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Tech Culture

It’s Time to Build Some Empathy for Developers

How did our industry sink to disrespect developers so badly, and how can we change the narrative? 
Feb 23rd, 2023 10:00am by
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Life has always been tough for coders. During the 2600 console days, one Atari executive called its developers dime-a-dozen “towel designers,” prompting them to leave and form Activision.

More than half a century later, the industry still hasn’t learned its lesson; recent stories in the press show how video game companies and recently-acquired social media firms alike continue to grind more work out of underappreciated coders. They seem to think little of developers’ mental health or quality of life. 

This is why I moved into developer advocacy as a career. As a recovering software developer with my own battle scars, I know this territory better than most. I’ve worked in toxic environments that treat coders like cannon fodder. I’ve suffered a lack of work-life balance as I struggle to please higher-ups, along with the inevitable stress and depression that comes with it.

Now, I fight for those developers to encourage better working conditions. But how did our industry sink to disrespect developers so badly, and how can we change the narrative? 

The Human Burn Rate 

For the last few decades, the tech sector has been busy transforming all the others, from music to publishing and even transportation. Software really is eating the world. Companies that don’t use technology to offer superlative customer experiences are at a disadvantage. Executives are under immense pressure to deliver as competition accelerates, especially those at start-ups with a limited runway. Stressed founders put that pressure on their developers, demanding more deliverables to tighter deadlines. 

Start-ups focus on their financial burn rate — the rate at which they spend cash. They often don’t think about the human burn rate — the effect of increased pressure on developer talent. Treat coders like machines, and they’ll burn out. Just like an overheated electric motor. 

Larger companies have similar issues. Ridiculous crunch windows are endemic in all areas of the video game sector, with some companies boasting that coders work 100 hours a week or more to get games out of the door. This should be a sign of managerial weakness, not a cause for celebration. No gamer experience or quarterly features metric is worth shattering a developer’s health. Crunches and 24/7 sprints should be a thing of the past. 

It Doesn’t Have to Be Like This 

Many founders in Europe, where I spent years working in the developer community, have proved that this is possible. In my experience, the region has a more worker-centric culture that respects work-life balance and mental health. I noticed managers there often start with the question “what can you get done?” rather than the mantra “this must be done.” 

Treat coders like machines, and they’ll burn out. Just like an overheated electric motor.

Those experiences convinced me that founders in North America can do the same. This isn’t just the right thing to do ethically; it also makes sense financially. While you might be able to squeeze more work from a developer by pressuring them in the short term, healthy employees are more productive in the long term.

One of Steven Covey’s seven habits of highly effective people is to sharpen the saw by making time for restorative activities that increase motivation, energy, creativity and focus. 

Without time to recharge, developers get ground down, quiet-quit and then eventually quit for real. That creates three immediate problems for founders: 

  • Knowledge attrition: When the people that know your project from the inside out leave, you must spend time training someone else from scratch in the nuances of your code. Even then, you’ll lose implicit knowledge about your software that no one wrote down. 
  • Cost: Hiring new staff costs more than retaining existing people, so accelerating your human burn rate also means accelerating your financial burn rate. 
  • Time to market: Disrupting the development team and retraining new hires slows down software development and delays delivery. 

How to Change the Story 

Founders are generally good people. They understand the arguments for change, but turning rhetoric into reality has always been the problem. Where do they begin? 

The first thing to change is how we measure success. In the past, companies that viewed developers as disposable were successful. They’d meet their deadlines with poorly written software produced under pressure. There was always another cohort of fresh developers ready to replace the ones that they’d burned through in the process.

That’s changing. The Millennials I mentor are saying no to draconian conditions. Their priorities are different. News travels quickly among developers these days, and if they hear that a company has treated their contemporaries like cattle, they’ll walk. 

Developer well-being must play into our success metrics. That means creating relationships built on trust and reliability. The first place to do this is during the hiring process, by focusing on who you hire. A diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) program can help create a more balanced base of developers in the company that can offer a wider range of perspectives. 

During the interview process, give recruiters the time and the mandate to discuss things that are important to developers of all races, genders and creeds, including mental health, sick leave and support systems. 

Walk the Walk 

Talking the talk is great, but you must walk the walk by following through after the hire. None of this matters if you stop thinking about it after the hire. Instead, create concrete programs that support developer well-being. 

Flexible working, including hybrid work arrangements, can help developers to deliver solid results while meeting their other life commitments, including looking after family. Allow developers to choose where and when they work, giving them the opportunity to blend home and office work sessions to varying degrees. 

A flexible work program requires a leap of faith on the part of founders, who must abandon old notions of presenteeism. They must trust developers to deliver measurable results without in-person supervision, but those results must be realistic in the first place. 

Discrete initiatives like these needn’t be cost-prohibitive, and they can deliver long-term benefits in terms of staff retention and project scheduling. Companies willing to lean in can then enhance this with better benefits and facilities. I’m seeing some forward-thinking tech conferences offering daycare support for developers balancing work and life commitments.

Ultimately, this more worker-centric approach should transcend the developer community to benefit the entire company culture. 

Think Different 

However, there’s another important change that bosses must make that won’t show up as a set of key performance indicators on an HR project sheet. You have to change the way that you treat employees, in every interaction, every day and this must be woven into the fabric of the company as a cultural change.

This means going beyond tokenism to practice active listening and being receptive to different staff perspectives. It means being transparent and having frank discussions with developers about the company’s current position and future direction. And it means adopting an empathetic and compassionate mindset all the time, rather than ticking a box with HR and then proceeding as you’ve always done. 

I’m already seeing this happen in some unexpected places, including some of the world’s largest technology-driven companies, where there has been a conscious shift in their culture. I’ve seen behemoth software firms shift to more balanced sprint cycles and small start-ups with a limited financial runway discussing mental health during the interview process. 

Doing this effectively might involve breaking down hierarchies and shattering entrenched ideas in the organization. Creating more autonomous units can help to effect change more quickly at lower levels. However, that also means choosing managers carefully and educating them to avoid oppressive fiefdoms. 

It’s Time for a Change 

If any industry understands the importance of disruption, it’s tech. Our sector thrives on self-reinvention. By guiding our energy with a new set of values, tech companies can finally put a dent in the universe without scarring our developers in the process. 

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