What’s Changed?

About 18 months ago, I noticed that my vertigo symptoms were changing. I brought a list of my symptoms and when things had started to change. I wrote about this and my choices in Making Difficult Choices.

If you are trying to solve a nasty problem in your code, tests or your projects, it’s the same idea. When was the last time something changed? You have an advantage over me. I bet you have version control over your sources, both code and tests. You even have a form of version control over your projects, and it’s not a Gantt chart. It’s your retrospectives, assuming you do them with regularity. If you perform retrospectives on a regular basis, you have an idea of what’s changed.

It’s a little more difficult to do version control or retrospectives on a human body. “You have the April 15 version of your gut, and the April 16 version of your eyes.” I don’t think so! If I ever manage to be the bionic woman, maybe.

If we train ourselves to observe, we can notice what has changed, and when. You might find this more difficult to do than it sounds.

In organizations, on projects, we can even purposefully try experiments, record the results, retrospect on them, and see if those experiments succeed. I like experiments. I experiment a lot in my work, for me. I suggest experiments to my clients. In my most recent book, Manage Your Job Search, I tried a different experiment with the way I brought it print. I’m very happy with my experiment.

When you try experiments and note what’s changed, you can start to solve problems in an adaptive and purposeful way. You can see what has succeeded, what you might need more data about, and what has failed.

Now the middle case, what you might need more data about, is the really interesting case. You probably need to break the problem into many smaller problems to solve. For my health, I track all kinds of data, when I work out, what I ate, my weight, when and how much I slept, and a lot more, because vertigo is such a strange condition. For debugging code, tests, your projects, who knows what you have to track? (I talk about this on Managing Product Development and in my books.)

Here’s a real example, a blast from my long-ago past. Many years ago, I tried to track down a problem in microcode. You might think this would be easy. It’s microcode, like assembly language. I had written it. I was intimately familiar with it. But no, I was stuck. In my defense, I was programming in parallel, multiple commands on one line in the microcode.

Did I ask for help? No, that would have made sense. (I was quite young, in my mid-20’s. Please excuse me for being foolish.)

Did I ask for code review? No, that would have made excellent sense. I knew everyone else was really busy. (I look back at those days and shake my head.)

Did I write more tests? Yes. I also made a chart in my engineering notebook about all the possible cases and what I tried. And, then, because this was before version control systems, I made a list of everything I tried, and everything I changed, as I changed it.

I only changed one thing at a time.

After several hours of debugging on my own, I managed to find the problem. I fixed it. Everything worked.

As I reflected on what caused the problem, I realized that I had made a small change before I left—late—the night before. Because I was still tired, I didn’t see the problem when I arrived at work that day.

It took me several more years to realize that overtime was bad for me. That mistake was not the only mistake I made due to overtime. I had a mental “ooooh” at the time. I think Jerry Weinberg calls this “ooooh” the “programmer’s theme song.” You don’t have to be a programmer to sing it. It’s also known now as a “face-palm.”

The first step is to notice that something has changed. If you then start to collect data, you can say, “What’s changed?” Now you have a place to start with your problem solving.

First, you have to notice.

So, what’s changed?

11 thoughts on “What’s Changed?”

  1. Rebecca Wirfs-Brock

    I just read an intriguing article in the New Yorker by a person who has Parkinson’s Disease. It is about mental changes of a person who has Parkinson’s Disease (he has had it for over 20 years). He’s a highly intelligent author and writer….but his question (which he somewhat answered in this very personal article) was this: If we have a change/shift in cognition, will we be aware enough to be able to track what changing? Observing how our brain works (or changes how it works) is hard to self-diagnose, even if you keep good notes on things.

    I bring this up because I, too, believe that tracking what we do/ how we do it/what we “think” may have changed/etc is generally a good thing. We can use this data to analyze and see things. If we are tracking the right things. But sometimes an external (I won’t say more objective) observer can see things that we can’t. Especially when we are trying to figure out our thoughts/cognition/ways we learn/how we react when tired/our attention span, etc.

    That was the case with the man with Parkinson’s. Although he thought he was still pretty sharp (and knew he wasn’t so sharp when he was fatigued), he took a five hour neurological set of tests and compared it with tests he had taken 8 years earlier. He had some decline in cognition skills.. and found he was terrible at some cognitive skills (like impulse control).

    So sometimes if we want to figure out what’s changed, an external perspective (not just your own data) can be helpful. But still, you need to take responsibility to interpret others’ observations. That was something I found equally fascinating about that article (but it is too long to go into here…most with Parkinson’s answer certain questions differently than the majority of non-Parkinson’s…and I agreed with the author that his answer was arguably more “correct” although it wasn’t want the “norm” was).

    For what it’s worth.

    Johanna, your blog entries give me lots to think about.


    1. Rebecca,

      I looked on the site, and found this article: Mine is Longer Than Yours by Michael Kinsley, about life expectancy. Then I discovered, Have You Lost Your Mind?. Because that one is new, it requires a subscription. Wow, that man can write.

      That article opened my eyes. Maybe I should go for tests, too. I’m pretty good at knowing my physical limitations, and asking for help, recognizing when I’m slurring my words because I’m thirsty, etc. But I wonder if the vertigo has affected my cognition? My brain spends so much mental power keeping me upright. I wonder if that has changed how I process information? It’s not supposed to. But nothing about me is a “normal” vertigo case.

      Thanks, Rebecca. You prompted me to think about what I could be doing differently, too.

    1. Yves, after the drops, my vertigo has calmed considerably. I still notice these changes: when I ride in a car a lot, especially after doing errands, my speech is slurred. It can take me days to recover. I suspect that is an after-effect of my ear not being stable. I can rest and drink all the water I want, the effect is still there. I don’t get this slurring from a plane unless there is turbulence. It’s all about the bumping. Bumping for me is bad.

      I have noticed other things this year. I have been practicing writing fast. I have bumped up my writing speed to 1500 words per hour, when I know what I want to write.

      Is that what you mean?

  2. hi Johanna,

    yes and no.
    You are writing now the effects more in detail.
    What you don’t describe (probably because you don’t know)
    is what has change to cause this to happen.
    Is this because of the drops or something else. have you written down what else has changed in your life that might cause this?


    1. Yves, my docs and I have no idea what causes my vertigo to act like this. “It’s not supposed to be like this. You are a medical mystery.” I have tracked my workouts, my weight, my food, my water, my mood, all the usual suspects. Nothing appears to correlate with my vertigo except for bumping and the meterological mercury. I’m better in a storm, but still not good. I’m much worse bumping in a car. After the drops, I recover faster.

      Unfortunately, we do not have the imaging equipment to see inside the inner ear. We won’t until we autopsy me, and I’m not ready for that. I will remain a medical mystery.

      I don’t know what happens we die. I have this fantasy of my soul hanging around long enough to solve the mystery and then flying off to do the next thing.

  3. Hi Johanna,

    I thought about your post and why you may have written it. Originally I thought you were suggesting relating past changes in a person’s body to present symptoms. But in the next paragraph I realized that wasn’t your objective at all.

    I was about to go to the next email when I read Rebecca Wirfs-Brock’s mention of Michael Kinsley’s New Yorker article on longevity. Fascinating article. Thank you both for mentioning it.

    Reading Kinsley’s article reminded me that I am not aware of changes brought on by age until they happen. Recently I’ve started thinking of my vertigo/dizziness as being related to my aging ear structures rather than something fixable … if I could just find the fix. Thinking of it as related to aging lets me accept my otherwise-unexplainable vertigo and dizziness symptoms.

    Perhaps we hew too closely to the idea that we can make, change or fix nearly everything, whether mechanical or living. Death becomes a medical accident … something that was caused by incorrect medicine.

    I now experience more problems traceable to things I never would have done at a younger age. Dang! Old age must really be setting in.



    1. Don, well, some things are fixable and some things aren’t. My vertigo isn’t fixable. I can manage it. Old age isn’t fixable. We manage it. I don’t think you’re old, btw. I’m not old yet, either.

      What we often don’t see is that we rarely have linear root causes. In my example for my code, I found the code problem. But that wasn’t the real problem. The real problem was that I was tired from too many late nights. Anybody can handle some late nights and do a good job the next day. The question is: how many? All of us have our limits. I have fewer late night-limits than other people. I like a regular schedule. I always have. I tend towards “lark-ness” rather than “night-owl-ness.” That is, I am more of a morning person rather than a night person.

      The problem is tracing the cause of the problem. The first step is noticing what has changed.

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