Yak Shaving

— January 4, 2012 at 08:23 PST

As coders, most of us are not only familiar with the term yak shaving, but spend many of our days doing nothing but. I often struggle to explain to non-technical folks what I actually spend my time doing when I'm working and what it feels like. This is the most accessible explanation I can come up with.

Say you want to go see a movie with your friend Joe. You can't get away with leaving the house when the kitchen is such a mess, so you have to load and run the dishwasher before you go. Unfortunately you're out of detergent, which means you have to run to the store to pick some up. You want to ride your bike or it will take too long to get to the store. But your bike's front tire is kind of low, so you have to pump it up first. However, your roommate borrowed your tire pump and you don't know where it is, so you have to go find your roommate and ask him about it. He's over at a neighbor's place having band practice, but it's just a short walk. When you get there they are in the middle of practice so you have to wait for a few minutes. The only place to sit is on that ratty old sofa, right next to the drummer's sister, Monica, who will only let you sit there on the condition you smoke a joint with her. But before you can do that you have to dig around in the seat cushions to find the lighter she just realized she lost. You manage to find the lighter, and before too long you are smoking out with Monica. The band finishes the number and your roommate comes over to see what's up. You take another hit off the joint and say "Hey, we should order a pizza."

9 commentsjargon, programming

  1. Murillo Parreira2012-01-04 08:46:26

    Although a programmer, i've never heard of the yak shaving term before. But now i can use it to describe the feeling! haha

    Nice post.

  2. Pablo Barrios2012-01-04 09:19:24

    Dude! This is soooo clever. I swear that I'm gonna use it pretty soon.

  3. Jack Dempsey2012-01-04 10:23:48

    Well done.

  4. Vicki2012-01-04 10:28:09

    SImilar:idea http://gpsinformation.info/main/AAADD.txt

  5. Josh Susser2012-01-04 11:20:24

    @Vicki: hahaha nice

  6. Anonymous2012-01-04 12:25:25

    The linked wikipedia article defines yak shaving as either "apparently" or "actually" useless activity. I guess this post suggests the actually useless activity, but depends on whether you think joint with Monica is worse than movies with Joe. That's a judgement call. But if it's the negative(actually useless) kind, I wouldn't use this explanation with my clients. Cause now they think that every rabbit hole into the problem ends with me eating pizza high. Bad image.

    I guess there are 3 outcomes:

    1. You rabbithole or yak shave in a few levels, and then come back the way you came. I guess that doesn't deserve a term, that's just business as usual. Neutral.

    2. You rabbithole, and blow the whole stack of tasks by getting lost in the darkness of that splif or editing your .vimrc all afternoon. Negative.

    3. You rabbithole, and blow the whole stack of tasks by realizing that you don't even want to see that movie with Joe or your don't even need to support all those query types for your website hence the original task is not worth it. Positive outcome.

    Maybe there need to be a variation of that explanation for each kind.

  7. Josh Susser2012-01-04 16:54:53

    I guess you could call this example a worst-case scenario. There are certainly cases where I've shaved a yak and move on to complete the initial task. My point here was to show what the experience usually felt like, and how easy it is to get distracted from your original goal.

  8. karmi2012-01-05 00:38:09

    Indeed a very nice story :) The best thing about this story is the ambiguity hinted on by “Anonymous“ -- is having a joint with Monica preferable to going to the movies with Joe?

    Maybe you can go to the movies with Joe every other evening, but the same is not the case with having a joint and chat with Monica? :) Or is this the only opportunity to spend an evening with Joe, since then he's leaving for a year to study in Australia?

    Tough choices, and actually, that's what maps the scenario to the “yak shaving” thing. You never know what you may hit during the process :)

  9. Victor2012-01-06 08:04:24

    Your description of Yak Shaving is perfectly illustrated here...


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