Software Team Leadership: Safety, Enjoyment, Learning

Back in 2004, I took a sabbatical from software development to pursue my passion for snowboarding. It was a decision that lead to a parallel “career” as a snowboard, and later ski, instructor. Aside from a few communication skills, I never really thought the two would intertwine. However, from instructing came an interest in coaching and mentoring, and from those came helpful ideas when I found myself more and more involved with a leadership role.

When I undertook my first training course, in the mountains of New South Wales, there was an important phrase I learnt: Safety, Fun and Learning. In the UK, we use the variation of Safety, Enjoyment and Learning – which gives the acronym SEL (“sell”). We’re selling a suitable framework for a pleasant and productive lesson experience. Each word leads from the next: it’s difficult to enjoy something if you’re not safe, it’s tricky to learn something if you’re not enjoying it.

Safety, Enjoyment, Learning can be applied to many things other than snowboarding or skiing. As a team lead, senior developer or software coach, we also have to be mindful of these three words whether we realise it or not. All three are required to make sure our team has a pleasant and productive experience developing software.

Let’s look at safety first. The risk of injury, avalanches, sunburn or hypothermia is pretty low in software development – if it isn’t, I’d strongly recommend moving to a different office. But safety is more than just about physical danger. I’ve worked with teams where there’s a heavy fear of failure, an atmosphere where making a mistake is a heinous crime. The problem is, people become cautious – they stay inside their comfort zone, they don’t learn or progress, their work remains static. It’s not productive at all – for the team or the customer.

Mistakes are okay. We all make them. The important thing is that people feel they can own up to making a mistake, without retribution, and then take responsibility for correcting that mistake. Mistakes are learning experiences – do them once, try not to make them again. People need to know they can put their hand up and admit they did something wrong safely, and that the team will pull together to help that person take responsibility and correct the problem.

Leading on from this is the knowledge that someone can always ask for help, without feeling they will lose respect or be ridiculed. We all have a moment of stupidity and forget something obvious, we all stare at a problem for hours because our brain has masked the critical (and obvious) cause of the problem. Asking for help is often one of the most difficult things for people to do, so we need to ensure people feel safe enough that they can stick up a hand without fear.

Enjoyment is next. I’ve been very fortunate during my working career that I’ve nearly always worked with teams where we can laugh, joke and gossip – yet still get our work done. On the rare occasions I’ve been in a team that doesn’t have that environment, you certainly notice the difference in productivity – no one really gets anything done, and certainly not to a good standard. A former boss of mine used to say that he didn’t like a quiet office, because it meant no one was working. The social interaction feeds the mood, raises the spirits even when tackling a Project From Hell, and leads to better communication and thus a higher productivity.

Work shouldn’t be a miserable experience, because it becomes a waste of time for everyone – if you don’t enjoy your job, dust off your CV and start looking for one you will enjoy. It was that kind of decision that resulted in me ending up on a mountain on the other side of the world, a decision that both changed my life in a big way. It allowed me to discover a whole new set of skills, but also help me rediscover my love of programming.

And finally learning. If you’re not learning new things each week in your job, something is wrong. It doesn’t have to be big things like a new programming language or framework – it could be a tiny optimisation, a better way of structuring your code, a new bit of business logic, an unusual hobby of the developer sat next to you. As human beings we need to keep growing and learning or we stagnate, and when we stagnate we become less productive. I know far too many programmers who know one programming language, one framework, one operating system. Some even get quite angry that they should learn something new! After all, BASIC and 6502 assembly should be all you could ever need…

I try to learn a new language every year or two: Erlang, PHP, C#, Clojure. Even if you don’t use them for any real world work, sometimes you can gain a new insight or a better way of doing things with your existing toolset. Erlang helped me with concurrency and parallelism, Clojure taught me to write more functionally, PHP makes me appreciate Python more than ever, I wish C# wasn’t tied to .NET/Mono. The definition of “learn” changes each time: I mainly aim to get a feel for the nuances and pros/cons of the language before deciding to stop or carry on.

Code dojos are great fun. Code katas provide useful exercises for developers. Regular retrospectives encourage developers to sit back and think about what they have or haven’t achieved and find new ways to do things. Pair programming provides knowledge transfer. All that gossip and laughter I mentioned earlier can lead to sudden revelations and new ideas. Teams should be mindful of new things, new techniques, making progress in their own skills and knowledge. Programmers should be encouraged to try new things, push their comfort zone wider and improve themselves.

Safety, enjoyment, learning.

Next time you’re with your team, take a good look and ask yourself if these three concepts are being employed successfully. If not, perhaps it’s time you started making some changes?

Have fun!

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