Signal To Noise: Managing what comes at you

In telecommunications, the concept of Signal To Noise Ratio has been around for a long time. The basic concept is the signal (what you are trying to communicate) and the noise (all the crap that isn’t the signal) are related. The higher the ratio of signal to noise, the better. High ratio: more signal, less noise. Low ratio: less signal, more noise.

A high Signal To Noise ratio is a good thing. Thinking about the concept, not the math, if we have better signal and less noise, we have better communication.

This post is mainly about receiving communication. This includes talking to someone, email, texting, social media, etc. Some of this is obvious: if you are trying to listen to someone and there is a jackhammer going on five feet away, there is too much noise to hear. If someone texts you with a name you need and wraps it up in 2000 characters of opinions and other useless info, that is bad signal to noise.

But there are some non-obvious ways to look at it.

If you get a lot of unnecessary emails or texts, it will be harder to find those that you want to get. We can keep an eye out for message from people we want to hear from, but we will miss messages. The list of things to read (the list of conversations in your text messages, your email inbox) is something that has a signal to noise ratio.

If we have curated our social feed, we have lower noise and better signal..

Consider a few possibilities

  • Email: be vicious in unsubscribing from things that you don’t actively need. Be proactive in managing your inbox.
  • Social feeds: be aggressive at muting, blocking, unfollowing those that post noise (you get to define that). If you complain about Facebook or Twitter about how much stuff you have to scroll to see anything interesting, then you are following too many of the wrong accounts.
  • Learn the controls available to you. Yes, it is a pain when Facebook, et al, keep changing their feed algorithms and add/remove settings. But learning them takes time. Yes, understanding Gmail’s tab structure and conversations seems overly complicated. However, spending a few minutes trying to figure out how to use them to your advantage will save you lots of time in the long run.

Curate your electronic life. It pays off quickly.

Electronic Bits
Coming fast from everywhere
Are you in control
?

Inbox: friend or foe

https://xkcd.com/2181/
xkcd: https://xkcd.com/2181/

If your job doesn’t fundamentally depend on your email*, then ask yourself if you control your email or if email controls you. Our Email Is A Monster (Oatmeal). Some ideas to consider:

  1. No matter how focused you are, when that little window flashes up in the corner of your screen or your phone beeps, you have at best a micro-distraction that derails your thinking and at worst a full distraction. Turn off your email notifications and schedule time during the day to open email.
  2. Signal (high priority emails) to noise (low priority emails) in your inbox is a problem. Not all emails are equally worthy of your time. If conditional formatting (like in Outlook) is available, use it. Set a condition for when you are on the CC list. Read those last. Set a condition for when you are the only one on the TO: list. Set conditions for people that you need to respond to right away.

* Customer service type jobs and a few others do require constant vigilance of an inbox so the above suggestions don’t help you. Hopefully you have other techniques to make things more efficient.

Marginal Revolution: Is the generalist returning?

This Marginal Revolution article, based off the article “At Work, Expertise Is Falling Out of Favor” from The Atlantic, brings up a good point about specialization and generalizing: our current economy may be diverging from the standard theory that bigger and more complex economies and industries require more specialists.

Or in other words, you may not wish to specialize with your truly scarce factor, namely labor. 

Marginal Revolution: Is the generalist returning? by  Tyler Cowen June 24, 2019 at 12:38 am 

We are seeing this in my company. In the past, we had specialists in most areas. In the last few years, speed and flexibility have become more important. In order to get that speed and flexibility, employees that have more general skills are more valuable because we can move them around to meet specific needs.

This is true on the production floor, engineering, and even IT. Having Business Analysts that can jump in and help any of the departments improve is better than having Business Analysts that can only support one or two departments.

Obviously, this is a function of the size of company. finding or building a BA that can effectively jump into any department of a billion dollar company is really hard. Project Managers, sure. BAs, not so much.

If this is true, and I think it is, what are the implications for those at the beginning of their career? The initial take is to head into careers that are more general or make sure you don’t limit yourself.

This does not, however, mean the death of the specialist. Maybe it means the opposite. The BA generalists I mention above will frequently require help in deeper technical knowledge. They will need programmers, deep ERP experts, deep business experts to support their efforts to improve the business. Those people will deeper more specialized knowledge for the BA to use.

So maybe developers need to be more specialized, focusing on one technology or platform? Maybe not. There has long been a class of programmers that fit the cliche of “a champion can win on any field”. They are very good at picking up new programming languages, connecting to new interfaces, understanding new kinds of databases. Maybe their specialty is not the specific of the technology, but their ability to create software to meet a need. Those developers are more valuable than a developer than only knows one language and one database.

So maybe each career (an ill-defined word here) is really a set of generalist skills and specialty skills. Those that can build a strong set of generalist skills and and apply them to needed, and ever changing, specialty skills are what is really in the highest demand.

The ability to learn quickly does then become a fundamental life skill.

Creepiness–Convenience Tradeoff

A good article from the Nielsen Norman Group, a group that focuses on technology (generally software) user experiences. The site itself is a good resource for those developing technology for larger groups of people such as companies or the general public.

Summary: As people consider whether to use the new “creepy” technologies, they do a type of cost-benefit analysis weighing the loss of privacy against the benefits they will receive in return.

Hiring Interns

If you are fortunate enough to work at a company that has an intern program, make sure you take advantage of it. Having interns in an IT department is a great way to find new talent, extend the skills of existing staff, and bring young energy into the department.

Requirements for interns are not high. My top four items are

  1. Show Up On Time
  2. Work Hard
  3. Learn Fast
  4. Have Fun

This applies regardless of where in the IT department we are putting them. (It also applies to every job everywhere, but that is a different post.)

If the position is for the Help Desk, I would add 5) Basic troubleshooting skills, and 6) Friendly. If the position is a Business Analyst intern, I would add 5) good writing skills and 6) a sense of curiosity.

What’s that down there?

Ever looked out a window while in an airplane and wondered what you were looking at? Yeah, there an app for that. Also works for driving.

Unsurprisingly, Loeffler got the idea for the app on a plane. “I realized that most people don’t have my geology background, and that they might be missing out on some of the wonder of that view because there was no good way to know where exactly your plane was, let alone what stories the landforms below could tell,” he tells Co.Design over email. “I tested the GPS in my phone while flying, found that it worked, and realized that there was a great scientific outreach tool waiting to be made.” When you open the app, you draw your flight path (it can be very rough) to access the relevant data points, which are then downloaded to the app so you can access them offline.