The Practice of Practice: Teamwork in Complexity

Matt Davis


Abstract This session will unravel the methodology around how we humans come together and operate complex software systems by taking a closer look at intuition through the eyes of performing in a music ensemble. It will introduce the concept of Fundamental Common Ground Breakdown and how it interrupts our efforts to collaborate and respond to events and incidents. A Chaos Engineering Game Day walkthrough will show that intuition is not an act of instinct, but a developed ability based on careful analysis and practice. By relating my own direct experiences in both performing music and running distributed systems, I will show how being inspired by working together in tech is a thing, just like playing in a band.

Improvising musicians develop a deep intuition built around internalizing the materials and form of their genre – like scales, chord changes, or rhythmic structures. It can be directly compared to the mental map that engineers develop when writing software and understanding complexities. Each member of an ensemble have their subjective view on relevant (but overlapping) parts of the system and are challenged when relating each other’s substrate to theirs. Musicians are prime examples that the more we come together and share our perspectives to further understand a complex system, the better we know how to bolster its resilience to uncertainty.

Because systems become more complex as they grow, shrinking the capacity of any one person to comprehend the whole thing, we depend heavily on shared and discovered knowledge. When joint activities in complexity fail due to assumptions that participants share the same knowledge, Fundamental Common Ground Breakdown rears its dragon-like head, making it difficult to move the activity forward. Whether it be during an incident or improvising jazz, part of the game is learning how to harmonize these separate threads of experience, with the emphasis that what goes right in a complex system is just as valuable as what goes wrong.

Bio Matt has a passion for exploring the relationships between the artistic mind and operating distributed computer architectures, with experience in a wide variety of fields including data center operations, storage, distributed data, and site reliability. In addition to embracing complex systems and chaos engineering, Matt creates music with DIY synthesizers and spins eclectic all vinyl DJ sets. He writes at sounding about music and technology.

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