Software products––although highly technical, complicated, and somewhat magical––are ultimately built by human beings.
Anyone pursuing a product development career will eventually come to realize that we need other people to accomplish almost anything. Developing software products is always a team endeavor. Let me share about my first encounter with a team.
Like almost every other child growing up in Chile, I wanted to be a soccer player. I wanted to score beautiful goals, be a ‘tough as nails’ defender, flying through the air, stopping the ball from entering the net at the last possible moment. In my childhood dreams I wanted it all.
Sharing my dream, my friends and I sought out other players to form our team. We contacted other kids, scouting out the best of the best. We were thrilled when we finally had our roster. We were going to go far!
But we lost more games than we won. We weren’t playing as a team!
A team, I soon learned, requires each member to do what they are skilled at but, more than this, for a team to succeed requires that we all understand, anticipate, protect, and support each other. In soccer, for example, a defender may perform well most of the time, but at other times he will be troubled by the speed of a younger opponent. And voila, a team member will help him out.
An analogy if you are not into sports: imagine a couple dancing effortlessly, elegantly, each one anticipating the other’s next step, listening to the other’s flow, understanding the tempo generated by their environment, the whole scene provoking an appreciation of beauty and perfection in those that can catch a glimpse of their magic.
As you may have already worked out, I did not become a soccer player but a software engineer. Similar to soccer, however, software development is a team sport. Software engineers are expected to work in teams, and like every team we try to recruit the very best to fulfill each role in the group: the industrious developer who will save the day by adding that last feature, the tenacious quality assurance engineer who finds the nasty anomaly at the 11th hour, and the straight shooter program manager who keeps things on track.
But, even if a team has the engineering, design, product, and other functional skills, it’s more than likely that it still won’t have what it takes to operate as an elegantly dancing couple. Why is that?
In engineering, we are trained to think of the world in terms of models and problems to solve. We are conditioned to be objective and rational, ignoring the emotional, affective side of us so that we don’t ‘cloud our decision making abilities’. People (and how they function) are simply not on our radar. Technical training dwarfs “soft” skill training in terms of availability and quality.
But the reality is that when working with others, it is inevitable that certain tribulations in our moods arise, no matter how much we may try to ignore our humanity, or try to create processes and algorithms to ‘account’ for it.
As engineers, we are always focused on the object to be built––sometimes to a fault. We’re always thinking about the design, the construction, the manufacturing, the quality, and the testing. As I write software, I am focused on algorithms, my code, etc. But again, there will inevitably come a point when we have to work with others to get things done, and when working with others, we have conversations.
Working with others
When working in a team, there are a lot of things we have to keep in mind. We have to listen to colleagues, coordinate with our teammates, commit to our managers, sell our ideas and proposals, produce common interpretations and understanding with others, lead, direct, inspire, build alliances with other groups, interpret and assess what is going on, and negotiate with others. I don’t know about you, but for me these are hard skills!
With our colleagues, we engage in these human actions and build stories about our future, what may be possible, whether that be a new product, a proposal, a partnership, or contracts that are brought forth in our imagination, our assessments, opportunities and aspirations. And we have to get everyone on board!
We watch the news about other regions of the world, and think, how can it be that way? How can it be that we have such a different sense of what’s going on? It makes no sense to us, we do things differently! They say the same. And yet, we long for people to accept each other’s differences, and rejoice in what we have in common for the care of humanity.
At work, we also bring our differences, yet we have to work relentlessly to build a common interpretation of what’s ahead, what’s important, and how each can help. Continually.
Without going into details, there are many aspects of our humanity that affect our ability to communicate effectively. These are a few:
We have different backgrounds, histories, culture, and sensibilities. We have our point of view, our own biases, and our own predispositions. They are part of who we are and how we make sense.
We spend most of our day in our profession expressing assessments or typically opinions. “I like my manager”, “I don’t like spicy food”, “I don’t like such and such technology platforms”. The activity of making verdicts (“I like…,” “I don’t like…”) affects the world that we see as possible. In our assessments, we reveal to each other what is important or what we need to take care of in a situation. Not all of the assessments we make serve us well. Many can lead us astray.
3. Action and reactivity
Our bodies embody our history and predispositions. We can’t suppress the automatic way our bodies react when someone gives us feedback, be it something nice, or something negative. We feel elated or defensive, respectively. Such reactions, too, affect what we see as possible.
“People are moody. We are always in a mood, sometimes in multiple moods at once. Even if we try to ignore them, they are there, shaping our sense of our situation. Moods are not only shifting emotional dispositions that we first sense in our body, they are also automatic interpretations, based on lessons and experiences from our past, that come over us and guide us”.
–– Gloria Flores
Our moods shape how we work with others. Without the skills to work well with others, including the skill to notice the moods we fall into, we get out of sync. We may begin to dwell in moods that are detrimental to the growth of the team. We get overwhelmed, or we fall into cynicism or resentment. Losing the joy of working together, we begin to drift apart, to distrust, and the team begins to disintegrate.
To become an effective team means to address these pain points in earnest; to commit to developing the necessary skills in each team member so that they can work better with each other.
In this post, I’ve commented on the skills people need to work together with others––a subject that is often talked about. But what is often missing is a concern with moods, assessments, and conversations that are lacking or conducted in a shallow way that lead to rifts in teams, as well as unsatisfied staff and customers. I maintain that we need to take the affective aspect of our nature more seriously. Doing so will help us mobilize a team to fulfill its aspirations.
Pluralistic Networks has been teaching the skills for working in teams for many years through our WEST program. We are very encouraged by the results that it produces for our clients. We’ve innovated in how we teach it and we continue to invest on how to do it better. In that vein I joined the company to build software to improve the effectiveness of our programs through software. Mood Navigator is our first software and it is available for use through our classes. All signs about its effectiveness so far are very positive. We believe that it will transform our ability to deliver our services!