Magna Carta, and Other Key Documents

The four remaining copies of Magna Carta, the foundational document of British democracy (or so we are usually led to believe) are being brought together for the first time, and will go on display at the British Library in February next year. It doesn’t matter what the document actually says, only what everyone believes it to say. It exists, and exerts a sort of mythical, gravitational pull on everything else.

Years ago when I worked (with comical ineptitude but considerable pleasure) in software engineering, I instinctively lighted on one of the pillars of project management, by assembling and circulating a brief document stating under a few heads and in a few bullet points the goals of a particular iteration of software we were working on.

I say instinctively, because I had no project management training, just a sense that we all needed to know what it was we were trying to achieve, in terms as clear and unambiguous (and, for my sake, non-technical) as possible.

And it turns out that the promulgation of key documents is in fact a central requirement of software engineering projects. I later read the Mythical Man Month, an ancient classic of software engineering management technique (!), and now remember only two things from it: that, counter-intuitively, the addition of more manpower will not shorten, but rather lengthen, the distance to completion of a project; and that you should summarise the goals of the project in one or two key documents (I later added a slim coding practice document to the aims document).

Well, a few years later not only the project but the company folded without much fanfare, so I suppose my discovery of the principle was not as effective as all that. It may be that King John’s barons – or, indeed, the rest of the English throughout history – made a similar discovery. However, being able to refer yourself to a sort of gravitational centre is, if nothing else, psychologically stabilising.

If you wish to be psychologically stabilised by viewing the assembled Magna Cartas, you will have to enter a ballot. Only 1215 individuals will be allowed in.


Eff the grammar

Here is a short lesson in anti-fluency from a young (and slightly wobbly) Steve Jobs.

Twice in the last week or so I’ve found myself talking about the Mythical Man Month by Fred Brooks, which Jobs is quoting here – a classic of software engineering management, one of whose central arguments is that increasing the number of engineers working on a project which is running overdue will paradoxically slow that project down.

The idea is that more workers represent more nodes in the network of communication between workers, hence more time lost in every step taken. One engineer working for a month does not equate to twenty engineers working for a day. This does not mean that one worker will always be more productive than two or more workers – it will depend on the project, on how well it responds to discrete segmentation, there will be local maximums, and so on – but in general the relationship of workers to productivity will not be linear.

I would argue that something similar could be said about the teaching, and more specifically the learning, of grammar and vocabulary. I had a student, many years ago, who had an almost universal store of vocabulary items. He could name a skunk, a halibut, and a diatom. But he could barely pronounce any of them, nor could he string an elementary sentence of English together. At around the same time, I had a student who on one occasion held thirty native and non-native English speakers spellbound, telling a story which, if I recall, entailed him losing his trousers, with a total lexicon of roughly 100 words, not including the word trousers.

Quantity is not everything. Nor is more grammar. It rarely matters that you cannot use the future perfect continuous. Or any other tense or structure for that matter. There is always more than one way to skin a cat. Naturally, a little bit of precision can save time, forestall ambiguity; but an apt circumlocution is sometimes even more impressive, and perhaps more efficient.

The most despondent and least fluent students are often those, I find, who have flogged themselves most zealously with grammar. Paradoxically, wanting to get it right is not always all that helpful.

In both cases where I mentioned to students the Mythical Man Month, I also had to teach the term counter-intuitive. Sometimes, if a certain approach has not yielded the desired results, what is needed is not the same approach done harder, but a little experimentation with whatever seems to go against the grain. Try forgetting things. Try getting things wrong. What’s the worst that can happen?

Like software engineering, it’s all about managing complexity. Or, as one of my colleagues once memorably told a student, eff the grammar and be yourself.