Mark Needham

Thoughts on Software Development

ThoughtWorks University: Letting people explore

without comments

I’ve been acting as the tech lead on the project that we’re working on at ThoughtWorks University and as a result I sometimes find myself being dragged away from my pair to help someone else.

An interesting thing which I’ve noticed on more than one occasion is that when I’ve come back from helping – maybe 15 or 20 minutes later – my pair has actually got much further than I expected them to.

I think there are probably more than one factors that lead to this but one which I think is quite applicable is that having me there is stopping the grads from exploring the problem.

In general if I see someone moving around the editor or browser without there seeming to be any logical path I’ll start asking questions to try and ‘guide’ them to where I believe we need to go.

On other projects that I’ve worked on this has worked reasonably well because we both have a similar understanding of the problem, the tools and so on.

In this case I think that shared understanding is much less and my approach is much more harmful.

I’ve been reading John Medina’s Brain Rules over the last couple of days and Rule #12 seems to agree with what I’ve observed:

Rule #12: We are powerful and natural explorers

We are natural explorers, even if the habit sometimes stings us. The tendency is so strong, it is capable of turning us into lifelong learners.

I particularly liked the following section…

[Humans] Make a sensory observation, form a hypothesis about what is going on, design an experiment capable of testing the hypothesis, and then draw conclusions from the findings.

..which seems to describe the process that I’m sometimes restricting by asking ‘guiding’ questions.

Jim suggested that one way to get around this problem could be to split up as a pair when we’re in this explorative mode but what I’ve been trying at the moment is keeping more silent and trying to understand what discovery is going on.

I’m still getting it wrong sometimes but I’m starting to pick up more where they’re really stuck and need some help and where I should just keep quiet and allow them to work out what to do themselves.

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Written by Mark Needham

April 6th, 2011 at 1:34 am