Working in a malleable medium like a computer program has so many degrees of freedom as to seem limitless. It’s fun and rewarding and exciting to create something and see it come to life. This is true whether a large-scale enterprise application with multiple stakeholders, clients, and customers, or a personal project with complete creative freedom. One way or another it is, or can be, an act of creation and expression and very fulfilling.
We can get carried away with this.
We can forget that serving a business, serving customers, and of course, serving users is the real reason we create software. I like to ask the question on my podcast about the creation of value and what it means to each guest to deliver value because I think that’s the core of being a quality professional. Your concern for making sure not only that you are collecting a paycheck and working with the latest cool technology and finding meaning in your work, but that the customer, end user, and business you serve are benefitting from your labor.
Uncle Bob and Integrity
I spoke with Robert C. Martin on my podcast. Uncle Bob’s stories on the podcast were instructive and educational.
I learned from the conversation. Hearing him recount a time in his youth when he was not a professional and ignored the reasons he was there and was fired as a result blew me away. This is Uncle Bob! It showed some of the experiences that shaped the person who is helping to move our profession forward so much today.
Being a professional is the central premise of The Clean Coder. He has very specific ideas about professionalism. I like Uncle Bob and his message because being a professional in the eyes of the Good Uncle is about personal responsibility. It’s about delivering on what you promise. It’s about saying “no” when asked for something you can’t deliver. It’s about competence, but it’s even more about integrity.
These things, to me, are intuitive, sensible, and self-evident.
There are other opinions, though. There’s a culture in the corporate world around what it means to be a professional – not just in software, but in general. There’s an overpowering current driving humanity toward things that are superficial and meaningless. Conventional wisdom decrees that these things are of critical importance and that if you do not adhere to the opinion of the herd, you are not being a professional.
To many people, being a professional is an exercise in wearing the right clothing. It’s about avoiding anything that might trigger any emotion in anyone. There are many who seem to think that being fun and being professional are mutually exclusive.
To these folks, it’s about being a perfect little clone of everyone else.
In short: the overwhelming sensitivity of the world in which we live has resulted in a culture of professionalism that asserts a simple and terrible conclusion. That conclusion is this:
If you have and express a personality in the workplace, you have committed a violation.
By making workplaces unfriendly to personality and workers droids carrying out tasks, many problems of sensitivity are avoided. At the same time, creativity is stifled and productivity tanks. Fun workplaces are a better way to work and, more importantly, a better way to live.
Balance –> Integration
It is often said that we should strive for a work-life balance. I am a proponent of balance. This is something Scott Hanselman emphasiszed on the podcast and I agree. Still, while balance is good, there’s something better. Work-life balance is a step on the path, but it’s not all the way to mastery. Achieving work-life balance is like becoming a Jedi knight. Work-life integration is the next step in becoming a Jedi master.
Quincy Larson’s appearance on the podcast was extraordinary. You should go and listen to it twice. When you finish with that, I recommend reading his answer to a question on Quora about his work and family hours. He has achieved something special. His work and his family and his life are one thing (and that picture of his daughter in the Quora post will brighten your day no matter what you have going on).
This is a level of mastery to which to strive. Integration of work and life means that you are the same person in all areas of your life. It means you bring the best of yourself and your personality to your family, to your community, and yes, to your work.
The Problem with the Jedi
I like to use allusions to Star Wars for a few reasons:
- It’s fun and geeky and awesome
- The Galactic Republic-turned-Empire has so much to say about the real world and our societies
- Star Wars has a Dark Side
Yes, Star Wars has a Dark Side. There is a lot of meaning in that statement. Think about it more deeply than picturing a cyborg dressed in black with a weapon with a red blade. That is certainly a Dark Side, but the way of the Jedi has faults of its own. Yes the Sith are ruthless and manipulative and murderous and clearly evil. The Jedi, though, want their members to leave everything behind and dedicate themselves entirely to their order to the point that they have no attachments, no emotion, no sense of self. In other words: no life. Sacrificing your humanity for the sake of your business is a lamentable loss. This is true whether your business is that of serving a galactic Republic of questionable integrity and battling another order of Force users or creating software.
Your life has value and your personality and your emotions and passions have value.
To adhere to the Jedi view of things means to give away your humanity.
To leave your personality at home while you work is the same things. To say you can be human again when you go home is not enough.
How to Be a Professional
My interview with Nate Taylor has not yet been released, but it was a really nice conversation. I will update this post with a link after it publishes on May 12, 2016. (If you’re reading this after that date and the link is still not here, please remind me.) Nate has a course on Pluralsight about professionalism worth checking out. I asked him about the meaning of the term and he was great in his response regarding the link between wearing shorts and being a professional. It’s worth listening to him. In a moment of clarity I uttered a phrase of which I am proud. I called the idea of the professional clone “Check your personality at the door.”
The Nate Taylor podcast episode is live.
A policy stating that work is a place for work and that fun is not welcome is a well-intentioned effort to make sure no one ever has their feelings hurt, feels unwelcome, or gets excluded. These are noble intentions, but there is a fatal flaw. Spending a significant portion of your existence pretending to be an emotionless droid is simply not a rewarding way to live.
This problem is better addressed by some simple guidelines:
- Be yourself, but have some sensitivity.
- Generally, you know what jokes are going to be considered fun in what context and in what company and the places where they are going to be considered threatening, insensitive, or rude. Use some sense and consider the perspective of those around you. You’ll make mistakes in your judgments of the sensitivity of others, but you still need to be yourself. If you are around quality people, they’ll tell you when they don’t like your behavior.
- There is a difference between lighthearted fun and harassment.
- There are many things my mom has told me over the years I feel are dated opinions or things that were not necessarily an optimal way of looking at things. There are several timeless truths I’ve learned from her, though. She likes to say that it’s never funny to make fun of a person for being overweight. Every time I hear a comedian doing just that, I remember that advice and it rings as true now as when I was a child. Getting personal about sensitive subjects is not ok. The appearance of another person is not something that should be a grounds for amusement at their expense.
- Offers of dates have the potential for being a life-enhancing experience leading to something of mutual benefit for all parties involved in ways that transcend work. Many give advice that dating in work situations should not be done. That’s going too far. That’s putting work ahead of living and is a mistake. You need to exercise caution, though. Above all else, if you are interested in a relationship with a coworker and make an offer that is refused, it has to end there. Continuing to pursue, though in many cases is exactly the game that is expected, must not happen. You don’t know if pursuit is playing the game or harassment and you need to assume the latter.
- Not everyone thinks you’re funny. Just remember that. Being something other than yourself to please everyone means a loss of life-enhancing experiences for those who do enjoy your humor and fun. Tempering it to the right situations is advisable, though.
- If someone informs you of a violation of sensitivity, please listen to them before you say anything.
- It is completely natural to jump to defending yourself when someone expresses displeasure with your behavior. You may even be right in thinking the problem is not you and often you are. In some cases, you’re dealing with someone who should lighten up. Even if that’s the absolute truth, though, making that case is more harmful than acknowledging the feelings of the other individual and changing your behavior in their presence. Just do it and don’t argue about it.
- If you find yourself offended by another person, consider their perspective and address it with them directly.
- Most people are reasonable and have good intentions. If you ask someone to stop something and candidly state your feelings, they’ll probably oblige. Embarrassing them in front of others or seeking out an authority or some sort of management to address a problem should only be done after a effort to seek the good will of the other party in a remedy to the situation has been attempted.
- Also consider that being offended does not necessarily mean wrongdoing. Being offended is often a chance to push the boundaries of your comfort and to learn of a new perspective. There are limitations to this and there are times that offense is the result of a true threat. If that’s the case act accordingly. First, though, search your feelings and decide if you are truly dealing with a problem. Expressing offense in a manner stating the wrongness of the actions of another causes defensiveness and drives a wedge. Expressing your feelings without accusation opens the possibility of a learning experience.
I call for a stop to this nonsense. Please, bring your personality with you to everything you do. You are a better person and a better worker when you do. Do so with sensitivity and empathy, but please be yourself.