Weeknotes S04E05:Infinities of different sizes

Do you know about Hilbert’s infinite hotel?

It’s a curious place. The room numbers start at 1, and they go on forever. There are an infinite number of rooms and tonight, they’re all full. Every single one.
A guest appears out of the darkness and asks the desk clerk if there is room. The clerk, of course, says yes. The night is dark, the guest is cold, and cold hard cash is, at the end of the day, cold hard cash. But where to put them?
It can’t be in room ‘infinity’, because that’s an absurd proposal. There’s no such number. Room 1 exists, but that room has an occupant. As does room 2. And so on, and so on.
The desk clerk considers this problem and comes to a conclusion. All that needs to be done is that everyone move up a room. The occupants of room 1 will go to room 2; room 2 to room 3, and so on. There are infinite rooms, after all. Everyone can just go to the room whose number is one greater than their current abode.

Simple enough. But before very long word gets out and a bus of infinite length turns up at the hotel. An infinite number of holiday-goers are eagerly banging on the door of the hotel. What is to be done? The clerk will surely be fired if he turns down this infinite number of people, because even at the hotel’s cut price rates an infinite number of people will generate an infinite amount of revenue!
He considers and at last finds the solution: everyone in the hotel must move to the room number that is double their current. That is, room 1 will move to room 2, room 2 to room 4, and so on. The poor soul in room 1,000,000 will have an awfully long slog ahead of them, but luckily that’s what bellhops are for.
Since all the odd numbers are now available – the double of any number being even – and there are an infinite number of odd numbers, the infinitely long bus of holiday-goers can happily settle in for the night.

All infinities are infinite, but some of them seem to be somehow bigger than others. This is the feeling I’ve been having all week.

We only had four days this week, but I’ve packed in a fair amount. On Tuesday I finished up a paper that I need to circulate around people a grade above me. More and more I realise that in my organisation that gap is a big one: private sector organisations might have two or three promotions to our one. I’ve been focussing on getting views from my community through written documents, and early feedback has been okay. I think I need to iterate it through offering workshops as well as written material, and this comes back to what feels like a core competency of leadership: pushing beyond what’s comfortable to support the team and being resilient enough to try.

On Wednesday I had half a day of line management training, where I am becoming thoroughly disheartened by the use of the phrase “discretionary effort”. I do not believe any phrase so clearly summarises the mindset of people who view humans as resources than this phrase. It is the language of machines. I hate it.

I would also like to be a good manager. I would like to encourage people in my team to do their absolute best while they work for me; to do more than the minimum; to be supported and encouraged to give their all for 37 hours per week. This is a great big hairy culture problem, and I am interested in how I – we, as senior-ish people in our organisations – can encourage that mindset. Basically: how can we minimise discretionary effort, which is the difference between the minimum required and what could be done, by raising the standard until everyone is just great and we can stop trying to get people to express just a little more blood? Or is that effort infinite, increasing all the time with force multipliers like advanced computing and conversational programming.

It’s a knotty problem. Who else is thinking about it?

In the afternoon I wrote a business case that sells myself. I’m looking for something that’ll boost my security/budgeting/project management skills in about October. So if you’re an organisation[mfn]private or public[/mfn] looking for someone who’s shaped like me – a sort of generalist specialist technologist – and might be interested in hosting me for 12 months or so, please do tap me on the shoulder. Or slide into my DMs.

These are sadly not my DMs, but we can all agree they’re really excellent

Thursday was my day with another part of the Cabinet Office. I had an incredibly enjoyable day as I got back to writing code. I had a meeting early in the morning, scoped out what I was going to do that day, and then did it. It’s hard to explain to people who don’t have that experience habitually, but it’s electrifying. It was a well defined problem that I wrote a whole bunch of code for, and yet I confidently believe I could have spent a week on it. The specialism of software engineering is infinite and also perpetually expanding[mfn]fuelled almost entirely by new javascript frameworks[/mfn]. I wrote code to build and manage a database and some rudimentary tests, but I have so barely scratched the surface of what’s possible in this space. Already, I’m thinking about the future design; about a public API; about the code I could be writing now that would fortify the project and reduce risk. There is so much more to learn. Every specialism is infinite and our days are so very short.

Luckily I went to #SamAndDanCon in the evening to prevent this maudlin mood and moon meditation. It was a joy to see public sector heroes getting together to share and be together and it completely uplifted me.

I fear it also gave me the flu, as I can feel a tickle in my throat and the unhappy, unfamiliar aching in my joints that indicate something gross happening inside of me. Still, I had a good chat with my mentor and we talked about this secondment/loan/metaphorical running away I was doing. It gave me a lot to think about which, judging by the state of my tonsils, I shall have considerable time to spend doing.

Finally: off the back of my last weeknote Darren wrote a lovely thing about being yourself at work. If you’ve not read it yet you absolutely ought to, because it’s really excellent. It also shows that I have magic powers, because I said to him:

You consistently model masculinity in an emotionally mature way and encourage me and others to do the same. That’s a big deal and I appreciate it

– me, obviously

and then he went and proved it.

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