Breaking people

An interesting discussion including  Yannick Grenzinger, Romeu Moura and Daniel Gonçalves has recently happened on Twitter. Thanks mates for the respectful and enlightening exchange.

It started from this:

The first objection was from Yannick Grenzinger:

Which, as  Daniel Gonçalves noticed, resonates a lot with an older tweet from Nicole Rauch:

I think the matter deserves a blog post to explain my position. Not because it’s the right position, but rather because we all have different experiences, with interesting things to share. I kind of agree with Nicole, and still I think we can survive it, if we stop trying to fix the system.

What’s breaking people?

The first step is to agree on what it means to “break people”. I was once, when I started my career.
We feel broken when we lost interest in what we are doing. When we stop trying to improve, because it seems excessively hard. We know that something better could be done. But we feel that whatever we can do will not have any meaningful impact. First, we lost our motivation, then our discipline, and finally our values.
Because what we can do doesn’t matter, it doesn’t matter either way if we don’t write a unit test for this code, or if we don’t take the time to refactor it. It doesn’t matter if the build is broken or if there isn’t any automatic build. It doesn’t matter if we ship bad software for unhappy users. That’s because of the corporation, not because of us. They want us to ship too fast. They want us to write crappy code. They recruit only juniors. They don’t care about code quality and good software. They don’t want to hear about pair programming. They just consider the IT as a cost centre. If they don’t want to change and see the world like us, there’s nothing we can do.

The global local impact

I’m a firm believer that you don’t change the world by imposing your view. You change the world by acting locally and leading by example. That’s exactly how I understand Gandhi’s mantra “You must be the change you want to see in the world”.
When I do consulting for a company, no matter how big it is, I start by acting locally. Of course, it would be easier to act globally. It would be easier if the whole company, at all levels, will follow the agile principles at once. But it never happens to me. And who am I to know the correct way of working for the whole company? I don’t know. What I know is how to write software efficiently. What I know is that it doesn’t belong to any managers to choose if we must write unit tests, or if we should use a build server and do code reviews.
Whatever the context is, I can keep my discipline and my values, which are mandatories to stay motivated.

But the system will break you!

Fair enough, that could happen, but at one condition. Only if I fail to recognize the moment when the “system” is creeping into my local safe area. I did this mistake once, and it won’t happen again.
Since then, when I do recognize this moment, I do whatever is possible to protect the safe area. The last possible solution is to abandon it and let it collapse.
Is it a big deal? Absolutely not. Our team could fail, our product could be shitty in the end, our company could re-create a command and control culture, but I (and the people convinced by my example) will be safe. Because we will leave and find another place where the culture is less corrupted, where it will be possible to manage a full project, at least locally, with our discipline and values.

So you’re just a coward?

I always clearly explain how I work during interviews. My behaviour will never be a surprise, as I clearly state that some practices are not optional for me to work.
Anybody who has already quit a gig or a job know how hard it is. Like every other passionate people, I have strong feelings about my job. And it takes lots of courage to admit that we’re no longer in the capacity to protect our local safe zone. It’s a failure. It is the proof that we couldn’t change enough people around us. But it doesn’t mean that we must abandon our discipline and values. It just means that we must abandon this toxic context, to find a better one.

How do you change anything if you left when it’s hard?

As it happens, lots of companies are looking hard for competent developers, with strong skills, discipline and values. It explains why, in 10 years of professional software development, I only need once to quit such a toxic environment. Since, I’ve always found some places where my discipline and values are much welcome.
I didn’t change any system so far, but I’ve done more important things. I’ve influenced the way of working of several people, in such a way that broken systems were no longer able to break them.

Changing things is not as important as changing people. From the latter, the first will happen.

 

 

 
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