Signal Vs Noise

Posted on Sat 14 November 2020 in productivity

Signal Vs Noise

One responsibility of engineers & especially leads is managing many channels of signals : emails, blog posts (internal and external), tags , push notifications, group chats, alerts from dashboards and more.

These signals tend to scale exponentially to the number of projects & people that you are responsible for.

Quickly you'll need to set up a system to make sure that you are receiving high-signal information and filtering out low-signal noise. How do you do that?

For each channel, it's important to set up and continuously refine filters that matter to you.

Each system typically has filtering that can be configured based on keywords & meta data, like an Outlook or Gmail filter.

it helps to prioritize, e.g. P0, P1 .. Pn (lowest). Then decide which frequency you will check.

For example, in email you may set up folders for different threads, along with P0 to Pn folders depending on project, software component, service or other ownership scope.

For P0, check every 30 min, P1 2 hr, P2 once-per-day and so on.

Weekly on Friday, set an hour to prune your backlog, clean up folders, and revise your filters to make sure that you are continuing to get high-signal and filter out noise.

Outbound vs Inbound

We've covered inbound signals mostly -- signals being sent to you. How can we be proactive to receive signals not being sent to us? I.e., to identify upcoming discussions, trends, events, milestones before we are notified of them.

With email, you can subscribe to mailing-lists/groups , route them to your mailbox folders and then set high-signal keyword searches to receive content of interest. This might be an API that you depend on, or a product launch you are partnering with.

For teams that use slack, workplace or other shared discussion forums, set up keywords to monitor and relay notifications (to email or push notifications) to give you pro-active signal on developments.

Think of this strategy like the NSA, where you are combing the universe of signals out there to get early indication of trends, warnings and events that may affect your strategy.

Common Pitfalls

Repetition / Retries:

People tend to duplicate signals from one channel to another, e.g. from push notif to email. This is itself noise. Instead, try to find out why the signal was missed, and elevate it to the higher signal . alternatively, filter out noise surrounding that notification that may have concealed it. For example, if your alert volume is high from a database, that may have been over-shadowing a critical disk-space notification. For if it's updates on a project, perhaps generic status updates smothered a major milestone update that you meant to receive.

Bankruptcy :

The number of channels and volume of signals has multiplied over the decade. People are already overwhelmed by email. How to avoid bankruptcy?

There are a few approaches to cope with overwhelming signal volume: aggregate , delegate and pruning.

If you have redundant or similar alerts, aggregate those into a trending statistic and track the stat like avg volume, rate of change etc.

If true p0, P1 volume is too high, then divide the scope of ownership (based on keywords or metadata) into buckets assigned to separate owners.

And every week, continue to tune the system and prune out low-signal to reduce overall volume. Be honest with your capacity, and push back on the "queue"