JVM Advent

The JVM Programming Advent Calendar

Developers want to be heard

How often have you been in this situation?

You’re in a meeting with the team and you’re all discussing the implementation of a new feature. The group seems to be converging on a design, but there’s something about it that feels off, some sort of “smell”.  You point this out to the team, perhaps outlining the specific areas that make you uncomfortable. Maybe you even have an alternative solution. The team lets you have your say, but assures you their solution is The Way.

Or what about this?

A tech lead asks you to fix a bug, and as you work on your implementation you bounce ideas around periodically just to make sure you’re on the right track. Things seem to be OK, until it comes to getting your code merged. Now it becomes clear that your implementation is not what the lead had in mind, and there’s a frustrating process of back-and-forth while you explain and defend your design decisions whilst trying to incorporate the feedback. At the end, the solution doesn’t feel like your work, and you’re not entirely sure what was wrong with your initial implementation – it fixed the problem, passed the tests, and met the criteria you personally think are important (readability / scalability / performance / stability / time-to-implementation, whatever it is that you value).

When you speak to women developers, you often hear “I feel like I have to work really hard to convince people about my ideas” or “it’s taken me a long time to prove my worth” or “I still don’t know how to be seen as a full member of the team”.

And you hear these a lot from women because we ask women a lot what they don’t like about their work, since we’re (correctly) concerned as an industry about the lack of female developers and the alarming rate at which they leave technical roles.

However, if you ask any developer you’ll hear something similar.  Even very senior, very experienced (very white, very male) developers have a lot of frustration trying to convince others that their ideas have value.

It’s not just a Problem With Women.

I’ve been wondering if our problem is that we don’t listen.  When it comes to exchanging technical ideas, I think overall we’re not good at really listening to each other.  At the very least, I think we’re bad at making people feel heard.

Let’s think about this for a bit: if we don’t listen to developers, if we don’t help them to understand why they’re wrong, or work together to incorporate all ideas into a super-idea that’s the best solution, developers will become frustrated.  We’re knowledge workers, what we bring to the table is our brains, our ideas, our solutions.  If these are persistently not valued, we could go one of two ways:

  1. Do it our way anyway. We still think we’re right, we haven’t been convinced that our idea is not correct, or that someone else’s is correct (maybe because we didn’t listen to them? Maybe because no-one took the time to listen to us and explain why we were wrong? Maybe because we were right and no-one was listening?).
  2. Leave. We might join a team where we feel more valued, or we might leave development all together.  At least as a business analyst, as a project manager, as a tester, people have to listen to us: by their very definition the output of those jobs is an input to the development team. 

Option one leads to rogue code in our application, often not checked by anyone else in the team let alone understood by them, because of course we were not allowed to implement this.  So it’s done in secret.  If it works, at worst no-one notices.  And at best? You’re held up as a hero for actually Getting Something Done. This can’t be right, we’re rewarding the rebel behaviour, not encouraging honest discussion and making people feel included.

Option two leads to the team (and maybe the industry) losing a developer. Sometimes you might argue “Good Riddance”.  But there’s such a skills shortage, it’s so hard (and expensive) to hire developers, and you must have seen something in that developer to hire them in the first place, that surely it’s cheaper, better, to make them feel welcome, wanted, valued?

What can we do to listen to each other?

  • Retrospectives. Done right, these give the team a safe place to discuss things, to ask questions, to suggest improvements.  It’s not necessarily a place to talk about code or design, but it is a good place to raise issues like the ones above, and to suggest ways to address these problems.
  • You could schedule sessions for sharing technical ideas: maybe regular brown bags to help people understand the technologies or existing designs; maybe sessions where the architecture or design or principals of a particular area are explored and explained; maybe space and time for those who feel unheard to explain in more detail where they’re coming from, principals that are important to them.  It’s important that these sessions are developer-lead, so that everyone has an opportunity to share their ideas.
  • Pair programming. When you’re sat together, working together, there’s a flow of ideas, information, designs, experience. It’s not necessarily a case of a more senior person mentoring a less experienced developer, all of us have different skills and value different qualities in our implementation – for example, one of you could be obsessive about the tests, where the other really cares about readability of the code. When you implement something in a pair, you feel ownership of that code but you feel less personally attached to the code – you created it, but you created it from the best of both of you, you had to listen to each other to come to a conclusion and implement it. And if an even better idea comes along, great, it just improves the code. You’re constantly learning from the other people you work with, and can see the effect of them learning from you.
  • We should value, and coach, more skills than simply technology skills. I don’t know why we still seem to have this idea that developers are just typists communing with the computer – the best developers work well in teams and communicate effectively with the business and users; the best leaders make everyone in their team more productive.  In successful organisations, sales people are trained in skills like active listening, like dealing with objections.  More development teams should focus on improving these sorts of communication skills as a productivity tool. 

I’m sure there are loads more options, I just thought of these in ten minutes.  If you read any books aimed at business people, or at growing your career, there are many tried and tested methods for making people feel heard, for playing nicely with others.

So we should work harder to listen to each other. Next time you’re discussing something with your team, or with your boss, try and listen to what they’re saying – ask them to clarify things you don’t understand (you won’t look stupid, and developers love explaining things), and repeat back what you do understand. Request the same respect in return – if you feel your ideas aren’t being heard, make sure you sit down with someone to talk over your ideas or your doubts in more detail, and be firm in making sure the team or that person is hearing what you think you’re saying.  We may be wrong, they may be right, but we need to understand why we’re wrong, or we’ll never learn.

If we all start listening a bit more, maybe we’ll be a bit happier.

This post is part of the Java Advent Calendar and is licensed under the Creative Commons 3.0 Attribution license. If you like it, please spread the word by sharing, tweeting, FB, G+ and so on!

Author: gpanther

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  1. Alexander Turner December 11, 2014

    "making people feel heard" now there you have hit the issue. The very language of business has crept into your honest and well meaning post. It is most important that people are heard, then we can work on letting them realise they are heard. Trying to make them feel heard is similar to trying to make then feel valued of trying to make them say 'yes'. We cannot and should not make anyone do anything and trying to force feeling on people is wrong.

    You are right that people are not properly listened to in the IT environment. Personally, I think retrospectives are a bit like agile planning meetings, the favour a particular communication style which really drives a wedge into the middle of teams. I do not think they are a good idea. I do feel pair programming is a good idea but it should be occasional not the norm. The real key is to actually listen. All the time. 'Does that make sense', 'What do you think' these should be a way of life. No artifice required; no meetings need to be scheduled. Everyone should be actively listening not practicing active listening. There are not tricks to this, just really believing that the other person is worth listening to. If you believe that then they will pick up on your belief.

    Or at least that is what I think. Am I making sense or have I missed the point?

  2. Trisha Gee December 12, 2014

    No, I think you make a lot of sense. I'm interested in your comments about retrospectives though, as I personally found them a really great environment for sharing my concerns and for having a safe place to discuss these ideas. Admittedly, I have also worked somewhere where retrospectives were merely another tick to put in the box "yes, we had our weekly retrospective, and we made a note of all the team's concerns". The fact that we were raising the same concerns every week showed the failure of these retrospectives – to either act on the issues or to help us understand why things weren't changing.

    And I disagree with you on pair programming, we did it every day at LMAX and I've never worked in a more productive environment. But it does depend on what you're working on and your developers' communication styles.

    I think overall we agree with each other though – there's something broken in our industry where we don't value skills like listening.

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