Packet Aug Meetup 2019

(This is the content of a talk I gave at the Packet August ‘19 Meetup in NYC)

People with Blindfolds

I believe that a central problem with the Internet is that we can’t see each other’s faces.

My dad likes to say that he feels the Internet can’t create real connections between people. He can’t explain why, but he is pretty adamant that it’s a thing. For a long time, I thought this was ridiculous. After all, a lot – no, all – of my closest relationships had started there. 24 years of friendships, and my marriage were all formed from connections on the Internet. But as I’ve been on the ‘Net and now managed a fair number of distributed teams that function across time-zones and geographical areas, I’ve started to realize there’s something to what he’s saying.

Well, duh, parents are smart.

Picture of people talking

That “something” to what he’s saying revolves around the importance of face-to-face communication. There is an essential aspect to humans seeing each other’s faces that creates a level of empathy and connection which textual formats don’t. This isn’t the only way to create connections between humans…

Picture of love letter

…after all, love letters are a long-standing tradition which require only paper, pens and a postmark. But for teams of people that work together, seeing each other’s faces helps to connect people.

Silly Picture of Dizzy

I’m Dizzy (you can call me Dave Smith, if you must) - and I’m the VP of Engineering at Packet.

As I said, I’ve worked with remote/distributed teams for a while now – just a little more than a decade! (Yeesh, I’m getting old.) Over that time, I’ve had a chance to do some thinking about how remote teams can function most effectively. What I’ve realized over the years is that “remote” teams do best when they use a variety of communication modalities.

A “modality” is a particular form of sensory perception. When applied to communication, it’s the different ways that people communicate. For software engineering teams, in particular, it is the different types of tools that the team uses to converse and exchange information. I want to spend just a few minutes exploring these forms and maybe give you a framework for how your remote teams can communicate more effectively.

Dimensions of communications

Having been an engineer that did a lot of network-related code in the past, I tend to think of communication along three axis - latency, throughput and cost. Communication between code and people isn’t all that different in the end. Understanding how long it’s going to take someone to hear what we’re saying (latency) and how much information we can exchange (bandwidth) and how much attention said communication requires (cost) is pretty universal between both daemons and souls.

Comparison of modalities

Consider, for example, email. If we look at it on these three axis - latency, bandwidth and cost, it’s a high latency (pretty slow!), high bandwidth (deep content) and high cost (extensive focus) method of communication. If we take the time to write our ideas out, we can exchange very deep ideas in a textual format with others. But it takes time - time to capture our ephemeral thoughts and make them concrete. It’s an intensive process that requires significant effort – but we can cover LOTS of ground. When it comes to engineering teams, this is a valuable way to connect with our team-mates; it lets us have considered discussions about really big ideas.

Consider again the idea of IM or Slack. Along the three axis, it’s a relatively low latency (fast!) way of communicating ideas, but it’s also a low bandwidth medium – it’s really hard to type all those ideas out so fast and in a way that’s meaningful. It’s low cost, but also low resolution when it comes to communicating – i.e. it’s actually a really great way to coordinate, but assumes a certain level of pre-exchanged state between participants.

Another alternative to IM and Email is video-calls (Hangouts, Zoom, Skype, etc.). As with IM, it’s low latency, but compared to email it’s higher-bandwidth. We can speak a lot faster than we can type! It is more ephemeral than IM or Email, though, so it’s possible that the resolution of the communication can decline. But, there’s also something fundamentally different about it from either IM or Email in that we can see someone’s face. And this is where things start to get interesting.

Picture of a MRI machine

Nowadays, we have the ability to look into the brain as it processes different types of information; we do this with a pretty exotic machine called a “Functional MRI”, or fMRI for short. The general idea is that you measure the blood flow through the brain as it processes different stimuli. It’s a bit of a simple measurement – it can’t tell you what people are thinking..yet.. but it gives you some idea of what parts of their brains are working at any given point in time.

Let’s consider for a moment an abstract concept…

Picture of word "Frustration"

Frustration! It’s an emotion we’ve all felt. Take a moment and consider that idea of frustration. Think about how it feels to be that way and the texture of the emotion.

Now…let’s take a look at a frustrated person…

Picture Captain Picard face-palming

Ah yes, the classic face-palm! We’ve all done it. :)

One of the things we’ve started to look at with fMRIs is what happens when people are asked to imitate an emotion versus observing an emotion on another’s person’s face. What we’ve found so far, according to a UCLA study, is that the difference (at a fMRI level) is pretty negligible. In other words, when we think about frustration and we observe a frustrated person, our brain seems to light up the same areas. The same kinds of cognition and processing is happening in both circumstances.

With this in mind, we can start to understand why different modalities of communication are important to remote teams. Email and IM are fine for different kinds of tasks – ideas versus coordination, roughly – but video calls will ultimately invoke entirely different parts of our brains and encourage different levels of interaction. We lose a lot of context when just exchanging ideas or coordinating; seeing a person’s face changes our perception and lights up entirely different parts of our brain. It creates a level of empathy that neither email or IM (or tweets) can replicate.

Picture of silver bullet with not-allowed

All of this is important for remote teams: there is no one way to communicate effectively over a network. Vid-conf is useful for connecting the people behind the ideas, but at the cost of resolution. IM is useful for coordinating between people, but at the cost of depth. Email is useful for exchanging important ideas, but at the cost of time. Both email and IM also trade-off empathy for the raw exchange of ideas.

Picture of fire dog meme

I believe that the reason that the Internet is the home to so many flame wars and so much controversy is that most of the communication is done textually – there are no faces to invoke those parts of our brain that can contextualize emotion and connect the ideas to the people. The ideas exist without grounding and we grow angry, spouting vitriol at entities which literally don’t appear to be people! We forget that the source of ideas and concepts are people – not just an abstract entity!

Picture of balancing rocks

In the same way, remote teams can get wonky when they aren’t balancing different forms of communication. Too much face-to-face communication can mean things don’t get written down and lose resolution. Too much email often means things move ponderously, waiting for people to have a chance to sit down and write out their thoughts. Too much IM/Slack means it’s difficult to consider concepts deeply and we lose sight of who we’re communicating with.

Ultimately, I’d ask you to consider the ways your remote teams communicate. Realize that there are tradeoffs between different modalities and that it’s important to use each of them effectively. Avoid depending on any silver bullets – instead teach your teams to move between the modalities thoughtfully, using the tradeoffs to their advantage.

I’m sure there’s some of you who might be thinking, “Well, why not just do everything face-to-face?! Doesn’t this just prove that f2f is superior?”

Well, even f2f teams use email and IM. Even f2f teams ultimately are bound by the essential characteristics of communication latency and bandwidth. And from this, we can derive that remote/distributed teams are an inevitability when it comes to any kind of knowledge work. Everyone has to constantly balance between email, IM and some kind of f2f communication.

Picture of faces

And so, it doesn’t matter if you’re a remote team or one all sitting in the same room. Understanding the tradeoffs of different modalities is essential to effective communication.

It’s not just about efficiency - it’s about connecting our ways of communication with our humanity.


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2019-08-28 13:57 +0000