11 September 2019

Human Needs vs. Bad Code

We human beings have basic needs. There might be a finite, limited number of fundamental needs. We then choose different strategies to meet these needs. Techniques like Nonviolent Communication (NVC) are based on identifying and meeting shared needs. For example, my goal of professional training and coaching is not only knowledge transfer - i.e. teaching people useful tricks. I also want to stretch them, make them think "outside the box" and change their behaviour: e.g. focus in self-improvement, take control of their career and ultimately assume their social responsibility. When I thought about my work as Code Cop, what I liked about it and what inspired me, I arrived at my own needs: learning and growth - I want my clients to learn and grow. Further clarity, consistency and integrity which is what I need when working with software.

My Needs (Wordle)
Needs are central to our work, our own needs as much as the needs of our colleagues and clients. Earlier this year I attended an unconference, meeting some friends in Grenoble. We discussed how to align technical coaching work, e.g. Technical Agile Coaching, with business goals. We paired up and worked on different approaches. I was not surprised when one team started the whole alignment with discussing basic needs of all people involved. It was very interesting and outside of the scope of what I want to write about today.

Missing Code Quality
Today I want to write about possible reasons for missing code quality. I discussed human factors before and held the strong opinion that developers creating bad code were unskilled, lazy and weak. When considering needs and strategies to meet them, the issues is getting more vague. Which needs could be fulfilled by a developer creating some quick and dirty code, duplicating some method or adding some library just to play around with it? When I discussed this with my friend Aki Salmi, Software Crafter and Communication Trainer, he quickly came up with a bunch of needs like acceptance, appreciation, cooperation, consistency, inclusion, respect/self-respect, stability, trust, integrity, autonomy, choice, challenge, competence, contribution, creativity, discovery, effectiveness and purpose. This is a huge list of needs to get started. As an exercise to the reader, try to figure out how the listed needs could be met.

Needs Met When Creating Bad Code (in German)
Three Examples
Now let's motivate some of the listed needs in detail. For example, someone might bring in some technology which is not necessary for the project and introduces additional, unnecessary complexity. Met needs might be creativity (I want to try something new), learning (I want to learn it), joy (I enjoy playing with it), safety (I will add it to my CV - Resume-driven development), autonomy and choice (I choose myself), consistency and integrity (I have always been using it), safety (I already know how to use it) and so on. What about someone who never argues for quality related changes, clean-ups, more time or reduced scope? Needs met might be appreciation (My boss is happy), ease (I do not argue with anybody), security and protection (I keep my job) etc. And for typical fire fighting, quick-and-dirty developers: competency (I can do it), efficacy (I am fast), effectiveness (I can make it work). These are just a few ideas I got while discussing the topic during a workshop.

Needs Met When Creating Good Code (in German)
Now let us look at the opposite side. For quality code, I value consistency - which is obviously a good thing. It is also consistency which keeps some people from adapting to new ways of working, as in "this is the way I've always worked" - obviously a bad thing. If I keep my code base clean, I am sure that I can work on it later, which makes me feel safe. The same need for safety might keep someone from trying something new, because it is scary, or it might make people thrash their code because their boss is requesting too much in too short time.

Conclusion - If Any
Needs are everywhere. They are universal, cannot be denied nor argued. We use some strategies to fulfil needs when we mess up the code. There are many needs involved, maybe that is why there is so much bad code written. On the other hand, we use strategies to fulfil needs when keeping our code clean. It scares me that opposite behaviour might be driven by same needs. How can we condemn these duct-tape and legacy coders when they are just driven by their needs as we are?