Shared neurons and the Shadok’s First Law of Failure

This blog post of mine was originally published by Computerworld UK in 2010.

French-speaking fortysomethings might remember the Shadoks, a two-minute TV comics show that aired on ORTF when I was a kid.

Those silly (and funny) creatures need to get to Earth as their own planet, on the left of the sky, is falling into pieces. They spend their time pumping on bicycle-like contraptions to produce Cosmogol 999 fuel to power their rocket towards Earth, while respected Professor Shadoko keeps them motivated with his motto: “the more you fail, the more likely your are to eventually succeed”. So they keep failing, every single time, hoping that statistics will prove them right some day.

A researcher colleague recently asked me to demonstrate that the work done by Apache communities is more than the sum of the individual capabilities of its members. I think the answer is yes, and that how we cope with failure has a lot to do with it.

Demonstrating this with hard numbers would be difficult, but having been active in Apache projects for the last ten years I can think of a number of examples where what we sometimes call “shared neurons” make all the difference.

It usually starts with a random thought – an often half-baked idea, that might be totally unrealistic or impossible to implement, but is nevertheless exposed to the community as is, and often starts a fruitful discussion. People bounce off each other’s ideas, in a written brainstorm that’s slower than if you were talking face to face, but sometimes more efficient as people have more time to think about their contributions to the discussion.

Brainstorming in the same room is faster, but brainstorming with a worldwide group of specialists – that’s much more powerful than Cosmogol 999, even if it has to happen in writing. But sometimes that turns into a Shadok fuel-producing exercise that fails to produce useful results.

Some Apache (and other) projects use those random thoughts as a first-class design and architecture tool, marking such email discussions with [RT] in their subject lines. This serves as a warning that the discussion is not necessarily about something feasible, it’s more about putting people’s neurons together to shape and refine potentially useful ideas. And sometimes those ideas are just too silly or unrealistic to go anywhere – yet the corresponding discussions stay archived forever on our mailing lists.

Some people are afraid of exposing their unfinished ideas to their communities so early, and having them archived for posterity whatever the outcome. Your idea might turn out to be a stupid one once people nicely demonstrate why it won’t work, or someone might point you to that part of code that does exactly what you were dreaming about, and that you had forgotten about. Silly you.

In my opinion, being ready to accept such failures makes you a much more efficient contributor to open communities. Although you don’t need to fail as consistently as the Shadoks, being ready to fall on your face once in a while allows you to contribute your wildest ideas to the discussion. Combined with respect for other’s crazy ideas, and with the ability to explain nicely when people are wrong, we have a recipe for efficient sharing of neurons, where the sum is definitely greater than its parts.

I’m seeing this neuron sharing in action on our Apache mailing lists all the time, and I think accepting the risk of being wrong when exposing one’s ideas on our public lists makes a big difference. We’re not Shadoks after all – our failure stats are way too low.

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