Wednesday, May 2, 2012

What Do You Expect?

The U.S. Navy Seabees are the construction battalion (CB) of the United States Navy. During World War II, CB morphed into Seabee. The Seabees built thousands of barracks, buildings, bases, runways roadways and just about anything else that needed building, often under challenging conditions with limited resources. Although their official motto is Construimus, Batuimus (We Build, We Fight), their unofficial motto is: The difficult task we accomplish right away, the impossible may take a little longer!

The other day I spoke with my son Luke who'd call to chat as he drove home from work. Luke recently began a new job developing database software. One of the most challenging aspects of his job is estimating the time required to perform a specific assignment. Some things that seem challenging at first end up being quite easy. Some things that seem quite easy, end up being a bit more challenging than expected.

I told him that this was par for the course. You can't foresee all the potential pitfalls in a plan at its onset, specially if you're attempting to do something that's never been done or at least something that you've never done. If your project requires a team, then planning is even more difficult. You have to take into account  resource availability, communications overhead, and each individual's skill and capacity. Most importantly you have to consider each individual's attitude. What does she expect from herself and her team.

Over the years, many research studies have been conducted on the improving the productivity of software engineers. Researchers have compared the efficacy of programming methods, software development tools and environments, and programming languages. Despite millions of dollars and decades of research, the debate over the best methods, tools and environments continues with near religious ferver.

In fact, only one factor has shown itself to consistently influence the outcome: exceptional (3-sigma) programmers are about ten-times more productive than great (2-sigma) programmers. It doesn't matter which tools you give them; it doesn't matter in which language they code; the best programmers will always significantly outperform the great ones.

One could attribute this difference to any number of factors: experience, education, talent, skill. However, I think it may come down to just one: expectation. Every exceptional programmer I've ever worked with has had ingrained into her psyche the unofficial motto of the Seabees: The difficult task I accomplish right away, the impossible may take a little longer!

Or as my friend Jonathan would have said: How hard could it be?

What's all this got to do with playing bass guitar, you ask? (I know, you didn't ask, but that's how I got onto this train of thought.)

Friday morning as I sit in my office playing my bass guitar (see For the Joy of It) I notice that my expectations for my playing are low. Sure, I enjoy playing. I play well enough to perform and record pop, rock and simple jazz tunes. However, I don't expect myself to become a great bassist.

Why not?

I prepare to embark on a deep exploration of the question, when the answer pops into my head: Indeed, why not? How hard could it be?

So, right then and there I decide to become a great bassist.  I get onto youtube, skip past all the basic and introductory stuff, and jump right into advanced grooves and solos. The impossible may take a bit longer, but hey, it's amazing how much difference expectations make.

Happy Wednesday,

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