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July 23, 2014  |  FIFO and LIFO  |  4614 hit(s)

I share an office with a fellow writer—let's call him Colleague B. We work on the same team, and thus we do joint planning and work and reporting. For example, every Monday afternoon we have a look at the upcoming week and plan our work. And on Fridays, we put together a joint status report that rolls up all the things we actually worked on.

The nature of our work, however, adds a certain chaos factor to our planning. On Mondays, we can certainly attempt to plan out what we need to do for the week. But every day—literally every day, and sometimes more than once a day—something new pops up. People send us email requesting a review of some documentation, or a developer will stick his head in the office and want input on some UI, or a bug will come in from a customer, or ... well, the possibilities are wide and varied, but there's always something.

Now, Colleague B is, by his free admission, a bit OCD. He is consistent and orderly both about our planning and our reporting, and he has that thing where he intuitively understands the delta between today and some upcoming date. Me, I'm a bit more on the other side, and my sense of time and dates is referred to around our household as "magical thinking."

Colleague B is not a big fan of the daily dose of chaos. Here we've planned out our week on Monday, and people keep coming in and asking for stuff. As he says, in his ideal world, people who have something for us would get in line, and we'll get to them when we're done with what we're working on.

On the other hand, I don't mind nearly as much the drop-what-you're-doing interruptions. I'm apparently happy to put aside the thing I'm working on in order to work on this new thing, or at least, till some other yet newer request comes in.

The world of computers has an analog for us: Colleague B is FIFO: first in, first out. Take a number, and we'll service you in order. In computing terms, FIFO describes a queue. Me, I'm LIFO: last in, first out. Like stacking trays in a cafeteria—the last on the stack is the first one off, and indeed, in computing terms, LIFO describes a stack.

Happily, it turns out that this combination of work styles works out well. Colleague B works his way through our Monday list, odds are good that by Friday, items can be checked off. But at the same time, we've handled a half dozen or so new jobs that came up during the week, things we had no idea about on Monday. In fact, Colleague B says that occasionally he'll finish up something and go read email, and by the time he's become aware of some new request, I've already handled it.

Of course, there's a certain amount of literary license here. It's not as if Colleague B won't handle ad-hoc queries with alacrity, and it's not as if I'm unable to handle anything other than whatever the most recent emergency is. Still, programmers know that sometimes the right data structure is a queue and sometimes it's a stack. As long as there are two of us, and as long as we divvy up the work correctly, we can handle pretty much all of it.