Thursday, October 22, 2015

Don't ASAP Your Life Away

For the benefit of international readers let me begin with a definition:

ASAP - An American acronym for "As Soon As Possible", meaning please drop everything and do this right now instead.

I am now a 64-year-old IT professional, planning to work until I am about 70 years old if my health holds up. Currently, I am doing middleware work from home for the IT department of a major corporation, and only go into the office a few times each year, which is emblematic of my career path trajectory towards retirement. Now I have really enjoyed my career in IT all of these years, but having been around the block a few times, I would like to offer a little advice to those just starting out in IT, and that is to be sure to pace yourself for the long haul. You really need to dial it back a bit to go the distance. Now I don't want this to be seen as a negative posting about careers in IT, but I personally have seen way too many young bright IT professionals burn out due to an overexposure to stress and long hours, and that is a shame. So dialing it back a bit should be seen as a positive recommendation. And you have to get over thinking that dialing it back to a tolerable long-term level makes you a lazy worthless person. In fact, dialing it back a little will give you the opportunity to be a little more creative and introspective in your IT work, and maybe actually come up with something really neat in your IT career.

This all became evident to me back in 1979 when I transitioned from being a class 9 exploration geophysicist in one of Amoco's exploration departments to become a class 9 IT professional in Amoco's IT department. One very scary Monday morning, I was conducted to my new office cubicle in Amoco’s IT department, and I immediately found myself surrounded by a large number of very strange IT people, all scurrying about in a near state of panic, like the characters in Alice in Wonderland. After 36 years in the IT departments of several major corporations, I can now state with confidence that most corporate IT departments can best be described as “frantic” in nature. This new IT job was a totally alien experience for me, and I immediately thought that I had just made a very dreadful mistake. Granted, I had been programming geophysical models for my thesis and for oil companies ever since taking a basic FORTRAN course back in 1972, but that was the full extent of my academic credentials in computer science. I immediately noticed some glaring differences between my two class 9 jobs in the same corporation. As a class 9 geophysicist, I had an enclosed office on the 52nd floor of the Amoco Building in downtown Chicago, with a door that actually locked, and a nice view of the north side of the Chicago Loop and Lake Michigan. With my new class 9 IT job at Amoco I moved down to the low-rent district of the Amoco Building on the 10th floor where the IT department was located to a cubicle with walls that did not provide very much privacy. Only class 11 and 12 IT professionals had relatively secluded cubicles with walls that offered some degree of privacy. Later I learned that you had to be a class 13 IT Manager, like my new boss, to get an enclosed office like I had back up on the 52nd floor. I also noticed that the stress levels of this new IT job had increased tremendously over my previous job as an exploration geophysicist. As a young geophysicist, I was mainly processing seismic data on computers for the more experienced geophysicists to interpret and to plan where to drill the next exploration wells. Sure there was some level of time-urgency because we had to drill a certain number of exploration wells each year to maintain our drilling concessions with foreign governments, but still, work proceeded at a rather manageable pace, allowing us ample time to play with the processing parameters of the software used to process the seismic data into seismic sections.

Figure 1 - Prior to becoming an IT professional, I was mainly using software to process seismic data into seismic sections that could be used to locate exploration wells.

However, the moment I became an IT professional, all of that changed. Suddenly, everything I was supposed to do became a frantic ASAP effort. It is very difficult to do quality work when everything you are supposed to do is ASAP. Projects would come and go, but they were always time-urgent and very stressful, to the point that it affected the quality of the work that was done. It seemed that there was always the temptation to simply slap something into production to hit an arbitrary deadline, ready or not, and many times we were forced to succumb to that temptation. This became more evident when I moved from Applications Development to Operations about 15 years ago, and I had to then live with the sins of pushing software into production before it was quite ready for primetime. In recent decades I also noticed a tendency to hastily bring IT projects in through heroic efforts of breakneck activity, and for IT Management to then act as if that were actually a good thing after the project was completed. When I first transitioned into IT, I also noticed that I was treated a bit more like a high-paid clerk than a highly trained professional, mainly because of the time-pressures of getting things done. One rarely had time to properly think things through. I seriously doubt that most business professionals would want to hurry their surgeons along while under the knife, but that is not so for their IT support professionals.

You might wonder why I did not immediately run back to exploration geophysics in a panic. There certainly were enough jobs for an exploration geophysicist at the time because we were just experiencing the explosion of oil prices resulting from the 1979 Iranian Revolution. However, my wife and I were both from the Chicago area, and we wanted to stay there. In fact, I had just left a really great job with Shell in Houston to come to Amoco's exploration department in Chicago for that very reason. However, when it was announced about six months after my arrival at Amoco that Amoco was moving the Chicago exploration department to Houston, I think the Chief Geophysicist who had just hired me felt guilty, and he found me a job in Amoco's IT department so that we could stay in Chicago. So I was determined to stick it out for a while in IT until something better might come along. However, after a few months in Amoco's IT department, I began to become intrigued. It seemed as though these strange IT people had actually created their own little simulated universe, that seemingly, I could explore on my own. It also seemed to me that my new IT coworkers were struggling because they did not have a theoretical framework from which to work from like I had had in Amoco's exploration department. That is when I started working on softwarephysics. I figured if you could apply physics to geology; why not apply physics to software? I then began reading the IT trade rags, to see if anybody else was doing similar research, and it seemed as though nobody else on the planet was thinking along those lines, and that raised my level of interest in doing so even higher.

But for the remainder of this posting, I would like to explore some of the advantages of dialing it back a bit by going back to a 100-year-old case study. I just finished reading Miss Leavitt's Stars - the Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe (2005) by George Johnson, a biography of Henrietta Swan Leavitt who in 1908 discovered the Luminosity-Period relationship of Cepheid variables that allowed Edwin Hubble in the 1920s to calculate the distances to external galaxies, and ultimately, determine that the Universe was expanding. This discovery was certainly an example of work worthy of a Nobel Prize that went unrewarded. Henrietta Leavitt started out as a human "computer" in the Harvard College Observatory in 1893, examining photographic plates in order to tabulate the locations and magnitudes of stars on the photographic plates for 25 cents/hour. Brighter stars made larger spots on photographic plates than dimmer stars, so it was possible to determine the magnitude of a star on a photographic plate by comparing it to the sizes of the spots of stars with known magnitudes. She also worked on tabulating data on the varying brightness of variable stars. Variable stars were located by overlaying a negative plate that consisted of a white sky containing black stars and a positive plate that consisted of a dark sky containing white stars. The two plates were taken some days or weeks apart in time. Then by holding up both superimposed plates to the light from a window, one could flip them back and forth, looking for variable stars. If you saw a black dot with a white halo or a white dot with a black halo, you knew that you had found a variable star.

What Henrietta Leavitt noted was that certain variable stars in the Magellanic Clouds, called Cepheid variables, varied in luminosity in a remarkable way. The Large Magellanic Cloud is about 160,000 light years away, while the Small Magellanic Cloud is about 200,000 light years distant. Both are closeby small irregular galaxies. The important point is that all of the stars in each Magellanic Cloud are all at about the same distance from the Earth. What Henrietta Leavitt discovered was that the Cepheid variables in each Magellanic Cloud varied such that the brighter Cepheid variables had longer periods than the fainter Cepheid variables in each Magellanic Cloud. Since all of the Cepheid variables in each of the Magellanic Clouds were all at approximately the same distance, that meant that the Cepheid variables that appeared brighter when viewed from the Earth actually were intrinsically brighter. Now if one could find the distance to some closeby Cepheid variables, using the good old parallax method displayed in Figure 5, then by simply measuring the luminosity period of a Cepheid variable, it would be possible to tell how bright the star really was - see Figure 6. However, it was a little more complicated than that because there were no Cepheid variables within the range that the parallax method worked; they were all too far away. So instead, astronomers used the parallax method to determine the local terrain of stars in our neighborhood and how fast the Sun was moving relative to them. Then by recording the apparent slow drift of distant Cepheid variables relative to even more distant stars, caused by the Sun moving along through our galaxy, it was possible to estimate the distance to a number of Cepheid variables. Note that obtaining the distance to a number of Cepheid variables by other means is no longer the challenge that it once was because from November 1989 to March 1993 the Hipparcos satellite measured the parallax of 118,200 stars accurate to one-milliarcsecond, and 273 Cepheid variables were amongst the data, at long last providing a direct measurement of some Cepheid variable distances. Once the distance to a number of Cepheid variables was determined by other means, it allowed astronomers to create the Luminosity-Period plot of Figure 6. Then by comparing how bright a Cepheid variable appeared in the sky relative to how bright it really was, it was possible to figure out how far away the Cepheid variable actually was. That was because if two Cepheid variables had the same period, and therefore, the same intrinsic brightness, but one star appeared 100 times dimmer in the sky than the other star, that meant that the dimmer star was 10 times further away than the brighter star because the apparent luminosity of a star falls off as the square of the distance to the star. Additionally, it also turned out that the Cepheid variables were extremely bright stars that were many thousands of times brighter than our own Sun, so they could be seen from great distances, and could even be seen in nearby galaxies. Thus it became possible to find the distances to galaxies using Cepheid variables.

Figure 2 - Henrietta Swan Leavitt July 4, 1868 - December 12, 1921, died at an age of 53.

Figure 3 - The human computers of the Harvard Observatory were used to tabulate the locations and magnitudes of stars on photographic plates and made 25 cents/hour. Female cotton mill workers made about 15 cents/hour at the time.

Figure 4 - In 1908 Henrietta Leavitt discovered that the brighter Cepheid variables in the Magellanic Clouds had longer periods than the dimmer Cepheid variables, as seen from the Earth. She published those results in 1912. Because all of the Cepheid variables in the Magellanic Clouds were at approximately the same distance, that meant that the Cepheid variables that appeared brighter in the sky were actually intrinsically brighter, so Henrietta Leavitt could then plot the apparent brightness of those Cepheid variables against their periods to obtain a plot like Figure 6. Later it was determined that this variability in luminosity was due to the Cepheid variables pulsating in size. When Cepheid variables grow in size, their surface areas increase and their surface temperatures drop. Because the luminosity of a star goes as the square of its radius (R2), but as the surface temperature raised to the 4th power (T4), the drop in temperature wins out, and so when a Cepheid variable swells in size, its brightness actually decreases.

Figure 5 - The standard parallax method can determine the distance to nearby stars. Unfortunately, no known Cepheid variables were close enough for the parallax method to work. Instead, the parallax method was used to figure out the locations of stars near to the Sun, and then the motion of the Sun relative to the nearby stars was calculated. This allowed the slow apparent drift of some Cepheid variables against the background of very distant stars to be used to calculate the distance to a number of Cepheid variables. With those calculations, combined with the apparent brightness of the Cepheid variables, it was possible to create the Luminosity-Period plot of Figure 6.

Figure 6 - This was a crucial observation because it meant that by simply measuring the amount of time it took a Cepheid variable to complete a cycle it was possible to obtain its intrinsic brightness or luminosity. Because Cepheid variables are also very bright stars in general, that meant it was easy to see them in nearby galaxies. For example, from the above graph, we can see that a Cepheid variable with a period of 30 days is about 10,000 times brighter than the Sun. That means it can be seen about 100 times further away than our own Sun can be seen, and could even be seen in a distant galaxy.

While reading Miss Leavitt's Stars, I was taken aback, as I always am, by the slow pace of life 100 years ago, in contrast to the breakneck pace of life today. People in those days lived about half as long as we do today, yet they went through life about 1,000 times slower. For example, Henrietta Leavitt worked for Edward Pickering at the Harvard College Observatory for many decades. Unfortunately, she suffered from poor health, as did many people 100 years ago, and a number of times had to return home to Beloit Wisconsin to recuperate for many months at a time. It was very revealing to read the correspondence between the two while she was at home convalescing. It seems that in those days the safest and most effective medicine was bed rest. Putting yourself into the hands of the medical establishment of the day was a risky business indeed. In fact, they might treat you with a dose of radium salts to perk you up. However, Edward Pickering really needed Henrietta Leavitt to complete some work on her observations of Cepheid variables in order for them to be used as standard candles to measure astronomical distances, so much so that he even raised her wages to 30 cents/hour. But because of poor health Henrietta Leavitt had to take it easy. Despite the criticality of her work, the correspondence went back and forth between the two in an excruciatingly slow manner, with a timescale of several months between letters, certainly not in the ASAP manner of today with its overwhelming urgency of nearly immediate response times. Sometimes Edward Pickering would even ship photographic plates to Henrietta Leavitt for her to work on. Even when Henrietta Leavitt did return to work at the Harvard College Observatory, many times she could only work a few hours each day. Although this at first may seem incredibly passe and out of touch with the ASAP pace of the modern world, I have to wonder if Henrietta Leavitt had simply ground out stellar luminosities at 30 cents/hour, as fast as she possibly could in a mind-numbing way, would she ever had had the time to calmly sit back and see what nobody else had managed to see? Perhaps if everybody in IT dialed it back a bit, we could do the same. It would also help if IT Management treated IT professionals in less of a clerk-like manner, and allowed them the time to be as creative as they really could be.

So my advice to those just starting out in IT is to dial it back a bit and to always keep a sense of perspective. It is important to always make time for yourself and for your family and to allow enough time to actually think about what you are doing and what you are trying to achieve in life. With enough time, maybe you might come up with something as astounding as did Henrietta Swan Leavitt.

Comments are welcome at

To see all posts on softwarephysics in reverse order go to:

Steve Johnston

No comments: