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The Developer's Workplace

Monday, June 27, 2011

 Messy Cubicleworkplace [n] - a place where work is done

Over the years I've worked with developers in cubicle farms and private offices, in open spaces and cloistered bureaus. And once there was a basement room across the hall from a mortuary, but I try to forget about that project.

The workplace affects the contentment of its captives, but for some developers the workplace isn't entirely about coffee machines and cafeterias. The workplace is where they spend their hours thinking, creating, and producing. It's not the cubicle, but the computer,the tools, and the code. Bad code gives these developers headaches and anxiety. Good code makes them happy and productive.

Unhappy developers want to change their workplace for the better. I often get questions about how to make this happen. in my experience, change in this area is not something you can do through dictatorship or static code analysis. On a project with hundreds of compiler warnings, you can't just set "treat warnings as errors" and make a place better  overnight. You have to guide your peers in a direction that will make them genuinely desire improvement and change. It's not a technical problem, but a sociological problem that requires leadership, and above all, patience.

Business Value and Microwave Ovens

More than a few developers who are unhappy with their workplace join groups related to software craftsmanship. It's unfortunate that the manifesto for this movement uses an ornamental typeface on Victorian looking paper. These subtle gratuities help to drive the misconception that the members are elitists who build over-engineered solutions.

There is a fine line between over-engineering and improvement, and the debates between "delivering business value" versus "crafting perfect software" always reminds me of the TV shows where celebrity chefs save  failing restaurants. All the restaurants on these shows seem to have have the same fundamental problems.

1. They take shortcuts, like microwaving crab cakes.

2. They have disorganized, dirty kitchens.

3. They use frozen pre-cooked food instead of fresh ingredients.

All of the above are done in the name of "delivering value", or putting food on a plate. Software development is similar because there are many shortcuts we can take, but unlike bad food, the effects of bad software are difficult to measure. Once the cooks at the failing restaurant see how better habits lead to better food, the kitchen become a happier, productive workplace.

Be Inclusive, Not Exclusive

The key to turning things around is getting people to care. This can't happen by flaming during a code review or rewriting someone else's code. It can happen by catching the attention and curiosity of other people in the workplace and showing them there is a world where people aim for self improvement. This can happen with inclusive events like a "lunch and learn" or book club (try running a book club with the Clean Code book, for example).

Not everyone will attend, but you have to stay positive. Changing the way people think about themselves and their work is a long process that can only work if there is the opportunity for regular communication and introspection.