The structure of a tilt

While I roughly understand how boosts and bumpers work, and I’ve seen/made plenty of those, tilts felt a bit more tricky. Coincidentally, a colleague recently asked me why anyone would open-source a library that is a part of another, larger project (whether itself open or close-sourced), and it just felt like a perfect moment to smush these threads into one story.

At the crux of every tilt are two forces in a or near a state of static equilibrium. When I find a teacup sitting on a table, the cup might seem serene. However, it is constantly experiencing a tension of two opposing forces: the force of gravity that is trying to yank the cup closer to the center of the Earth, and the force of the table that is preventing that, called in physics the normal force. I love the name, because I can just picture the table acting as the maintainer of normalcy, the defender against the crazy antics of gravity. If you think about it, gravity force acts as a boost (“Hey! Let’s go nuts and flyyyy!”) and normal force as a bumper (“Not if I have anything to do with it!”) Static equilibriums tend to be like that. They are a result of some long-term boost pointed at an equally robust bumper. For example, a software engineering team that is building a piece of critical infrastructure for a larger project is experiencing a near-state of static equilibrium: the force of the team’s mandate to ship the infrastructure (a boost) is mightily pushing against the force of difficulty of the problem (a bumper).

Tilts take advantage of such standoffs by angling the surface of where the interaction of the forces occurs. I once put a cup down on a piece of computer equipment and left the room, only to rush back, alarmed by the sound of glass breaking. What the heck? I looked closely … and sure enough, the surface was gently – nearly imperceptibly – curved, guiding the cup to slide off. Physics tells us that even a small angle between equally opposing forces results in additional momentum that’s roughly orthogonal to these forces. Wait a minute… Am I adding “silly physics” to my silliness repertoire?! You betcha.

Here’s the crux: this additional momentum will remain present for the duration of the tension between the two forces. Because of that, tilts can be a durable source of nonlinear effects. It’s like a judo move of influence: let existing forces do our bidding. Tilts typically have this “might as well…” quality. Unlike the booster’s contagious “let’s go!” or the bumper’s authoritative “don’t you dare,” tilts usually sound like “we’re doing this thing already, might as well do that other thing.”

So here we have a composition of a tilt: the boost and the bumper in a nearly even draw, and a small angle representing another, additional objective at the point where the two meet.

Let’s return to that engineering team we met earlier. Suppose that in addition to their mandate, they have such an additional objective. They believe that the surrounding software ecosystem will benefit from having a robust, best-in-class library that their project represents. So they do a tilt: they structure their code as a separate project, and run it in the open. Yes, there’s a bit of overhead associated with that, and yes, some colleagues furrow their brows at why this extra work has to happen (“I don’t get it, why are they not in our main repo? They are still part of our project, right?”) But over time, a magical thing happens. The funding of the overarching mandate ensures that the library is solidly built and can shoulder a high-scale deployment. The community around it is flourishing, excited about improvements and helping hunt down regressions. The project is welcoming those who want to adopt the technology, making it easy for others to innovate on top of them. Instead of remaining an implementation detail stuck in the amber of a larger project, the project becomes the means of industry-wide technological progress. 

What I portrayed here is not a fictional tale. It’s the story of projects like WebKit, Skia, V8, and many others. Tilts are incredibly powerful that way. Especially when the forces in tension are large, even a tiny angle results in massive compounding effects over time, changing the entire landscape – just like the projects I mentioned changed the landscape of computing. If you are aiming to effect a lasting change in your organization, this might be the influencing approach to reach for.

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