The Hard Part of Software Development is not the Software

Talk presented at the February 2014 Austin on Rails Meeting

I am programmer but in the tradition of Michael Weston I am a total hack. I have been programming for 25 years and in that time I have learned how to get things done, but the one thing I know is that I am awful software developer. However, I want to get better.

There are a lot of ways that I have tried to get better over the years. I learned to use new languages, new frameworks, new APIs, new patterns, new libraries, new tools. All of these things helped me get stuff done.

Unfortunately, none of these things have really made me a better software developer. The one thing I haven't done much of is develop software as part of a large team. I think we all can understand that there are a lot of benefits to working with a team on software including:

  • Accomplish big and complex projects
  • Opportunities to learn from each other
  • Camaraderie is motivating
  • Someone to help you out when you make a mistake

So about 6 months ago I joined PeopleAdmin as a Ruby Developer. PeopleAdmin is a company that provides HR solutions to Universities using Software as a Service Model. We have a very large and complex Rails codebase that is 7+ years old and we host terabytes worth of data. The Engineering team consists of about 25 people. It is a top notch team and I'm honored to be part of it.

Based on all of your experiences, you probably roughly already know what takes to makes a good team; knowledgable and reliable people, good communication, trust and respect, and ownership. It's probably an uncontroversial statement that being a good team member is a very important part of being a good software developer, but working with other people can be hard and sometimes things go wrong, very wrong.

There are many reasons for this including:

  • Some people seek individual recognition / gain
  • Being polite is hard, it takes extra effort
  • All you really care about is the software
  • That person you just naturally do not get along with

So I want to tell you two stories from my experiences at PeopleAdmin that demonstrate lessons that I have learned from the mistakes that I made working with the team. They center on these two themes, recognition of excellence and empathy for failure.

Recognition of excellence

So when I first joined peopleadmin, one of the other developers was wrapping up a project getting it into production. He had used a new language Go and a SOA approach to solve a problem that had been a sore spot in the product for a long while. It improved our throughput and added additional functionality to our application which was a big win.

The one thing I noticed was the heaping helping of praise he received over and over from the team. At the time I did not think, "oh he did great work". I thought "I would love that to be me receiving the praise". I took a cursory look at the work and thought "I can do that". And honestly I do not even think that I complemented him on what was actually really excellent work.

Since starting at PeopleAdmin I've been working on a large project that is nearing completion now. At a recent demonstration of the project, I received a heaping helping of praise. That was a really good feeling. However, a new junior developer made an offhand comment in passing that made me think he didn't appreciate the complexity of the problem or value the hard work I had put into creating a solution.

And it clicked. It was only then that I realized the mistake I had made in judging the value my colleagues work from before. I underestimated the amount of work and complexity of the problem from the outside looking in. It looked simple. One take away is that we are naturally biased to think simple things are simple to create.

Another take away from the story is that recognition of excellence is not a zero sum game. This has always been a hard one for me to wrap my head around and I think it's a natural bias to believe that recognizing someone else's excellence and your own excellence are mutually incompatible. I think that is partly because the competitive nature of our society so that bias is built into the DNA of a lot of us.

Although it might be natural to compete with your team mates, it is actually counter productive. One of the great benefits of being on a team is their support and praise. You need to do the same.

Empathy for failure

Second story. Early on in my time at PeopleAdmin, one of the developers committed code that broke the build. They sheepishly admitted to it and went about fixing it. And I thought "that was a silly mistake, they should have been more careful" and I may have downgraded my perception of the developer's skills. I was new, trying to get a feel the skill levels of the various developers on the team.

Shortly thereafter, I am 90% sure that by messing around with something I knew little to nothing about, I corrupted our staging environment. This caused a mountain of extra work for the team and a delay to all our QA work in progress. I was thinking through all the things that set me up to fail, excuses and such.

What I realized was that I exhibited the fundamental attribution error. It is a well known and pervasive psychological fact where we tend to attribute the cause of the failure to the actor's shortcomings more frequently than the situational factors that lead to the failure.

However this only hold true for judging others, not yourself. We overwhelmingly attribute our own failures to situational factors. This is the actor/observer bias.

For example when you see someone trip, you think they are clumsy, but when you trip, you ask who put that in my way?

A more relevant example, when you see a bug, it is easy to say, "who's the moron?" rather than "oh man, this is a really complex system we're working on".

Take aways

  • Recognize excellence freely because creating simple things is hard
  • Have empathy for failure because failure is, more often than not, due the circumstances surrounding the failure

Internalize these and you will be a better team member and thus a better software developer!