Work

My new work is great1. The main thing I like about it is the consummate professionalism of the team. Everyone I work with is interested in improving their craft and is eager to engage in discussions about software principles, code quality, development processes and tools. In general there is a noticeable group ethos that seems guided by the following set of principles:

Take the time to make your work as high-quality as possible given the scope of the task at hand. This means writing tests and undertaking refactorings to manage complexity in the normal course of development. It also means often having to partially or fully revisit a design based on new findings that come out during development. This may seem like a recipe for low productivity but our team is pretty consistent in its output: to use a decidedly fake and wobbly measurement, each team member seems capable of producing about two significant user-facing features per week. I know from personal experience that the alternative, programming to hard deadlines and arbitrary deployment cycles2, may at times produce the superficial appearance of a greater amount of output (“With Monday’s release we closed ten stories and five bugs!”) but this is just a loan taken out against the day when you have to devote entire “sprints” to fixing the earlier rushed implementations. Taking the requisite time with each task is consonant with the recognition that growth in complexity in a system has to be managed, either all at once in a great “redesign” crusade, or in small thoughtful efforts as you go.

Even sufficiently good work can be improved dramatically through constructive criticism and iterative development. This was something I’ve had considerable trouble with at times, as a person who avoids conflict and criticism at all cost. The key to being able to accept the criticism (which normally comes in the form of code reviews on Github), I’ve found, is to focus on the improvement to the final product brought about by incorporating the criticism. During each round of code review feedback instead of fighting the suggestions I try to let go of my ego (not at all easy) and visualize how the code will look after I implement the changes; I’m generally much happier with the final code than I am with the initial submission. I also try to approach criticism as containing information about what I should do and what I should avoid in the future, so that even when I am receiving brutal criticism about the quality of my code I receive some comfort from the fact that I am learning how to avoid similar criticism in the future3.

There’s more than one way to do it, but you should be able to articulate the reason for why you’re doing something a certain way, even if the articulation of that reason is “because that’s the way I learned it initially and there’s no compelling reason to change”. This of course opens you up to the possibility that somebody else has a positive argument for a certain practice, in which case it’s hard to argue for the original practice purely on the basis of apathy. Often the process of asking oneself why one prefers one practice to another ends up extracting motivations and values that are more interesting than the actual issue of practice in question. As a team we discuss many issues great and small, from high-level questions about design patterns and object composition to nitty-gritty questions about code block indentation. Sometimes these discussions result in some binding decision regarding style or best practice, but on other occasions we’ve articulated dueling reasons and concluded that the arguments for both are strong enough that both practices or styles are valid for different contexts.

Work to improve the product and support your teammates. I know this one sounds like a cheerlead-y cliché, but all I mean by this is that the primary motivator for working hard is to make the application and its codebase better, both because these support one’s self-interest of having the company succeed and remaining employed, but also because you see your teammates working hard and want to make a similar contribution. The codebase and app are a communal creation and as one works with it one begins to feel a sense of loyalty to the whole, as well as a sense of pride for the sections of code that you’ve played a major role in shaping. This is worth mentioning mainly because it stands in contrast to other motivational systems, like those that depend on fear of punitive action or explicit intra-team competition. There are still elements of fear and competition at work in our system, but they are sublimated into cooperative and high-productivity behaviors4.

This ethos doesn’t come from nowhere. It is the product of specific values that are held and promoted by my boss, and it is sustained through a combination of the personalities of the people he chose to hire and the practices (often enforced/encouraged by technological tools) he put in place. It is an impressive accomplishment that is easier to describe than it would be to replicate.

Anyway, it’s a pretty cool job.

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  1. New as in I’ve been there for ~6 months [back]
  2. These deadlines and cycles often end up being Procrustean beds for feature requirements.[back]
  3. Did I mention that I don’t like criticism?[back]
  4. That is, people compete to be the most helpful![back]