Avoiding Bikesheds and Spotting Phonies

“A reactor is used because it is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it, so one assumes that those that work on it understand it. On the other hand, everyone can visualize a bicycle shed, so planning one can result in endless discussions because everyone involved wants to add a touch and show personal contribution.”


If you refer to a “color of the bikeshed” discussion, any FreeBSD geek will probably know immediately what you are saying. It stems from a mailing list post that stems from a book*, and the point is that when you open a discussion about something, the harder the subject is, the fewer people will contribute. There is an inverse proportion at play here, and it is useful to recognize the correlation on sight because it lets you discern the patterns of usefulness swirling about you in the form of co-workers.

The king of bikesheds, in my opinion, is the naming convention. I just shuddered writing the words, “naming convention.” Gah, shuddered again. Moving forward, I’m forced to refer to it as “NC,” lest my constant shuddering cause excessive typos.

The NC discussion arises often and in every type of network. Chances are, you will have to decide on a major NC every couple of years, and oh the fun to be had! Every single person wandering past as you sit in your corner of the cube farm will hear at least one tiny snippet of the NC discussion, and many will recognize it as an irresistable bikeshed and decide it merits a detour from the coffee maker. Let that sink in – you have co-workers so eager to argue the color of a bikeshed it overrides their need for caffeine. And that’s just in person. Wait until the discussion goes digital. That thread will last weeks, and expand in a logarithmic pattern, engulfing whole departments as if they were tiny boats stuck in a Lovecraftian nightmare.

Yes, I just equated NC discussions with the return of an evil elder god who crossed the cosmos eons ago to one day awaken and plunge the world into untold centuries of darkness.

But there is a silver lining. If you have a few bikesheds to build, you can establish a critical pattern. Specifically, the same person will be drawn to each new build, adding his two cents (typically while holding a coffee mug, maybe swaying gently back and forth as if rocked by a loving breeze), bickering over tiny, irrelevent points and generally dragging out a debate until he wins by attrition. Like beasts of the plains drawn to a communal watering hole, you can find your faithful bikeshed painter wherever help is needed least, and he is easily startled by the gunfire of complex BGP policy decisions or controlling microbursting via QoS.

Notice how he smiles as the conversation turns to something requiring little concentration and less book knowledge. How his eyes gloss over when the discussion turns unexpectedly technical as you debate the intricacies of the various service offerings. Be still! Watch closely as he majestically flexes his painting muscles to puuuuuull the conversation back to the “big picture.”

So you may have guessed by now how I respond to NC discussion invites, which is to say warily, if at all. If I do get involved, I leave somewhere between the second and third generation of the logarithmic spiral of doom. If you want to be useful to your employer, I highly recommend you avoid these time sinks and enter discussions about difficult topics. On their face, they are far less attractive because you have to focus on one thing longer than four minutes, but if your boss can pass a Turing test, he will notice the pattern of you tackling the difficult, and your yappy pal will be the first to go when times get tough. If your boss can’t see the difference, keep doing it anyway, and after a while you will be able to find a newer, streamlined boss with little trouble.

* Parkinson’s Law, an old book that’s snarky in the Monty Python, British sense. An easy and amusing read that I recommend.


  1. NeilTAnderson says

    Oh man, I recognise those situations! Great post, it made me chuckle over my mid-morning coffee as I witnessed the tractor-beam-like pull of a conversation about BYoD policy suck in a few more victims… I mean participants.

    I like to use Parkinson’s Law to my advantage by starting one of these conversations, then sneaking off to do the actual work whilst techno-peons are busy re-inventing the wheel.

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