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Grumbling and Creativity

tags: mind nosimpleanswer

I am not a software person by education. I have studied physics, and my final degree involved a fair bit of simulation models and handcrafted software. I have been working in some sort of IT since then:

Application support (email, when it was largely plain/text, yay!)

Systems support (Unix servers, email, oracle databases, high availability solutions)

Systems integration (make the machine start up after poweron, from boot loader to application and everything in between)

And in all these jobs I have made the observation, that systems/software[a] developers share a very peculiar style of conversation:

They tend to speak in riddles --- at least for the uninitiated audience.

They tend to split hairs over (fundamental!) differences, that are invisible to most and sometimes even irrelevant.

They build fanastic or magic things. But often they fail to see, what they have achieved. Instead they keep grumbling or joking about all the things that don't work or are still ahead.

They practice creative verbal expression, generous amounts of ambiguity and subtlety included for free. Bonus points for giving a similarly ambiguous reply. :)

To varying degrees, I'm all of that, too. In the far past I have been nicknamed "Mr. Brutally Honest"[b].

My personal explanation for this in simple terms is this:

Creativity needs to be exercised constantly!

Developers always need to come up with smart solutions to countless little problems, some medium ones and occasionally really big ones, too. This goes on the whole day, whether it is actually trying to find out details, coding, building tools, or a bug hunt of any complexitiy. Combining things in unusual and unforseen ways (aka. hacking, sic!) is part or the game. Thus conversation becomes a playground to practice this art --- it keeps their thinking /fluid/.

This comes at a price, however, and I attribute a lot of the friction between developers and management or peer groups to this particular style of conversation and the associated point of view of the problem at hand.

Sad story: My then boss hired a person for some smallish project, that noone really had time to do. The person wasn't a programmer by profession but had some experience and tried to get a paid job in awkward times. This by itself isn't a comfortable position to be in, so after like 4 weeks, person gave up and left. He could not stand the way people talked to each other. He was unable to sense the shift, when a conversation changed from practising jokes to serious work.

And another: Our then boss, who we respected very much and for whom we would go through considerable hell, was /removed/ by upper management. He was replaced by H. At the time we were like 6 to 8 in a room. I was in the same room as H. After like 6 weeks he seriously asked us, when we would stop grumbling about practically everything. Dead silence. One of the smart guys replied with a smile: "Dear H, the day we stop grumbling you better run, for we are dead. There won't be a new release after that day." And I agree. The day we stop practising splitting hairs, we are dead. Needless to say, after maybe two years H gave up and left. Among other things he could not stand the way people talked to each other.

I would like to explicitly point out that I experienced a lot of mutual respect at the same time. Even if a serious error was made, almost everyone would immediately help to fix it --- even though the poor person, who's fault it was, had to take a few snide remarks along the way.

Is this style of conversation bad, disrespectful, or even toxic? Must it be eradicated at all cost? Must it be replaced by politically correct, nurturing, sympathetic language? I am not so sure. But I do agree that this can be a very inconvenient situation for those, who are not as eloquent or thick-skinned. For those, who cannot sense this particular border between joking games and serious work, it is unbearable.

What to do?

> Et altera pars audiatur.

At the very least: the other side must be heard --- so listen, while they speak. And it certainly won't hurt to be helpful. Other than that: probably no simple answers.

I'm interested in comments, pointers, stories, I haven't looked.



[a] Engineering people apparently to a lesser degree, as far as my experience goes.

[b] Funny thing is that "Mr. Brutally Honest" received a few "Shining Star of the Week"-Awards --- just by taking the person at the other end of the phone and their problem serious.


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