Stories about Software


Weaponized Mastery, Autonomy, And Purpose

Years ago, I published a post called How to Keep Your Best Programmers.  In it, I discussed what drives programmers out of jobs and what keeps them happy.  This discussion touched heavily on the concepts of mastery, autonomy, and purpose as important motivators for knowledge workers.  If you want to keep skilled programmers, you can’t just throw money and bonuses at them — you need to appeal to these other forms of motivation.

This post became quite popular and has remained so over the years.  I think the popularity results from the resonant idea of wanting our lives and careers to mean more than just a paycheck.  We want to be proud of what we do.

Since my own discovery of it years ago, I’ve seen frequent reference to these motivators and to Daniel Pink’s talk about them.  People use it to explain the difference between work that pays the bills and work that deeply satisfies.  More and more, we exhort our employers to appeal to mastery, autonomy, and purpose.  And more and more, they seem to do it, to our benefit and that of the industry at large.

But with this trend, I’ve noticed an interesting and unanticipated side effect.  People can appeal to autonomy, mastery, and purpose to enrich our lives, but they can also do so to manipulate us.

Mastery, autonomy, purpose -- they make us happy, but they can mesmerize us.

Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose as Vices

To understand how that works, consider our desires in a different light.  Consider what happens when you take them to extremes.

We enjoy getting better at things (mastery), but that can lead to obsessive behavior.  I think most of us can relate, at some point in our life or another, to playing way too much of some kind of stupid video game.  We know it wastes our time and that we should probably delete it, but… just… one… more level.  Mastering the game drives us even when we know it wastes our time.

We also enjoy autonomy, but chasing that can lead to problems as well.  Have you ever known someone serially unemployed because they bristled at the thought of anyone telling them what to do?  Some people with that demeanor become entrepreneurs, but some become angry criminals.

And purpose as a vice can be, perhaps, the scariest of all.  Think about the phrase, “the ends justify the means.”  What is this if not a statement that purpose trumps all?  As long as you’re chasing a lofty enough goal, it doesn’t matter who you step on to get there.

We can chase mastery, autonomy, and purpose into problematic territory.  But other people can also use them to chase us there.

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Why Expert Developers Still Make Mistakes

Editorial note: I originally wrote this post for the NDepend blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, take a look at the most recent version of NDepend with an assortment of features around visualizing tech debt.

When pressed, I bet you can think of an interesting dichotomy in the software world.  On the one hand, we programmers seem an extraordinarily helpful bunch.  You can generally picture us going to user groups, conferences, and hackthons to help one another.  We blog, record videos, and help people out on Twitter.

But then, we also seem to tear each other apart.  Have you ever hesitated before posting something on Stack Overflow?  Have you worried that you’ll miss some arcane piece of protocol or else that you’ve asked a stupid question.  Or, spreading our field of vision a little wider, have you ever seen nasty comment sections and ferocious arguments?

We programmers love to help each other… and we also like to rip each other to shreds.  What gives?

Reconciling the Paradoxical

Of course, I need to start by pointing out that “the programming world” consists of many, many human beings.  These people have personalities and motivations as diverse as humanity in general.  So naturally, contradictory behavioral tendencies in the population group can exist.

But let’s set that aside for a moment.  Instead, let’s try to squish the programming community into a single (if way over-generalized) human being.  How can this person be so helpful, but also so… rude?

The answer lies in understanding the protocol of helping.  The person presenting the help is an expert.  Experts enjoy explaining, teaching, offering opinions, and generally helping.  But you’d also better listen up the first time, pay attention to the rules, and not waste their time.  Or they’ll let you hear about it.

In the programming community, we gravitate toward conceptual, meritocratic ladder ranking.  Expert thus becomes hard-won, carefully guarded status in the community.  Show any sign of weakness, and you might worry that you’ll fall down a few rungs on the ladder.

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The Polyglot’s Dilemma

Few things seem as institutional to the programming world as what I call the experience tuple.  A company needs to hire someone to automate something, so, naturally, it asks the software development group to make alphabet soup for dice.com.  “We need someone with (C#, XML, HTML, JS, ASP, MVC, REST, Angular, AJAX) with (React, MSTest, Moq, CSS) as plus.”  Presumably then, polyglot applicants stand a better chance.  But I’d argue that they also face something I’ll call the polyglot’s dilemma.

Hold on to your hats, programmers, because this will get counter-intuitive before it makes sense.  With that in mind… where to start?

Problem Solvers and Problem Transformers

Well, perhaps categorizing hired software developers as problems makes for a good start.  I don’t mean problems in a negative sense, but rather in the same vein as puzzles.  A business hires software developers for some broader purpose.  Maybe they work on internal automation that reduces operating expenses.  Or perhaps they produce software sold as a good or service and add to top line revenue.

In either case, the business implicitly says “I need help increasing our profitability.”  And you show up saying the following.

I have (8, 10, 10, 4, 6, 3, 1, 1, 0) years of (C#, XML, HTML, JS, ASP, MVC, REST, Angular, AJAX).  Now while the rest of you figure out how to make use of me, I’ll be over here sharpening the saw with some code katas.

Whenever I’ve had management responsibility, I’ve subconsciously put people into two buckets.  Problem solvers take a problem I have and make it go away.  Problem transformers take a problem I have and solve it by bringing me the next problem.  (I’m omitting non-performers who don’t solve problems at all as beyond the scope of this post.)

For instance, take the problem of a malfunctioning production server.  A problem solver would go off and come back with a functioning production server, somehow.  A problem transformer would come back, report that the problem was caused by a faulty power supply and ask what I wanted to do about that new problem.

As programmers, we behave as problem transformers.  We present ourselves and our skill sets as problems in need of management solutions.

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So, You’ve Inherited a Legacy Codebase

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the SubMain blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.  While you’re there, have a look around at some of the other posts and sign up for the feed.

During my younger days, I worked for a company that made a habit of strategic acquisition.  They didn’t participate in Time Warner style mergers, but periodically they would purchase a smaller competitor or a related product.  And on more than one occasion, I inherited the lead role for the assimilating software from one of these organizations.  Lucky me, right?

If I think in terms of how to describe this to someone, a plumbing analogy comes to mind.  Over the years, I have learned enough about plumbing to handle most tasks myself.  And this has exposed me to the irony of discovering a small leak in a fitting plugged by grit or debris.  I find this ironic because two wrongs make a right.  A dirty, leaky fitting reaches sub-optimal equilibrium and you spring a leak when you clean it.

Legacy codebases have this issue as well.  You inherit some acquired codebase, fix a tiny bug, and suddenly the defect flood gates open.  And then you realize the perilousness of your situation.

While you might not have come by it in the same way that I did, I imagine you can relate.  At some point or another, just about every developer has been thrust into supporting some creaky codebase.  How should you handle this?

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Collaborating with Outsiders to the Dev Team

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the SmartBear blog.  You can check out the original here, at their site.

Developer news sites, blogs, books, and tutorials tend to speak at length about how developers should collaborate with one another to maximize team effectiveness. The subject of how developers should collaborate with people outside of their team often gets shorter shrift, however.

Personally, I find this to be a shame.  I think it tends to reinforce the stereotype that developers do a poor job of human interaction and need an organizational layer of people to translate between them and normal humans.  I would prefer to live in a world where people didn’t draw distinctions between “the developers” and “the business” because it was simply assumed that software development was part of the business.

For this reason, I’d like to offer some thoughts on how you, as a developer, can most effectively collaborate with non-developers — people outside of your team.  I will offer the caveat that some teams, particularly Scrum teams, are cross functional and thus include non-developers in the team itself.  I understand that, but for the purpose of speaking to the broadest audience, I will presuppose that your team is specialized in the sense that it is made up exclusively of software developers.  Besides, if your team does include other disciplines, it isn’t as if advice on how to collaborate with those folks magically becomes invalid.

Before getting into specifics, I want to mention two universal principles.  The first I will call out only briefly now and not again because it should be common sense and go without saying.  But, in case it doesn’t, treat these colleagues with courtesy and respect.  They are intelligent knowledge workers that simply have a different specialty than you do, and you ought to treat them as such.  If you can’t do it simply as part of being a decent human being, do it because acting like a primadonna is career limiting.  The second principle I’ll mention is that, because these collaborators are intelligent knowledge workers with a different specialty, you should endeavor to learn from them to improve your own work.

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