15 March 2023

I want you to exceed me

During my time at IBM I started coaching other teams. It was fun and I liked it. Later I went into full time training and coaching, and my motto was "Developing Quality Software Developers". I knew it was the thing I wanted to do, but I did not know why.

I use Gamification as a strategy to improve user engagement. To increase participation in my workshops and to express my feelings about that, I created achievement cards, the Code Cop Achievement Cards. Achievements or trophies are concepts from video games, and describe meta-goals defined outside the game's parameters. Meeting the fulfilment conditions, and receiving recognition of fulfilment by the game, is referred to as unlocking the achievement. There are several cards for first time participants in my deck, for example Shortcut Fu when someone uses a rare keyboard short-cut, Regexer for comprehending a crazy regular expression or Finisher for finishing the coding exercise started during the workshop at home - which I always offer but rarely happens. I award these cards to a participant, if I feel that the person has worked hard or struggled to make it.

I wanted my cards to convey my honest appreciation and used NVC (Non-violent Communication) appreciation statements. For a NVC-style appreciation we share the specific actions that contributed to our well-being, the needs that have been fulfilled, and the feelings engendered by the fulfilment of those needs. The focus is to create a clear understanding of how our life was enriched.. This made me think more about my feelings and which of my needs had been satisfied at the moments when I wanted to appreciate some action. I had thought about needs before in more general, less personal way. My friend and NVC coach Aki Salmi helped me to formulate these statements using different phrases to avoid having the same text on each card again and again: For example: "I value the usage of short-cuts as effective and as sign of ongoing mastery in our craft." "I am touched to see courage in situations of uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure." "I am amazed by critical questions based on creativity and independent thought." "I am inspired by the integrity and consistency of sticking to principles in difficult situations." The process of finding the right words alone strengthened my ability to express my feelings dramatically.

Very Personal Appreciation Badge (copyright Peter Kofler) Scrutiny
Some of my appreciation cards celebrate learning, including stepping out of one's comfort zone, which is required for learning. One card I of these is titled "Scrutiny", subtitled Correct me when I am wrong. It shows a Whistle icon (by Delapouite CC BY 3.0) and the appreciation is "I am proud when you correct me, showing independence and competence." It does not happen often - still sometimes in a pairing or ensemble session, my focus may slip and I make a mistake or do not call out a mistake on time. And then, sometimes, someone else does.

There is a common theme in most of my cards: growth. Now that I have seen it, it is obvious to me. Growth is one of my major needs. I want to grow - e.g. learning new languages and other stuff regularly. And I want the people I coach and work with to grow, too. My second motto - surfacing around 2013 - "Developing Quality Software Developers" expresses that clearly. I want them to grow, to learn, to improve - and I am inspired and amazed the most, when they exceed me.

Snatch the Pebble From My Hand
There is nothing more satisfying than when a pupil exceeds his or her master. This is often depicted in movies, where a student must learn a lot, for example in Kung Fu movies: In the television series Kung Fu, Caine is an orphan and is accepted into a Shaolin Monastery. Part of the Shaolin way of life is strengthening the body and the mind. For example, one of Caine's teachers asks him to "snatch the pebble from my hand":

Then, after many years of training, Caine is finally able to beat his master:

What a satisfying moment, and Caine's master smiles. This is one of my favourite TV moments ;-) Like being corrected (see Scrutiny card above), "snatch the pebble from my hand" situations make me proud of my students.

Make Me Look Like a Baby
I want to leave you with a quote from a different and maybe more controversial source of motivation than Caine, ex Navy SEAL member Jocko Willink: Don't try and be like me. Be better than me. Crush me. Make me look like a baby. That's what you do. (Even better when he says it himself.) - OK, maybe there is too much testosterone here ;-)

1 September 2022

Tips for Remote Work

newly setup outdoor home office (licensed CC BY by Blake Patterson)During COVID lockdown, I worked remotely. I did all my Code Cop things, e.g. pair programming, code reviews, coding workshops, just in a remote way. All these tasks involved other people and I was severely affected by my "remoteness". After one year of remote work, one of my clients ran an in-house knowledge sharing on how to do that successfully. They invited me and I thought about the advice I would give. What would be my top three tips for remote work?

1. Check-in
When working remotely, the first and foremost thing I use are check-ins. During a check-in everybody says a few words how he or she is here - as a human being. The check-in is not about your role, your expectations or current work. It is about how you feel. When we work separately, I miss your face and body language and we need to be explicit how we are. In a face to face situation I might be able to recognise if you are tired or distracted or upset. I am unable to identify the little hints when you are just a small image on my screen. Now I place more emphasis on the human and emotional side of my peers because it is missing in a remote setting. Some people always reply with "I am OK" and I am fine with that. Nobody has to share. Some people keep talking and I have to remind them what the check-in is about and stop them from taking all the space. Conversation, arguing or discussion break the check-in. And at the end of the meeting I ask everybody to check-out, which is the opposite, asking how they are leaving as human beings.

2. Be Professional
I preach being professional. After all "I help development teams with Professionalism" (as written on the second introduction slide of all of my decks). Professionalism is an attitude, it is how you do your job. This includes also your appearance. In a remote setting, your appearance is the image of your face, the sound of your voice and the background behind your head. There are several implications: Your camera is always on. You are in the centre of your camera's focus and the camera is ideally placed on top of your screen where you are looking at from time to time. On the other hand, when only half of your face is visible, or your face is distorted in some way, it is hard to see and to connect. In communication theory, as the initiator if the exchange, the sender is responsible for the message to be received. Much of your message is conveyed by your voice. For the best audio, use a headset with a microphone so your team mates have a change of hearing you. Next I recommend a professional background. Best is a uniform wall or board. In the beginning of remote work, I hung a blanket between two window handles to provide a uniform, non distracting background during my video calls. Non uniform backgrounds are distracting and make it harder to focus on the face of the person speaking. A Green Screen background helps if you have no option to work in front of a wall or door. Please choose a neutral image with soft colours. Most Green Screen backgrounds are unsuitable.

2VHvy07 (licensed CC BY-NC-ND by Princeton University Rowing)3. Strive for the same Level of Collaboration
It is harder to collaborate under remote working conditions. For example pair programming is more complicated. Now I do not accept less collaboration than before remote work. There are options and tools to overcome the barrier. Ten years ago, in 2012, I already used tools as TeamViewer or AnyDesk to control the machine of my remote pairing partner. I spent many hours working like that and it worked well. Modern tools I have used include Code With Me, which works with the JetBrains family of IDEs, Visual Studio Live Share, which you can even join with a browser, Floobits, CodeTogether and mob.sh. If you are blocked by remote work, push for some solution to keep in touch and do what you used to do. Do not accept less collaboration than in face to face situations.

We need to keep in touch
After I had put together my three tips, I was surprised. I had expected some technology or tool but all three tips are about connecting. Then it is not a surprise after all, because remote work first and foremost affects collaboration. Most advice of the other presenters was aligned with that. Here are some examples: When working closely with a team you need to keep in touch. You should speak with your team members often, probably talk daily. You should also meet outside work, e.g. remote game events like online escape room. Meeting in person is even better, e.g. visiting each other or visiting the office once in a while.

Video Conference All Day
A team lead shared his story how they had managed transition to remote work. The team used to talk a lot during the day. When remote work started, they kept a video call running. Whenever people would work, they would be in the call, unless they were in a meeting with someone. Many team members used a second device, e.g. a tablet, for this ongoing call. They felt like being in the office and whenever someone wanted to talk, she could talk to the people in the room. Using the video conference open all day, the team kept up the good vibe while fully working remotely.

I am curious about your tips to improve remote collaboration. If you have any, I invite you to comment.

25 August 2022

Practice Speed

Several years ago I co-facilitated the Global Day of Coderetreat with Houssam Fakih. It was a nice Coderetreat. During the introduction Houssam presented the concept of practice and three levels of competence. The first level is that you are able to do a certain thing from time to time. The second level is that you are able to do it all the time. The third level is, and that was new to me, that you perform the thing consistently well and fast at the same time. In this short video there are three guys throwing balls at a boot at a fair. The guy on the right is on level one. He is able to throw the ball into the basket most of the time. The guy in the middle is competent and always hits the target. But the guy on the left is on another level. Besides hitting the basket consistently, he is using both hands alternating and is two to three times faster.

The Walk to Save Great Danes (licensed CC BY-NC-ND by Warchild)Deliberate Practice
In Coding Dojos and Coderetreats we practice all kind of coding techniques like Test Driven Development, software design and pair programming, but we rarely practice speed. The Coding Dojo mindset is explicit about going slow. There are a few exercises which have a timing aspect, e.g. Elephant Carpaccio or Baby Steps. Some people try to master the Baby Steps constraint by typing faster and using more shortcuts. While these are good things to practice by themselves, they bypass the exercise. Both exercises focus on taking smaller steps. The speed of typing is not the bottleneck.

Side Note: Speed of Typing
If the speed of typing is not the bottleneck in writing software, why do we focus on shortcuts and touch typing? The idea is, while coding, to stay in the flow and work on a higher level of abstraction. For example, when I want to move a method, and I can do it with a few keystrokes, I keep the current thoughts in my mind. But if I have to navigate, modify blocks of text, change method invocations, and so on, I think in more low level concepts like text editing or file navigation, and this breaks my focus.

One of my recent Coding Dojos became a Hackathon. A misunderstanding with the sponsor, who cared for food during the event, caused this. The sponsor wanted to run some challenge to make people think outside of the box, and make them try something new and innovative. They had prepared an assignment in Hackathon style. A Hackathon is an event that brings together experts and creates a collaborative environment for solving a certain problem. I avoid Hackathon because the format is competitive and people try to go as fast as possible to create some prototype or try to prove some idea or deliver some working code. Going fast above all else, e.g. skipping preliminary design or tests due time pressure is the startup trap. Obviously I dislike this way of working. (I see value in Hackathon as a tool for innovation and maybe team building.)

First I was unsure how to proceed. On one hand I wanted to please the sponsor, paying real money for the crafters community is a real contribution and separates the "talking" from the "doing" companies. On the other hand I wanted to stay true to the Coding Dojo experience. I thought of Houssam and remembered that going fast is a skill, one we need and rarely practice. In fact it is a skill we developers are often asked to apply, e.g. when the deadline is coming up or marketing has some new urgent idea. Like the guy on the left in Houssam's video, working fast and clean at the same time is hard. I made it a mix: I ran a Coding Dojo where the challenge was to finish some basic code in a given time frame. All Coding Dojo rules applied, the goal of the evening was to learn, to collaborate and to be nice. Even under pressure I reminded the participants to write tests because "your best code does not help you if it is broken". I encouraged them to work in small batches as "the most clever algorithm loses if it is unfinished". As facilitator I focused on helping people to create small, working increments. It worked well and after 90 minutes most teams had a working solution and three of them won a price.

Speed (licensed CC BY by Gabriel)How to Practice Speed
Considering my own, personal practice, I go in the same direction. I am practising a lot on old and new exercises, in various programming languages, some I have much experience and some I just learned. Working these exercises, adding hard or even brutal constraints is boring. I even tried contradicting constraints like Tell Don't Ask and Immutability. To try something new I started working against the clock. Maybe I can be the guy on the left.

Roman Numerals
My colleagues tell me that I am very fast in perceiving, reading and understanding code, as well as typing with shortcuts. When working against the clock my first exercise was Roman Numerals. I chose a small exercise because I expected to retry it a lot. I set a timer to five minutes and worked on the kata. When the timer rang I stopped and analysed my progress. Of course I failed to finish but I kept trying. Some rarely used editing shortcuts would have helped, and I learned some more of them. I did use TDD and three to four tests were the most I was able to get, which was enough. The test for Roman I created the method arabicToRoman, II added a recursive call, VI introduced a lookup for the literal by its value and 388 introduced all the remaining literals. When using Ruby for the same exercise I thought I would be able to beat my Java time, because Ruby is more expressive and there is less code to write. Unfortunately I am not as familiar with Ruby as I am with Java and the missing code completion slowed me down. Currently I need five minutes for a fully working Arabic to Roman Numerals conversion including subtractive forms. I am able to create good names and small methods in the given time, but I am unable to create more elaborate structures for holding the Roman literals and their values. Java is just too clunky. In short: the code is good, but the design is bad.

What Next
Then I tried the Coin Changer kata and after several tries I was able to beat four minutes. Coin Changer and Roman Numerals are much alike and Coin Changer is simpler as it has no literals, the coin value is also the returned value. I knew both katas well, and the exercise was in fact only about my typing supported by tests to avoid mistakes. Maybe I should try a larger assignment. Running through many repetitions would be tedious. Maybe I should try unknown exercises. At least they would be unknown for the first run. I need a large number of little TDD exercises of similar size and complexity. Time to do some searching.