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Ones and Zeros

Emily Freeman Microsoft

Gottfried Leibniz believed the only two numbers humans needed were one and zero. He refined the binary number system and paved the way for the machines we work on every day. For ages, one was the only number humans had. And it wasn’t until the concept of zero – a placeholder more than a number – was invented that humans made massive jumps in mathematical thinking. But perhaps one and zero have more to teach us than the bits in our machines. Perhaps this story of two numbers has more to do with the creation of something from nothing. And how you, as a single engineer, can have massive impact on your systems and organization. In this talk, Emily Freeman tells the evolutionary story of early math, dives into the different styles of changemakers throughout history, and how any movement in tech starts with a single engineer.

Emily Freeman

Emily Freeman is a technologist and storyteller who helps engineering teams improve their velocity. She believes the biggest challenges facing engineers aren't technical, but human. She's worked with both cutting-edge startups and some of the largest technology providers in the world. Emily is currently a Senior Cloud Advocate at Microsoft and a frequent keynote speaker at technology events.

(upbeat music) - A few months ago, I was driving with my daughter to somewhere. Parents are glorified taxi drivers among other roles. My daughter looked at me, and then she looked at a tall building. And she asked,  "Did. God build skyscrapers? " At first I kind of chuckled. But that one question. It stuck with me. Because it's so easy to look around at the world and think it's always been this way. I mean, we all know that there used to be factories and before that farms and life was hard. We can conceptualize parts of history, but it is so easy to look at something simple. Like a chocolate chip cookie. And think chocolate chip cookies have always been. But they haven't. Ruth Graves Wakefield and Sue Brides invented chocolate chip cookies in 1938. And thank goodness because those little cookies are more or less getting me through the chaos of 2020. Nearly everything around us is a construct. And most are relatively new. The chair you're sitting in, that's industrially designed, the desk you are at, the coffee mug you're using, the house or building you live in, toilets, plumbing, roads, cars, computers, everything. Humans have far exceeded expectations. And what we've been able to come up with as a species. Every time I take a bath,. I think how amazing it is. That potable water comes out of a faucet. I bathe in drinking water. That is a luxury and it is new. And beyond all the modern inventions that make our lives more convenient, there are other perhaps more substantial examples. Have you ever thought about why the alphabet is ordered the way it is? Why is A the first letter and not K? Why do we use a base 10 counting system? Why 10 distinct digits and not two, or four, or 99? 

I'm Emily Freeman. I'm the author of DevOps for Dummies and a principal cloud advocate at Microsoft. I am obsessed with helping technology organizations build cultures, in which diverse teams can thrive. I wanna talk to you about zero. The world's most interesting number. Numbers were developed out of a need to count things. How many cows, how many days. As you might imagine, the first number invented was one. And the earliest evidence we have of counting was found in a set of notched animal bones in a cave in South Africa. The bones are approximately 46,000 years old. From there, things get a little fuzzy. Turns out one really is the loneliest number because we don't know much about the next few dozen millennia. The story of numbers starts up again about 5000 years ago with the Sumerians. Who according to archaeologists used a base 60 counting system. They symbolized one using a cuneiform similar to this. And 10 by a symbol like this. They combined these two symbols in various groupings to denote numbers one through 60. The Sumerians were also the first to use a symbol as a placeholder, which I'll discuss more in just a moment. It's important to note that across the world, the Mayans developed their own base 20 counting system independently using two symbols. A dot represented the number one, and a horizontal bar denoted the number five. Most number systems are positional systems. In which numbers are expressed by the symbols positions relative to other symbols. The reason you and I can tell the difference between 30 and 300 is because there's an extra zero. In that way, zero acts as a placeholder, pushing the three into the hundreds place. Zero as a placeholder was a phenomenal step in math. But zero had yet to become a true number. A number denoting nothing. The Sumerians pass their counting system on to the Babylonians, who shared it with their neighbors. But it was India who fundamentally innovated on the Sumerians original invention. Zero was first defined by Brahmagupta, a Hindu mathematician and astronomer in 628 CE. In Sanskrit, zero is called sunya. And scholars believe it was developed out of the Buddhist philosophy of emptiness called Sunyata. The invention of zero as a number was born out of the cultural and philosophical norms of India at that time. Culture, the environment in which people operate has extreme influence over innovation. India developed a rich environment of philosophical thinking, which enabled its citizens to think differently and encouraged invention across a number of areas. 

I want you to hold on to that concept, grip it tight. Because I think it has a lot to teach us, about how the culture we foster has direct impact over our ability to innovate and solve problems. Over the next few hundred years, the concept of zero was carried across the globe through trade, making its way north to China and west to the Middle East. When zero reached Baghdad sometime around 773 CE, it was incorporated into the Arabic number system, the one we still use today. It was a Persian mathematician, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, who used zero to invent algebra in the ninth century. He also happened to invent the concept of algorithms. Something you and I, as engineers use on a daily basis. It wasn't until the. Moore's moved into Spain that Europe was introduced to zero. And while merchants and mathematicians like Fibonacci, embraced the concept, Europe's religious leaders believed zero to be satanic. Eventually, the church actually succeeded in outlawing the use of zero. Imagine being afraid of a number. Merchants who used zero to balance their books through double entry accounting continued to use it illegally. To avoid consequences, they used the Arabic word for zero sifr. The word that would eventually lead to the use of cipher. Which brings us to the 1600s, when Sir Isaac Newton and. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, both independently developed calculus. And despite how much. I can't stand how math has been used to keep folks out of engineering, it is calculus that allowed for the development of computers. Leibniz believed the Yijing, an ancient Chinese divination text provided the concept of binary calculus. He believed the hexagrams on the text, based on the dyad of Yin and. Yang supported his belief that binary numbers were symbolic of the Christian concept of creation ex nihilo. A way of saying God created something from nothing. Leibniz's work lived on after his death. And over the next several hundred years, binary became Boolean algebra, which paved the way for binary arithmetic, electronic circuitry, and relay based computers. Computers the things we type on and that torture us with obscure error messages while compiling, use binary to store data. A bit, short for binary digit is the smallest unit of computing. A bit is a lot like a light switch. It's either on or it's off. There are only two states in a binary system, one or zero. Tech is still relatively new. It took 10s of thousands of years to get to zero and only 1500 to get to the iPhone. I don't know where exactly this industry is headed, but I know it is just the beginning and that you and I can have extraordinary impact on the world around us. A bit on its own isn't particularly useful. But computers are made of billions of transistors, tiny switches that are activated by electronic signals. And it's this system where all the bits add up to a whole that allows for infinite possibilities. 

I like to think of teams a little like computers. Each individual while capable of much more than a bit is one part of a greater system. But just like we carefully hone our craft, making our systems more reliable, our code more readable, our features more robust. We must also carefully design our company cultures to be environments in which every person can contribute and thrive. We must create spaces for people to be respected, valued, heard. Margaret Heffernan gave my favorite TED talk of all time. Entitled, why it's time to forget the pecking order at work. And it is about the harrowing story of the super chicken. Now, what is a super chicken you ask? Good question. Heffernan tells the story of an experiment by an evolutionary biologist William Muir, at Purdue University. Muir wanted to figure out a way to make laying hens more productive. He wanted to make super chickens, or model chickens. That chicken is handsome. Muir took two flocks of chickens. He left the first group alone to continue as normal, but Muir designed the second flock to include only the most productive chickens, those that laid the most eggs. Each generation, he continued to select only the best of the best for breeding. And after six generations, he evaluated the two groups. The first flock, the normal chickens, were doing just fine. Production was up, they were happy, healthy chickens, chickens living their best life. The second flock, the super chickens, there were only three left. The remaining chickens had murdered the others, by literally pecking them to death. As Heffernan reflects the super chickens, though individually productive, only achieved success by suppressing the productivity of the rest. The super chickens, and their story is so compelling to me, because it strikes accord with my own anecdotal observations in this industry and in others. 

The first thing you hear as a hiring manager is to hire the best of the best. We've designed countless strategies for recruiting, interviewing, hiring, the most talented folks we can convince to join our teams. But what if the real trick to building truly phenomenal teams, isn't a hiring the best of the best, but instead hiring a team that brings balance to itself? What if we shouldn't hire individuals, but instead, look for pieces of a whole? Culture is an invisible force that influences every aspect of our lives. Our language, our food, our references, our jokes. Culture determines how we laugh, how often we laugh. It dictates how we interact with the people around us. What art we like, what direction we write in. I could go on and on and on, it's endless. But I think most importantly, culture impacts the way you think. Scientists at Tel Aviv. University have found that cultural activities influenced the way humans learn. In other words, culture determines how we form connections between concepts. Our brains have limited resources. And throughout our cognitive evolution, our brains have prioritized different aspects of thinking. Chimpanzees having much better working memory than humans. No human is capable of doing what that chimp is doing right now. And scientists believe that somewhere along the evolutionary path, humans sacrificed that large working memory, our sort of RAM in order to make room for the long-term symbol retention required for language. And I mean, cool parlor trick, chimp. That's neat. But I quite like being able to speak. Your brain is a lot like a network of information, a sort of web, a graph database even, where each thought is connected to one or more thoughts. Sometimes it feels more like this, but that's a different story for a different day. Not only does culture determine what we're taught as children, but also how we acquire more data and to what stored thought, we anchor each new piece of information. Ramagupta was able to conceptualize zero or sunya, as a number denoting nothingness. Because he was anchored by the. Buddhist concept of Sunyata. His invention, the thing that sits at the root of this entire industry and all the derivative innovations that have come from it, it was possible because the environment in which he lived, permitted it. Now think about your workplace. Does your culture stimulate invention and innovation? Or does it smother ideas in infancy? Does it breed an environment where people are rewarded for thinking outside the box? Or are they shunned for being different, weird, or stupid? There are a lot of subtle ways in which someone can be made to feel othered or less than. And I can guarantee you that those people when exposed to enough rejection, will retreat to their corner, remain silent, and eventually leave. 

Everyone here has felt the sting of rejection. Everyone here knows what it's like to be overlooked, undervalued, forgotten. Humans have a deep need to belong. And yet be a little different, unique in some way. And it's that sort of tension between belonging and creative expression that we must hold for our colleagues, employees and peers. This is easier said than done. And it's messy. Because humans are messy. We are sacks of bone, and feelings held together tenuously by societal constructs and agreements. The reason the super chickens failed, despite having every advantage was that they viewed each other as competition. And the incessant, violent, infighting prevented them from thriving as a group. The truth is, we all make mistakes all the time. I'm constantly telling my daughter I make a dozen mistakes before noon every day. But when you are kind, when you are helpful, when you forgive others, you create a collaborative environment in which you can stumble, and not fall.

In competitive environments, where people are pitted against each other, it is common for one person's error to be another's opportunity. But that is never an environment in which teams thrive. You are not in competition with your peers. This is not a race. And it's not a zero-sum game, where one person's win means another's loss. The trick is to create working environments where the team wins, and occasionally loses as a unit. When you point fingers, blame and fight, you create situations in which people cover their tracks when they make mistakes. And they avoid sharing credit when they succeed. 

Innovation flows from invention. The concept of zero as a number denoting nothing was an invention, a radical shift in thinking, and an introduction to a completely novel idea. Everything that followed from double-entry accounting to binary to the iPhone, was an innovation that stemmed from that one radical new thought. Invention is the root, but it's innovation that grows the tree. So how do you build an environment where invention can catch fire and innovation can follow? The first step is to acknowledge the presence of social norms, and the invisible influence it has on our daily interactions, biases, and beliefs. We all conform to social norms. We follow, I mean most traffic laws, we speed a little here and there. We speak quietly in libraries. Before COVID we used to shake hands when we met someone new. Some conformity is referred to as non-conscious automatic mimicry. Like when we yawn after we see someone else yawn. But conformity generally describes how we adjust our behavior and thinking to the rules of the group. It's something psychologists have been interested in for a long time. In the 1950s Polish American psychologist Solomon Asch performed a simple test on groups of five. His conformity study was presented under the guise of a study on visual perception. Scientists can be sneaky. Volunteers sat in a group were shown a standard line and three comparison lines. Then they were asked to identify which of the three lines matched the standard line. Now, anyone with their glasses on can tell you that it's B. But imagine sitting there. You'll go last. The person to the left of you answers A. What? That's weird. Okay. Then the next person answers A. And it's at this point that you probably start to wonder if you were stroking out. What the volunteers didn't realize is that everyone else in the group was a plant, a common deception in scientific studies. The real participants struggled. So they trust their own eyes, or go with the group? Maybe they were missing something. And here's the really disturbing part. More than a third of participants gave the wrong answer. People are more likely to adopt group think under four circumstances. When they're made to feel incompetent, or insecure. If they're in a group of three or more, if everyone else agrees, or they feel as if others are watching their behavior. 

I've been the only woman on an engineering team. I've been the only woman on a leadership team. And while that in and of itself isn't bad, a lot of times it feels like this. I'm different. And that subtle social cue makes it just that much harder to speak up, to take a risk, to share an opinion. Because if I go against the group again, I risk being further isolated. Pay attention. When someone seems to be the only of anything in a group, keep an eye on the dynamic. Ensure that person is treated equally, spoken to respectfully, giving credit for their ideas and promoted based on their impact. Creativity requires time. A newspaper writer can produce five articles a day because they have to and they're used to producing. But the truly great works, the Pulitzer-prize-winning pieces. Those take weeks, if not months to research and write. It's the same for code. If you want someone to bang out five new API endpoints a day, that's fairly straightforward, and it's possible. But all you're going to accomplish is maintaining the status quo. Sure, you may add some features to your product along the way, but none of them will be game changing. You have to give your employees time to do what they do best, solve problems. What does that look like? First, cut back on meetings. We meet way more than is necessary. Make Friday or Monday a meeting-free day. So people have time to think and mull on difficult problems. Experiment. Maybe they want to pursue a passion project. This is especially important I think through this unprecedented year. We are all under extreme stress and working within constraints we have never come across before. Learn the art of persuasion. 

No great invention or innovation takes place in a vacuum. We are constantly influenced by the people around us. And there is no better way to work through problems than to share your ideas with someone who wants to see you succeed. I think we, as a society, lay a veneer of negativity over the concept of persuasion. We view it ever so slightly as manipulative, as if someone, or convincing someone to do what you want must be rooted in malicious intent. I want to acknowledge that yes, there are some crappy people and they will occasionally attempt to convince you to do things that suit them and not you. But for me, that isn't persuasion. Persuasion is a lot like taking someone on a journey with you. It doesn't guarantee an outcome. And the point isn't to force someone to do your will. Instead, you're showing them your vision, inviting them to see the world through your own eyes. That invitation requires vulnerability, and trust. Two things that can only be built with time in a safe environment. Psychological safety is the belief that you won't be punished, fired when you make a mistake. It's what allows folks to take risks, think creatively, try new things. Without that psychological safety, your team will remain stagnant, and you will struggle to recruit and retain the best engineers. 

When I think of what determines professional behavior, I think more often than not it's about respect. Respect for someone's lived experience, respect for their opinion, respect for their value as a person and as a professional. Society teaches us to categorize people as either bad or good. But all of us don't fit cleanly into either of those categories. We do good things. We do bad things. We make mistakes. We learn. We grow. Show those around you the same type of respect, and grace you'd wish to receive. More often than not, in interpersonal conflicts at work, it's wise for both parties to find common ground instead of retreating to their corners and digging in. You can't find compromise or resolution when either party becomes so ingrained in winning, that they can't see what's right. If you go into a conflict worried about being the winning party you're not going to get far. And this goes for colleagues as well as customers. The goal should be to find a solution that is acceptable to all parties. Not simply being declared the victor. Give people a voice, provide a formal feedback loop that enables everyone in the company to express their beliefs, verbalize their complaints, and improve their working situation. That is powerful. Irritations, small slights, if those things are left to simmer, the feelings calcify into anger, resentment and disdain. The trick is to design opportunities to let people let off a little steam in your organization. If people are allowed to communicate openly and honestly about their feelings without rebuke, you will have a healthier organization where everyone feels heard and recognized. 

Communication is something I think that's undervalued in tech. But I think it's communication that separates the truly phenomenal disruptive teams in tech from those who simply maintain the status quo. Try to make time to communicate over video, rather than email or chat. It's a more efficient and nuanced form of communication that conveys more than just the words. Just be careful to avoid fatigue. We're all spending way more time on teams and zoom than we ever did before. And there is a particular exhaustion that can overcome you if you're not careful. Innovating isn't easy. In fact, it's almost never executed according to plan. More often than not, it's an accident, stumbling over genius. You must focus on creating an environment where creative thought can lead your teams to wonder and discover. Ensure your entire team is treated well, compensated fairly, provided what they need to thrive as an individual, but also as a part of a greater whole. Avoid taxing employees with unnecessary overhead. Provide opportunities for them to experiment. Encourage risk-taking, avoid blame when those mistakes inevitably happen. 

Finally, tread lightly through this time. I don't know about you, this is my first pandemic. And I'm struggling both as an employee and as a manager. Yes, we must all still contribute to work, but we must balance the needs of the company with the needs of our peers and employees. So take breaks, breathe deeply. Get outside when you can, laugh at the small things. We're going to get through this together. I promise. Thank you so much for joining me. It's been an honor and. I appreciate your time. (upbeat music)