Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Key takeaways from QCon New York 2017: The Soft Stuff

This year, for the third time since I joined Aviva Solutions, I attended the New York edition of the famous QCon conference organized by InfoQ. As always, this was a very inspiring week with topics on large-scale distributed architecture, microservices, security, APIs, organizational culture and personal development. It also allowed me the mental breathing room to form a holistic view on the way I drive software development myself. After having discussed the tech stuff in the last post, it's time to talk about the softer aspects of our profession.

"Here's my plan. What's wrong with it?"

This year's keynote was one of the most inspiring keynotes ever. Former police officer Matt Sakaguchi, now a senior Google manager who's terminally ill talked about how important is to be completely yourself at the office. He called it "bring your whole self to work" and how he never could while working in the macho culture that existed at the police force. According to Matt, the prerequisites for that is to have the feeling to have impact and meaning and the need for structure and clarity on what is expected from somebody. He particularly emphasized the need for people to have psychological safety. Nothing is more restraining to someone's potential than feeling shame. It's the responsibility of a manager or team lead to provide such an environment and to make sure that no employee calls down on another for asking "dumb" question. It should be perfectly fine to ask them. In fact, somebody else might be wondering the same, but might be afraid to ask because of that same shame. A nice example of a manager that did that quite well involved his former SWAT sergeant. Whenever they had an assignment, the sergeant would start the briefing with the statement "Here's my plan. What's wrong with it".

Staying relevant when getting older

Something you wouldn't expect at a conference like QCon was a talk about what it takes to stay up-to-date and relevant when getting older. I didn't expect it, but the room was fully loaded, both with young and older people. In fact, after a short inquiry by Don Denoncourt, it appeared only three people were older than 50. That does say something about our profession. Don shared some of the great stories of people who loved what they did until they died of old age, and emphasized that failure makes you stronger. So keep challenging yourself and keep exercising your brain. If you don't, you'll loose the ability to learn.

Don had a couple of suggestions on how to do that. First of all, he wanted us to look at what the best in our profession do and follow their lead. For example, they read code for fun, they might join or start one or more open-source projects, they write blog posts and speak at user groups and conferences. They also discover technologies that other team members are adept it. And finally, they mentor other people. Next to that, Don wants us to understand our learning style. If you’re an auditory person, class room session, audio books or Youtube videos might be the thing for you. But if you're more like a visual person, books and articles might be better suited. However, if you're a kinesthetic type, doing some tech projects in the evenings is probably the most efficient method to gain new knowledge.

He also suggests to do short bursts of learning while waiting for our unit tests to complete, in between Pomodoros, between projects and while job hunting. He even wants us to do some learning during our commute, during workouts, or, when you are a (grand) parent like Don, while taking your (grand) kids with the stroller. And if you're into a certain topic, be sure to apply multi-pass learning by reading more than one article or book on the same subject. And finally, to make sure you don't run out of learning material, stockpile books, blogs, online courses and videos. And don't forget to accumulate posts from web magazines, newsletters, conferences and seminar videos. A great tool to collect all this is Pocket. Apparently Don and me have more in common than I thought.

Communication is a skill

One third of all projects fail because of poor communications and ineffective listening. At least, this what Andrea Goulet and Scott Ford told us. And to be clear, failure includes missed deadlines and overrunning budgets, and seems to be pretty traumatic. They also told us that the outcomes we experience, both individually and socially, come from conversations we had, didn't had, did well and didn't do so well. So being able to become more effective in communication is a pretty important skill to learn.

Scott and Andrea shared a couple of techniques and tips to help you with that. First of all, you should try to see each other's potential before commencing in a fruitful discussion. Just by thinking about that persons possibilities rather than focusing on their bad habits can change the way you approach a person. Next to that, it's useful to understand the speaking types. According to the model Andrea uses, people can be transactional where the interaction is based on asking questions and telling people about what needs to be done. People can also be positional where they advocate their opinions from a particular role or position. And finally, some people are transformational in which they share a vision and try to steer the discussion in a direction that aligns with that.

Emotions are part of an face to face interaction as well and can negatively influence your ability to communicate effectively, so it's imperative to transform an agitated response to a state of deep listening. If you do feel agitated, Andrei strongly suggested us to pause, feel your feet, watch your breath and to remember what you care about. To help us understand how your body, your emotions and what you're saying work together, she shared a model where each layer contributes to the next. Our body is the first layer and informs us about threats to our safety. It helps us to identify our friends or foes and lets us know how to fit in. It provides us with a sense of reality and helps us to make judgement calls. Our emotions form the 2nd layer and provide us with biological reactions to circumstances that we perceive as fear, anger, sadness or happiness. Our speaking represents the 3rd and last layer and allows us to express our opinions, say what we think what is and what is not factual in our world. It also allows us to ask people to do things for us and gives us the ability to commit ourselves to do things for others.

Pretty abstract ideas, right? Fortunately they had some simple and actionable tips as well. For instance, instead of stating your frustration as a fact, they advised us to use phrases like "I feel….when you…..because", or to respond to proposals you don't (entirely) agree with using an affirmative statement followed by "and" instead of "but". And apparently we also need to be humble, helpful and immediate (instead of sugar coating things). And when we do have criticism, keep praising people publicly and save that criticism for a private setting.

Opinions please

So what do you think? Does any of this resonate well with you? I know this is pretty soft stuff and might not appeal to you techies. But I do believe that being successful in the software development profession requires great communication skills. So let me know what you think by commenting below. Oh, and follow me at @ddoomen to get regular updates on my everlasting quest for knowledge that significantly improves the way you and me communicate in a technological world.