Friday, September 26, 2008

A Lesson in Writing from 1944

I watched the Presidential debate tonight. One of the candidates mentioned a pair of letters that General Dwight David Eisenhower wrote in 1944. He wrote one letter that he would use in the event of a victorious Normandy invasion, and he wrote another one that he would use in the event of a defeat.

I was curious about those letters, so I googled for them. I found something interesting in a way that I didn't expected. Here's the text of the letter that General Eisenhower wrote in case the invasion force at Normandy had been defeated:
Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that Bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone. —July 5
Here is a picture of the handwritten note, which I found at

The handwritten note contains some important information that isn't present in the transcribed text alone. Observe that General Eisenhower edited his message. He actually edited himself three times; I'll refer here only to the top one. Here's the original version:
Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and the troops have been withdrawn.
Here's the modified version:
Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops.
The difference is subtle but important. In grammatical terms, General Eisenhower made the choice to discard passive voice and adopt the direct, subject-verb-object style of active voice. One Wikipedia article that I particularly admire identifies passive voice as a tactic of weasel wording: "Weasel words are usually expressed with deliberate imprecision with the intention to mislead the listeners or readers into believing statements for which sources are not readily available."

In Eisenhower's original version, he had stated that "the troops have been withdrawn." From this statement, we would have learned some information about the troops, but we would not have learned directly about who had withdrawn them. This passive-voice language, "the troops have been withdrawn," would have subtly conveyed the notion that the author wished to conceal the identity of the decision-maker about the withdrawal.

In the modified version, General Eisenhower made it abundantly clear who had made the decision: he did. The revised wording is more informative, it is more efficient, and it is more courageous.

Active-voice writing holds several advantages over passive-voice writing. I've learned this in my work, especially in consulting engagement reports, where I've found it's essential to write with active voice. Advantages of active-voice writing include:
  • Active voice transmits more information to the reader.
  • Active voice is plainer and simpler; it is easier to read.
  • Active voice is often more economical; it conveys as much or more information in fewer words.
  • Active voice is often more courageous.
The value of courage is obvious in the Eisenhower case. Even if the Allies had been defeated at Normandy, Eisenhower was courageous enough to accept the responsibility for the plan, its execution, and even its remediation.

Courage is also important in our writing about technology. Writing with active voice can be much more difficult than writing with passive voice. ...Because, you see, active voice gives you noplace to hide. When you know something, you say it. When you don't, active voice writing pretty much forces you to say that. It can be quite unsettling to admit to your audience that you don't know everything you wish you knew. It takes courage.

If you find yourself ashamed that your writing is too vague or that it asks more questions than it answers, then I think you have only four choices. (1) You can decide not to write anymore because it's too hard; (2) You can try to conceal your deficiencies with weasel wording; (3) You can admit the gaps in your work; or (4) You can improve the quality of your own knowledge.

Of course, I don't believe that giving up is the right answer. Option two—concealing your deficiencies with weasel wording—is, I think, by far the worst option of the four. Choice three frightens a lot of people, but actually it's not so bad. I believe that one of the great successes of the modern wiki- and forum-enabled Internet is the ease with which an author can voice unfinished ideas without feeling out of place. The fourth option is a fantastic solution if you have the time, the inclination, and the talent for it.

Back to General Eisenhower's note... I find his edit inspiring. By making it, he reveals something about his thought process. He wrote his original text in the common, politically safe "tasks have been executed" kind of way. But his edit reveals that it was especially important to him to be direct and forthcoming about who was making the decisions here, and who was at fault in case those decisions went wrong.

Knowing that General Eisenhower edited his note in the particular way that he did actually makes me respect him even more than if he had written it in active voice in the first place.

* * *

Here's where I thought I was finished for the evening. But I want to show you what it looks like to execute faithfully upon my own bitter advice. Eisenhower's letter piqued my interest in the D-Day invasion of Normandy. One thing I noticed is that the invasion was initiated on June 6, 1944. Eisenhower's memo is dated "July 5." Uh, that's a month after the invasion, not the night before. It was another hour or so of writing lots more stuff (which I've long since deleted) before I googled "eisenhower message june july" and found this, which states simply that, "The handwritten message by General Eisenhower, the In Case of Failure message, is mistakenly dated 'July' 5 instead of 'June' 5."

Ok. I can accept this as authoritative for my own purposes, for one, because it doesn't matter too much to me tonight if it's not true. It's a plausible mistake to imagine a man making who's under as much pressure as he would have been on June 5, 1944. For comparison, I could barely remember my own phone number on the night of the Loma Priete earthquake, which I rode out in the Foster City Holiday Inn in 1989. But of course, such an anecdote about me is no proof of this particular proposition about Dwight D. Eisenhower.

So, do you see what I mean when I say that writing is HARD!? The act of writing itself—if you try to do it well—forces you to do work that you never intended to do when you set out to write your piece.

That's one of the good things about the software industry. When someone makes a statement about computer software, I can confirm or refute the statement myself using strace, DTrace, 10046, block dumps, or some other research tool that I can actually get my hands on. That doesn't make it easy, but it usually does make it at least possible.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Business of Software 2008, day 2

Greetings from the second and final day of "Business of Software 2008, the first ever Joel on Software conference."

Yesterday was a hard act to follow, but today met the challenge. Today's roster:
Some of today's highlight ideas for me (again, with apologies to the speakers for the crude summarization):
  • Nothing is difficult to someone who doesn't know what he's talking about. (Johnson)
  • Creating more artifacts and meetings is no answer. (Johnson)
  • Entrepreneurs are better entrepreneurs when they're not worried about their personal balance sheet. (Jennings)
  • "In the software field, we don't have to deal with the perversions of matter." (Stallman)
  • VCs say 65% of failed new ventures are the result of people problems with founding or management teams. (Wasserman)
  • Websites are successful to the extent they're self-evident as possible. (Krug)
  • Sensible usability testing is absolutely necessary and, better yet, possible and even inexpensive. You can even download a script at Steve's site. (Krug)
  • The huge chasm between #1 and #2 is all about elements of happiness, aesthetics, and culture. (Spolsky)
Steve Johnson and Steve Krug gave truly superb presentations. Steve Krug I knew about beforehand, from his book. Steve Johnson I did not know, but I do now. These are people I'll take courses from someday. And of course, Joel Spolsky... I had seen him speak before, so I knew what to expect. He's one of the best speakers I've ever watched. I've asked him to keynote at Hotsos Symposium 2009. We'll see what he says.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Business of Software 2008, day 1

Greetings from Boston, where I'm attending "Business of Software 2008, the first ever Joel on Software conference."

It has been fantastic so far. Here's a featured presenters roll call for the day:
That's not to mention the eight Pecha Kucha presentations, although I will mention two that I particularly enjoyed by Jason Cohen of SmartBear Software ("Agile marketing") and Alexis Ohanian, founder of Reddit ("How to start, run, and sell a web 2.0 startup"). Alexis won the contest, which netted him a new MacBook Air. Not bad for 6 minutes 40 seconds of work. ;-)

Here are some of the highlight ideas of the day for me (with apologies to the speakers for, in some cases, crudely over-simplifying their ideas):
  • Ideas that spread win. (Godin)
  • The leader of a tribe begins as a heretic. (Godin, Livingston)
  • Premature optimization is bad. In business too. Not just code. (Fried, Shah)
  • Interruptions are bad. Meetings are worse. (Fried, Sink, Livingston)
  • "Only two things grow forever: businesses and tumors." Unless you take inelligent action. (Fried)
  • Pricing is hard. Really, really hard. (Shah)
  • Business plans are usually stupid. (Fried, Shah, Livingston)
  • Software specs are usually stupid. (Fried)
  • An important opportunity cost of raising VC money is the time you're not spending working on the business of your actual business. (Shah)
  • The most common cause of startup failure isn't competition, it's fear. (Livingston)
  • Your first idea probably sucks. (Fried, Sink, Shah, Livingston)
  • Radical mood swings are part of the territory for founding a company. (Livingston)
An overarching belief that I think bonds almost all of the 300 people here at the event is this: If you're not working on your passion, then you're wasting yourself. It is inspiring to met so many people at one time who are living courageously without compromising this belief. Re-SPECT.

I think a good conference should provide three main intellectual benefits for people:
  1. You can expose yourself to new ideas, which can make you wiser.
  2. You can fortify some of the beliefs you already had, which can make you more confident.
  3. You can learn better ways to explain your beliefs to others, which can make you more effective.
And then of course there's networking, fun, and all that stuff—that's easy. So far, this event is ringing the bell on every dimension that I needed. Absolutely A+.