Great development is about more than code

Most developers start out focusing solely on learning how to write code; usually a specific language and specific techniques. I started out with BASIC; spending many hours tinkering with games and graphics. I loved creating things just to see if I could create them not because there was any need to do so. 

Later I used the same approach to learn the syntax and capabilities of Java. It was easier this time, many of the skills I’d learned from BASIC were applicable despite the language differences. As my knowledge increased I created more sophisticated, and complicated solutions. I felt like I was becoming a better developer and I was, but I still wasn’t what you would call a good developer.

It took many years for me to really appreciate the importance of fully understanding a problem before even thinking about the solution. Spending time, often way more than you feel comfortable spending, thinking about the problem before writing a single line of code is hard. It feels counter-intuitive to see a problem and not immediately start trying to solve it. Experience taught me that good code design does not come from writing code.

Believing that complicated code is better code is a mistake, and one commonly made. Good code is the right code for the problem. It’s the right code for the team (language, tools, level of documentation), and it’s the right code for the problem (testability, maintainability, extendability). Often that means that the best code for the job is the most boring, simplest code. The kind of code that anyone in the team can pick up and work with.

Great developers are those that can see a business problem, collaborate with others, and design the simplest solution to get things done. They’re able to balance their time to support others, investigate ideas, as well as writing code. Being proficient in the language is a big part of their success, but it isn’t the only part. Anyone wanting to increase their development skills needs to look past simply writing code and start learning how to design great (simple) solutions.

How to stop being so busy

Busy people are not successful people.

We mistake being busy with being productive. We get hit after hit of dopamine, the so-called “Happy Hormone” as we check off items on the to-do list, or smash out emails, all the while boasting on Twitter that we are “Just so busy”. It feels good, and it can become addictive.

Many companies reinforce our behavior by creating a heavy meeting culture or constantly hitting employees with short-term deadlines that they have to scramble to meet. Of course there are times in life when we really do need to be busy; the day before a deadline, or when we’re planning a big event we might need us to push our sleeves and get things done.

The problem comes when we get stuck in the “busy mode” either through our own choice or because of someone else’s. Over time we lose the ability to even see that we’re permanently reactive with little ability to control our own workload or direction. For many of us, going home tired at the end of the day makes us feel satisfied. We equate tiredness to productivity, and come to think that we should always feel this tired as proof that we’re doing our job.

But being busy is a choice.

When we spend all our time being reactive and busy we lose sight of the long term. Even with the best intentions, you won’t find time to be strategic if you’re always fighting against the tide of being busy. Not being strategic means we’re not planning our choices and miss the chance to prevent reactive situations from occurring.

Maybe as managers we’re too busy to see or deal with someone who’s unhappy in their role. When they quit we’re forced into a reactive situation. As an engineer we can get stuck shoring up a crumbling architecture, desperately fixing bugs to keep things working. But at the same time we’re missing the chance to stop and design a system that scales, or is secure, and maintainable. Anyone seeking a promotion needs to find time to stop, look around, and work out what the strategic work really looks like. Otherwise you’ll be stuck where you are, all the time wondering why your manager isn’t rewarding you for fixing 5 million bugs or running 200 meetings.

When we get stuck in the permanent busy mode we need to work twice as hard just to stay where we are. All the while we miss the opportunity to make the right choices to help ourselves or our teams move forwards.

Strategic thinking is the only way to progress.

To create time for strategic thinking we need to do less stuff; either we need to delegate things or we need to reject things.

An Eisenhower Decision Matrix can be a great way to separate tasks into the Important, and the Urgent. Anything urgent but not important can be delegated, anything not urgent and not important can be rejected.

Everything else is either done now or scheduled in. Make sure you include self-care in this group. Self-care is often de-prioritised by busy people but neglecting yourself severely hinders your ability to stay healthy and sharp.

The Eisenhower Decision Matrix can be a great way to see when too firmly stuck in Tactical or Strategic mode. If all your tasks sit in one part of the matrix then you can clearly see that you place too much emphasis on tasks of this type.

EissenhowerMatrix

For anyone in a senior or leadership position having tasks in your Urgent, Not Important quadrant is a strong indicator that you’re not delegating enough. When you fail to delegate you fail to give other people opportunities. Correct this as soon as you can.

Once you’ve decided what you’re going to work on, and more importantly, what you’re not, you need to tell people. Make your priorities or calendar visible to the people around you and fiercely defend it so they know you’re serious. If they disagree with your priorities ask them to help you decide what gets de-prioritised to make space for their task. Be clear about the trade-offs.

If you have strategic work time scheduled in make sure you protect it at all costs. Lara Hogan has some brilliant advice on how to set up your calendar to be most effective for you. When you know the times of day that you’re most effective you can use them for the most important tasks. It seems obvious but many of us try to squeeze in important work when we have the time rather than carving out time for it. It should go without saying that important work is important. Give it the respect it deserves.

Finally, learn to say no. It doesn’t need to difficult, simply thank someone for thinking of you and politely decline.  You can’t do everything and you won’t be able to meet everyone’s expectations but that’s ok. Take control of your life and spend your time in a way that gets you to your goals.

2018 in Books

Books_of_2018_-_Google_DocsSometimes we read the book we need to solve the problem at hand. Other times we read a book and only afterwards see the situations that it has taught us to see.

2018 was a little lighter on reading than I would have liked but I did discover, and rediscover some gems.

First up was a reread of The Phoenix Project: A Novel about IT, Devops, and Helping Your Business Win. Five years on from its first publication and it’s starting to feel a little dated but still an excellent book with relevant lessons. Focusing on flow, and making work visible were key takeaways for me this time around.

Next up I read, and loved, Powerful by Patty McCord. Patty writes about recruiting, motivating, and creating great teams based on her experience developing the culture at Netflix.

What takes the place of rules, processes, approvals, bureaucracy, and permissions?” The answer: Clear, continuous communication about the context of the work to be done. Telling people, “Here’s exactly where we are, and here’s what we’re trying to accomplish.”

And

“You want to be a lifelong learner; you want to always be acquiring new skills and having new experiences, and that doesn’t have to be at the same company. The fact is that sometimes you’re hired by a company to do something, and then you do it and it’s done. If I hire people to rebuild my garage, when they’re done I don’t need them to rebuild the back of my house.”

The most practical book I read in 2018 was Accelerate: The Science of Lean Software and Devops: Building and Scaling High Performing Technology Organizations by Nicole Forsgren, Jez Humble and Gene Kim. This is a book crammed full of tips for helping teams achieve success, I particularly appreciated the focus on burnout that threaded its way throughout the book. Important reading.

Radical Candor by Kim Scott was my book of the year. “Radical candor is the sweet spot between managers who are obnoxiously aggressive on one side and ruinously empathetic on the other. It’s about providing guidance, which involves a mix of praise as well as criticism—delivered to produce better results and help employees achieve”. There are many, many great stories and transferable tips shared in this book. A joy to read, and a book that has changed the way I manage and want to be managed.

I ended up highlighting most of the book but this quote neatly sums up how it made me feel

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

My final book of the year was Switch by Chip Heath and  Dan Heath. Years ago I struggled through Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow, enjoying the message but finding it hard to recall accurately. Switch does a great job of sharing the same message in a far more accessible format. I absolutely loved the Elephant and the Rider metaphor to describe our minds, and I found the stories in the book to be interesting and highly motivating. I can’t wait to put these ideas into practice in 2019.

How was your 2018? Did you discover any books worth shouting about?

Default to Good

Our behaviour is shaped by many things; our experiences, our values, the environment around us. At work we have to make decisions about things we may not fully understand. We have to explain our decisions, and convince others to join us even when we’re not sure of the way.

Sometimes things are easier, maybe you work for an ethical company that’s clearly doing things to make the world a better place. Working somewhere like this, I imagine, would easily lead to good choices.

For the rest of us things are more blurry. You might work for a fantastic company for the wrong reason. You might work for a friendly company that don’t make the world a better place. You might work for a downright bad company for very good reasons.

As you go about your job, and life, you have to make decisions. If you’re a manger some of those decisions will be about how other people should live and work. You oversee goals, objectives, promotions, and pay rises. You might make decisions about hiring or letting people go, re-locating teams or ending projects, These things can be hard. The right decision might not always feel good, maybe people are being made redundant, or you’re forced to u-turn on a hiring decision. Generally decisions like this come after a long, well-considered period of evaluating the options. There are laws and guidelines to make sure we do the right things in these circumstances even if they still feel nasty.

But not all decisions are so big.

As we go through our day-to-day life we make decisions about all kinds of things. Many of these decisions are made with little data, or even very little consideration but they can have big implications. You might need someone on your team to do some additional work, or work late in the office. Maybe they need to stop what they’re currently working on, or join a different team.

Sometimes it can feel even more minor, maybe someone wants to leave early for an appointment, or work from home. Even if we don’t have a full picture when we make these decisions we can make the right decisions by simply doing what’s right as a human. We can make sure they understand what we’re asking, and why. We can give them space and time to articulate their concerns or questions, in the format that best suits them.  We can trust them.

When asking people to do something different or new we can remove a large workplace stress by simply making the priorities clear. Adding more work to a busy workload is a common and unfair practice. We should clearly state out expectations of where this fits into someone’s work, and if we don’t know what else they’re working on we should make sure to find out before deciding to allocate more work.

As managers we will often have more context on situations and are well placed to drive direction through a team but we should treat that context as a privilege. People choose to work with us, and by taking just a bit of time to work with them we can remove so much of the work-place frustration and stress.

It starts with a change

The person you are at 35 is not the person you were at 25. No one really explains that as you grow up you change. You start to like different things, and maybe even dislike things you really liked when you were younger. Life experiences can open new doors, or scar you beyond all hope of recovery. Maybe most surprisingly you just get bored.

After many years of enthusiastically testing, re-testing, and hopefully overseeing smooth releases it’s time for a change. I’m still an avid fan of great testing, and will always love the incredible testing community that now contains a number of very good friends but my interests have changed. Right now I’m excited about working with, and supporting the teams who build the great products.

My original blog will remain up, and may even see a new post from time to time, but this is my new home. Follow along for thoughts on managing people, hiring, building great teams, and spreading happiness at work.