A term is not a word […] a term is a word used unambiguously

Mortimer J Adler, How to Read a Book

I identify with a seeming minority who believe words have meaning. And I have problems with the software industry term blameless postmortem.

Software engineers love to scrutinize terms. Variable names are (rightfully, I believe) an endless topic of debate. There’s even an aphorism explaining this aspect of software: the two hardest problems in computer science are cache invalidation and naming things (and off-by-one errors 😂).

The problem is that terms help us model reality. As the saying goes: all models are wrong, some are useful. And if a term leads you to an incorrect model, it ceases to be useful. The term blameless postmortem carries some baggage that puts it at odds with its goals as a term.

What is a blameless postmortem?

A postmortem is a written record of an incident, its impact, the actions taken to mitigate or resolve it, the root cause(s), and the follow-up actions to prevent the incident from recurring.

– Postmortem Culture: Learning from Failure, Site Reliability Engineering

If you’re doing things, you’ll eventually break something.

A blameless postmortem is a document recounting what you broke, how you fixed it, and what tripped you up and made you break it. The goal is to fix whatever made you break it in the first place.

In a complex system, the cause of a problem is far from obvious. Toyota famously developed the Five Whys method of problem investigation to traverse the layers of causality to find the underlying cause of a problem.

The practice of the blameless postmortem is excellent. The term blameless postmortem could use some improvement.

The negation of 𝑥 implies 𝑥

“Blameless” implies “blame.”

Apophasis is a term in rhetoric that I just learned, wherein a speaker denies a topic should be brought up so they can bring it up. It’s like when you say, “I don’t care what anyone says, I like you.”

By calling the process of finding the root cause of an incident “blameless,” it’s tantamount to: “I don’t care that everyone blames you; I want to know the real cause.”

It feels a little hostile right from the start.

Postmortem is macabre

The earliest definition of “postmortem” is still in use: “an examination of a body after death to determine the cause of death”1.

This definition is a pretty heavy thing to lay on someone who’s already sheepish about breaking the website. Especially combined with the term “blameless.”

It’s like saying: “We can all agree you basically killed somebody, and even though others believe you’re to blame, I know you’re probably maybe innocent.”

Feature, not a bug

I get that sometimes we need to be reminded that the goal is not to place blame and that sometimes it’s worth being explicit. But I think that becomes a problem when it’s at odds with its own goals, as I believe the term “blameless” is.

Postmortem has also come to mean “following the event.” Language evolves. But language is also laden with historical use, and that history, too, can muddy our meaning.

I’ll admit the term “blameless postmortem” is useful as it represents a shared idea. But I still think we could develop a term that is a better fit for our goals.

After digging in a thesaurus for a few minutes, I’ve landed at “Disquisition.”

(/^ヮ^)/*:・゚✧ dict disquisition
1 definition found

From The Collaborative International Dictionary of English v.0.48 [gcide]:

  Disquisition \Dis`qui*si"tion\, n. [L. disquisitio, fr.
     disquirere to inquire diligently, investigate; dis- +
     quaerere to seek. See {Quest}.]
     A formal or systematic inquiry into, or discussion of, any
     subject; a full examination or investigation of a matter,
     with the arguments and facts bearing upon it; elaborate
     essay; dissertation.
     [1913 Webster]
           For accurate research or grave disquisition he was not
           well qualified.                          --Macaulay.
     [1913 Webster]

And the only connotation I can attribute to that term is: “Nobody expects a software disquisition!” which is clearly free of any negative historical baggage.

  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/postmortem↩︎