Monday, April 12, 2010

Context as a commodity

How much context do you need to do your job?  Can we quantify context in any way?

Jeff Atwood has mentioned that he doesn’t shut his machine down every night.  He wants his environment to be as he left it at the end of the previous coding session.  Getting all the apps, tools or other windows opened to the right place takes not only CPU time but mental energy, aka context. 

Some jobs require no context, for example a bank teller can walk in to work on Tuesday and not need to remember any of the transactions that took place on Monday.  Contrast that with a novelist in the middle of writing a new book, let’s say writing the next chapter not editing anything.  They need to remember all the characters, their personalities, the existing story, and in what ways the plot threads are to interact in the new material.

Another good contrast is a professional athlete.  A pro baseball player doesn’t need to remember what happened in yesterday’s game in order to pitch a strike, hit a home-run, or execute a double-play.  The limited context that does appear has to do with the optimizing performance.  A pitcher does need to know the preferences and history of the batter who is at the plate, just like the batter needs to know if the pitcher has a wicked slider. 

Companies want to be “green” these days and have instituted policies to shutdown computers overnight.  This may be pennywise and pound foolish.  Here’s why.  A consultant gets paid $50/hr and it takes 30 minutes to get their workspace ready after an overnight shutdown lasting from 5pm to 8am the next day, 15 hours.  A conservative energy estimate would be if electricity costs $0.25 a kilowatt hour multiplied by 15 hours for a cost of $3.75.  So $25 is spent trying to save $3.75.  That’s motivation to use the hibernate feature at a minimum. It also is a very simple way to quantify the cost of context.

Can we describe jobs by how much context is required?  If so, is there a relationship between  the amount of context needed and the average salary?  Those are interesting questions, maybe I’ll cover those in a later post. 

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  1. Converting common sense is hard for a business to do. Converting everything to a dollar and allowing a bean counter to figure out its worth in itself is costly. Also figuring out the exact value is dependent on where that starts and stops. Using your Green analogy of shutting off the computers. If your value stops at the door, then I see your point. But if your value is based on the impact of everyone doing it saying in one city, then that value is different.

    I said all that to state that even the context is subjective to the person doing the evaluation. In other words, who decides what is in context?

  2. Well, there is two parts to my post. One is the economics, the other is the concept. The math in my example isn't too accurate but it wasn't meant as a justification to not power-off your PC every night. Instead, it is the beginning of a dialog about the hidden costs to some types of work. Management assumes that the energy costs are the primary consideration. Those who participate in creative pursuits often describe the mental state of increased productivity as 'Flow'. This is why they often work into the wee hours of the night because they realize the value of flow, which is closely related to the context that is the focus of the post.


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