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Make Room to Expect the Exceptions

Published 5/20/2022

On the whole, exceptions are not exceptional. Each one may be unpredictable or rare, but they happen very regularly. How are you prepared to handle those exceptions? Make space today for the principle of headroom.

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Transcript (Generated by OpenAI Whisper)
Hey everyone, you're listening to Developer Tea, my name is Jonathan Cutrell. I haven't been feeling well this week, and although I would like to consider this an exception, the truth is, I've been sick a couple of times this year. I'm feeling serious just a cold here and there, and I believe, like most experiences, this is an opportunity for learning. I noticed this recently with my budgeting software. I'm one of those people who likes to track everything that I spend into specific categories. And in my budget, I have a specific section that I've called out. It's called Monthly Events. This Monthly Events section is intended to capture things that are anomalous, that are exceptions. If it's a birthday or a special celebration, we might budget a little bit extra for that. If there's an unexpected event, they get strapped into this category as well. Now I don't want to get into the specifics of budgeting necessarily. I'm sure there are people who are listening who would recommend, for example, saving up funds for these sorts of things. But what I've noticed with this pattern, and what I've noticed with my pattern of getting sick this year, and the pattern of the engineers that report to me being out for one reason or another, what I've noticed is that exceptions are common. exceptions happen all the time. In fact, some kind of exception is typically so common that I rarely find myself in a situation where I'm not dealing with one exception or another. This is true in our personal lives. This is true in our careers. It's even true in our code. But if we look at the way that we tend to plan, if we look at our budget planning, if we look at our time planning, our resource planning, even the code that we write, we tend to assume that things will stay relatively calm and that exceptions will be rare. In fact, sometimes we believe that exceptions are so rare that we'll be able to handle them on demand without any planning at all. I can tell you right now that this is a strategy that sets you up for failure. Instead, I'm going to encourage you to think about exceptions as an ongoing variable bucket. All this really means that you may not know what the exception is, but you need to be able to handle it. This is why it's so important to not plan a full capacity. It's why it's so important to think about what happens when you have to be out unexpectedly. How do you plan for the unplanable? This comes down to becoming acquainted with the unknown. Because what you have to do in order to prepare for the exceptions that you know are coming, you can't yet define, is to open yourself up to that uncertainty. To put blocks in your budget, put blocks in your calendar, all of these things purely as reserve. Beyond having reserve planning for these exceptions, it's probably a good idea too. Plan for the most likely exceptions. For example, getting sick is something that will likely happen to you again in the future. So, what is your protocol? What's your playbook? What is your plan of action for when you get sick? If I had to guess, most people have things that they typically do, but they don't necessarily plan for. The way that you think about dealing with being sick is entirely reactive, even though you do have some consistent habits. What would it look like for you to have a plan in place that you could just execute, that you know and you can rely on this plan if and when you get sick? Here's what often happens if we don't have these plans in place. We feel the pull to, for example, try to come back to work sooner than we should. Or maybe we feel the stress, the feeling that we've somehow dropped the ball. Even though, of course, we have no control over when we get sick and when we don't. When we don't plan for unexpected ballooning in scope, for example, on our teams, we tend to have late deliveries and stressed out engineers. The point is not to try to predict all of the exceptions that are going to occur in your code, in your personal life, in your work life, in the world around you, but instead to make space for them, become acquainted with them and expect them. Once you expect the exceptions, you begin to make the principle of having a headroom a constant. This isn't about just being conservative with your decisions or being fiscal. This is about actually accurately planning, given the vast number of unknowns that are waiting around the corner. Thanks so much for listening to today's episode of Developer Tea. I'm hoping I feel better next week and we should be back on our normal schedule of Monday and Wednesday. If you don't want to miss out on those episodes next week, go ahead and subscribe and whatever podcasting app you're currently using. Thanks so much for listening and until next time, enjoy your tea.