6. december: Quality Time

That is our goal with our latest initiative in the department:
spend quality time with like-minded co-workers when we have finished working. Doing what? One of the things developers like the most: writing code.

The initiative

When my colleague Thomas mentioned that it could be cool if people could gather some time after work to write more code I was a bit baffled. Why on Earth would someone want to do the same he has been doing for 8-ish hours instead of going home with his family, drink beer and/or knit? The logic of his answer is flawless: “Because it’s fun. And they already do it on their own”.

And true it is. Many co-workers program in their spare time. Some of them author, coordinate or contribute to Open source projects, they have pet projects or they do have genuine side projects to which they devote some of their non-paid by their employer time.

It was a great idea. A bunch of other scattered ideas in my brains clicked. I let them make sense for some months, maturing a master plan to execute it in style. Or maybe I was just procrastinating. In any case, a month or so ago the idea took shape, being launched with the awesome name of “Coding After Hours”.

The (il)logic behind

For an outsider, there is little appeal on keep on doing the same thing you do in your work and not being paid (most of the times). But that view is a bit mislead.
To begin with it is not the same thing. Reality of professional software development is that not only involves writing awesome algorithms, tweaked for performance to the millisecond able to be infinitely horizontally scaled. There is a lot of politics, business decisions, email, planning, re-planning, support, number crunching and, dear me, customers. Remove them from the equation and all that is left is the beautiful, relaxing craft of software development.

Software developers are not alone, though; other craft-men do it: carpenters work on wood in their spare time, mechanics love spending (time and money) on other cars as well as finding the Britains Cheapest Motor Trade Insurer and even cooks prepare nice dinners at home some times. And yet, they do it because they enjoy doing what they are good at.

Sucking less

Another question that pops is personal improvement.
How does one improve their skills in a services company? Does the customer agree on being a guinea pig? What if the improvement is in an area in which your company does not do business?
That is why some professionals have pet projects. So that they can do something they like in the security of a sandbox where no customer is damaged, their neck is not on the line and little or no money is at stake.

One can attend as many courses, lectures and seminars as one fancies. They are no match for rolling up your sleeves and doing. Doing trumps watching any time. Watching is important, mind you. That is why sportsmen hit the video room so often, but they do not get better by simply witnessing some killer moves performed by other people; they need to jump in the pitch and sweat trying for themselves.
We, developers, are paid much less but the mechanics are the same. You have to hit the keyboard an create (or repeat) what you have seen some awesome guys do somewhere else. And what if you could have some intelligent input in the process? That would we superb, wouldn’t it?

It sounds to me like a win-win-win situation: the developer gets to learn new stuff, play with shinier, newer toys and grow both personally and professionally; the services company can take a competitive advantage on using newer technologies and keep staff interested at a minimal investment; and the customer will be able to benefit from better techniques applied to their problems without their deadline being jeopardize.
There are not many situations like this, cherish them.

Innovation as a by-product

I have lately read quite a few articles about innovation. I have attended a seminar and I read a book about a related topic: raw design. The one take-away I got is: no one has the faintest idea how to innovate.
Sure, one can follow all the guidelines, do all the tricks, dance all the rain-dances and sacrifice as many rubber chickens as specified in the dozen of sometimes contradicting books and be none the more innovative as before. Indeed, I fear that it is like inspiration. But, as Picasso said: “I do not know when inspiration comes, but when it comes I better be working”.

And yet, my naïve chain of thoughts comes like this:

  1. remove all noise: deadlines, monetary constraints and politics
  2. place a bunch of smart people that share interests close and leave them to their own devices
  3. try to make it fun while maintaining the focus
  4. and a jackpot may be hit

What could the worst failure? That no jackpot is hit and people have a great time not hitting it? Celebrate the failure, learn and get ready for the next screw-up. There more the merrier.

Daniel Gonzalez Garcia
Vertica A/S

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