Long, drawn-out document or code reviews that last for hours drive me crazy. However, for some people, including most data scientists, the reviews are a comfort zone.
Intellectuals enjoy spending time with colleagues in extended sessions of constructive criticism. This is healthy and required to a certain degree, but with data scientists, it's usually taken too far. When you're creating a scope document, a requirements document, a design document, or code, it's good to have peers and stakeholders provide ideas, advice, and corrections. If this process takes longer than it should (which happens more often than not), you sacrifice time that could be spent on much better things. Here are six secrets to get through reviews as fast as possible.
Secret #1: Be thoughtul about your list of reviewers
If you have too many reviewers, you're setting yourself up for a long process. If you have too few reviewers, you won't have enough perspective for a quality review. So, you must be very careful about who you involve in the review process.
Most people err on the side of too many reviewers, because they want to ensure everyone feels included; this is especially true here in Silicon Valley. Leaders feel like everybody's opinion needs to be heard, which is fine if you're okay with the review process taking forever. It's more efficient to select only the most valuable reviewers, and then defend your decision to not include the whole organization.
Secret #2: Focus on success, not perfection
You must be clear on the document's objective, and scale your level of review appropriately. When you achieve the objective, move on.
I'm working with a team of data professionals to review a preliminary scope document. The intent is to provide executive leadership and other key stakeholders a general idea of what the project is intended to accomplish so we can start the funding process. Unfortunately, we're spending a lot of time on very specific details that won't show up for a couple of years. In my opinion, this document should have taken 30 minutes to review; we're entering week two of the process. This is not unusual with a team of data scientists.
Secret #3: Instruct reviewers to review the doc before meeting
It's important that all reviewers review the document privately before everyone comes together for a group review. Don't skip this step, and don't let people show up for the group review unprepared.
Even when I'm facilitating a brainstorming session, I'll give the group a few minutes of alone time to collect and record their thoughts before we start the discussion. It takes time for many to formulate their thoughts, and it's more productive for most if that activity is done in private. You don't want to take up valuable group time while people are trying to figure out what's going on.
Secret #4: Skip grammar and style issues
Never edit for style and grammar in a group review. I see this highly unproductive activity happen all the time. Even when there's a clear style guide in place, everyone has his or her own way to word a sentence or construct a phrase.
A document should be edited for style and tone, though not as a group. You should instruct the reviewers to edit for content. Once the content is set, assign an editor to give it a final polish.
Secret #5: Chunk it down
Group reviews are best done in 30-minute chunks. After about 30 minutes, the value of the feedback starts to diminish. Furthermore, people will take their time on insignificant issues if they feel they have it.
After reviewers pre-read and have their comments prepared, break the document down into sections that should take about 20 minutes to review, and then structure the group review in 30-minute time boxes. If you end 10 minutes early, great — take an extended break. If you need the full 30 minutes, you have the time allotted. Don't ever exceed 30 minutes — even for one minute.
Secret #6: Set the tone and facilitate strongly
Finally, set the tone up front and make sure everyone stays on track during a group review. It's very easy to get offtrack, even when you've done your diligence.
Before the review starts, ask people to quickly flash their comments so you can see them. If even one person hasn't done their homework, reschedule the meeting.
Make it very clear that: pre-reads are required, no additional reviewers are allowed, perfection loops are not tolerated, feedback is strictly limited to content, and that each section will be reviewed in 30 minutes. Then, when the group review starts, stick to your guns.
As you're going through the review keep a close eye on the clock. Use a parking lot for side conversations, and bring the discussion to an end before the 30-minute mark.
It may not be the leisurely day of intellectual discussion that everyone was anticipating, but who has time for that?
- Tips for managing the technical documentation tech review
- 5 time management tips for busy data scientists
- Curt Savoie: Principal data scientist for the City of Boston. Data philosopher. Wikipedia spelunker.
- Eliot Van Buskirk. Data and music storyteller. Child opera singer. Ramen noodle obsessive.
John Weathington is President and CEO of Excellent Management Systems, Inc., a management consultancy that helps executives turn chaotic information into profitable wisdom.