About Interruptions

I saw the five-minute meeting with developer thing again. Not offering it here cuz I don’t much want to give it the publicity. The gist: when you interrupt a developer the time-loss is far greater than the duration of the interruption.

There are three cases being made. First, that developers are a special class of people in this. Second, that the value gained by the interruption weighs less than that lost by it. Third, that cost-of-interruption for developers is an inherent fact of the universe. I just want to point out that interruptions cost some developers a great deal of time primarily because they have made choices that will have exactly that effect.

Imagine your job is looking at the pages in a very large book with no page numbers. Imagine, hundred of pages through your day, some inferior-worker-type interrupts you. Imagine you close the book. Imagine the cost of getting back to where you were.

Damn. If only the book wasn’t so thick. If only it had meaningful text. If only you had little notes. If only there were bookmarks. If only no one had to know things only you know.

If only, finally, those sub-human clowns wouldn’t come to ask you their dumb questions.

The folks who love that meme are folks whose work seems to require them to set up vast mental constructs, with dozens or even hundreds of entities in play. The point of my response: it only requires that because we built it that way and continue to change it that way and define our job that way.

I talk a lot about the Made, the Making, and the Makers, about the triple-balance of focus that orgs need to pay to each element in the software development tripod.

An overemphasis on the Made produces exactly the systems these folks are talking about, systems that can’t be approached by any other means than vast mental constructs with dozens of entities.

Were we to attend even a little to the Makers, we’d notice that they don’t actually do the job this way very well. If we were sensitive, we’d also notice that most of them aren’t happy about it. Continuing to attend to them, we’d notice these Makers are — time after time, it’s a huge trend — overwhelmingly humans in bodies. We’d begin to wonder if they had actual limits we need to respect, and actual strengths we’re not taking advantage of.

Were we to attend to the Making, we’d notice that there are ways to make software that focus on manipulating modest, even small, mental constructs, with just a handful of entities. We’d discover techniques that let us, in effect, drive pitons into the mountain as we climb, making any fall, from an interruption let’s say, not fall all the way back to the ground. We might even notice that groups of people suffer far less from interruption-cost than individuals. We might adopt techniques that let us work as groups.


I always worry, with that M+M+M stuff I put out, whether the idea has any value at all. Then I see stuff like the five-minute interruption meme, and I feel like my intellectual case for M+M+M is actually pretty good.

(Disagreeing with the first two elements of that case, "specialness of developers" and "value-balance assumed negative", is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Want new posts straight to your inbox once-a-week?
Scroll to Top