Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Great quote by Daniel Pink:
"Relying on 'if-then' rewards to encourage great work is like guzzling six cups of coffee and downing three Snickers bars for lunch. It’ll give you a burst of energy – but the effects won’t last."

Monday, May 30, 2011

Thoughts on Aspergers.

Asperger's syndrome is one of the disorders on the autistic spectrum - a milder form of the condition that afflicted Raymond Babbitt, the character played by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man. Those diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome often have high, or very high, IQs.

Many programmers exhibit Aspergers-like behaviour. Aspergers syndrome can involve an intense and obsessive level of focus on things of interest - which is in my experience widespread in this industry. I would perhaps go as far as to say that it is possibly an advantage if you have ambitions to be a great programmer. It is I would think a lot easier for someone with Aspergers tendencies to find the motivation to spend the required number of hours reading highly technical literature. Literal interpretation is another common (but not universal) hallmark of Aspergers. For many years I simply thought this was a side-affect of working in a so binary world, now I wonder if it is simply that the controlled, binary, world of computers attracts people who would score highly on an Aspergers diagnosis.

I wonder also what the industry would look like if it were possible to "cure" Aspergers. I've seen several blogs claiming that in the post-agile software industry with it's focus on teamwork and cooperation there is only limited space for this type of programmer. However, I would disagree. I do not believe that it is impossible to be a sufferer of Aspergers and still have good social competence. My main example for this belief is myself. I am usually described as a individual with good social skills and an extrovert and communicative person. However, I recently took an online test with a battery of questions aimed at typical Aspergers behaviour. Although not a diagnosis the test gave an interesting result. An average person in a control group had a score of 16 whilst a majority of those with an Aspergers diagnosis scored 32 or more. My score was 34. Just as dyslectics can learn to read so can those with Asperger tendencies learn to interact in an increasingly social industry - it may require more effort that it does for other types of individuals but it is possible.

I think, ultimately, it depends upon who decides what is functional or what is normal? Hans Asperger, who first identified the condition, wrote that to be successful in science an amount of autism is essential. Is Aspergers simply a medical definition of being a nerd?

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Cultivate a culture of talent rather than control

I work with productivity. It's what most agile coaches do; we try to create an environment that empowers teams and makes them as productive as possible. To do this you have to think an awful lot about motivation and psychology. About why some people perform and others don't. About what you can do to improve the situation and what you can't change. This led to me writing a blog post about talent that unfortunately Google decided to lose in their crash. While not the same blog post (I was especially happy with the original post) this one will address the same issues...

One can, in the software development industry, often get the impression that there are two types of developers. One category, the average developers, do their jobs well-enough but they lack that extra drive and talent to make them truly great programmers. The other category read all the blogs and books they can, know several programming languages, and have a constant hobby project or two that fills their free time. Most people who have worked in the industry an length of time will tell you to hire all of the talented developers you can as they are much more productive than the average developers. This is based upon the assumption that talent is something innate and unchanging. Based on my experience I am beginning to doubt this.

Too many companies are too focussed on delivering upon given promisses, too many developers too focussed on avoiding blame or following a plan to think creatively. We live in a world of problem solving, this world is not deterministic and is seldom entirely predictable and creative thinking is the key to good problem solving and therefore the key to building great systems. If we would spend less time making plans and then sticking to them in all weathers, less time chasing our developers and interrogating them as to why they didn't deliver exactly within their estimate (how can you estimate how long it takes to solve a problem?). If we would give the teams the responsibility for the quality of the code that they produce, instead of pushing them to work harder faster longer, then we would create better systems with more maintainable code. We would have enthusiastic developers hungry to learn more. We would have created a culture of talent.

If we cultivate a culture of initiative, freedom and creativity, if managers invest in their developers instead of trying to manage and control them, if we create an environment with clear goals and expectations and the freedom and trust for our teams to reach those goals in their own way, then I am convinced that we can give the vast majority of developers the drive and the enthusiasm to become talented developers.
In summary, I believe that developers can move freely between the two categories given the right (or the wrong) work situation. I'm not saying it is easy to create a culture of talent - it requires investment by the company and commitment by the managers, but it is possible and it is worth it.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Autonomy, mastery and purpose

It was a while ago now that I read Daniel Pink’s book “Drive” but it is so good that it deserves a mention. This is a book that everyone working to raise employee/team productivity in some form should read. It summarizes forty years of scientific research and the consequences are far reaching for Managers, team leads, scrum masters, coaches, or anyone else working with organisational structures, reward systems, personnel strategies, productivity, recruitment, etc.
Basically, human beings are motivated to perform complex cognitive activities by three intrinsic drives: 
  • Autonomy; the desire to be self-organising and to structure one’s own situation.
  • Mastery; the desire to become better at an activity, to learn and understand a knowledge domain.
  • Purpose; the desire to contribute to a greater cause, to do something profound, to impact other peoples lives in some way. 
It is these three intrinsic drives and not the traditional extrinsic drive of monetary reward that are the most powerful motivators. However, if our expectations of fair and reasonable extrinsic rewards are not met this can have a devastating negative effect on our performance. Surprisingly, expected monetary rewards can even decrease our motivation in complex cognitive tasks to a point where we perform worse than we would have with no reward!

All-in-all a very interesting read and a great source of inspiration!