Algorithms to Live by - ch3

Chapter 3: Sorting#


The chapter starts out talking about how not to sort socks. I’m thinking Oh, good, this one is going to have some practical daily life examples. Nah, it’s just talking about how not to sort socks. There is no ideal algorithm presented for sock sorting.


It felt like most of the chapter was talking about how to sort sports teams to find out who’s the best, 2nd-best, 3rd-best, and etc., and how sorting is optimized for entertainment rather than efficiency and fairness. Since I don’t know enough about sports to know what "pre-season" and "post-season" mean, or how sports are currently organized, I’ll just take their word for it.


Here’s one topic that I can relate to! I used to struggle with this in my daily life. How do you sort email? Well, according to the book, you don’t. Apparently, it’s a waste of time, and you should just let the computer find the emails you want when you want them. Ehhh…​ this is disappointing. I was hoping for some tips.

When Gmail was new, I tried that. Everything comes into the inbox, and instead of deleting email, I archived it, just like they recommended. At one point, I had over 8 GiB of email, without even trying. Everything was fine, until I had to find an old email that I couldn’t remember any keywords for. Sender? Subject? Something in the email body? I had a general idea of what the email was about, but no keywords. You can’t search for an email without keywords…​ Then I realized that the whole "archive everything" model was flawed.

I later spent hours sorting my entire gmail account. I deleted old emails that I didn’t need anymore, and I sorted everything into "folders" (they’re called "labels" in gmail, and they work a bit differently). Did it save me time in the long run? I don’t know…​ I just hate not being able to find things. My current email sorting system is mostly automated. I don’t use Gmail anymore. I set up server-side filters to put things into folders ("buckets", in sorting terminology). Other things, I sort manually after I read them if I want to keep them. Otherwise, I delete it. It’s not a perfect system, and it feels like I’m still using email organization tech from the 90’s, but it seems to work the best for me. There has to be a better way to organize communications.

Blood Sort (self-sorting)#

I had no idea how many physical conflicts could be skipped when a group of chickens already knows what the pecking order is. That’s actually quite fascinating. I thought it was a waste for them to bully each other, but it makes sense now. And to think that even people do this, regularly, and that it actually serves a purpose…​ At least we’re not as violent, though.

One of my first full-time corporate jobs was at HAL Industries.[1] Over time, I learned that there’s an official ranking - job title, salary amount, and heirarchy position - and an unofficial ranking. The official ranking can be distilled into an org chart. Unofficial ranking is something you have to figure out. When I started, I started at the bottom of the unofficial ranking. I joined a team of very experienced IT veterans. After about 18 months or so, the guy that trained me came into my office and said, "You’re the boss now".

What does that mean?

After he explained it a bit, I understood that he was telling me that I surpassed his working knowledge, and that he would look to me for guidance from that point on. I was a bit surprised. He easily had 15 years of experience more than me, and I hadn’t even been at HAL for 2 years, so it was hard for me to accept. HAL has a lot of legacy technology, and he was an expert in it, but he didn’t update his knowledge to work with the new technology stacks. Hence, the unofficial ranking acknowledgement.

The team I joined at HAL was basically a meritocracy. My teammates and I each had an internal mental ranking order based on technical skill. We didn’t even fight over it. Those who were able to solve more complex problems rose to the top, got more responsibilities, and often got the priviledge of working the day shift. Those on the lower end got the easier work, less demanding customers, and typically night and overnight shifts. Actually, I think this system is quite common, but not widely acknowledged. We don’t normally realize it’s happening, or even think about it.

There was, however, a darker unofficial ranking system. Outside of my team, there were some who behaved a bit more like the chickens. They wouldn’t peck at you directly, but they would say or make up negative things about you or the work you do. They only do this when they perceive you as a threat, and they do it to try to reduce competition for seldom-granted salary raises. Essentially, they fight on the unofficial ranking to earn a higher official ranking.

I got to know some of the people who tried to push me down. Shortly before I left the company, I made a point to make amends, whether the fault was on me or not. I think overall, they’re not bad people. I think I had unintentionally made them feel threatened. To them, I was the attacker, and they were defending their turf. Rising too quickly in the ranks and solving problems that had them stumped for months? I guess that is kind of threatening. It’s hard to feel secure in your job at a company like HAL, where layoffs and pay cuts can happen at any time, for entire divisions. I guess the company culture was just too toxic. It’s better to leave than to be sucked in and become someone you don’t want to be. Also better than refusing to change for the worse and being trampled.

I wish I could offer more on how to keep a company from developing that "dog-eat-dog" fighting for rank. I’ve already seen it in a few different large companies, and I don’t know how it starts, or what causes it. Maybe it’s something that "just happens" when a company gets too big? Chapter 3 does say that having too many chickens in the same group causes excessive violence because the chickens have trouble figuring out the pecking order. Maybe it’s the same with humans. Maybe when the unofficial ranking is too hard to figure out, some try to capitalize on it by trying to push others down in managers' eyes. Or maybe the intense competition changes people. Maybe fear and stress?

How can we build up (and keep) a positive company culture? Those who came before me at Teltech appear to have done an excellent job. The culture here is more positive and cooperative than anywhere else I’ve worked or seen. I heard that the founders put a lot of emphasis on building a positive culture. Those of us carrying the company forward are doing our best to keep it.

Of course, this is part of why we read and discuss books like this =)

1. not the company’s real name