TITLE: The Small Doses Pattern AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: April 23, 2008 6:16 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Update: Added a known use contributed by Joe Bergin. -- 05/19/08. Also Known As    Frequent Releases From Pattern Language    Graduate Student You are writing a large document that one or more other people must read and provide feedback on before it is distributed externally. The archetype is a master's thesis or doctoral dissertation, which must be approved by a faculty committee. You want to give your reviewers the best document possible. You want them to give you feedback and feel good about approving the document for external distribution. You want to publish high-quality work. You would also like to have your reviewers see only your best work, for a variety of reasons. First, you respect them and are thankful for their willingness to help you. Second, they often have the ability to help you further in the future, in the form of jobs or recommendations. Good work will impress your reviewers more than weaker work. A more complete and mature document is more likely to resemble the final result than a rougher, earlier version. In order to produce a document of the highest quality, you need time -- time to research, write, and revise. This delays your opportunity to distribute it to your reviewers. It also delays their opportunity to give you feedback. Your reviewers are busy. They have their own work to do and are often volunteering their time to serve you. Big tasks require a lot of time. If a task takes a lot of time to do, some people face a psychological barrier to starting the task. A big task decomposed into several smaller tasks may take as much time as the big task, or more, but each task takes a smaller time. It is often easier to find time in small chunks, which makes it easier to start on the task in the first place. The sooner your reviewers are able to read parts of the document, the sooner they will be able to give you feedback. This feedback helps you to improve the document, both in the large (topic, organization) and the small (examples, voice, illustrations, and so on). Therefore: Distribute your document to reviewers periodically over a relatively drawn out period. Early versions can be complete parts of the document, or rough versions of the entire document. In the archetypal thesis, you might give the reviewers one chapter per week, or you might give a whole thesis in which each part is in various stages of completeness. There is certainly a trade-off between the quality of a document and the timeliness of delivery. Don't worry; this is just a draft. You are always free to improve and extend your work. Keep in mind that there is also a trade-off between the quality of a document and the amount of useful feedback you are able to incorporate. There is value in distributing even a very rough or incomplete document at regular intervals. If reviewers read the relatively weak version and make suggestions, they will feel valuable. If they don't read it, they won't know or mind that you have made changes in later versions. Furthermore, they may feel wise for not having wasted their time on the earlier draft! With the widespread availability of networks, we can give our reviewers real-time access to an evolving document in the form of an-line repository. In such a case, Small Doses may take the form of comments recorded as each change is committed to the repository. It is often better for your reviewers if you give them periodic descriptions of changes made to the document, so that they don't have to wade through minutiae and can focus on discrete meaningful jumps in the document. I have seen Small Doses work effectively in a variety of academic contexts, from graduate students writing theses to instructors writing lecture notes and textbooks for students. I've seen it work for master's students and doctoral students, for text and code and web sites. Joe Bergin says that this pattern is an essential feature of the Doctor of Professional Studies program at Pace University. Joe has documented patterns for succeeding in the DPS program. (If you know of particularly salient examples of Small Doses, I'd love to hear them.) Often times, the value of Small Doses is demonstrated best in the results of its applying its antipattern, Avalanche. Suppose you are nearing a landmark date, say, the deadline for graduation or the end of spring semester, when faculty will scatter for the summer. You dump a 50-, 70-, or 100+-page document on your thesis committee. In the busy time before the magic date, committee members have a difficulty finding time to read the whole document. Naturally, they put off reading it. Soon they fall way behind and have a hard time meeting the deadline -- and they blame you for the predicament, for unrealistic expectations. Of course, had you given the committee a chapter at a time for 5 or 6 weeks leading up to the magic date, some committee members would still have fallen behind reading it, because they are distracted with their own work. But then you could blame the them for not getting done! Related Patterns    Extreme Programming and other agile software methodologies encourage Short Iterations and Frequent Releases. Such frequent releases are the Small Doses of the software development world. They enable more continuous feedback and allow the programmers to improve the quality of the code based on what they learn. The Avalanche antipattern is the source of many woes in the world of software, in large part due to the lack of feedback they afford from users and clients. I learned the Small Doses pattern from Carl Page, my Artificial Intelligence II professor at Michigan State University in 1987. Professor Page was a bright guy and very good computer scientist, with an often dark sense of humor. He mentored his students and advisees with sardonic stories like Small Doses. He was also father to another famous Page, Larry. -----