CORALINE: I will fine some cool, shady corner and lurk and brood.
CHUCK: That sounds like a party.
CORALINE: I make my own fun.
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CHUCK: Hey everybody and welcome to episode 191 of the Ruby Rogues Podcast. This week on our panel, we have Coraline Ada Ehmke.
CORALINE: Hey there.
CHUCK: Avdi Grimm.
AVDI: You mean Tom Waits.
CHUCK: David Brady. [Pause] Maybe he didn’t come back. I’m Charles Max Wood from DevChat.TV. And this week we have a special. That’s Kerri Miller.
KERRI: Hi, everybody.
CHUCK: Alright, so this week we’re talking about the Developer Happiness Team. This is something that Coraline has worked on at Instructure. So, we’re going to talk about what makes us happy and how to set something like this up so that companies can make it work for their employees and make them happy. I’m curious to kick this off. What sorts of things make you guys happy in your work or your career?
CORALINE: One of the things that really occur to me as someone who’s given a lot of thought to happiness and motivation, on a previous show someone had said that the alternate purpose of our job is to create working code. And that seemed very practical and utilitarian. I think the process of creation is what brings a lot of us into the field. And the ability to do our best and create things that are beautiful, understandable, maintainable, those are all the things that motivate, at least me as a developer, knowing that I’m creating something of quality, not just something functional, something with an aesthetic sensibility to it that makes me proud of the work that I do.
CHUCK: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, just the fulfillment of doing a good job, something that yeah, meets that creative standard, whatever it is. For me it also helps when it’s something that makes a difference, something that I feel like it’s going to help somebody in some way.
KERRI: Yeah. Actually, I worked for several years for a company that was basically aggregating eyeballs and trying to sell ads. And I think my favorite ad from that time was a Slim Jim ad. Snap into a Slim Jim, Snapalope or something like that, that would come and dance across peoples screens. And after implementing that, you head home and you’re like, “What am I doing? How happy am I with this?”
The next job, I did something similar where we were building hardware cameras for people to capture their outdoor adventures. And it was basically the same exact work of video transcriptions, capturing eyeballs, and providing some lightweight social networking. But it was much more fulfilling, and it was the same exact work. But I was so much happier with it. And it’s the same people, same work, just different context for it.
CHUCK: I understand being in a place where things are stressful or you’re tired or things are definitely not going the way that you want them to. And I’ve come out of a couple of months of that. And I think overall, I have an idea of the things that make me happy and make me tick. But sometimes, those things just aren’t present front and center. And sometimes, there are other things that are grabbing your attention. And so, at that point, then it comes down to, is work adding to my stress as opposed to improving my life quality?
And I think that’s something that we generally take for granted, is I work in a safe place where I’m not being attacked or being whatever, or I’m doing stuff that I enjoy, or I’m not bored [chuckles]. Or things like that, where it’s instead of, “These things make me happy” it’s, “I’m not experiencing the things at work that really make it a drag.”
KERRI: That’s really acknowledging to hear because you’re somebody outside of just that work too, but that work is such an important part of, not just who we are I guess but how much time we put into it. And it really does impact the rest of our life.
CORALINE: It brings to mind Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I wonder if something could be constructed along those lines in terms of what makes developers feel happy. Some of the baseline is, “I have a job. I’m not getting yelled at. It’s a safe place to work. I feel like I’m part of a team.”
CHUCK: Getting [inaudible].
CORALINE: Yeah, exactly. Right up to feeling self-actualized, feeling like the work that you’re doing is a projection of your own self and your own values, being the highest tier on that hierarchy.
DAVID: Marcus Buckingham did a 12-question… well he did a hundred-question survey. And he found there were 12 questions that really stood out in terms of happiness, and this wasn’t just developers. This was across all groups of people. And question number 12 is really interesting because it’s, “Do you have a best friend at work?” And every time I’ve really had really deep job satisfaction, I have. I’ve had somebody that I hang out with at work, that I chat a lot with, that I share intimate personal stuff with. And it’s a social experience to go to work.
And I mention this because for the first time last week, the job that I’m at actually passed that 12-question survey around to us. And I’m like, “Holy crap. I read about this.” And when we were reviewing the survey results, my manager said that he passed this around at a larger company and human resources made him take that question off, because it was potentially offensive to the people that just want to come to work and go to work. They’re not here to make friends and then they just want to go home. And it boggled my mind to basically say, human resources intervened to remove a valid data point because there were people who were not conforming to the valid data point. It’s like, “We don’t want data here.” That surprised me. And I’m assuming that they got the answers that they were basically…
CORALINE: Self-fulfilling prophecy?
KERRI: Well [said], [inaudible].
DAVID: Yeah, self-fulfilling prophecy. Yeah, they got the data that they forced the system into giving them, yeah.
CHUCK: Mm, yeah.
KERRI: You discovered the hidden final step of the scientific process where step one, we devise a hypothesis. Then we devise an experiment and then we test that, the hypothesis, via the experiment. And then the final step of course is to modify the experiment to match the hypothesis.
CHUCK: We did a whole episode on that.
DAVID: There are lies, damn lies, and then there’s statistics.
KERRI: It does bring up a point though. Happiness looks different for everybody. There are a lot of commonalities. But very often when you get down into what are the nitty-gritty details of what makes somebody happy, we might both say we want to be respected professionally. But what that looks like could be completely different depending on who you are and what your background is.
CHUCK: Well, and I also know people that their main fulfillment comes from, “I got 10 things done today.” And for me, my fulfillment factors come from other people. And so it’s, “Hey, I impacted the team. I impacted the customers.” I got positive feedback. And on the day-to-day thing, the best friend at work, talking Dave’s point, that’s a big deal for me, because I’m a much more social person than other people who are maybe more detail-oriented or need to feel like they’re taking charge or things like that. So yeah, it really does. But at the same time, I think that a lot of the other factors that you’re talking about are important to me. And if I’m failing dreadfully in those, then I really won’t be happy with my work anyway.
CORALINE: You feel like that competition versus collaboration question is a matter of maturity or something that’s baked into our personalities?
CHUCK: I don’t know.
DAVID: I would argue that the answer to that is yes.
CORALINE: How do you mean?
DAVID: Meaning both. And in some people, very much one and not the other, and other people the other way around. In other words, I think they’re both contributing factors and there’s no universal contributor to it. I can totally see people who change their internal happiness function. They changed it as they matured and grew. And I also know people that are, I don’t want to use bloody-minded but [chuckles] they’ve had the same things make them happy 10 years on that did 10 years ago. I’m one of the latter, or one of the former types. And I really envy people who know what makes them happy and have always known what makes them happy and can get what they need to make themselves happy. Maybe I’m just…
AVDI: I find happiness is…
DAVID: Oh, I was just going to say maybe I’m just a really unhappy person.
KERRI: Oh dear.
AVDI: I find happiness is a fleeting thing and as often as not catches me by surprise. With regard to work, I think the most important thing to me is eliminating the elements that can block those moments of happiness. I’m not sure I look to work to make me happy. But I would want to eliminate those factors which make the happiness impossible or diminish the happiness when it does arrive. There are a lot of things that a job or a vocation can do to stymie happiness.
DAVID: That’s a really good point. I never kiss my wife and say, “See you tonight, honey. I’m off to go be happy.”
DAVID: I’m always thinking, I’m going to go sort out the CI server or I’m going to go get this thing fixed, or I’m going to fix this bug that’s been keeping me up at night for the past three days. I’m going to go do something. I’m going to go fix something. And that’s probably part of my happiness function. But Liz can tell when I’m about to change jobs, because I’ll be puttering around the house listlessly. And she’ll go, “What’s going on?” and I say, “I’m really unhappy at work.”
And yeah, happiness is like a realization you have after. Happiness and unhappiness are observations you make almost in hindsight. And it’s not usually something we set as our direct objective. But I like what you said Avdi about there are things that can obstruct happiness, because if you don’t, I don’t want to say plan for happiness but maybe that’s what I mean. If you don’t plan for happiness and make preparations to eliminate unhappiness, you may just get what life throws at you instead of what you’re trying to achieve.
AVDI: Yeah. I think it’s good to make a distinction between efforts to get out of the way of happiness or opportunities for happiness and efforts to enforce fun, because I think those are two very, very different things.
CHUCK: Shouldn’t we aspire to one or the other or both or does it depend?
AVDI: I’m not a fan of the mandatory fun.
CHUCK: You’ll have fun, dang it. and you’ll like it.
AVDI: But you know, I’ve had days where I just wound up having a terrific conversation with a coworker and it made my day. And that wasn’t planned for by my employer but it was maybe facilitated. Or either, in some cases facilitated by hiring the right people and giving them opportunities to chat and feel like they can chat, or in other cases a company maybe failed to prevent me from doing that. But…
AVDI: Despite efforts. [Laughs] But these things, they pop up. And they’re not always people things. I’ve certainly had happy moments just discovering a great little Ruby idiom that worked really well to solve a problem. And again, this is not something that was provided for by my work but maybe they facilitated it by letting people use whatever awesome programming language they wanted to and giving them the leeway to experiment, yadda, yadda, yadda. So yeah…
KERRI: I was…
AVDI: I’m not sure it’s about making things fun or making people happy.
KERRI: Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt you Avdi.
AVDI: No, no, go ahead. I’m done.
KERRI: I was thinking about it, that naming things is hard. And so, is it happiness we’re talking about or is it more like fulfillment and satisfaction? It’s like, when you look back you’re like, “Yes, that fulfilled some need that I had to discover, to create, to craft something, to have this professional fulfillment for that.”
AVDI: Yeah, it’s interesting in the book ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ they demonstrate that humans are almost composed of two different people: the person who experiences pleasure at the moment, at this present moment, or experiences something at this present moment; and then the person who reflects back on their experiences and says, “I was happy then,” or “I was unhappy then.” And it’s surprising how far removed those people can be from each other. You can ask them moment by moment, “How do you feel now? How do you feel now? How do you feel now?” And then at the very end you give them a really lousy experience. And in retrospect, that lousy experience will dominate their entire recollection. If you go by their moment by moment experience, it was a happy time for them. If you go by their recollection, it was a sad time for them.
CHUCK: That’s really interesting. I’m going to start driving us toward the Developer Happiness Team. But I want to do it by asking another question, because Avdi when you’re talking about this experience you’re saying, “Well, maybe my work facilitated this experience by hiring the right people or by doing certain things or allowing certain things.” And so, I’m wondering, how much of this is driven by the company we’re working for, or the client we’re working for, or the situation that we’re in versus how much of this is driven by our own experience, our own decisions to do certain things or to feel a certain way, or however that works. How much of that is driven by the company versus ourselves, I guess.
CORALINE: I think happiness as a cultural value or satisfaction or however we want to frame that is something that we can be deliberate about without the enforcing fun aspect of it. For example, if your company is really driven by pair programming and doing fulltime TDD and you hire someone who’s not comfortable with those things, you have negatively impacted their experience of the workplace. And it may be a compromise that they make early on that they’re comfortable with but over time that’s going to be a source of dread. It’s going to be a source of friction and it’s ultimately going to lead to them being unhappy and your inability to retain them long-term.
KERRI: That’s probably the problem with where we’ve lost sight of what we mean when we say culture fit where once we’ve, we’ve just assumed that everybody does agile and we all have the same understanding what agile is, just as an example, so why would you be unhappy with how we do agile here? Because here’s this term and we all agreed to it, and obviously you do it.
When I’m doing interviewing to hire and I’m looking, thinking about that culture fit, I’m looking specifically at what is motivating a person, not just what abilities they have but what brings them pleasure. What do they enjoy about this job? What brings them that sort of happiness in their day-to-day work that’s going to make them a happy employee? Maybe they like the enforced fun. Maybe they like the Thursday afternoon and we all have to have happy hour, or we all [inaudible] on Wednesday morning or whatever it is and they like that. Maybe this isn’t the job for them, or maybe it is on the flipside. Some people like open offices. Some people like closed offices. You wouldn’t hire somebody that loves open offices who’s going to be working in a closed office environment. So, why would you do the same thing for somebody who wants to work with other people or as you say wants to have that enforced fun versus the discovered enjoyment?
CHUCK: I have to say that most of the companies that I’ve worked for that have made these decisions. They mostly made it by accident. So, you’ve got the all of the developers are in the same room, somebody made the decision to turn off all the lights. Cubicles versus tables versus desks were all decided because they could or couldn’t afford specific things, the hardware that people are working on, agile is based on manager’s experience, and so they’re not making these decisions by anything but default. So, I’m wondering what it looks like if they are deliberately making these decisions. And how do you make these decisions?
KERRI: I’ve worked in a few companies where it has been a deliberate decision from the start of, how do we define a culture that makes people happy? What makes that initial core team happy and how do those decisions line up with what the business demands are? For example, if you’re saying instead of accidentally picking the right cubicle/table configuration, understanding that this is the way it is and how do we build happiness around it? I don’t think it’s something that we really talk about and certainly not something we teach. I went to hippie school where we talk a lot about our feelings and understanding how people work together, and how to understand human relationships. That’s part of the curriculum almost. But you don’t get a lot of people in business school that have that.
DAVID: Did you get a degree in hippie?
KERRI: [Laughs] Have you seen how I dress? Of course. You have to have a degree in hippie to wear this much tie die.
CHUCK: A PhD in H-I-P-P-I-E?
KERRI: It’s what Ph stands for right, in PhD?
CHUCK: That’s right, yeah. Professional hippie. I don’t know what the D stands for.
CHUCK: Dude. [Laughs]
KERRI: [Chuckles] Yeah, yeah. But I don’t think it’s something that you study in business in school, right? Talk to them about MBAs, it’s about inflows and outflows and doing spreadsheets and understanding the demands of 20th century, or 21st century American business. It’s not about necessarily how do you manage a team of people, how do you organize those people for happiness to make sure that they’re maximized for their own personal potential as opposed to what’s their potential in terms of business?
CHUCK: Yeah. So, how do you guys manage it in your companies where you have a culture group or happiness group? How do you think about this? How do make these decisions in a deliberate way?
CORALINE: At Instructure we started with data, because as developers we’re supposedly scientists, right? So, we actually put together a survey and sent it out to all of engineering basically asking them what stands in your way of being productive, of being satisfied with the work that you’re doing, of deriving happiness and pride in the work that you’re doing. What are those things that are obstacles or what causing friction for you? And we had some specific ideas based on our own experience as engineers at the company as to some of the things that were standing in our way. Our CI server for example, our long-running test suite.
So, we did have some questions that were categorized to establish some baseline values around those known friction points. But we also had very open-ended questions and got some interesting responses in terms of what was really motivating people and what were de-motivators. So for us, it all started with a survey.
CHUCK: Interesting. So, I guess we should ask Kerri the same question before we move ahead. But I’m curious what was on the survey. So, one of you two can go ahead and take it, I guess.
KERRI: Go ahead. We’ll come back to me.
CORALINE: A lot of what came out that we were somewhat surprised about had to do less with software problems and more with people problems, with interactions between people, wanting to find more opportunities to learn new technologies, wanting to find new opportunities to collaborate with other developers, and looking for mentoring opportunities or the opportunity to be mentored. I think one of the things that we talk about a lot as software developers is we like to solve hard problems. But when it comes to those interpersonal things, that’s something that maybe we shy away from. But those interpersonal dealings that we have with our fellow developers, with [product], with whoever we interact with are really, really critical to how we feel about our jobs and critical to eliminating that sense of dread that maybe some people have when they’re doing their morning commute.
CHUCK: Interesting. How does this line up with your experience, Kerri?
KERRI: This actually lines up really tightly with my experience in terms of using surveys to get those questions and get people thinking. A lot of companies have the acronym-driven cultures where they have an acronym and each letter is another word in their culture. And very often…
DAVID: Yeah. Oh, you mean ADC?
KERRI: There’s nothing specific attached to that. I’m sorry?
DAVID: You mean ADCs?
KERRI: [Chuckles] Yes, exactly.
KERRI: I tweeted about it as Acronym-Driven Development this morning. But it’s the same idea.
DAVID: No, I have that acronym and it means something else.
KERRI: What? Me, too. Shiny.
DAVID: [Laughs] Shiny thing, where? [Laughs]
CHUCK: So, you put up…
DAVID: Anyway, back to what you were saying. [Laughs]
KERRI: What I like to do is I have this… So, I really start these conversations at this really high level too where once we figure out, well what does it mean that okay so, if somebody says, “I want more freedom to work on open source.” Okay, what does that mean? What does that look like? What is the specific action that’s going to result in you working on more open source? Does it mean you want Friday afternoons? Does it mean you want us to sponsor open source? Do you want to go to conferences and speak about it? How do we make that happen for you within the context of the company? And then pulling that from that, even when people say something like I want… [It came from] actually the idea of respect, but what does respect look like? If respect is a value that makes us happy, what are the concrete things that bring us to that point?
CHUCK: So basically, you boil it down to things that are actionable, things that you can say, “Okay, we can deliver that,” or “We can’t deliver that,” or “Here’s how we’re going to deliver that.” And you can make a plan around it.
CORALINE: Yeah, that’s exactly what we did. We categorized the feedback that we got. Almost all of it was relevant. We did find that some people wanted massages on Fridays and that someone else liked turtles. But aside from that, most of the items we found were actionable. We were able to classify them into things like CI or learning opportunities, or things along those lines. And then we basically brainstormed ways that we can move the metrics on those individual categories of things that made people more happy or more satisfied or more fulfilled. And we are very public about the metrics that we’re trying to move in any given period of time, any given quarter, just to keep the emphasis on the fact that we are working to make things better and we are listening.
That was one of the main surprising bits of feedback that we got honestly, was that people were so thankful to be asked what their thoughts were and what was standing in their way and how the company could better support them. There was a sense of relief and astonishment that someone would actually take the time to ask the question and put together a team of people whose responsibility it was to make that happen.
CHUCK: I’m really curious. Kerri, you said that you’re in the culture something group or committee or whatever. Does that mostly encompass happiness or are there other things that you talk about there? Is your job the same as Coraline’s or are there other concerns that you deal with or that Coraline deals with that we just don’t think about?
KERRI: At the scale that we’re working with, we have around 140 to 150 developers at this point…
KERRI: It’s a lot more trying to… so for example, somebody wrote a blogpost, forgive me, I can’t remember who, about the idea of unlimited PTO, just stop tracking when people take time off. And so, that came up and that was a topic of discussion in our internal [inaudible] rooms. And so, the culture committee had a meeting about it and said, “Hey, this is getting a lot of… people are talking about this idea. What do we think about it? What would this look like?” And the culture committee is made of people who are interested in the topic obviously. But from a number of different groups in the company, how does each group think about an idea or a policy change and how will that impact them and how would it move their own needles of metrics that they’re tracking as a group? So, we think a lot about how to make people happier but also defining what it is that makes us as a group, actually a group and actually a culture that’s moving forward.
AVDI: It seems like a good way to avoid some of the unintended consequences that sometimes occur.
DAVID: Like what do you mean?
AVDI: Oh, I’m thinking about things like everybody suddenly decided that open-planned offices were a great idea. And it turns out that for a lot of people, they really don’t work out so well.
CHUCK: So, at least having a conversation about it means that somebody’s exploring whether or not it really is a good idea. Is that what you’re driving at?
AVDI: Yeah, yeah, instead of just a few people who are like, “Obviously, this is the best idea,” [inaudible].
CORALINE: Cool [inaudible].
KERRI: One place I worked had monthly all-hand meetings, and the company was small enough that we could do that. Even though we got 50 or 60 people, we still have these all-hand monthly meetings. But a week before the meeting they would do a tiny survey that had at most three questions and it was basically, rate this question on a scale of one to five, agree/disagree. Sometimes, how happy are you or how satisfied are you with the new vacation policy, or whatever it was. And there was always an ‘other comments’ box, like “Do you have any suggestions or feedback or ideas or just anything you want to talk about?”
Then at the all-hands meeting at the end of the month they would surface these metrics, aggregate and say, “Here’s the different buckets where people voted on this.” And we all had [about] a topic, as a group, and then we could see the other comments that people were leaving, for example. And it wasn’t always related to the questions that were being asked. So, someone could say, “I don’t like the new 401(k) policy,” or, “Do we have a 401(k) policy? What’s going on with that?” or, “Who’s the new person?” Often, also silly things too, like “We need more green M&Ms,” whatever it was. But it was like having a venue for that and constantly surfacing it really made people feel like they were involved because their voice was being heard and things were being discussed.
DAVID: Coraline or Kerri, have either of you read or, actually his TED talk is almost better than his book, but Dan Pink’s book ‘Drive’?
CORALINE: I have not.
KERRI: Yeah, I have.
DAVID: Yeah, okay. So, Dan basically boils down the three things that make people motivated. And he claims that the core elements are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. And autonomy is people want to be in control of what they do. Mastery is they want to get better at things just for the challenge of it. And purpose is they want to feel like they belong to something bigger. But it really sounds like there’s this other current here that we’re talking about of depending on where you set the slider on the scale it’s either, we either want to feel respected and/or trusted, or we want to feel like management just doesn’t have an overarching sense of contempt for us. And I’ve worked in plenty of places that were in both extremes. Is there a fourth element to it? And I’m just, we can have an underlying question of is Dan Pink wrong? But if he’s right, is there a fourth element of respect/lack of contempt?
CORALINE: I think there absolutely is. And again, to go back to that hierarchy of needs concept, being respected for the work that you do, most of us need some sort of external input, an external feedback that is telling us how we’re doing not just as developers but as human beings. That’s something that we look for other people to provide to us. And if we don’t feel like we’re being acknowledged, or it doesn’t have to be praise but at least acknowledged for the hard work that we do, because the work we do is taxing and challenging and very personal, if we don’t feel like that is garnering any respect or getting us any sort of acknowledgement for the work that we’re doing, it can be very hard to keep going. And what happens when we don’t feel the need to keep going to a given place is we’re going to find some other place that feels like it’s going to satisfy us more.
DAVID: Mmhmm. I keep plugging CoverMyMeds because I just started working there a month ago and I’m still definitely in the honeymoon phase with them. And when we talk about unlimited PTO I can hear, through the microphone, I can hear all of the managers out there going, “Well, what if somebody abuses it?” And that “What if somebody abuses it?” is if you’re one of the people that said, “What if somebody abuses it?” you are part of the problem. You are one of the people who have a fundamental contempt for your employees, or a fear that you haven’t hired the right people. And that’s something to think about. We still love you. Keep listening to the show. [Chuckles]
KERRI: I actually agree with you, because there’s such an aspect of let’s just treat everyone as if they’re professionals and adults, and a lot of that sort of stuff. And a lot of policies where we have to make a policy, well, why can’t we deal with that person as an individual? And in my experience of policies like that, I immediately feel infantilized a little bit. I can’t be trusted. There are all these things…
KERRI: That I can’t be trusted because somebody else broke a rule at some point.
KERRI: Rather than being treated as an individual and responsible.
KERRI: And this is why I do policies when I’m a manager, I just say, “Hey everybody. You have, buying a book or a piece of software or going to a conference, you’ve got a blank check for $1200,” or whatever that budget is. “You spend it how you want. Just give me the receipt and we’ll pay you back. It’s no questions asked, because I’m treating you as an adult.”
CHUCK: That’s a lot of cookies.
AVDI: Just as a flipside of that though, I read a very interesting blogpost recently from a company that reevaluated their unlimited PTO or their unlimited vacation time I guess, policy, and moved away from it. And not because oh, people were taking too much vacation time. It was actually because people were taking too little. They looked at the data and they looked at what had been happening to team members. And they realized that with unlimited time, everybody was a little afraid of taking too much or being the one who took the most I guess. And so, nobody was taking it and they had people that were just completely burning themselves out. And so, they actually switched from unlimited vacation to mandatory vacation.
CORALINE: That is awesome.
KERRI: I read that article, too.
AVDI: And they modeled it from the top down. So, they had the leadership team, members of the leadership taking mandatory vacation time and being completely offline during that time. No, I’ll be working part-time while I’m on vacation, none of that. So, it’s interesting to me. There are always unintended consequences. And it’s good to reflect on any of these measures and see what actual effects they’re having on people as opposed to what we think they ought to do.
CORALINE: The other thing that strikes me of the example you just gave Avdi is the importance of setting a good example for what you want that culture to be like. If managers did not take the mandatory vacation, they did not go offline that whole time, that might say to other people that, oh if I want to start acting in the manner of my director, my manager, so that I can eventually get promoted to that, I guess I have to modify my behavior and always be available or always be on call or answer emails at 2am on a Saturday night. So, setting that example from the top down to encourage the behavior from the bottom up I think is really, really critical.
CHUCK: One other thing that struck me while you were pointing out the different examples and the concern over whether or not people would take advantage of it is that it’s all based in this emotion. It’s fear or worry or anger or something like that, rather than what Coraline pointed out at the beginning where she basically said, “Look, we go by the numbers. We collect data.” And so, you can go in and say, look, “We’re going to try this for a while.” In Avdi’s case, “We tried it for a while and we’re not getting the result we wanted. So, we’re going to roll back.” And so, if people take advantage of it, then you roll it back. If people aren’t taking enough time off then you roll it back.
And so, you just look at the results that you want, the things that you can measure, the things that indicate that people are happy or satisfied or whatever you want to call it. And if you’re not getting those results, or if it’s affecting those results in a negative way, then you discuss it again. And I think that’s the thing that I really like about the idea of having a team that’s focused on this, is that you have a place where these conversations happen. You have a mechanism for people to give their input. You have a way to measure these things. And then you revisit them periodically and make sure that you’re getting what you want.
CORALINE: That’s important not just from the perspective of improving the culture and improving the experience of the engineers on the team. But also, and to be frank, we have to justify our existence as a team. If we don’t have metrics to show that we are moving the needle on some important characteristics of the job, of the work, of the culture, of the code, then the company probably won’t want to support funding a team like ours for very long. So, we’re always cognizant of the fact that we really have two masters. One is the team that signs our paycheck and the other is the people that we’re trying to improve things for and support.
AVDI: What is your baseline needle? What is the biggest indicator that you look at?
CORALINE: For the survey that we did, we basically looked at how many, based on categories like testing or complexity, basically what things people were complaining about the most or felt stood in their way the most. Some of them were hard. Some of them were soft. And then our plan is to periodically quarterly send out that survey again and measure how the numbers have changed in each of those factors and compare that to what it was that we were focusing on improving during that cycle. Does that answer your question, Avdi?
AVDI: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So, it’s not like there’s an overall happiness measurement. It’s more removing one obstruction at a time.
CORALINE: Yeah. And like any process refactoring, it’s about moving the bottleneck. It’s not about eliminating bottlenecks.
CORALINE: So, we’re going to take care of the things that are standing in the way the most right now, knowing that when that’s dealt with something else is going to rise to the forefront.
CHUCK: I have to ask, the things that you’re testing and things like that, a lot of times you have different ways of measuring that. If you’re tracking the velocity which is the number of points or whatever you get done in a week or sprint. Or you have other metrics a lot of times with the hard tech aspects of things, the CI server. You can start measuring how many bugs going into each build versus the number of bugs that go into builds after you implemented CI. But with the softer things, is the survey really your only way of getting metrics on that? I feel safer, I feel happier, I connect better with my coworkers.
CORALINE: We have some very concrete goals associated with things that came out of the survey as well. The time it takes for the CI server to run and our inability to get good, fast feedback from our testing process, those are some very practical things that have very measurable attributes to them. So, one of the things we’re focusing on is, what can we do to make the CI server faster and more consistent? Because this is something that people are consistently complaining about, and the fact that that stands in their way. Or, how can we refactor our test suite so that it provides that faster feedback loop so that people can actually do TDD in an effective way? So, we do have really concrete measures in addition to the softer factors of how people are feeling about the work that they’re doing.
DAVID: That’s a really good, I love what you just said there, Coraline. Starting with the metrics and the measured things of we want to get the CI faster and that sort of thing, but I love that you mentioned that it’s things that people are complaining about that are standing in their way. I’ve been mulling this over as we’ve been talking about this.
And I would have to say that the number one thing that makes me happy about a job is when there’s something that pisses me off about my environment, I’ve got some stupid requirement, some stupid legacy code, some stupid slow CI server, and it’s screwing me up and I don’t have the power as a frontline developer to fix it. This is something that I’ve got to get infrastructure involved with. I’ve got to get, basically we’ve got to get a VP to sign off on $5,000 worth of more equipment or whatever. I don’t have the authority to make this pain stop happening to me. And if I signal that pain upward, it gets listened to. And somebody says, somebody above me says, “Holy crap. We got to get this taken care of, because we want you writing awesome software.” And that makes me feel like I’m king of the world.
CORALINE: That’s absolutely critical, making sure that people know that their voice is being heard and that something’s being done about it. We bridge a lot of different teams. Our software engineering organization is broken into a number of teams, each with a team lead. So, there’s… it’s a relatively flat organization but it’s pretty broad. And it can be difficult to coordinate movement between groups or information that’s being shared or actions that need to be taken across groups. So, that’s really part of what my team does, is span those gaps. We actually are starting to attend other teams’ standups and retros so we can get a better sense of what’s happening at ground level on those teams as well to use that to influence what we’re doing. So, that glue role that connecting, binding role, I think is pretty critical to our success.
CHUCK: Can you talk for a minute about how these teams are structured? For example, I’m assuming that this isn’t all you do. You’re probably a developer on a team and this is some function that you fill part of your time. So, how do people contribute if they’re not part of the Developer Happiness Team? In other words, what communication mechanisms do you have? And then, how does the team actually operate as far as communicating, getting together, and all of those things so that you can make decisions that impact the company?
CORALINE: Let me say that I have the best job in the world, because it is actually my fulltime job to lead the Developer Happiness Team. That doesn’t mean I don’t do engineering.
One of the big focuses for us right now is putting together a core suite of analysis tools that will help us identify where we want to make service boundaries toward our SOA refactoring and how to find churn and complexity and coupling, and establish baselines that we can use to drive our refactoring efforts. Because refactoring is something that’s really core to what we’re pushing for in terms of satisfaction with the work that we’re doing, in our codebase.
So, that is actually a fulltime job for myself and two other engineers. Some of this is soft skill stuff of refactoring processes and focusing on people. But there are also technical problems to solve that move that agenda forward and move the needle on some of those metrics. So, our time is really split between doing those things. In terms of other people’s participation, we have a couple of spin-off groups. We have a culture committee and we have a learning guild, both of which I participate in. And those bring in people from across the organization to focus on, how can we create for example a culture of learning, or how do we do a mentorship program?
So, some of those factors come out of the work we do as the happiness team. But it’s all part of an overall cultural value of making things better for everyone who’s in the company and making it more satisfying for them.
CHUCK: Kerri, how are your teams structured? Are they similar to the way Instructure does it? Or do you do things a little bit differently?
KERRI: Yeah, my specific team is actually internal shared services. And we work on a lot of, again these projects that fall in the gaps between teams where ownership is cloudy or there needs to be something that’s driving the communication between these teams [inaudible]. We also have a fair bit of flexibility and freedom and actual mandate to go out and pair with people and spread the gospel if you will of communication and delivering on what makes [this happen], so working towards using metrics tools to think more deeply about code. To have as a starting point, to have discussions so people are getting a little more professional fulfilment and mentoring, and making those communications and connections.
CHUCK: Coraline pointed out that she’s fulltime on that team. Do you have people who are fulltime in your capacity as well? Or is this something that’s shared across several developers that are on different teams that do different things also as part of their fulltime job?
KERRI: It’s a little of both. We have a few people who are just dedicated to just this sort of role. But there are enough people who are also interested in and are personally moved and feel a lot of desire to do that who just go above and beyond their fulltime to [inaudible].
CHUCK: Very cool.
CHUCK: So, if a company wanted to set up a team like the Developer Happiness Team or the Culture Committee or whatever, what recommendations do you have for them in getting started with that initiative?
CORALINE: I think an important first step is being really deliberate about figuring out what sort of workplace you want to be and what sort of employees you want to have and what you want that experience to be for them. If you’re not deliberate about figuring those things out and I don’t mean a mission statement. I don’t mean anything that’s really corporate like that. But figure out, do we want our developers to honestly have a really good work/life balance? Or do we expect them to work really, really hard on solving problems regardless of what time of day it is? Figuring out who you are and who you want to be as a company I think is a really important first step. And then figure out, who are the people who care deeply about this, who are aligned with these values and are able to provide leadership in these areas? And start talking to them about what may be the best approaches within that organization for meeting some of these goals that we’ve talked about
KERRI: I’d also say it’s really important that these groups be not top down or bottom up, but really cross-cutting and it being a meeting place where there isn’t as much hierarchy, that it’s really a discussion between peers, between equals who are going to have these sorts of discussion about who we are and how do we solve this sorts of problems.
CHUCK: I’ve worked in companies that have had issues with internal politics. And I could see that as being a possible barrier to this. Is there a way to either use this to solve some of that or is there a way to work around that where they exist to help solve some of these other issues that these teams do solve?
KERRI: I think anytime you get people together, there’s always going to be some elements of politics. And it seems like no matter where I go, there’s always interpersonal friction between some people. You just don’t get along with everybody. That’s just a simple fact of it. And as humans we tend to organize ourselves into these hierarchical groups almost without fail.
What I like to recommend, I recommend to a lot of people who are going to start in this sort of stuff is to try to do some of that reading and education. I have recommended to a number of people to go take a relationship skills class, which seems kind of ridiculous to go take a class on how to talk better with your spouse. But really, the foundation of those classes is about practicing skills around empathy and conversation, and really listening to someone else and understanding their context. Very often, office politics boil down to resource contention, like there’s only so much attention or process or money or people who are solving problems. And we’re both incentivized to solve the problem as fast as we can. So, we end up fighting over those sorts of things.
DAVID: I think that’s a fantastic thought, that… I’m a little embarrassed to admit that the best coworker negotiation, interaction, how to manage your manager kind of stuff I have gotten from a book on how to talk to children and how to…
DAVID: [Laughs] And how to improve your relationship with your spouse. I think that’s absolutely fantastic. And the thing about those two things, it’s funny to put down your coworkers and say, “You know, I’m using the same techniques that I would use to talk to a toddler here.” But the reality is if you’re talking about raising a toddler, you’re dealing with somebody who wants something really, really bad and who you have, if not respect then love for. And at work, you have a coworker who wants something really, really bad and respect if not love. So, that’s fair.
So yeah, Chuck just said in the backchannel, I think Dave just compared your coworkers to kindergarteners. And I’ll own that. That’s absolutely true. You can [chuckles] there’s a great book called ‘How to Behave So Your Kids Will Too’ and it’s all about how you behave, changing the way you act. And it’s all about being honest and having integrity. And after I read that book, I realized there were some things that I was doing that not only kids don’t respond to but also adults don’t respond to it well, because it feels disrespectful and it feels like a power trip and like an egomaniac. And as soon as I stopped doing those behaviors, my coworkers felt respected. And lo and behold, the relationship with them vastly improved.
I’m not saying they are kindergarteners. I’m saying I was flunking how to talk to children so badly that I was pissing off the adults. We’ll put it that way.
KERRI: Yeah. I spend about 80 to 90% of my week pairing with people. I’ll pair with 10 to 13, 14 people a week. And sometimes, it seems like we’re just fighting about something. And I found the best technique for me is to be that toddler, is to just simply step back and just be like…
KERRI: I’m putting aside what I think is right and what’s wrong and I’m just listening to them, let them explain to me as if talking to me like I’m four, just explain it to me slowly and ask what are on some levels, “dumb questions” that really try to get to, well what does this person [inaudible] for it? Do they want to use a particular design pattern or technique that I think is wrong because they got burned by using the one I want to use in the past and vice versa?
KERRI: Just by stepping back to that level and having that sort of interaction just removes all of that conflict.
CHUCK: So, one other question that I have, and this comes from experience in some of the companies I worked at. Let’s say that you are trying to model the changes that you want to see, which is something that you guys both talked about, and then you’re also trying to work with management, work with your teammates and stuff to get together some kind of organization or at least movement within the company so that you can affect the company culture. And you’re meeting some resistance. At what point do you give up on it? Or are there certain signs that you’ll see that will tell you, “Look, there’s no point in pursuing this further because you’re really not going to be able to make the kind of impact you want with a reasonable amount of effort”?
CORALINE: I think that sort of ties into what I was talking about earlier with interviewing. And really, when you interview at a company, it’s something that we should all be doing, is evaluating whether or not the things that the company puts value on align with the things that we want and need in order to feel happy and fulfilled. I personally care a great deal about the emotional health of my coworkers and my fellow engineers. And if I interview at a place that doesn’t seem to care about that very much or emphasizes other things above that a lot, that should be a signal to me right away that that’s not going to be the kind of company that is amenable to focusing on some of the things that I’m interested in focusing on.
And if I realize after the fact that the company I’m working for doesn’t care about those things, there’s that expression, “Change the world or change yourself,” to make that decision of whether you’re going to swallow those values or you’re going to find someplace that accepts and nurtures those values.
KERRI: Yeah, so I think my answer to that is [personally] I definitely really again coming around to that [idea] of I knew what I wanted going into any given job. And what does that look like? How is the company going to demonstrated that they say, support my conference speaking or support my work in the community? And then hold them to those sorts of commitments. In that interview process, I’m interviewing them as much as they’re interviewing me. They need to meet these performance goals as much as I need to meet my performance goals. And so, we have a mutual respect for each other. And I know when they’re going to be meeting those things. And some of those things are, “Are we committed to developer happiness?” and “Are we going to be able to put policies into place to actually make these things happen?”
CHUCK: I like the idea that yeah, you have to evaluate the company when you’re going in to see if they’re open to that. And if you’re already in that position then you do what you can. And in my case, I wound up leaving.
CORALINE: We do have that luxury as professionals in a field where we’re very much in demand, that we can focus on things not just are we making enough money to pay for our living arrangements or enough money to eat. We’re incredibly privileged to be able to focus on how fulfilling do I find this job at this particular company. We own that privilege and that’s something that I think people may be sometimes afraid to take into consideration, how happy are you, how fulfilled are you at this job, and is there something better out there?
KERRI: We have so much power in this industry as developers. Our role is we’re generally well thought of employees and we’re generally well-compensated. We’re very important to businesses. That gives us a lot of power and control over our environment far more than you think. And we can use that, channel into a positive thing, not just say, “I want more money. I want more vacation” but, “This is the place that I want to work at. This is what it looks like” and we’re going to bring it along, which gets us thinking to the business benefits of what does developer happiness bring to the business. How does that bottom line change? It can be as simple as we will have 10% more retention if we make this a more welcoming place.
CHUCK: Yeah. And retention, it’s funny because we don’t really think about retention in dollars. But what is a cost to essentially spin up a new developer? What are the onboarding costs in training, equipment, just other developers’ time? There are real costs there. And so, it really does boil down. If you’re hiring them through a recruiter, there are fees there, too.
KERRI: Yeah. I think most of us have a vague sense that, “Oh, it’s expensive.” But once you’ve actually done that role and are privy to the numbers and thought about it in terms of the lifecycle of a developer, not just, how much does it take to source people and the hours put into background checks and interviewing? But then the entire onboarding process, getting someone up to speed to be contributing, there’s just a massive expense there.
CHUCK: Yeah. It’s easily 25 to 50% of their salary.
CORALINE: There’s also a high cost associated with losing people because…
CORALINE: There’s institutional knowledge that floods out. And those people who leave your company because they are unhappy, they’re probably not going to keep it to themselves. And that’s going to make your ability to hire new talent that much harder.
CHUCK: There’s also the cost of I do better work when I’m happy. I know most other developers are the same way. If they come in and they’re jazzed about the work that they’re doing, then they’ll get more done. And so, there’s an opportunity cost to having bored or unhappy or worse, whatever the situation is, depressed, people who feel threatened at work, whatever. There’s a real cost to that as well.
DAVID: Yeah. Coraline mentioned there’s a cost to losing people. And there’s another patently obvious that it’s so obvious that we miss it that a friend of mine was telling me a couple of days ago, that they really pissed off all the employees. And one of their contractors quit and he was the bus number one. He was the guy who had all the institutional knowledge on a particular piece of software that was not finished and was promised to the customer in three weeks.
DAVID: And so, management had no choice except to grab a stick and shove the rest of the development team into the wood chipper and basically sacrificed even more morale and say, “Well, I expect you guys to get this finished no matter what it takes.” So, they’re at work late at night. They’re at work way more. And they’re mad at the guy that left but they’re also steeping in this, “Well, it really sucks that we got shoved in to plug the gap and management is really just thinking of us as a meat plug for the gap in the calendar.”
CORALINE: I don’t think you can fake the culture that focuses on making people feel happy and productive either, because actions will definitely speak louder than words. And the things that actually motivate the business will shine through in the end. So, sincerity is a huge part of this.
KERRI: Yeah. When people stop responding, that’s actually almost worse than when they’re leaving. That’s the first sign, right? It shouldn’t be having people leave and that being like, “Oh, maybe they have a problem with the culture.” The problem’s there long before that.
CHUCK: And if you’re asking yourself, “Well, why are they leaving? Why are they leaving?” Yeah, that’s a bad sign, too, because they’re not communicating with you. Are there any other things that we should talk about with this before we move onto the picks?
CORALINE: I’m feeling okay.
CHUCK: Alright. Well, this has been a terrific discussion. And hopefully…
CHUCK: We inspired some people to go out and make a difference where they’re at.
CHUCK: And in making a difference where you’re at, I just want to point out you make a difference in the community. If we have more companies that are doing more of the right things, then it raises the overall standard in the community. And people can go get jobs and be in places that make them happy.
Coraline, do you want to start us off with picks?
CORALINE: Sure. My first pick is ‘Model View Culture’. It’s an independent, reader-funded, quarterly publication and website that focuses on the intersection of technology, culture, and diversity. So, it’s neat because you actually can get a print edition four times a year. And there are some amazing articles by some amazing writers that go up on the website pretty regularly as well. So, ‘Model View Culture’, a great read if you’re interested in these particular intersections.
My second pick is something called Noisli.com. Basically it’s a background noise generator with an integrated text and markdown editor on the web. So, it’s a good way to create a space around yourself. If you’re a remote worker and you want to feel more connected, you can press the coffee cafe button.
CORALINE: Or if you’re in an open office with headphones on, you can make it feel like you’re in a forest with a running stream. So, there are tons of sound options. You can combine them in really interesting ways and adjust your levels. And I find it, as a remote worker, a very nice way to have more control over my environment than just having a radio on in the background.
CHUCK: Very cool. Avdi, what are your picks?
AVDI: Well, I want to start off talking about a conference. It is not one I have been to but it’s one I’m going to be at. It’s called Tropical Ruby 2015. It’s in Brazil, at a beach resort in Brazil. And I’m going to be speaking there. And it looks like it’s going to be awesome. And I have heard from at least one past speaker that it is in fact awesome. And so yeah, you all should come and see me in Brazil. And also, I hear that they are still looking for some sponsors. So, if you’re looking to sponsor a community event, check it out. It’s at TropicalRb.com.
Other picks. First off, I want to pick a series of blogposts on The Shape of Code blog that’s been going on for the past few months. Derek Jones there has been going through the alphabet and talking about programming languages that start with each letter of the alphabet. And it’s fun. It’s an opinionated and cantankerous tour of programming languages from one person’s perspective. It’s been pretty entertaining. It’s now finished, so I thought I’d pick that.
Moving on to less technical picks, first of all I want to pick Tanka Bars. For the carnivores out there, Tanka Bars are these awesome bison meat bars. Meat bars sounds terrible.
AVDI: I don’t know how to make this sound better. But they’re like if you ever are looking for high-protein snacks, these are terrific. They’re bison and cranberries and not a whole lot else. They’re very natural and yummy and full of protein. I’ve been enjoying them as they supplement my usual snack regimen of KIND bars and Bumble Bars.
Finally, I have a pick that is just for David. If you’ve already taken David’s advice, you’ve already got your order of Poo-Pourri in the mail…
AVDI: And you want to take it to the next level, I want to pick the Incense Match.
AVDI: Incense Matches are this brilliant idea. I’m sure you’ve heard somebody say, “Light a match in there.” Well, Incense Matches take that to the next step.
AVDI: The matches are actually tiny sticks of incense as well. So, you light them, you let them burn down a little bit, and then blow them out and put them in a little dish or something. And they keep burning for a few minutes as incense sticks. So yeah, check it out, the Incense Match. I think that’s it for me.
CHUCK: Very cool. David, what are your picks?
DAVID: Well, speaking of Poo-Pourri, I’m not actually going to pick Poo-Pourri today because I promised everyone that I would give a full and thorough review. And I also didn’t want to spring, surprise we’re talking about poop for 10 minutes on Kerri and Coraline. I wanted to give people the chance to avoid the episode. So, next week I’ll probably be talking about poo in my picks. But I do want to give a shout-out right now to Sam Livingston-Gray and to Stan and the crew at Payoff.com who have sent me multiple flavors, scents if you will (flavor’s a really bad word there, I’m sorry), multiple scents of Poo-Pourri. And I’m giving them a thorough workout this week. And I’ll report back on that.
So, my one pick for today is Helix, which is a show. It’s on Netflix right now. It’s a sci-fi TV series. It’s a thinking man’s zombie movie. Basically picture a whole bunch of people trapped in an Antarctic base doing virus research. And the zombies aren’t necessarily stupid. You follow a CDC worker who’s tracking stages of the illness. And there are some serious science fiction elements into it. There are other people involved that have things going on that are medically improbable. And it’s really gripping. It’s really exciting.
And I apologize that I didn’t pick this last week because we are recording this on Tuesday the 13th. And the season two premier is this Friday. So, this episode will air on the 21st I believe. And so, you just missed the season two premier on SyFy. But maybe go to SyFy.com. If they’re showing recent episodes, you can pick up the season one pilot. I guess pilot’s the wrong word. Season two opener. I’m definitely going to be tuning in for that if I can over the internet. But you can get all of season one on Netflix right now, which was a genius move on the part of SyFy by the way. And I will tell you right now that they leave some weird stuff unresolved in season one. So, it’s a gamble. It could turn out to be like Lost where in season four they just say it’s all a dream and we have no idea what the heck is going on.
DAVID: But I’m really hoping that’s not the case. And season one was gripping and lots of, every episode ends with a plot twist that you did not expect. And it’s very exciting. So, Helix on SyFy or on Netflix. And I’m really enjoying that, so that’s my pick for today.
CHUCK: Yeah, season four of Lost pissed me off.
DAVID: I think it pissed everybody off.
CHUCK: [Laughs] I think I heard two people go, “It was the best thing ever.”
DAVID: Yeah, and those were the writers.
CHUCK: Yup. Yeah. Anyway, so I’m not sure if I picked this last time so I’m going to pick it. And then people can get mad at me for having picked it last time. But I’ve been using an app called DeskTime to keep track of the stuff that I’m working on. I’m really enjoying it. Basically it’s just a way for me to track productivity. So, it looks at the program I have open or the webpage I have open, because I have the Chrome plugin installed. And I can decide, okay these webpages are productive. There webpages are non-productive. These webpages could be either one, and stuff like that. So, I’m really liking that. It’s just been really cool.
Another pick, and this is a game I’ve been playing on my iPhone but you can also play it online as an HTML5 game. I’m going to warn you that the interface is really, really basic and really, really not pretty. But it’s a fun thing if you’re into the text-based adventure games. It’s called A Dark Room. I’ve been really enjoying it. We talked to the developer for it on the Entreprogrammers podcast. And he had a lot of great advice for us. But anyway, it’s a lot of fun. So, I’ll just leave it at that and you can go check it out.
And Kerri, what are your picks?
KERRI: I actually have two for you. First is ‘The Cult of Done’ which was a brainstorm by Bre Pettis at MakerBot and his partner Kio Stark. And it’s 13 [inaudible] or sayings, little guidelines to getting started and actually getting done with a project. It’s available as a poster. It’s available online. It’s completely open source. As I said, they timeboxed it at 20 minutes and that’s what came out. And they shipped it.
The second thing is kind of a life hack and it goes along with the theme of food a little bit here, which is making your own mayonnaise. It’s an absolutely fabulous little project to do. It takes about 10 minutes. The nutshell is put a little bit of salt and some dry mustard and you put it in a blender or food processor. And you turn that sucker on and then you add a little bit of lemon juice and a little bit of vinegar, about a tablespoon each. And then slowly add about a cup of vegetable oil, some sort of neutral oil like canola or safflower or grape seed. You just keep it spinning and eventually, boom. It turns into mayonnaise in about three or four minutes. It tastes amazing and you look kind of famous and fabulous.
CHUCK: That just sounds like fun.
KERRI: You’ll never go back to Hellmann’s.
CHUCK: [Laughs] Alright. Well, I think we’re done. So, thanks for coming guys.
DAVID: Yes, thank you.
CHUCK: It was such a good talk. Yeah, so hopefully we inspired you to do awesome stuff and we’ll catch you all next week.
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