes in infinite resources! Nobody believes that things will stop changing! Yet, when we design our systems, it’s remarkable how often we don’t take these into account.

The future is always going to involve changes to our system that we could not foresee at design time, and those changes are always going to be made in a context where we are limited in resources (e.g., time, headcount) and hence will have to make tradeoffs. Instead, we tell ourselves a story about how next time, we’re going to build it right. But, we aren’t, because the next time we’ll also be resource constrained, and so we’ll have to make some decisions for reasons of expediency. And the next time, the system will also change in ways we could never have predicted, invalidating our design assumptions.

Because we are forever trapped in the adaptive universe.

[1] If you watch Woods’s online resilience engineering short course, which precedes this paper, he mentions a third property: surprise is fundamental. But I think this property is a consequence of the first two assumptions rather than requiring an additional assumption, and I suspect that’s why he doesn’t mention it as an assumption in his 2018 paper.

There is no escape from Ashby’s Law

[V]ariety can destroy variety

W. Ross Ashby

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet (1.5.167-8)

In his book An Introduction to Cybernetics, published in 1956, the English psychiatrist W. Ross Ashby proposed the Law of Requisite Variety. His original formulation isn’t easy to extract into a blog post, but the Principia Cybernetica website has a pretty good definition:

The larger the variety of actions available to a control system, the larger the variety of perturbations it is able to compensate.

Like many concepts in systems thinking, the Law of Requisite Variety is quite abstract, which makes it hard to get a handle on. Here’s a concrete example I find useful for thinking about it.

Imagine you’re trying to balance a broomstick on your hand:

This is an inherently unstable system, and so you have to keep moving your hand around to keep the broomstick balanced, but you can do it. You’re acting as a control system to keep the broomstick up.

If you constrain the broomstick to have only one degree of freedom, you have what’s called the inverted pendulum problem, which is a classic control systems problem. Here’s a diagram:

From the Wikipedia Inverted pendulum article

The goal is to move the cart in order to keep the pendulum balanced. If you have sensor information that measures the tilt angle, θ, you can use that data to build a control system to push on the cart in order to keep the pendulum from falling over. Information about the tilt angle is part of the model that the control system has about the physical system it’s trying to control.

Now, imagine that the pendulum isn’t constrained to only one degree of freedom, but it now has two degrees of freedom: this is the situation when you’re balancing a broom on your hand. There are now two tilt angles to worry about: it can fall towards/away from your body, or it can fall left/right.

You can’t use the original inverted pendulum control system to solve this problem, because that only models one of the tilt angles. Imagine you can only move your hand forward and back, but not left or right. Because of this, the control system won’t be able to correct for the other angle: the pendulum will fall over.

The problem is that the new system can vary in ways that the control system wasn’t designed to handle: it can get into states that aren’t modeled by the original system.

This is what the Law of Requisite Variety is about: if you want to build a control system, the control system needs to be able to model every possible state that the system being controlled can get into: the state space of the control system has to be at least as large as the state space of the physical system. If it isn’t, then the physical system can get into states that the control system won’t be able to deal with.

Bringing this into the software world: when we build infrastructure software, we’re invariably building control systems. These control systems can only handle situations that it is designed for. We invariably run into trouble when the systems we build get into states that the designer never imagined happening. A fun example of this case is some pathological traffic pattern.

The fundamental problem with building software control systems is that we humans aren’t capable of imagining all possible states that the systems being controlled can get into. In particular, we can’t imagine the changes that people are going to make in the future that will create new states that we simply could not ever imagine needing to handle. And so, our control systems will invariably be inadequate, because they won’t be able to handle these situations. The variety of the world exceeds the variety our control systems are designed to handle.

Fortunately, we humans are capable of conceiving of a much wider variety of system states than the systems we build. That’s why, when our software-based control systems fail and the humans get paged in, the humans are eventually able to make sense of what state the system has gotten itself into and put things right.

Even we humans are not exempt from Ashby’s Law. But we can revise of our (mental) models of the system in ways that our software-based control systems cannot, and that’s why we can deal effectively with incidents. Because of how we can update our models, we can adapt where software cannot.

The downsides of expertise

I’m a strong advocate of the value of expertise to a software organization. I’d even go so far as to say that expertise is a panacea.

Despite the value of expertise, there are two significant obstacles to organizations to leverage expertise as effectively as possible.

Expertise is expensive to acquire

Developing expertise is expensive for an organization to acquire. Becoming an expert requires experience, which takes time and effort. An organization can hire for some forms of expertise, but no organization can hire someone who is already an expert in the org’s socio-technical system. And a lot of the value for an organization is having expertise in the behaviors of the local system.

You can transfer expertise from one person to another, but that also takes time and effort, and you need to put mechanisms in place to support this. Apprenticeship and coaching are two traditional methods of expertise transfer, but also aren’t typically present in software organizations. I’m an advocate of learning from incidents as a medium for skill transfer, but that requires its own expertise for doing incident investigation in a way that supports skill transfer.

Alas, you can’t transfer expertise from a person to a tool, as John Allspaw notes, so we can’t take a shortcut by acquiring sophisticated tooling. AI researchers tried building such expert systems in the 1980s, but these efforts failed.

Concentrated expertise is dangerous

Organizations tend to foster local experts: a small number of individuals who have a lot of expertise with aspects of the local system. These people are enormously valuable to organizations (they’re often very helpful during incidents), but they represent single points of failure. If these individuals happen to be out of the office during a critical incident, or if they leave the company, it can be very costly to the organization. My former colleague Nora Jones calls this the islands of knowledge problem.

What’s worse, high concentration of expertise can become a positive feedback loop. If there’s a local expert, then other individuals may use the expert as a crutch, relying on the expert to solve the harder problems and never putting in the effort to develop their own expertise.

To avoid this problem, we need to develop the expertise in more people within the organization, which, is as mentioned earlier, is expensive.

I continue to believe that it’s worth it.

Getting into people’s heads: how and why to fake it

With apologies to David Parnas and Paul Clements.

To truly understand how an incident unfolded, you need to experience the incident from the perspectives of the people who were directly involved in it: to see what they saw, think what they thought, and feel what they felt. Only then can you understand how they came to their conclusions and made their decisions.

The problem is that we can’t ever do that. We simply don’t have direct access to the minds of the people who were involved. We can try to get at some of this information: we can interview them as soon as possible after the incident and ask the kinds of questions that are most likely to elicit information about what they remember seeing, thinking, or feeling. But this account will always be inadequate: memories are fallible, interviewing time is finite, and we’ll never end up asking all of the right questions, anyways.

Even though we can’t really capture the first-hand experiences of the people involved in the incident, I still think it’s a good idea to write the narrative as if we are able to do so. When I’m writing the narrative description, I try to write each section from the perspective of one person that was directly involved, describing things from that person’s point of view, rather than taking an omniscient third-person perspective.

The information in these first-hand accounts is based on my interviews with the people involved, and they review them for accuracy, so it isn’t a complete fiction, but neither is it ever really the truth of what happened in the moment, because that information is forever inaccessible.

Instead, the value of this sort of first-hand narrative account is to force the reader to experience the incident from the perspectives of individuals involved. The only way to make sense of an incident is to try to understand the world as seen from the local perspectives of the individuals involved. Writing it up this way encourages the reader to see things this way. It’s a small lie that serves a greater truth.