How Empathy Will Make You a Better Developer
The Cloud Foundry Foundation sponsored this podcast.
Atticus Finch, the wise country father and country lawyer literary character, in Harper Lee’s classic “To Kill a Mockingbird,” communicated one of the more timeless and poignant descriptions of what empathy means. Understanding another person’s point of view or plight, especially when it is removed from yours, requires one to “climb in his skin and walk around in it,” he says.
Flash forward to today in this renaissance era in open stack development. While the act of understanding the “other” is critical in any context, empathy in the software development world is also especially important in a number of often surprisingly ways. Denise Yu, a senior software engineer at Pivotal, recently described in her The New Stack post “Why Empathy in Open Source Matters More Than You Think” just how broadly taking into account the wants and needs of others counts when dealing with colleagues, end-use software customers and people in general. Yu writes “Even without the financial motivations, empathy is something that we as product builders should care about because it is the right thing to do.”
In a podcast hosted by The New Stack Managing Editor Joab Jackson, managing editor, Yu was able to continue her discussion on empathy and why it is so important in the software development sector. Jai Schniepp, product owner for cloud and Security at Liberty Mutual Insurance, also offered more details based on in-house practices and processes on why thinking of the other is critical. The podcast was recorded at the at Cloud Foundry Summit North America last month in Philadelphia.
Many times, thinking about the end user and failing to address what their problems might be requires a much-needed better focus, Yu said. “It’s about understanding what problem this person is actually trying to solve and what kinds of solutions you might be able to design for them. Sometimes, the best solution might not involve writing any code at all,” Yu said. “But I think it’s also about the relationships that you build with your customers along the way. That’s an incredibly important part of building software that actually helps people.”
In the context of a software development team, feedback about what works and what does not work, is critical — while taking the other team member’s wants, needs, and self-worth into account. “No software is perfect. You’re just never going to be able to write code that never errors,” Yu said. “Things are going to go wrong and when things go wrong, it really is about trying to figure out how do we have a blameless conversation around the incident and how do we optimize for learning rather than justice maybe.”
When it comes to the end user — consisting of insurance customers in Liberty Mutual’s case — Schniepp says she sometimes tells her developers: “Don’t be so audacious that you think you know better than the actual user of our products because you use it in a different way. You have different privileges; you have different access.”
A lot of “positive intent” is also involved, Schniepp said. “We think about how people are leveraging our tools and services and they’re not intending to make it difficult for us, and they’re not obviously intending to make it difficult for themselves,” Schniepp said. “So, we really think about how we can make this positive and how can we assume their best interest are in mine, but obviously, there’s something wrong with how we’re either communicating, documenting, sharing our information. So, it’s just more difficult for them to understand what our process is and in all honestly, we probably communicated incorrectly.”
In this Edition:
2:02: The importance of developing a sense of empathy if you’re a developer or manager.
3:02: How does one build a sense of empathy, if you don’t already have it.
9:09: Exploring the concept of, ’Don’t just stop listening to the loudest person in the room.
12:57: How do you determine good feedback versus edge cases.
15:23: How do you incorporate that into an enterprise culture, how do you put that as a line item in terms of institutionalizing empathy.
20:27: Any other empathy tips.
Pivotal is a sponsor of The New Stack.