A field report from doing incident management by John Allspaw that I can very much relate to with lots of learnings that need to be disseminated: “Focus less on incident metrics and more on signals that people are learning”

Chasing down noise complaints for the construction site next to our house

The construction site that surrounds our house has started a bunch of space heaters this week. The devices had been there for a while but only started being annoying now that they’re turned on. These things run day and night, they make a ridiculous amount of noise (some 60 dB at our window) and because they burns diesel oil they also pollute and stink up the entire courtyard.

One of two running in the courtyard but there are more across the complex of Viktoria Versicherungen

We are used to some noise and annoyance during the day time with this construction site. Some of the noise we went through was truly unbelievable and for some periods we have received a reduction in our rent. We thought that with most external construction being done, we would finally be able to get some peace but now these things are running and will probably run all winter.

The effect they have is to force us to keep our windows closed on one side of the house. You can hear a faint droning even with the windows closed and having the windows open is extremely unpleasant.

The Site

I went to the construction office first. There a man told me he would look into it. After returning from work in the evening of course the heaters were still running and the man had not done anything. When pressed, he said they were allowed to do this (not true) and these would run all winter.

Our Landlord

First point of contact in these is of course our landlord who is our point of contact for the construction site. We’ll see what they will do for us when they take a look at this issue in the coming week. Maybe things will resolve themselves.

The city

Not wanting to leave things to chance, we also wanted to have the city check this out and resolve this issue. We are measuring 60 dB and we have a source that says only 40 dB is allowed at night (which would make sense).

Let’s go over the steps you can take in such a case and whether the local government can do anything for you in such a case.

The first step in such a case would be to call the Ordnungsamt. The Berlin service number can connect you with them but they will tell you that it’s not their deal and refer you to the Umweltamt. This is the first time I heard that this Amt exists.

Finding somebody to talk to at the Umweltamt was a bit of a challenge. Both of the contacts given to me did not pick up their phone (nobody in the city government seems to pick up their phone) but their central desk also told me to get lost and referred me to the Senate for UVK just like the Berlin service number did.

SenUVK has a special entry point for noise from construction sites with a phone number, e-mail address and web form. The webform seems to be broken because after submitting it twice both times it shows an error and does not e-mail me a confirmation of my complaint. The phone number is supposedly open between 9-11 every day to accept complaints but calling that I could reach nobody there. Both of the people given to me as a contact by the Umweltamt were of course not reachable by phone.

This being 9 in the morning as per the phone number opening times, I thought I might as well drop by there to see what’s going on. I only live a ten minute bike ride away.

I knew the SenUVK office at Am Köllnischen Park but I was told to go to Brückenstraße 6 around the corner. There I went into one building and could not find anything other than generic offices. I was going to give up but I walked up the street towards Jannowitzbrück and found another number 6 entrance to what seems to be known as the Jannowitz Center.

The ground floor of that building was a construction site. Next to the elevator it did find a plan of the SenUVK offices that listed Baulärm on the fifth floor. I took the elevator to the fifth floor only to find another construction site. Then I went down and asked the construction workers whether the entire building was a construction site. They said, nah, floors 7 and so and so are not. So I went up to the 7th floor and found the Pförtner there who referred me to room 191 on the 2nd floor.

The person with the keys

On the second floor I found a very long office corridor where everything seemed to be more or less operational. I walked all the way to the end and after some turns found the office numbered 191 which of course was closed. Not to be dissuaded that easily, I started knocking and opening the doors in that corridor which were labelled Immissionsschutz.

Then some schmuck came to me and asked me what I was doing. I told him the reason and he said he couldn’t help me and that he found it unangenehm that I just walked in like that. I told him that I found it unangenehm that the web form was broken and nobody here was picking up the telephone. The guy clearly didn’t bargain for any of this and made away quickly before I could show him the true meaning of the word unangenehm.

Then a man arrived to work at the 191 office who was actually helpful and filed my complaint. It turns out that space heaters for construction sites only get a permit when there is a pressing technical need for them which is extremely rare. This construction has already taken very long and we would really want to finish it, is not enough reason it seems. The waterpump that we could hear pumping and hissing at regular intervals at night we could probably also complain against. We’ll see next week what comes from this complaint.

He confirmed also that they were having issues with the phone line and that they are not the people maintaining the web form.

If this person is to be believed, this construction site is doing whatever it wants because the act of following up on these breaches is so incredibly difficult and time consuming. He said they can press on this complaint and check the permits but in the end there’s only so much they can do as well.

Local Government IT

After the broken web form I also was kinda intrigued what kind of systems they would have there at the Senate’s offices. The guy filled in the complaint details into the editable fields of a MS Word template. That’s it. That’s about the level of where we are at when it comes to local government automation.

I know these problems up close and they are difficult to solve even if you have access to best in class tools. But with those kind of tools at least you have a fighting chance. If you work in government without in-house IT, where you can’t procure anything useful, you don’t have credit cards and even if you found something useful you couldn’t use it because of fears around Datenschutz, there is no way you are going to get anything done.

Most of these problems could be solved by deploying Airtable and Zendesk, but they of course won’t be allowed to do that. I don’t have to mention that local government being ineffective benefits companies doing construction without following any of the rules.

I was amazed at how closely this article about product development at Facebook tracks with how I approach it: “PMs are 100% accountable for the results of your team.”

I’m doubling as EM/PM for a bit and engineers in my team fully own some of our projects. This is a combination of high demand and high trust that I think is working out well.

https://productlife.to/p/-execution-at-facebook

There is a lot of truth to this Economist article about German humour and I refer back to it a lot.

Shortly after moving back to Germany in 2012 after decades of absence, mainly in Anglo-Saxon countries, I took my kids to the Berlin zoo. The children were two, four and seven at the time, and had already developed a keen sense of irony – or at least they understood that dad doesn’t always mean things literally, because, you know, it’s funny. So we queued for our tickets, trading silly jokes. Like me, the kids are dual citizens of America and Germany, though at that time, fresh from California, we still felt more American and more at ease in English. But we deliberately spoke German, to help us acclimatise to our new home. In a mood of levity, we approached the ticket window.

The lady behind it informed me that the price for the elder two was such-and-such and the littl’un was free. “What if I pay you a bit extra and you keep them?” I suggested. The kids chortled and started naming prices that might clear the market.

The lady stared back, horrified. Then, slowly, she leaned forward to look at my children, who stiffened. “Your dad does not really mean that,” she said. “He does not really want to sell you.”

That pretty much killed the mood for all four of us until somewhere between the giraffes and the polar bears. “Why did she say that?” my daughter asked, in English, as though out of an instinct for cultural self-preservation. As I pondered the question, I couldn’t help but think there was something peculiarly German about the lady’s reaction. First, Germans really, really struggle to grasp non-literal meanings. Second, Germans really, really can’t help but say when they think you’re wrong.

(contd.)

This opening story on literalism is great but there are more points in there, like the need to correct people and how isolating and grating this is for foreigners.

The point I take from it which also relates to the fact that street slang is segregated in Germany (as opposed to France). Educated Germans will not use words from the street register in normal conversation for fear of looking uneducated. You can see this for instance in the criticism Rezo gets for his use of mixed language in his serious videos. ‘Wrong’ use of language is used as an excuse to put people down. This happens to me as well every time I make a mistake.

The counterpoint is that anything said in High German is considered to be true or at least intended to be a statement of fact. The literalism is the baseline for all interactions at that level. They are literally incapable of feigning.

You can imagine the problems this creates and how unfixable they are because they are so deeply embedded in the culture. The only way out is through. The Rezo generation needs to create a new culture and the old needs to die off.