Collaboration vs. Critique

While there are certainly a number of apps developed by lone developers, it’s probably safe to say that the majority of professional software development occurs by teams. The people aspect of software development, more often than not, tends to be the most difficult part of software engineering. Unfortunately the software field isn’t quite like other engineering fields with well-established standards, guidelines, and apprenticeship programs. The nature of software development tends to follow an empirical process model rather than a defined process model. That is to say, software developers tend to be confronted with new problems every day and most of problems developers are solving aren’t something they’ve ever done in the exact same way with the exact same toolset. Moreover, there are often many different ways to solve the same problem, both with respect to the overall process as well as the implementation. This means that team members are often required to work together to determine how to proceed. Teams are often confronted with the need to explore multiple competing approaches as well as review one another’s designs and implementation. One thing I’ve learned during the course of my career is that the stage these types of interactions occur within the overall process has a significant impact on whether the interaction is generally viewed as collaboration or critique.

To help illustrate what I’ve seen happen countless times both in catch-up design sessions and code reviews, consider the following two scenarios:

Scenario 1

Tom and Sally are both developers on a team maintaining a large-scale application. Tom takes the next task in the development queue which happens to have some complex processes that will need to be addressed. Being the good development team that they are, both Tom and Sally are aware of the requirements of the application (i.e. how the app needs to work from the user’s perspective), but they have deferred design-level discussions until the time of implementation. After Tom gets into the process a little, seeing that the problem is non-trivial, he pings Sally to help him brainstorm different approaches to solving the problem. Tom and Sally have been working together for over a year and have become accustomed to these sort of ad-hoc design sessions. As they begin discussing the problem, they each start tossing ideas out on the proverbial table resulting in multiple approaches to compare and contrast. The nature of the discussion is such that neither Tom nor Sally are embarrassed or offended when the other points out flaws in a given design idea because there’s a sense of safety in their mutual understanding that this is a brainstorming session and that neither have thought in depth about the solutions being set forth yet. Tom throws out a couple of ideas, but ends up shooting them down himself as he uses Sally as a sounding board for the ideas. Sally does the same, but toward the end of the conversation suggests a slight alteration to one of Tom’s initial suggestions that they think may make it work after all. They end the session with a sense that they’ve worked together to arrive at the best solution.

Scenario 2

Bill and Jake are developers on another team. They tend to work in a more siloed fashion, but they do rely upon one another for help from time to time and they are required to do code reviews prior to their code being merged into the main branch of development. Bill takes the next task in the development queue and spends the better part of an afternoon working out a solution with a basic working skeleton of the direction he’s going. The next day he decides that it might be good to have Jake take a look at the design to make him aware of the direction. Seeing where Bill’s design misses a few opportunities to make the implementation more adaptable to changes in the future, Jake points out where he would have done things differently. Bill acknowledges that Jake’s suggestions would be better and would have probably been just as easy to implement from the beginning, but inwardly he’s a bit disappointed that Jake didn’t like his design as-is and that he has to do some rework. In the end, Bill is left with a feeling of critique rather than collaboration.

Whether it’s a high-level UML diagram or working code, how one person tends to perceive feedback on the ideas comprising a potential solution has everything to do with timing. It can be the exact same feedback they would have received either way, but when the feedback occurs often makes a difference between whether it’s perceived as collaboration or critique. It’s all about when the conversation happens.

Los Techies Welcomes Derik Whittaker