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MIT blogger CJ Q. '23

institutional memory by CJ Q. '23

cruft are cool!

in one of the organizations i’m in, esp, we toss the phrase “institutional memory” a lot. it refers to the knowledge that’s shared between the members in the group. because our membership is almost entirely undergrads, our oldest members have only been around for three years. this stands in contrast to esp itself, which has been around for sixty years.

how does any student group run for more than a few years, then? one possibility is that it doesn’t. some groups renew themselves every four years with zero continuity, like living groups. other groups collapse, often from a cascade of small failures. a single bad recruitment cycle goes by, maybe because of a pandemic. the president takes sick leave and no one knows what to do. an officer forgets to transfer a mailing list.

i’ve seen some success with intentionally transferring knowledge. esp makes a big deal of this. we have a comprehensive wiki, a huge google drive, and regular “cluedumps”, or transition meetings. but it takes time to set up the infrastructure for good knowledge transfer, and it’s easy to forget something small, like transferring a mailing list.

the other strategy i’ve seen is having alumni stick around. that doesn’t mean that a graduate runs the group themselves, but that they’re available to help the students who do run things. not only are alumni more knowledgeable about these things, but for some reason they tend to be less busy. anyway, the point is that having cruft01 term of endearment referring to mit alumni stick around isn’t always a bad thing; it’s a way to extend institutional memory.

this applies in sitautions like, not knowing the password to something, or not understanding how something works. but there’s also unknown unknowns. for example, it was only through a graduate sitting in on one of our assassins guild meetings that i learned about our history with the mit police, and why we do certain things. i wouldn’t have thought of asking about that, had alumni not stayed involved with the guild.

yesterday me and matthew ’23 were upgrading one of esp’s servers. the last time we had to do anything with this server was 2014. we managed to upgrade from ubuntu 14 to 16, but after upgrading from 16 to 18 we bricked the server. we ended up wiping it and installing ubuntu 22 from scratch, but that meant we had to set up everything again.

matthew asked me, “who would know anything about this?” and i said “no one who’s now here, probably.” we lament the fact that we’re both seniors, and that there isn’t anyone younger who’s available to learn what we’re doing. we manage to figure out networking, but were stuck afterward.

then we got a reply to our email, from jeffery ’22, who graduated last spring. he offered to get on a call with us, so we did. we talked about how no one’s going to know what we’re doing in a few years, no matter how well we document it. i mention that we’re graduating. matthew says we still have one year. i wanted to say that one year isn’t that long in the span of things.

we get ssh and some other stuff set up over the call. before i leave, i tell jeffery that i miss him. he says he misses me too.

  1. term of endearment referring to mit alumni back to text