Staying Positive in Tech

Staying Positive in Tech
Photo by Joe Caione / Unsplash

Recently Valerie Phoenix tweeted an interesting question: how do you avoid becoming jaded after working in tech for 10+ years?

I started working at Miniclip in June 2013 so just about qualify to answer. It’s a fascinating question, not least because of what it implies – that working in our industry for a long time is something that wears people down. It’s certainly true that when someone starts working in tech they will have a very different impression of how processes work compared to how they think of things after a few years. New engineers usually join with a sense of optimism and ambition. They see the possibilities of what creating software can achieve, not purely from a financial point of view (although I’m sure the meteoric success stories of the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Page, Sergey Brin, et al probably don’t hurt). They join with the drive to build and create things. The draw of “putting a ding in the universe” and working in an industry that moves at a phenomenal pace is undeniable.

So what happens when we join? Is it really so different?

Methodologies and business pressures aren’t something you think about building your own projects at home but are immediately encountered in the world of work. Features have to be held back, technical debt has to be paid, and bugs have to be fixed. Everyone wants autonomy and to have an impact. They don’t want to be referred to as a “resource”.

There are plenty of ideas around to try and work against (or at least make more tolerable) the corporate machinery and promote the innovation that engineers crave. For starters there’s agile methodology – the idea that you can deliver software incrementally and rapidly. Teams (rightly) enthusiastically embrace agile, and choose from a smorgasbord of techniques and tools to boost productivity. And yet having a well-managed backlog of work with a neatly laid-out Kanban board feels like overhead when you’re so keen to get on with writing code. Voting on story points was never the impact that any of us envisioned. Having to work out a way to process a CSV file because the data you want is on an old system doesn’t feel like innovation.

This all sounds pretty grim, but as ever, it’s a question of balance. These processes should enable innovation, not stifle it. Engineers should be autonomous and trusted, but trusted to collaborate and work with others. You can do awesome things without resorting to montage-driven development.

The good news is that the whole point of agile is to be flexible. Processes change and improve. If something isn’t working, it’s the job of a manager to provide mechanisms to allow it to change. This is a slightly circular argument as you need the drive and motivation to make the changes, and if you’re feeling jaded or worn down you’re less likely to have that motivation. Instead it’s helpful to think about how things could be. What do you want to change? What could be better?

There’s one question that I’ve asked both within work and in interviews:

If you had a magic wand, what would you change?

It’s an interesting thought experiment, and a good way to get motivated to start making those changes.

I’d be tempted to flip the question: how do you keep motivated? What gives you energy, drive and purpose? What is it about technology that makes you want to sit down at a keyboard and type?

For me, getting to the heart of those questions is how I get my focus back and why I keep wanting to do what I do. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some amazing people, and on projects that have delivered quickly.

When working on Chop Chop we had a message from a customer thanking us for the service because they couldn’t get out to do the shopping, so having groceries delivered quickly was a tremendous convenience. We took that message and pinned it to the board (alongside a few newspaper cuttings). It’s important to properly celebrate the wins where you find them, even if it’s just one person telling you what the work has meant.

As a manager, I’ve also had moments where I’ve been able to support people through the bad times and celebrate with them in the good times. It is immensely gratifying to be able to make that sort of a difference.

You can always have an impact and put a ding in the universe, but it might mean doing so one person at a time. | @robl |