Scott Walton


sHow Developers Can Also Be “Business People”

You don’t need to wear a suit to get respect — following these tips will suffice

Many discussions with friends and arguments online for internet points (the most important currency) see a rift between the development team and “business people.” In my experience, this rift causes a lot of needless frustration and misunderstanding of each others’ motives. In this essay, I’ll explain why, as a developer, you should make “the business” your business and how it can make you a better developer.

Your Job and The Business

As a developer/engineer/ninja, your job isn’t just to write code and hope it gets through QA. Solving problems is great fun, don’t get me wrong, but the most satisfying part is seeing a user’s face light up when that nightmare of a job just got easier.

The Business

First we need to understand just what we mean by The Business. At its simplest level, the business is everyone inside it, including you!

Granted, that’s an over-simplification, and something of a tautology, but it captures the essence of how you should see yourself in the business — not as an external entity, not as a giant machine of which you are a replaceable cog, but as large group of people who you can influence and who have influence over you.

A business isn’t just a group of people, however, it’s also an engine for delivering value to customers. How successful a business is gets judged by the Profit and Loss numbers on its balance sheet.

How the Business affects You

If you’re reading this, you’re probably undergoing some frustration with your colleagues outside the development team. I’ll cover a few of these frustrations and, in the next section, how consciously engaging outside of your role can help.

Shifting Requirements

We’ve all had this one, you’re halfway through a sprint, iteration, feature, block of work, and someone from sales comes running in: “Guys! I’ve just spoken to a customer and you need to build this great feature!” This usually means one of two things:

  1. Everyone groans and blows away their pipeline to work on this new, poorly thought out thing — deadlines get missed, the new feature sucks and everyone is unhappy.
  2. Someone explains, in very painful detail, why it can’t be done and sends our friend from sales on his way. He gets upset, maybe strong-arms another team into it, you and your team seem unhelpful and distrust is sown.
That over-enthusiastic sales-guy that sells features he’s just made up to get the sale. Trees may or may not be included

Neither of these are great and both lead to you and your teammates looking bad and underachieving!

Staff Turnover

You’re bringing in lots of people, or you’ve seen a few people leave recently. This can feel really disruptive and leave you not really knowing where you stand. Maybe you’ve seen some good people go or someone you thought was doing a good job just got sacked!

Circumstances like this can leave you feeling helpless and wondering if your job is safe. This can happen even in the case of new hires! Perhaps you’ve just gotten a new boss and you don’t know if they like you.

Staff turnover rarely looks like a rush for the fire door but it can be just as disruptive!

Feeling Ignored

You’ve been putting ideas forward and the bosses have done something else. You said moving to Azure was a bad idea but now your whole platform is .Net. Everyone is getting burnt out working on COBOL but the business presses on with it.

At a broader level, it could be you’re being overlooked for a promotion or pay rise. You work your fingers to the bone but you’ve yet to hear a word of thanks. I’d feel pissed off too!

Maybe it’s not even as dramatic as all that. Sometimes decisions get made without your input and you think you can help. You’re at the all-hands Monday meeting and that move to Azure is announced and this is the first you’ve heard of it — even though you could contribute your experience with AWS!

What You Can Do

Talk to people at work the British way — over a hot cuppa tea

This gets to the core of this essay: you need to talk to people in your organisation. It sounds so simple! Why aren’t we all doing this anyway!

Sometimes this is far easier said than done. You might not always know the right person to talk to or what to say. Maybe you know who to talk to and what you want to say but what happens if they think bad of you for speaking up?

Luckily I’m here to help! This is the part where I offer some tips and tricks to find out who you should talk to, bring people on-side and, if all else fails, you’ll have a better understanding of what’s going on.

Ask Questions

Asking questions is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal. Questions are the superpower of human communication! By asking questions, you are doing two things:

  1. You give the receiver an opportunity to help you.
  2. You force the receiver to consider their position.

Let’s say you’ve been feeling ignored, maybe you’ve recommended the business move to Google Compute Engine but everyone’s talking about a migration to Azure. Your first port of call can be to ask a member of management that may be involved: “What’s happening with the cloud migration project?” They may give you a lot of information, they may be able to guide you to the main person in charge. You can then ask more questions, such as “What’s the main advantage we’d get from moving to Azure?” Through asking questions, you’ll get some key information in addition to the content of the answers. If the answers are things like “We’re moving to Azure because it gives us…” then the decision-making has already happened (you can always ask!), whereas answers like “We’re looking for something that can…” suggest you may have an opportunity to give input — feel free to ask if you can be involved.

The key here is to be genuine in your questions. If the recipient feels you’re just trying to open up a line of argument, they’ll shut you down. My MD at Pebble, Ryan, always drills into me:

Seek first to understand, then be understood

Once you can understand the reasons behind a decision, you’ll have a much easier time getting your own point across. I think it’s so important, I made it part of my last annual appraisal!

Tell People

Sometimes, something’s happened that’s had a negative impact on you. In this case, you need to tell them! We’ve all heard the phrase “But they should just know!” I can’t emphasise strongly enough how wrong this is. Unless I’ve missed the revolution in telepathy, there’s no way for someone to know how their actions impact you unless you tell them!

This is probably the hardest advice to follow — we all get cold sweats at the thought of confronting someone. What if he gets upset? What if they retaliate? If I tell my boss that she’s done something that’s put my nose out, she’ll think I’m weak and block my career progression.

Yes, all these things could happen. Honestly though? They don’t happen as often as you think. In general you’ll have a good working relationship with your colleagues and managers. If you don’t? Now’s a good chance to rectify that!

At Pebble, we use a simple model for giving feedback: AID. It stands for:

  • Action — what did the person do?
  • Impact — what was the impact?
  • Do — what could they do differently?

This model also works really well for telling people they did a good job, just change “do differently” to “do more of!”

Why is this so powerful? It gives people something clear to consider and work on. The impact is so important here — the receiver of this feedback likely thinks what they’re doing is perfectly normal.

Let’s take an example of something that we’re all guilty of doing (myself included) still using your computer while someone is talking to you:

Scott, when we were talking at your desk yesterday, you kept typing away at your computer. This made me feel like you wanted me to go away even though we had the time planned out. In future, can you turn your monitor off so you’re not distracted when we’re having these chats.

I deliberately broke this into three sentences so you can see the different parts of AID. Notice how the Impact is subjective. That’s absolutely fine! You may get a response of “that’s not my intention!” and that’s good! Remember, you’re not accusing anyone, you’re simply expressing how it felt at an emotional level. Sometimes the impact will be purely objective — a bug slipped through, lost customers/revenue etc. — but the subjective part of your job is hugely important!

The Action here is intentionally a simple one. What’s important here is that it’s something the receiver can actually do — just saying “stop looking at your screen” isn’t hugely helpful to anyone. If it were that easy, they wouldn’t have been doing it in the first place. Remember, the receiver may not do exactly what you want, they may find their own way to work around the issue. This isn’t a dictatorship, you’re merely trying to establish a great working relationship.

Finally, giving feedback may mean people get upset with you. This is ok, being told something about yourself is sometimes tough. As long as you deliver it tactfully and keep emotion out of the equation, people tend to work through it. How do you know if you delivered good feedback? Give it a day and ask!

What Success Looks Like

If you apply these lessons, you’ll start to build a network inside your business. With that network, you’ll start to find yourself invited to those meetings where decisions are being made. You’ll find your boss knows your name when it comes to dishing out promotions and pay rises. When people come and go, you’ll understand what’s happening in context to your role and also in the wider business.

You’ll get a reputation as a straight-talker (but in a good way!) and people will want to know what you think. When that pushy sales guy sells a feature that doesn’t exist, you won’t need to go above his head and quash it. You can sit down and start to draw on what the customer need is, whether it can be done in your product already and how it fits into the broader product vision. After all, you’ve been asking questions of everyone else!

What About Others?

A lot of these sound like other people are unable to communicate and that leads to you taking up the burden. And you’re right! I’ll let you in on a secret: most people are terrible communicators! Seriously, being a good communicator is not a high bar and it doesn’t require you to talk a lot. The people I most respect for their communication are among the quietest people you could meet!

Does This Always Work?

Like everything in life, there’s no silver bullet here. There’s definitely plenty of organisations and cultures where this advice isn’t going to help. For example, where the directors and senior management only care about playing politics instead of delivering value to customers. The sad truth is that it’s possible for a business to deliver value (i.e. remain disgustingly profitable) while being a den of poison. Don’t feel guilty about walking away from these once you’ve established, through communicating and getting involved, that it’s not possible to make things better!

Further Reading

One thing I’d certainly recommend doing is getting yourself onto a good management training course. A huge part of management is being able to get a broad understanding of how people work and how you can help them get the best out of themselves. At Pebble, we believe this so much that we’re running 2-hour workshops every 3 months for the entire company to pass on some of the lessons we’ve learnt across the whole company.

Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” is a good primer for how to get people on-side. While aimed at sales-minded people, the first half of the book could — and should — be applied to almost anyone.

Trello have a great post on Tuckman’s 4 Stages of Team Productivity which will give you some context to what you’re seeing and how you can take action to help your colleagues.

Something To Remember

You’re going to make mistakes. This is life, embrace it and learn from them! For example, the very first time I tried to deliver feedback? He rang the directors to complain I’d told him off!

There’ll be times when your confidence fails you and you don’t have the conversations you feel you need to have. Own that failure and learn. We’ve all went into work in the morning with every intention of giving The Man a piece of our mind and we’ve all completely and utterly bottled it. When you get home, look yourself in the mirror and say “I bottled that”. You’ll grow stronger. The biggest failures are when you convince yourself you did the right thing.

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