Signal and Noise

One of the biggest challenges that I face at work is the signal-to-noise ratio of the communications that I have to monitor. Let me explain.

As an API document writer, I need to know about the conversations our engineers have with each other and with the product managers that deal with our APIs. But not all the conversations. Not most. There is a lot of communication among them in our work tracking system, emails, instant messaging, meetings, and gossip, that is pretty meaningless to me. I may understand it, but it doesn't matter to me and my work. But in all that noise, some is meaningful to my goals. They might not be telling me directly, but like an astronomical observatory, I nonetheless observe it and, to me, it is a valuable signal about something that I need to know.

I also pinch hit with our user- and admin-facing docs and that adds noise that must be listened to and considered. Noise? Or signal? And I work with customer support and, to a large extent, my team tries to evolve our documents in response to live customer needs. So we have to keep an ear on the railroad tracks of customer support. But this adds noise along with signals.

The problem is necessary because nobody can know and think of everything all the time. Many times, before an engineer modifies a REST API, she will think, "Hey, I bet Haber would want to know this," or, "This may affect customer developers. I should probably tell someone." But between that thought and the corresponding action, a thousand distractions may arise. Like I must read emails, attend meetings, field questions, admit distractions, stay on top of internal forums and corporate instant messaging, so must they.

The problem isn't trivial and its source isn't only internal. As a product owner for our developer outreach, I need to monitor our name brand in developer communities as well as the general trends among our competitors. You may have noticed that there are a few websites, that many websites cater to software developers, and that few of those websites or developers feel particularly obligated to find me whenever they have a comment about my company or our product. Inconsiderate, I know, but there it is. You may also have noticed that there is a lot of crap on the Internet.

Signal to noise ratio.

So how do I sift through all that dross to find the bits of gold?

Well, again my constant disclaimer: I am not an expert. The ideas below help me. Maybe they help you. I'd love to hear your ideas.

  • First principle: If a bit of info is a signal, it's rarely unique. More similar signals will follow. They'll get stronger and more intense with the urgency of the topic. Like a homing torpedo coming in to smash me, its sonar pings will get more frequent as it gets closer. Good. That means that if I miss a stray signal, it was probably weak and remote anyway. That takes some pressure off.

  • Second principle: If a bit of info comes from my boss or my teammate, it is usually signal rather than noise. They're good like that. I use that knowledge, and similar knowledge about other people, as a first-glance guide to what I should or should not tune out. These people have a direct line to me, so to speak.

  • I observe valuable places most. What's valuable? The communication tools are most valuable where I get tend to get the most reliable and useful signals. Some tools help you do this selective attention. For instance:
  • Zoom in: Slack, the popular IM software for companies, allows users to get notified when keywords get used. That way, I can ignore the engineering channel except when they mention API or documentation or some other word often connected to the things that I care about. This helps me to usually ignore my company's #random channel, #pets channel, #bicycling channel, and all the other lovely places online where we get to know each other during the workday but that rarely help me get my job done.
  • Filter: Gmail and Google Apps mail allow you to create filters based on criteria in the subject line, from senders, or body content. I make most things go into my ordinary mail, but things emails from my boss or C-level execs, emails that are sent only to me, and emails from customers all go into priority mail.
  • I browse. I check real quick to see what's important. If it's not, then I drop it quickly. It goes away. If it is important, then I respond quickly or else make a note to respond later. To keep from stressing, I keep all these notes in one place. A really great time to scan is in those empty few minutes. When I'm compiling code or waiting for a download, when I'm able to focus on other things for a minute or two only, that can be a great time to quickly check emails or instant messages during the day. Quickly.
  • I constrain time. Bearing in mind our first principle that the important things make themselves known, I don't monitor all the things all the time.
  • I remove myself. When things get very busy because, say, I'm under pressure for an important deadline, everything but the deadline turns to noise. So I disconnect. Emails can wait. Messages can wait. I even leave the office and work from home or a cafe to prevent walk-in visitors. Not everyone has that flexibility, I am glad that I do. At these times, my boss knows my issue and he is the only one who can find me. Anyone else has to get through him. Hopefully, you have that kind of boss, too.

So my routine is:

  • I check email and messages for 30-60 minutes at the start of the workday. Most of my messages from outside my office come from east of my location. That means they arrive early rather than late in my workday. This includes work tickets that I am subscribed to and actively monitoring.
  • After lunch, I check emails again briefly. After lunch, I also look over a list of work tickets that include my keywords. This way I can see if there are any that I should start tracking actively.
  • I always consider direct messages important enough to at least scan soon. Soon might mean "right now," or it might mean "when I wrap up this thought." My office tends to use instant messaging more than emails. Often when I get emailed, if it's urgent, the sender also messages me or walks over to my desk. You might not have the same environment.
  • Before the end of each day, I check email again for 5-10 minutes.

So that's what works for me, as much as anything does. What works for you?