Falling on the Floor, Getting Back Up

Or, Gravity is a force of nature, and a metaphor for software development.


So I was giving my talk at Madison Ruby: Epilogue, or “this really is the last one, we mean it everybody”. Watch the whole talk, about doing HR in small consulting shops. About five minutes in I was making a very incisive point about annual reviews when:

Gravity is very effective

And suddenly, nobody remembers my incisive point about annual reviews. (Which was, for the record, that editing them for a year is kind of soul-destroying, even if everybody involved is basically nice and good at their jobs.)

The laptop is fine, by the way.

I’m going to be silly about this for a little bit, but I’m then going to make a serious point about software and tools.

You can’t hear it in the gif, but there’s a really impressive gasp when the laptop falls. But then I picked the laptop up, put it back on the podium, it continued to work, I made a dumb joke, the audience applauded, and that was basically that. (Except, you can see me nervously checking the laptop for the rest of the talk).

Apparently you can’t beat having your laptop demonstrate the law of gravity as a way of getting the audience on your side. Not that I’m in a hurry to demonstrate it again.

Here’s a nerdy speaker point: you might want to think about having a backup plan. I actually could have done better than I did. The talk was written using Deckset, which allows you to create a presentation using Markdown, and which I totally recommend. (Anything that can be written in Markdown, I write in Markdown).

The Markdown file was in Dropbox, so had the laptop died, I would have grabbed my phone or iPad and used the Markdown file as notes. The audience wouldn’t have been able to see my slides, but my slides weren’t super fancy anyway, and I would have made it through. (With some audience goodwill, the audience tends to really want somebody to succeed in a case like this.)

Had I thought about it a little more, I would have pre-generated a PDF of the slides, then I could have sent them to somebody else and used another laptop to display. I very much recommend you do this before you give a talk, on the off chance that gravity works in that environment.

What I really want to say about this incident, which I am clearly milking because the gif tickles me so much, is this…

I was showing the video of this talk to my wife, who is one of the smartest people I’ve ever met at seeing entire systems and catching details. She watched the laptop fall, she was suitably appalled. (If it’s not clear from the gif, but the way, I didn’t knock the laptop down, it slid of its own accord.) She watched me put the laptop back on the podium.

“Why did you put it back?” she said.

“What?” I said.

“Your laptop slid off the podium, why did you put it back? Didn’t you think it’d just slide off again?”

I mumbled something about cables and sightlines, but she was completely right. I could have just left the laptop on the floor, all the cables would have connected, I could have seen it, and I could have continued normally without being paranoid about it falling again.

The fact is I never even considered it. None of the other speakers that day changed their behavior either. Nobody else’s laptop did a swan dive, so perhaps we were all being rational.

I think, though, that the reason I didn’t even consider the idea of keeping the laptop on the floor is because I was so attached to the image of having the laptop on the podium that I couldn’t even conceive of a different way until it was pointed out to me.

There’s a lesson there. We all do things in our development life that we keep doing even after we learn that they are dangerous. Often because we can’t even see that we are repeating an avoidable pattern, because we see a constraint — like having to keep a laptop on a podium — that isn’t really there.

Look around. Are there any laptops about to fall again? Any things in your project that you’ve put back in a precarious place after they’ve fallen because you’re pretty sure it won’t happen again? Is there some way to make that fall less likely?

Don’t let the next CRASH/Gasp happen to your project…

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