Mark Needham

Thoughts on Software Development

Tech Leads & The Progress Principle

with 3 comments

I’ve been reading The Progress Principle on and off for the last couple of months and one of my favourite quotes from the book is the following:

Truly effective video game designers know how to create a sense of progress for players within all stages of a game. Truly effective managers know how to do the same for their subordinates.

While a tech lead might not like to be referred to as a manager I think part of the role does involve helping developers to make progress and the best ones I’ve worked with seem to do that instinctively.

They’re able to see when someone has got very stuck with what they’re doing and can then work out whether they just need to provide some advice on how they can move forward or if that’s not working they can come and work together on the problem.

Work progress and setbacks matter so much because work matters so much. It’s simply part of being human

For the last couple of weeks a colleague and I have been trying to work out how to migrate reference data from an existing application for an application which we’re rewriting.

We’ve run into problems along the way such as looking at a test database which we didn’t realise was a couple of years out of date and therefore didn’t have the data in the right format to trying to link up data from tables which weren’t meant to be linked.

On each setback the tech lead (Alex) helped us progress first by recognising that the test and production databases might not be synced up and giving us other ideas about table design based on his greater knowledge of the whole system.

On this occasion although we were making some progress we couldn’t quite figure out how to get the data into the shape we wanted which was becoming increasingly frustrating.

The effect of setbacks on emotions is stronger than the effect of progress…the power of setbacks to diminish happiness is more than twice as strong as the power of progress to boost happiness.

Eventually Alex came and paired on the problem and was able to see something that we’d missed which allowed us to solve the problem.

I think the balance of initially allowing us to try and solve it ourselves and giving advice before taking a more hands on approach matches up fairly closely with what the authors of The Progress Principle suggest.

It’s certainly been an interesting book to read and one which I think is very applicable to people working in software teams.

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Written by Mark Needham

February 18th, 2012 at 1:31 am

  • Excellent, I’ve added the book to my to read list. As a development manager and former tech lead, that’s something I think about all the time — the need to provide an environment where people are learning and growing. One of my philosophies is that a team full of rockstars can often be harder to focus than a team with a good mix of junior/mid/senior developers, where there is growing and learning at all stages.

  • Peter Gfader

    I would say that progress is a key motivation factor, even if that doesn’t fit nicely with Daniel Pink’s motivation factors…

  • Pleclerc

    I read this book and loved it. I’ve been working on a very difficult piece of code recently and have had several highs and lows. The lows were when I got stuck on a gnarly ugly problem. The lows plunged me lower than the highs gave me joy. Shouldn’t feel like this but I did. Thanks for reminding me that I was normal!