Software Development with Empathy

I’m hoping this will be the first in a series of posts about some recent trends in the way software is developed, going beyond the raw technologies involved.

Around nine months ago I was fortunate enough to be working with a team at Pivotal Labs – a consultancy (although I suspect they might baulk at the term) specialising in Extreme Programming which works with clients to train engineers in pair programming and test-driven development.

One of the core principles by which Pivotal operate is “Always be kind”, which might easily be dismissed as comparable to Google’s famous “Don’t be evil” mantra. At its root is the concept that a team functions best when there is a sense of empathy. As one team member phrased it to me: “egos are left at the door”.

It’s worth defining what this actually means, as it’s very easy for companies to get lost in a series of platitudes in an effort to change its culture. Empathy means taking the time to listen to everyone an seeking to come to a solution to a problem as a team, and seeking to understand colleagues. Adopting empathy as a core principle for a team involves recognising that no team member is capable of doing all of the work – and if they are there is something fundamentally wrong with the team structure.

Crucially, empathy does not just mean giving way to the loudest voice or ignoring bad work. I’m currently reading the excellent book Radical Candor by Kim Scott which describes “ruinous empathy” – the idea of skirting around an issue so it isn’t addressed. Building a team founded on empathy involves caring about people, and caring about how they do their work and how they learn.

It’s a very difficult balance to achieve, but an important one. Empathy might seem like an obvious requirement, but historically it’s been discarded in favour of “rockstar developers” – a fantasy that a genius-level programmer can sit at a terminal and build brilliant software provided they are left undisturbed. The balance seems to be tipping the other way, which is good news for all engineers.

On Demand: The Need for Immediacy and the Digital Media Market

The band AC/DC have finally released their recordings on iTunes. They initially argued that their albums should not be available as individual songs, but should be listened to as complete pieces of work.

This is a view I can sympathise with – I was never particularly fussed by the Beatles until my Dad played the entirety of Abbey Road, when it suddenly all made sense. There certainly seems to be a subtle art to the ordering of tracks – had What’s the Story? (Morning Glory) opened with Don’t Look Back in Anger and followed it with Champagne Supernova, I suspect neither song would have been quite as popular.

But AC/DC’s change of heart is almost certainly due to commercial pressures. Despite all suggestions to the contrary, the now-DRM-free music of iTunes and Amazon is making huge amounts of money. Manufacturing costs are almost eliminated by the process, and the downloads are both immediate and cheap. The industry initially insisted on DRM (Digital Rights Management) software to ensure only certain devices were capable of playing a song – an effort to prevent piracy that, like many things in technology, was ultimately doomed by how often users were able to work around the restrictions imposed on them.

Head of Valve Software Gabe Newell once commented that piracy isn’t a price issue – it’s a service issue. He theorised that if the service was made as simple as possible with as little restriction as possible, customers were more than happy to pay for content. Whether or not it was free was not nearly as significant as how constrained the user might be, or whether the product was immediately available.

This is, in part, the cause behind Apple’s success with iTunes. Not only have they put a music store on every computer, but also on every iPad, iPhone and iPod. You can be sat on a train and decide to listen to that song you still have “on the brain”, and download it immediately.

And now, you can even download Back in Black.

The same has not yet been true of the film industry. Interestingly, the birth of digital music downloads coincided with the peak of physical formats. At 700Mb each, a CD can easily contain the information needed for an album at a reasonable quality, and double albums are rare enough that there was never a need to produce a new format.

The movie industry does not appear to have quite reached the same limit. Manufacturers constantly strive to improve the image quality, with both HD and BluRay being embraced by filmmakers. Further experiments such as 3D are ongoing, as the industry explores the question of “what’s next?” and how to best tackle piracy. We may not see any significant shift until the industry feels it is running out of options.

I’m intrigued by Mark Kermode’s suggestion that films should simply be released simultaneously in cinemas, on DVD, and in a downloadable format. This again leans towards resolving ease-of-use for the customer. Given how well this has worked out for the music industry, I can’t help but wonder if this might be the solution.

Interconnectivity: A Problem for Apple or a Developing Market?

There have been hundreds, if not thousands, of articles predicting the downfall of Apple Form the launch of the Android to the closed-nature of the app store. Nevertheless, it’s worth pondering how the future of tech might affect the giant, especially given it’s recent successes and ability to set trends in consumer technology.

Apple has excelled at determining the direction taken by consumer products. Jonathan Ive’s simple designs have been continuously aped, while the moment the iPhone was released other manufacturers began to wonder about how handheld touch screens might do without the ubiquitous stylus. It hasn’t all gone Apple’s way though – the app store was introduced in response to a general outcry at Steve Job’s suggestion that HTML5 and Javascript would be a sufficient replacement for native apps.

So I’m curious as to how Apple might handle the increasing prevalence of interconnected technology. They’ve handled multiple platforms relatively well so far, enabling printer sharing and wireless speakers by releasing their own formats. Yet there are a large number of small devices which now connect to wireless networks, computers and platforms.

Apple have already supported a few of these – the Nike+ sensor springs to mind, along with the US store listing for the Nest thermostat.

Nevertheless, there are many small projects either already launched or launching soon which intend to somehow connect with existing technology. The Arduino has become a staple of tech hobbyists, and projects such as Ninja blocks may well have a similar effect. I look forward to seeing what people can do with this sort of technology, especially given Apple’s own work on Siri, but I wonder whether compatibility will ever be an issue. Could I talk to my phone and tell it to warm-up the house as I’ll be home ten minutes early? Could I ask it whether I forgot to turn off the kitchen lights, and then have it turn them off for me?

There’s some great tech being worked on, but I can’t help but wonder whether the closed nature of Apple’s services can cope with it. Even if it can’t, things should get quite interesting, and I suspect they will adjust in time.

Silicon Valley in the UK?

David Cameron has revealed plans to transform part of London into the UK’s take on Silicon Valley, creating the East London “Tech City”.

The Wikipedia page currently has an enormous list of agreements that have been made to develop the area, with investment from the likes of Facebook or Google.

Whatever your views on whether or not this will be a success, if it does succeed things could get pretty interesting.

But it does raise one question: is this a bit of a gamble? The UK’s economy is mostly built on finance (I imagine this is why the government is loathe to tax banks too heavily), so it would be a bit of a stretch to suggest this would immediately transform the economy. Any tangible results will also take time to develop.

Assuming it has the potential to succeed, will politicians (and the media) have the political patience?