The Culture of the 5 Whys: Or, How Not to End Up Building a Mass Transit System in a Small Town with a Centralized Population

Ahhh, Lyle Lanley! A project manager’s worst fear. A shiny, charismatic confidence man who deftly convinces a group of mainly heuristic-based decision makers, to approve and prioritize a project that nearly obliterates a town. Meanwhile, the voice of more algorithmic-based decision logic, Marge Simpson, who wanted to repair the potholes up and down Main Street, is abruptly silenced with the reply, “Sorry Marge, the mob has spoken!”

Throughout the course of over 625 episodes, we have learned that Marge is usually right, and is the consistent purveyor of good advice and solid decision making. We also have learned that Homer has his own unique way of thinking through the outcomes of his choices.

However, despite Marge vs. the Monorail being one of the classic “What did Homer do now” episodes, it is fair to suggest that both styles of decision making voiced in the Springfield Town Hall have value. Heuristic decision making is based on quick and simple choices. Mental shortcuts, which can feel like the best decision in the moment but may not always be right for the longer term, or free from personal bias. Algorithmic decision making attempts to derive the “right” answer and eliminate anything irrational from the outcome, but algorithms take time and have difficulty factoring in nuances of human dynamics, like how regal that sash makes Homer look!

So, why did I want to blog about the 5 Whys? Well, much like the study of failure as insight into how humans think, so is the examination of how we ask questions and make decisions. At its core, asking questions is about problem solving. We ask questions to acquire and assess information about a topic, and use this as criteria to make decisions. It sounds straightforward, doesn’t it? We must all be experts at decision making, given that an average person makes hundreds of decisions a day, from what to wear, to your personalized Starbucks order, or about how close you think you are to the signal, as the light turns from green to yellow. But decision making can be a deeply challenging endeavor. Philosophers from Plato to Hume have wondered if there was room in decision making for anything other than pure logic, or if it should be reason that follows passion. Revisiting Plato’s ship of state metaphor, we know he believed that decision making should reflect both our knowledge and values. Socrates spoke about asking questions and decision making, in terms of developing citizens to “produce a flourishing city-state” through reasoning and logical debate.  One could conclude that the objective of questioning and reasoning your way through issues, is to cultivate a culture of appreciative inquiry, with the outcome of improving the quality of work and life. This would apply to individuals, as well as teams and organizations. I mean we all want to know why, right?

Everyone has heard at least once, that the quality of our lives is directly based on the decisions we make. Such adages as, “you are what you eat,” or “you are what you read,” or “your face is a ship of state!” So, it would follow that good decisions are predicated on a robust process of inquiry for making them. Two notable techniques for asking questions to arrive at a decision/conclusion are the 5 Whys and the Socratic method. The 5 Whys is an attempt to identify root-cause by asking more probing and clarifying questions with each new piece of information received. Ideally, you work through the perceived symptoms of an issue until you reach the true problem. The Socratic method is a process of hypothesis elimination, wherein you search for general truths and analyze them to determine their consistency with other relative beliefs. The Socratic method also utilizes a sequence of questions, including asking opening questions to generate a discussion, then moving to several guiding questions to elaborate, and finally asking closing questions to summarize what feedback was provided and bringing the discussion back to the original problem statement. The 5 Whys and the Socratic method are only a few of the options available for approaching decision making. In general, a good first step is developing a habit of asking questions and advocating for information. Just as we would tell our patrons to do. Just as a democracy should function. Advocate for information!

With any decision making body, the goal should be to follow a consistent methodology that helps accurately identify the problem, business need, or functional requirement, so a valid and sustainable decision can be developed. If no investment is made in asking questions about the root problem/need, any investment made in a solution will be out of alignment. Some other approaches to help gather information and ask questions include peer review and benchmarking. Inevitably someone out there has attempted what you are considering, to varying degrees of success. Asking your peers questions about their decision making process and experience can produce invaluable insights. How did they evaluate the information for a decision? What were their resources and constraints? With hindsight, would they do the same again? Did it put their town on the map?

Evaluating vendors and making site visits are other helpful information gathering steps to take before making a decision. Throughout our implementation of the ArchivesSpace public user interface at Yale, we made multiple “site visits” talking with the good people of Harvard, University of Louisville, NC State, and Georgia Tech. They shared with us what they decided, how they did it, and how they were going to continue. In turn, we shared, and will continue to share, the artifacts of our project team, and outcomes of implementation. (In fact, I think we still owe GT our request de-duplication process). Part of the original intent of the 5 Whys was to physically go and see the problem being described, or the solution in place, and not ask questions from too far a distance. And following up with a vendor to validate they can deliver what they promised is essential. Don’t sign anything until you do!

There is an artistry to question asking. As a facilitator, or business analyst, you want to be mindful not to lead a person too much, or to ask only binary questions. Question asking should be designed to help us validate what we think or know, and help us determine what is unknown. It can be much harder to identify what is unknown, however even acknowledging that there are unknowns is an important step in decision making. An approach to try is called Humble Inquiry. Try asking each person to say one thing they don’t know about the proposal in front of them, and offer to go first to show there is no stigma with not having all the answers. The questions asked by a decision-making body should be constructed in such a way, that they can challenge any assumptions inherent in the problem statement, or project proposal. For example, if a member of the team states we should make decision A, “because it’s the best and others are doing it already” then there should be follow up questions that help document why it is the best (what are the points of comparison), and questions that document how your organization is similar and different from these other places. Advocate for that information. Another important question is “does the solution meet the stated business need?” And again, document how and to what extent it does resolve the need.  Questions should strive to broaden our view of any problem or statement being presented. Questions should prompt us to consider alternatives, including low-tech, or no-tech solutions. They should also help an organization determine if the timing is right for a decision.  Questions such as, “What if we waited 6 months? Or, a year?” are good examples to generate discussion about the issue and describe the near-term environment. Asking exploratory, or adjoining questions can be useful to take a proposed solution through several variations and perspectives. These could be “what ifs?” and “how does this idea relate to that idea?” And be sure to ask clarifying questions. Even in a one-on-one conversation, something can be misunderstood.

I believe revisiting former decisions is also a worthwhile exercise in an organization. Folks shouldn’t rush to say, “but we already tried that,” or “it didn’t work before.” The data points may have changed, or other variables may have become obsolete over time, or now newly introduced. The conditions of the markets we work in are always evolving. Developing a culture of question asking, or appreciative inquiry, requires investment from management. They need to set the example and incorporate question asking and information validation into the organization’s decision, prioritization, and planning procedures. As children, we ask questions to learn and process information about the world around us. Continuing through university, we are encouraged to learn and evaluate by asking questions, and engaging in intellectual debate and dissent. But post-university a shift begins to occur, and then greater power and value is placed on stating the answer. Being certain about your choice. Being right. Acting quickly. And then, asking questions may be viewed as disruptive, or an attempt to slow progress. So, the person who asks, “Is this the best choice for us?” or “Is this sustainable over the next four years?” may not be viewed as a team player, because they aren’t tacitly agreeing.

Using the 5 Whys is also useful for identifying user stories, or functional requirements in a project. “As a processing archivist, I want to unpublish selected components in a series, so that I may prevent sensitive data from appearing in a public search result in the brand-new fancy awesome Archives at Yale discovery tool.” You have to logically walk through not just what you want, but why you need it, and what value it generates. A good 5 Whys interview could result in not only process improvements, but better product design sure to please even the most intractable of stakeholders.

Another important time to ask questions in a project lifecycle is during the After Action Review. I have previously blogged about Before Action Reviews, but the AAR is another phase in the project lifecycle to spend time in reflection. These complementary, question-driven periods in a project help set the message that what we work on is important, and so is how we work on it. The AAR typically asks three questions, “What went well?” “What could have been refined?” and “What would you change next time?” The first two questions reflect on what has happened, and the third is gathering feedback on how the organization could change their process with future projects. And ideally, the information gained should evolve into knowledge applied. By conducting an AAR and asking these questions, you may be able to determine why a problem was not detected during a project implementation, or if it was, why that problem was not prevented (or mitigated).

The 5 whys will not produce a solution for every type of problem or proposal in an organization, but I mention it as a starting place for business analysts and project managers. Developing this skill as part of your workplace culture, should lead to more open conversation and better overall problem identification. A questions-positive culture is also likely to be more creative and innovative, by honoring ideation, iterative design, and exploration. And remember, sometimes it’s OK to just let go, knowing the cosmic ballet will go on, and with the help of science (and doughnuts) everything will resolve to a happy ending.


ArchivesSpace Public User Interface Technical Integration

IT projects aren’t about IT

I like to say that projects such as upgrading servers and rolling out new software are not actually IT projects.  They’re really, for lack of a better phrase, human projects.  They’re about analyzing business needs, altering and optimizing workflows, and making work more enjoyable and effective for everyone who uses the product or service.

The IT side of a project, while it demands precise and strict planning, is just a part of the whole show.  It’s the special effects.  It wows the crowd.  It requires painstaking attention to detail, many months of agonizing work, and at times an enormous budget.  But without excellent writing, acting, and cinematography around it, the movie is nothing but a big digital T-Rex stomping through a city surrounded by exploding cars and time-travelling liquid metal robot men.

So, with your permission, I’d like to tell you a little bit about those special effects.  Welcome to The ArchivesSpace Public User Interface Technical Integration Saga.

The principal concern of the Technical Integration group is that the physical, user-facing transition from YFAD to the ArchivesSpace PUI is a smooth one.  This requires notifying our patrons that the change is coming, redirecting requests for individual finding aids to the PUI instead of YFAD, transitioning YFAD touch-points to the PUI, and giving the PUI the YUL look-and-feel.

Notifying patrons

It is critical to let our patrons and stakeholders know that the finding aid tool on our site is changing.  Springing changes on patrons is a sure-fire way to welcome pitchfork-wielding mobs, earn one-star Yelp reviews, and eventually be escorted from the building.  None of these things is particularly good.

On the day of the soft launch, notice will be posted on the YUL home page announcing the arrival of the PUI and the sunsetting of YFAD.  The notice will include a link to try out the new PUI and information on when YFAD will no longer be available.

On the day of the official cutover, notice will be posted to the YUL home page that YFAD is no longer available.

Individual libraries will have many options on how to handle their own landing pages (such as during the soft launch and after the official cutover.  These options are:

  • Whether they’d like to have an ArchivesSpace PUI search box on their landing page during the soft launch, and which existing search box should be replaced by it;
  • Whether they’d like the same “ArchivesSpace PUI is coming” notice as the YUL home page posted on their landing page; and
  • Whether they’d like the same “YFAD is no longer available” notice as the YUL home page posted on their landing page, and when it should come down.

The ArchivesSpace PUI search box would replace one of the landing page’s existing search boxes in the area highlighted below.


The “ArchivesSpace PUI is coming” messages can can be displayed as green “info” type of message or red “important notice” type.  Below are examples of  the two.

The text of the messages will be determined by the PUI Branding and Marketing Workgroup.

There is a web form available for individual libraries to easily (well, I hope easily) choose from the above options.

Redirecting requests for individual finding aids

The trickiest part of the PUI rollout is ensuring that requests for individual finding aids are redirected to their PUI equivalent.  When a patron requests the YFAD finding aid for the Harvey Williams Cushing Papers in the Yale University Library, they should be brought to the ArchivesSpace PUI finding aid for the Harvey Williams Cushing Papers in the Yale University Library.

Therefore, we need to create redirects that turn a request for a YFAD finding aid into one for its PUI finding aid on an individual basis.  Redirecting individual finding aids is a very good thing, as it ensures that all existing finding aid links continue to work.  More, search results in Google and other search engines (does anyone even use Bing?) will also continue to work.  Even better:  The redirects are done in such a way as to cause search engines to update their indexes with the PUI URL.  Epic win!

The brow crinkling part of executing the redirects is that the ArchivesSpace PUI URLs are significantly different from the YFAD ones.  An example of a simple redirect would be going from


In the above case, all that is needed is “take everything after the old server name (the part in bold) and append it to the new server name.”  Coding this is simple.  More simple, probably, than just writing it in English.

The YFAD-to-PUI URL changes, on the other hand, are complex.  Example:

must be changed to


It’s apparent that what comes after the server name in the first example is not the same as what comes after the server name in the second.  What’s probably not apparent is that what makes the first URL unique is not anything like the second.  This eliminates the possibility of making wholesale programmatic changes such as “take everything after the server name and append it to the new.”

The solution is to take each individual YFAD URL and redirect them to the new PUI URL.  Unlike our first example, coding the solution is considerably more difficult than writing it in English.  The existing YFAD URL must be extracted for each finding aid, and the new PUI URL must be matched up to each finding aid.  This will need to be done for more than 10,000 finding aids.

Again, yikes.

By far, the toughest bit of this is to actually get the list of old URLs to new URLs.  Thankfully, Mark Custer did just that and delivered the list.  I honestly have no idea how he did it.  I owe him many beers.

Once this list was compiled, it was not hard to process it so the unique part of the YFAD URL redirected to the new PUI URL.  It was a little hairy, sure, but the process was straight-forward enough to be documented and tucked away should it ever be needed again.  We now have a complete configuration file that will redirect the old to the new.  Rockin’.

Here’s where the spanner gets tossed into the works:  The YFAD server is itself going to be decommissioned at some point in the future when YUL has declared the PUI a success.  Installing the redirect rules into the YFAD server won’t do the job.  When the server is no more, no one will be home to shuttle the YFAD requests off to their shiny new PUI home.  Nuts!

What now?

With a little digital slight-of-hand, we can make this operation work.  We take an existing server that we know will be around for the foreseeable future, and install the redirect configuration file on it.  This server will now happily escort YFAD URLs to their PUI equivalent.  On the day of the official cutover, we just need to configure the network to think that the YFAD server is this new interloper (which, incidentally, is named Sapphire after my lovely and tech-savvy kitty) .  Once that’s done, hey presto! the existing YFAD URLs, duped by the network into going to Sapphie, will redirect to the ArchivesSpace PUI!  Yaaaaaaay!

Sadly, due to the fact that search URLs are built on-the-fly and completely dependent upon what the patron entered into the search box, it will not be possible to redirect searches.  This means that old search boxes and saved (“canned”) searches will not be redirected to the PUI with the results displayed as desired.  Instead, they will be brought to the PUI search page where they can re-perform the search.

Transitioning YFAD touch-points to the ArchivesSpace PUI

YFAD has a significant presence in YUL’s web environment.  The website, LibGuides, and digital exhibitions all interoperate with YFAD to some degree.  Making sure that these touch-points transition from YFAD to the PUI is going to be an important part of the official cutover.

Special care will need to be given to the touch-points that include search boxes.  As mentioned above, the one thing that cannot be redirected from YFAD to the PUI is a search string.  If a user attempts to use a search box that searches YFAD, they will be redirected to the PUI search page rather than their search results.

Search box widgets in the the * web space will be updated for the official cutover.  We have worked with stakeholders to notify us about any YFAD presence outside of the web ecosystem, where we can contact their web administrators and ask them to update links.

The ArchivesSpace PUI will be rolled out in a soft launch.  This means that both YFAD and the PUI will be available simultaneously to patrons and staff for four to six weeks.  When the PUI is in soft launch, it will not be a beta release.  It will be the real deal.  While we have prepared for issues and errors as much as possible, all staff are encouraged to use and review the PUI to help us find any integration points that may have slipped through.

Giving the PUI the YUL look-and-feel

To provide a professional and cohesive experience for visitors, a web environment should maintain consistent interface elements and visual cues.  Pulling this off in the YUL web ecosystem is a challenge as we use many back-end systems to deliver our web content:  The Drupal site, FindIt, Quicksearch, Orbis, YFAD/PUI, LibGuides, LibCal, Ask Yale, CampusPress, and Omeka.  I’m probably forgetting a few.

It’s important that we integrate the PUI look-and-feel into the YUL website’s as much as possible.  The Technical Integration group will bring the YUL identity to the PUI by carrying over the YUL color scheme and general branding.  The Technical Integration group will also develop documentation and suggestions on what else can be done to make the PUI experience integrate more with the YUL website’s.  Having a consistent and holistic web ecosystem goes beyond colors and fonts.  Having consistent location, purpose, and actions of interface widgets, a clearly understood objective of each application or component, and seamless transitions from one touchpoint to another are the ultimate goals.

It’s not about us

At the end of the day, we are providing a tool that must make it easier for our patrons to discover special collections material while streamlining and improving the workflow of Library staff.  The ArchivesSpace PUI must work for them.  To that end, we will be providing a feedback mechanism in the PUI that will collect the thoughts of staff and patrons throughout the soft launch period.  The feedback will provide invaluable insight regarding which parts of the tool are working and which parts could be improved.


I hope this provides a behind-the-scenes look at the special effects of the ArchivesSpace Public User Interface rollout.  It’s a complex and difficult part of an even more complex and more difficult whole.  It doesn’t make the movie into a great movie on its own.  Special effects have its own Academy Award, but ask yourself this:  Was Total Recall really the best film of 1990 just because it won the Oscar for best special effects?

What Could Possiblye Go Wrong? More on Project Management Themes as we Implement the ArchivesSpace PUI

Failure. What don’t I love about failure? Yes, it’s true, my Netflix queue is full of disaster-recovery documentaries, and for *fun* I read case studies about large-scale failures (Note to self: Get dictionary for Christmas).  And I love it not for the reasons you might think. I don’t like wreckage, rubbernecking, or even commotion. I don’t ever want people to be in pain. I mean, I cover my eyes while watching Law & Order! I like examining failure because it’s an opportunity to learn how people think, and the assumptions they make. It’s human to fail, but from a young age we are socially conditioned to avoid it all costs, which ironically, often leads to failure.

I have a very high comfort level with failure. Always have. Hello, old friend. I’m naturally a very serious person. Not that I don’t have fun, or at least my version of it, but in general I can think too much, worry a bit too much, and when I’m all up in it, I can sometimes forget the standard social norms and graces, like polite nodding and small talk. Over time I’ve learned to provide folks a heads up about it. I might tell them not to look directly at my face when I’m thinking, because you’ll think I’m trying to kill you, but I’m not! I just have a terrible thinking face, because I might let everything physical go slack, so I can direct all my internal resources to my sequence of thought. Some of this comes with the job of being a PM. You are trained to look for potential sources of risk and failure, the one thing that everyone else might miss. So you wander a little further into the rain sometimes. What you’re doing though, is trying to protect everyone. That’s how I feel about it. It sounds strange, but by thinking about failure you are trying to bolster their success. I might issue a preface such as, “I’m going to be me for a moment here, and do six months of thinking in the next 3 minutes, so buckle up.” Sometimes I feel like I’m sticking out in the day-to-day, and making folks a bit uncomfortable with my serious outlook. So inevitably when a failure comes, or an emergency, or crisis, I don’t mind as much, because suddenly I become the most normal person in the room. When everything is going up in flames, I’m just like, “Dude, bring it!”

It’s interesting to try and pinpoint where failure begins. Failure can be cumulative or discrete. One of the most referenced examples of failure is the Challenger explosion. I have discussed this case in a group I participate in called #fail4lib, a small subset of the #code4lib group. It’s sort of a support group for people like me! Most folks are familiar with the events of that morning, however, what may be less known, is that the failure began more than a year before that fateful morning. More than a year before the scheduled launch, engineering tests and launch simulations clearly demonstrated the O-ring materials did not consistently perform well. More than a year before that clear, blue, cold morning, a person with experience, integrity, and valid concerns, spoke up and said there is a problem, but he was told by management to back down. Most people view the Challenger explosion as the result of something that went wrong that day, that moment. It’s understandable, the need to see something so horrific as a total accident. And it isn’t something anyone ever wanted to happen. Not ever. But this wasn’t accidental. This was a cumulative failure, not discrete. And the man who spoke up was certainly not the only point of failure/course correction, but I suppose for various reasons his story stands out to me. So what did we learn from this? What did NASA? To this day their procedures reflect the lessons learned from this event. I think an important lesson is if someone raises a concern in their area of expertise or exposure, follow it through. Walk their beat with them, see it as close to their perspective as possible. Have a risk registry for the project and add the raised concern. The risk registry would document the stated issue, the likelihood of it occurring, and a value for what the impact would be. The risk registry also contains your organization’s strategy for dealing with it, whether Avoid, Control, Transfer, or Accept. No one individual or event can control failure, but there are methods to mitigate or better prepare for it to reduce impact. The playwright Arthur Miller is also very reflective about the inevitably of failure in some form, and how as individuals, or organizations, we can better understand the value it can hold.

There is another event a few years back that is a more discrete failure, the crash and sinking of the cruise ship Costa Concordia. First things first, 33 souls were lost. 32 during the sinking, and 1 during recovery. And you can never take that lightly. The captain (who went to trial for manslaughter and abandoning ship) strayed off the chartered course last minute. Well, then came the recovery effort, led by a project manager from Italy. I think for a PM, getting the call to manage a project like this is like going to the show. You’ve been called up to the majors. As PM on such an effort, you have a real countdown clock, each day of the plan is costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, you have unprecedented magnitude of risk, environmental variables you cannot control, and the whole world waiting as a stakeholder. You have to be on your game. You have to think everything through to the greatest extent.You have to imagine multiple outcomes, and prepare for all of them. Managing a recovery effort, or the result of a failed project, means even less tolerance for any additional errors. Costa Concordia was two times the size of the Titanic! It carried 100 thousand gallons of fuel, and it carried supplies and chemicals for 4200 people. It sank in a fragile eco-system where a rare breed of mussel lived. Each diver working on the recovery can only stay down for 45 minutes-talk about a project sprint! This was a half-billion dollar cruise ship, and the recovery effort triple-exceeded that price tag. The force required to to right the ship was one and a half times that required for a space shuttle takeoff!  It took over 7 hours to right it 1/6th of the way up, and once they start, they can’t stop, so they worked even in the dark of night. Can you imagine getting to be the project manager on this one? I’m so nerdy about it, I think he should write a book and go on tour, and I’d be standing first in line to get his autograph.

In my experience, most projects will fail at the beginning or at the end. Why? This is when the thinking and planning require more precision and thoroughness. You must begin and end with input from more than just the project team. People may under-plan, or misunderstand the project’s purpose. People may also assume the project is an isolated event in an organization, or they may not think through what a post-rollout requires. A good PM knows the finish line is never where you think it is going to be. Post-rollout is such an important phase of the project lifecycle. Whether you scheduled a soft-launch, or just a straight cut-over to new implementation, post-rollout still requires a plan. Ideally a smaller “release team” is prepped to monitor production for a two-four week period, and also resolve and archive the project artifacts. Always remember the project doesn’t end the day you go into production. And don’t wait for failure to happen before talking about it. Make it part of your Before Action Review environmental scan. Ask straight up, “How might we fail?” “What could go wrong?” Don’t make it a taboo subject. Don’t assume you won’t be able to know how you might fail before you get started on a project. One of my earliest lessons in enterprise systems administration was to always test for failure.  A colleague from IBM taught me that. When you are testing something, don’t limit scenarios to the “happy path” or the regular use of the system/application. Create tests that you know will fail/not pass go, and see what the outcome is. Did you receive an error message? Did it go into the void? Did that test item get processed anyway, even though you thought it would fail? Failure should be part of your design thinking, and project scenarios. Just as professional sports teams hold practice games in manufactured conditions to simulate potential game-day variables (practicing with blaring music, heckling, artificial rain/snow/cold), organizations could include failure or chaos simulations during their own testing/pre-production efforts. Quite simply, before implementation try to break stuff. You’ll gain more insight into your product then you may anticipate.

It is important not to see success and failure as binaries. An organization’s culture, or philosophy about failure, contributes to a project’s overall success. I’d love to encourage more open conversation about failure, and help organizations define their relationship to it and tolerance for it. There are degrees of failure. Some failure is unavoidable due to complexity, other failure is entirely preventable. There is new thinking on what is called “Intelligent Failure.” These failures are largely experimental in nature. They occur as an organization, or a team, are moving through an ideation/development stage of a product or project design. Some businesses encourage their development staff to “fail faster” or to “fail often.” Some of it depends on the type of industry you work in, and how risk-tolerant you are as an organization. For example, failing often isn’t going to work in hospitals or healthcare. There is a spectrum though. I believe every organization could, and should, have several published methods and tools in place for how to locate failure, discuss it, and ideally, learn from it. There are two interesting areas that often govern attitude towards failure. One is the “sunk-cost fallacy.” This is when someone, or an organization, decides to keep pursuing their course of action or strategy, because they have already invested time and money into it. Even if signs, or instincts, or pure facts are presented, psychologically a decision is made to stick with it and hope for the best outcome. Another is an assumption about consent or control. Sometimes only the most vocal person in the room is listened to. Others may be sitting there, but not speaking up, even if they are holding strong opinions about whether or not to continue down a stated path. I mentioned that every organization should have tools and methods in place for helping manage failure. In this scenario, some helpful methods would include having an agreed upon set of decision making criteria in advance of the project. Setting decision criteria in advance will make it less emotional, if/when a time comes to make a hard choice to evaluate if a project or decision is still working. I also think it helps to document decision making, so it can be referred to uniformly and objectively throughout the project lifecycle.

As we implement the new search and discovery platform for special collections and archives, I have several areas of potential failure in my mind. One of the most common is not having enough time. Everyone working on the project has full time commitments within their regular job. In estimating how much time anything will take, I try to be deeply thorough in my environmental scan, making notes and considerations for other major projects and events within the same time span, including a move back-in after a major renovation in Manuscripts and Archives. Not making preferred deadlines, or the slow shifting of the milestones is always a big concern for me. As a PM, your role is to keep everything moving forward. The work, the teams, the ideas, and conversations. Sometimes you are also managing external parties and vendors, who have their own objectives and deadlines in addition to yours. This project has several technical dependencies within other areas of our infrastructure, and making sure they are also completing successfully is another area of risk. Everyone involved with the project will perceive failure in their own way, just as they’ll perceive project success in their own way. Expectation is another major area where there will be degrees of success and failure. As the PM, you must do your best to be honest about potential points of risk and failure, but also not become paralyzed by them. There is no such state as perfect. There will always be someone in the room who isn’t happy, and seated directly across from them will be someone who is absolutely delighted over your hard work. You can’t take too much of any of it to heart. Just always stick to the philosophy of bringing as much logic and kindness to every situation as possible. In closing, I should note that as much as I am lunch buddies with failure, I spend a good amount of time on the science and art of happiness too! Whatever level you are at fighting the good fight, here is some general advice from my favorite good-hearted failure:

And always remember to put cameras in the back!


Implementing the ArchivesSpace PUI: A Before Action Review

Plato’s Ship of State metaphor postulates, “A true pilot must of necessity pay attention to the seasons, the heavens, the stars, the winds, and everything proper to the craft.” Accounting for all possible variables, risks, pluses, and minuses is also the mainstay of project management. And, if Plato were alive today, you can bet he’d make you put all of it into the project charter!

Before any project begins, the Project Manager (PM) should initiate a Before Action Review, to identify as much of the current environment as possible. This will include talking to people who have expressed the business need, talking to stakeholders, looking at proposed/active concurrent projects, and remembering to reflect on not just what is presented, but what isn’t (more on that in an upcoming post). Often a project is initially presented as either a loosely defined idea, or a shoot the works scenario wherein everyone is promised a pony. Then the PM should figure out the ideal, sustainable, middle ground within an organization’s current capacity, and manage the expectations sure to follow that recommendation.

Next the PM is going to look at the calendar. (How I do love calendars! I think they are a fascinating combination of math, language, and social construct.) The calendar is either the one she carries in her head, the one drawn with dry-erase markers on a whiteboard, or the one on her mobile. (Another nerdy confession- I love smart phones because it means I always have a calendar within reach.) Time is everything in project management, and calendars are how we identify units of time at work. Mondays, how many business days, a work week, the month of January. The PM asks other time-centered questions-Do you have enough? Do you have work estimates? Have you adequately expressed time as a direct cost? What about time as momentum? And time not just at the party, but the setup and breakdown of the party? Time is always on my mind. That look Steelsen gives me when I know March 27, 2018 is a Tuesday without having to check. During the ArchivesSpace crisis, my dad gave me a replica of the time turner necklace Professor McGonagall gave Hermione, that enabled her to be in two places at once and get all her work done. That last week in January, I never took it off, and I still cry every time they go back to save Buckbeak.

As Yale begins the work of implementing the new public user interface for ArchivesSpace, we took time to conduct a Before Action Review. A BAR is not as typical as an After Action Review (AAR), which is when the work is completed and you reflect on what went well and what could have gone better. But I like the beginnings and endings of projects the best, because they can be the areas that receive the least amount of planning and time. They are often underestimated for their overall influence on project success and stakeholder satisfaction, and ensuring your work and choices are directly addressing the business need. I like this image for what it conveys about taking time to think things through.

I typically ask three questions during a BAR-What are we trying to accomplish? What do we think will change? How will we know if we are successful? These three simple questions generate invaluable insight into what people are thinking, what assumptions exist, what folks are scared about, or excited about, and how we characterize success. The PM should then continue to use the feedback to shape elements of the project. For example, here are some of the responses to What are we trying to accomplish in the PUI project?

  • Roll out a holistic and focused service, fully integrated with production
  • An improved user experience for discovery and access of archival materials

These are important objectives. They express the aging technical environment for archives and special collections at Yale, and they also express our professional and organizational values. They are aspirational, but still possible, if given the right amount of time. As a project team, including stakeholders and sponsors, we need to keep defining and refining what we mean when we say holistic and focused. Those words capture ideas and feelings about what we want, and a PM should help break them out into S.M.A.R.T. style goals. Reviewing the point about an improved user experience, leads to a need to examine current metrics on what the user experience is for discovery and access of archival materials. As we roll into production, we can’t qualitatively, or quantitatively, measure improvements if we don’t know where we started, and if we don’t define improved. If the project team states this as something we want to accomplish, the PM should revisit the project plan to include specific tasks and resources to address it.

Taking that a step further, the PM also must determine what’s in scope, and outline recommendations for what improvements can be made now, and which ones need to wait for post-rollout. The PM might use the project scorecard method to manage any objectives. This involves stating an objective, something like improved user experience for discovery, and identifying measures, targets, and either tasks or program initiatives, depending on the scale of the objective. A measure in this context is just as it sounds, an observable parameter, such as the number of monthly service desk questions concerning user difficulty in locating materials. Then you set several targets as reasonable to the scope and time frame of the project. Maybe the phase 1 target is a 5% reduction in this category of question, and a longer-term target is a 15% reduction. (These are examples). Finally, the project plan would include tasks to initiate this improvement, or if the effort is a greater scale, perhaps a program initiative is setup to increase end-user training and conduct more frequent usability reviews.

The “what do we think will change” question is particularly important to me. Sometimes I observe organizations discussing change on a meta-scale, such as what will libraries be like in 50 years? But this question in a BAR has a more immediate time frame of around 6 months, and the process and outcomes of change are likely to be felt more acutely by people here now. Earlier, I mentioned that the BAR could help suss out what folks might be scared about, or anxious, or unclear in a pending project. And that may not be the best business language to use, but it gets to the heart of our work and our feelings about our place in it. There’s lots I feel anxious about at work. Will we make our preferred upgrade deadline? Am I smart enough to be of service? What if I never fully understand EAD? And don’t even get me started on how CAS works! I know there are tokens involved, but not the kind you can use to buy pizza. If people are given an environment to state their concerns, and be heard, then the fear of change immediately begins to dissipate. If a colleague offers that they are concerned about having to learn a whole new way to process collections, recognize that staff training is an important step, and the PM should build time into the project for it. Make conversation about change a part of the project, the stakeholder registry, and communications plan. This also applies to assumptions. Asking folks what they think will change, is a bullet train to uncover assumptions. Find out what they are early in the process, while there is time for relevant course correction.

An interesting outcome of the “what do we think will change” question for the PUI, is how much feedback there was on anticipated changes for staff workflows. When implementing a public user interface, it’s possible that we could minimize the amount of focus on staff workflow, and think primarily about the user’s experience. 66% of the name is external facing, public user. But for legitimate reason. It is a public user interface. The “what are we trying to accomplish” question generated more user-based objectives, like the improved experience for discovery and access. I think it will be critical to balance the needs in both areas, within our preliminary project time frame. As Melissa Barton noted, “We can’t underestimate the effort required to teach users about what finding aids are.” I’m eager to continue this discussion with stakeholders, to see where there is alignment between these two aspects of the project.

As to the last question regarding, how will we know if we are successful, well that’s easy!




Software Performance Testing Or: How to Tell If You’ve Got Bad Blood





Sometimes a girl just needs to see a specialist. Arsyn and Catastrophe (played here by Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift) used to be besties, but a betrayal results in an apparent demise and a lot of bad blood. However, all is not lost #revengegoals. We all know band-aids don’t fix bullet holes, so what’s a girl to do? With the expert advice of consultants and a little re-engineering, our protagonists reunite for a final showdown.

In the same way a person in discomfort would seek a specialist to help determine what’s wrong, YUL sought similar diagnostics to suss out the root causes of ArchivesSpace performance problems. We went live with ASpace in early June 2015, however almost immediately the application became unusable due to timeouts, system crashes, or records that took so long to render you wondered if it wasn’t too late for law school while contemplating the status bar. A battery of diagnostic tests and tools helped pinpoint the source of ASpace’s woes.

There are many tools available (commercial, free, or locally developed) to conduct performance testing.  They range from simple to sophisticated and platform dependent or independent. Generally speaking though, software performance testing is an approach to testing that utilizes defined or prerecorded actions that:

    • Simulate known or anticipated user behavior in an application
    • Validate business requirements to be performed by the application
    • Help pinpoint where performance breakdowns are occurring, or performance could be optimized
    • Report a set of results and measurements for comparison, troubleshooting, and bench marking system performance
    • Can be executed automatically by a timer, crontab, or on-demand

In my opinion, testing software during development and during implementation is as important as tasting your food as you prepare it. Think of the list of ingredients as your recipe’s functional requirements. Does it need more salt? If the addition of an ingredient causes your sauce to break, do you start again or serve it as is? What if you over-engineer the cream and are stuck with butter? (I think that may be referred to as “re-branding”).

Software performance testing is critical to any development project, whether an open-source, or vendor-developed application. This methodical approach to product testing provides an IT department with a consistent review of core functions measured throughout a product life cycle. The typical software development life cycle places heaviest testing activities during the programming/development phase. Before staff training. Before production. It is a necessary step towards final user acceptance of the new or modified application. But I also encourage ongoing testing as functional or user requirements evolve, and as significant events occur in your application environment, such as network changes or application upgrades. Post-production, testing helps with ongoing capacity planning (data or users) and in this way it reveals itself as a useful tool not only for diagnostics, but also for systems management.

There are several types of performance tests, including unit, smoke, peak, load, and soak. I think peak and load are most common, used to measure heavy use of the application, but I love the imagery conjured by smoke and soak. Back in the day, smoke testing was quite literal–did it start on fire when you first turned it on? If not, you were good to go. (BTW, I love that this continues my cooking analogies from earlier). These types of tests provide controlled opportunities to view system performance under a range of conditions, and provide project lead-time to tune the infrastructure, software, and attendant services involved with your business process. But let’s not overlook the old eyeball test. In other words, if you see something, say something! Is the system performing as expected? Does it seem slow, sluggish, inconsistent? Front of the house is often where many non-functional requirements are measurable or observed, such as data accuracy, general usability, or system fail-over measures.

While the range of measurement tools is incredibly helpful, software can’t do everything. Knowledge of the application and user behavior falls outside the scope of these tools. We need people for that. Outlining the set of behaviors or actions to test, also people-driven. Interpreting and resolving the test results…you get where I’m going.bartgetshitbyacar9

Five Hundred Twenty Five Thousand Six Hundred Minutes, or how do you measure a workflow? Using one typical staff workflow (search & edit an accession record) in ASpace, we recorded these measurements:

  • ArchivesSpace backend 6 seconds to fetch the record from the database and produce the JSON representation
  • ArchivesSpace frontend 16 seconds to produce the HTML page for the edit form
  • User’s web browser 2+ minutes to render the HTML page and to run the JavaScript required to initialize the edit form

Each of these is a step in the process from the moment the user initiates a search in ASpace until the application renders the requested result. The first two steps are not entirely visible to the end user and represent performance on the back end.  What the user is painfully aware of is the 2+ minutes it takes in the browser (their client) to help them to the next step, getting their work done.

Each of these measured steps are jumping off points for further analysis by IT or the developers of the software. Ultimately, some MySQL innodb buffer adjustments brought the first two steps (22 seconds) down to 5-6 seconds. A new release of the software interface introduced additional response time improvements. Now when we discuss response time in any tally of seconds, should anyone be fussing over that? Yeppers. When you enter a search in Google, how long do you expect to wait for search results to start filing in? If you search an OPAC or Library Discovery layer, same question. When the app has a multi-stop itinerary, each step should be as efficient as possible. These are standard user expectations for modern web-based tools.

In the local case henceforth known as, “Nancy Drew and The Mystery at the Moss-Covered Mansion”, we used JMeter and Chrome Developer tools to measure ASpace performance back to front. JMeter provided the first two measurements noted earlier with the accession record example. Chrome developer tools provided the third measurement for accession record workflow.  A sample test run in JMeter is configured with variables such as threads (number of “users” to simulate), ramp up (the time to wait between the first thread and starting subsequent threads), and loop (how many times this should be repeated). All configurable values for the type of test you need to run (peak, soak, etc.), and directed at your dev, test, or prod instance of a service. Using Chrome Developer tools, you can capture time to complete browser-based actions such as loading, scripting, rendering, and painting.

I was fortunate to present this work this summer at the ArchivesSpace Member Meeting during the Society of American Archivists annual conference. Although the audience was clearly peppered with Justin Bieber fans, I think the general idea that if T-Swift can be re-engineered, so can an ArchivesSpace implementation was understood.

Nearly 600 million people have watched the Bad Blood video. If you are not one of them, you probably have a library card. But for those of us alumnae from Upstairs Hollywood Medical College, this song was my summer jamTaylor_Swift_Bad_Blood

Ode to Nancy-Part 2

So if you don’t love Nancy Lyon by now, you will very soon. I had the chance to meet with her again and do a walkabout through the labyrinth that is MSSA storage. We started in the primary work area in the basement of Sterling. Not very high ceilings, narrow pathways, everything secured. Some things are funny, like the Fortunoff Video Archives (FVA) material I saw waiting in coolers. Regular coolers. Like the kind you might take to the beach, or that comes free with a PBR 12 pack! Lots of signs posted with something to the effect that, “Don’t even think about setting your stuff down here without clearing it with Nancy!” Why, you might ask? Nancy is in charge of space. (I don’t know if that is officially true, but it should be). Space is at such a premium in MSSA that Nancy is preoccupied with space. She wakes up in the middle of the night thinking about ways to optimize space. When people at their staff meetings start asking for more space, Nancy tells them to take their problems to Jesus!

Nancy took me from MSSA across the Wright Reading Room into an area of the building I have never seen.  I don’t know what the original purpose might have been, but it wasn’t for people. It looks like an old dark storage unit I used to overpay for in Shelton. She navigates through the area as she would her childhood home. She very proudly points out a corner area behind a brick partition. “Look, I have paper stored there!” And I say, “But Nancy, what if a spider is in there?!” To which Nancy replies, “I don’t care, we need the space.” She moves on. I’m looking over my shoulder to make sure that spider isn’t following me.

Nancy is not without generosity when it comes to space. She has loaned a set of metal shelves to a guy named Art. Art is the man who comes around the library checking to see if any light bulbs need replacing. (He’s also been known to hang a whiteboard or two). My walkabout bonus was discovering that Art’s supply is located in this basement area, and that over the years Nancy agreed they could occupy the same space and made little labels for his shelves. IDK, maybe she just really gets that people need a place for important work things.

Nancy labels shelves so folks know this is Art's stuff.
Nancy labels shelves so folks know this is Art’s stuff.

There were some other cool treasures stored in this room. I took a few more photos:


I looked up the trophy information and learned this was a car design competition sponsored by General Motors.
I looked up the trophy information and learned this was a car design competition sponsored by General Motors.


An old steamer trunk.
An old steamer trunk.
A birdhouse and a sculpted head.
A birdhouse and a sculpted head.

Ode to Nancy-Part 1

When I first came to Yale I wasn’t sure what “big” meant at Yale Library. I came from a public institution I thought was big–big campus, big buildings, lots of students, but I know now the library wasn’t big. It was more like medium, medium-rare. They didn’t have a large staff (funny though how we never thought we needed more people). The ILS was about 500,000 bib records-which is less than 5% of YUL’s. I thought YUL would be big enough for me to make more friends and colleagues, big enough to have almost any job you wanted. But then you talk to some folks here who tell you how small Yale is. That is a small school, small campus, small student body, and so on. I think it depends on the day you are having if you feel the bigness or smallness of Yale.

In the interest of making YUL feel smaller and more accessible to everyone, I give you Nancy Lyon. No one should ever work here, even for one week, and not have the opportunity to meet Nancy Lyon. I’ve been here over nine years and I do know Nancy through mutual friends, but it is only recently that I spent work time with Nancy. What I fear is that most folks passing time here might not ever cross paths with Nancy. She works in the basement of Sterling for starters. And folks can’t get there without another staff member escorting you down this tiny, narrow spiral staircase like you’d find in some old NYC apartment. Nancy has a real meat and potatoes job too, so you might not find her at high-profile committee meetings. But she is here, and she is a gem.

First thing I like is that when she sees me she says “Hey, Melis!” I can always tell people like me when they give me their own nickname for Melissa. (Never mind with the formality of Melissa, this is who she is to me, Melis, Missy, etc.). She also asks how you are doing…and waits for your answer while she looks you in the eye. When you reach Nancy’s desk, you immediately see all her favorite things. All tiny revelations about the kind of person she is and what is important to her. Nancy and I have the same print of a woman reading. It isn’t a famous print of a woman by Sargent or Manet, so I figure the odds of someone I know owning this print are slim. She has it in smaller size on her desk. Her desk also has a panoply of bits and bobs that could easily distract or entertain you for hours. But, let me tell you, Nancy is not distracted. Nancy is a woman with a mission and serious commitment to data accuracy. It might be like combining Yue Ji and Tom Bruno.

Nancy gave me a detailed overview of her work and set of responsibilities to help accession items into the Manuscripts and Archives collection, and how she prepares these items for accession to the Library Shelving Facility (LSF). Nancy also helps mange the physical space for MSSA, but more on that later. The process Nancy follows is very manual. There are some automation tools in place, but she still has a lot of high-touch steps to complete these procedures. As Nancy demonstrates these to me, she eyeballs me peripherally and says, “I see that look you have. I know you’re thinking to yourself this needs to all be automated.” I quickly apologize, as I must have some furrowed brows and a “What in the Worldcat?!” look on my face. The look isn’t about Nancy, rather my surprise at how critical work gets done, and engaging my own serious commitment of wanting to offer colleagues efficient workflows. But here’s the rub. Nancy is so good at her job that you couldn’t make her much more efficient. She has got it locked down. The way new parents might show you photos of their kids is how Nancy shows you the printouts of data mistakes she catches and records in case there are future questions. These are of course arranged by type of problem and per fiscal year. Of course, right?

Nancy has this narrative quality I love and often use to understand a program or a process. Some folks always want a short answer, and never more detail than they need at the minute. Not me and Nancy. I like the personalization, the A to Z-ness of it. I like that Nancy explains extracting data out of Archivists Toolkit into Voyager, like someone from Maine gives you directions to a diner and a recommendation for the coconut cream pie. The way Nancy explains it makes the pie taste better to me. I invested a little. And you should too. Because as the data is being identified for extraction out of Archivists Toolkit, it so happens that a little man from Switzerland chaperones it. He’s there, as real as anything, to make sure all data is present and accounted for, before making the next leg of the journey. I almost wish Library IT had added a little background alphorn into this part of the custom program so Nancy could tap her feet. Next comes what Nancy calls the “hold your breath moment.” This is when she waits for the reconciliation screen to show her that the right number of records were extracted and created. If it “balances” Nancy is happy.

So I am learning Nancy’s workflow and taking copious notes. It is true that one day all of her steps will be automated, but it might be after she retires. Why mess with perfection? Part of me doesn’t want her workflow automated, because then I know Nancy is down there doing it just fine. Another part of me does, because then Nancy could do other work that requires such precision and heart.

Yale Library IT Supports ArchivesSpace

The implementation of ArchivesSpace is a collaborative effort among archives and special collection units and Library IT. This project is exciting because ArchivesSpace is to special collections as Voyager is to YUL’s general collections. Library IT has a long-standing relationship with Voyager as an enterprise level application, providing server support, coordinating upgrades, managing custom development, and encouraging an ideology of systems and data integration. The implementation work of ArchivesSpace (AS) will run a similar gamut of standard IT support, including supporting three instances of AS (dev, test, production), configuring an LDAP server and Active Directory group for authentication, assisting with data analysis and export, participating in a series of sprints with a third party vendor to develop custom plug-ins for AS, and managing some in-house development to integrate AS with Voyager. While these tasks are typical of an IT project, success depends on the collaborative relationship IT develops with archival and special collections staff. Library IT is investing time to learn the current and expected workflow supported by AS, and why the tool is critical to the daily operations of archivists and special collections professionals. IT is also learning the lexicon employed by special collections (and one day I hope to fully understand what a container is), and what archivists geek out on. The technical and social elements of new systems implementations comprise the ultimate success.


Welcome to ArchivesSpace@Yale, where members of Yale’s implementation team will share our goals, milestones, highs and lows. Our primary goals are to

  • promote use of one archival management system across Yale;
  • migrate and merge three Archivists’ Toolkit instances into one ArchivesSpace instance; and
  • contribute to the ArchivesSpace community.

To learn more about Yale’s ArchivesSpace Committee and implementation visit our Web site! We will also share our scripts and plug-ins via GitHub, but that is a few months away still.