December 28, 2016
The Best Software Developers Know It's Not All 'Hacking'A social media debate that appears to have been raging over the Xmas break was triggered by some tech CEO claiming that the "best developers" would be hacking over the holidays.
Putting aside just how laden with cultural assumptions that tweet was (and, to be fair, many of the angry responses to it), there is a wider question of what makes a software developer more effective.
Consider the same tweet but in a different context: the "best screenwriters" will spend their holiday "hacking" screenplays. There's an assumption there that writing is all there is to it. Look at what happens, though, when screenwriters become very successful. Their life experiences change. They tend to socialise with other movie people. They move out of their poky little downtown apartments and move into more luxurious surroundings. They exchange their beat-up old Nissan for a brand new Mercedes. They become totally immersed in the world of the movie business. And then we wonder why there are so many movies about screenwriters...
The best screenwriters start with great stories, and tell their stories in interesting and authentic voices. To write a compelling movie about firefighters, they need to spend a lot of time with firefighters, listening to their stories and internalising their way of telling them.
First and foremost, great software developers solve real problems. They spend time with people, listen to their stories, and create working solutions to their problems told in the end user's authentic voice.
What happens when developers withdraw from the outside world, and devote all of their time to "hacking" solutions, is the equivalent of the slew of unoriginal and unimaginative blockbuster special effects movies coming out of Hollywood in recent years. They're not really about anything except making money. They're cinema for cinema's sake. And rehashes of movies we've already seen, in one form or another. because the people who make them are immersed in their own world: movie making.
Ironically, if a screenwriter actually switched off their laptop and devoted Xmas to spending time with the folks, helping out with Xmas dinner, taking Grandma for a walk in her wheelchair, etc, they would probably get more good material out of not writing for a few days.
Being immersed in the real world of people and their problems is essential for a software developer. It's where the ideas come from, and if there's one thing that's in short supply in our industry, it's good ideas.
I've worked with VCs and sat through pitches, and they all have a Decline Of The Hollywood Machine feel to them. "It's like Uber meets Moonpig" is our equivalent of the kind of "It's like Iron-Man meets When Harry Met Sally" pitches studio executives have to endure.
As a coach, when I meet organisations and see how they create software, as wel as the usual technical advice about shortening feedback cycles and automating builds and deployment etc, increasingly I find myself urging teams to spend much more time with end users, seeing how the business works, listening to their stories, and internalising their voices.
As a result, many teams realise they've been solving the wrong problems and ultimately building the wrong software. The effect can be profound.
I'll end with a quick illustration: my apprentice and I are working on a simple exercise to build a community video library. As soon as we saw those words "video library", we immediately envisaged features for borrowing and returning videos, and that sort of library-esque thing.
But hang on a moment! When I articulated the goal of the video library - to allow people to watch a movie a day for just 25p per movie - and we broke that down into a business model where 40+ people in the same local area who like the same genres of movies club together - it became apparent that what was really needed was a way for these people to find each other and form clubs.
Our business model (25p to watch one movie) precluded the possibility of using the mail to send and return DVDs. So these people would have to be local to wherever the movies were kept. That could just be a shed in someone's garden. No real need for a sophistated computer system to make titles. They would just need some shelves, and maybe a book to log loans and returns.
So the features we finally came up with had nothing to do with lending and returning DVDs, but was instead about forming local movie clubs.
I doubt we'd have come to that realisation without first articulating the problem. It's not rocket science. But still, too few teams approach development in this way.
So, instead of the "It's like GitHub, but for cats" ideas that start from a solution, take some time out to live in the real world, and keep your eyes and ears open for when someone says "You know what's really annoys me?", because an idea for the Next Big Thing might follow.
Posted 2 weeks, 4 days ago on December 28, 2016