And the truth (or at least, an attempt at redressing the balance)

Why do we think developers are special?

I teach a Guardian Masterclass as part of their “Digital Journalism Bootcamp” course. Specifically, my part of the month-long class is a 90 minute workshop aimed at journalists, outlining how developers work, what they do, and how they use process to organise work (there’s an Agile taster session). There are also some more general tips on how to get on with a type of person who’s traditionally seen as a bit grumpy, difficult to communicate with, or even hostile.

In this latter section, I found myself being challenged by one vocal member of the group who interrupted me a few times to point out that “I do that too”, particularly during a section on the cost of context-switching. I was talking through a slide which looked like this:

Digital Journalism talk


I was beginning to say something about the situation where a developer is juggling multiple things in their head at any one time, and how costly it can be when someone comes along and interrupts that flow. She spoke up to say that when dealing with clients, for example, she too is often juggling multiple things around. I tried to fumble an example of how a developer may be thinking about variable scope, cross-browser API implementation, an outstanding pull request to review and remembering which branch to commit on – all at the same time – but to a non-technical audience this was quite a challenge to explain.

It did get me thinking, though. I have other slides in this section dealing with the developer clichés: don’t fill their calendar with meetings; don’t disturb them when they have headphones on; keep communications brief and ideally asynchronous. But why do any of these things apply specifically to developers?

This same woman had challenged me earlier in the session when I hinted at some of these points and she suggested developers were “just being precious”. I conceded this, saying that because of their (likely) introvert personas, sometimes humouring them with this was the way to achieve results. This resulted in some challenging questions from another attendee at the end who felt I was telling them to “pander” to developers. Again, I was left wondering why we talk about things in this way.

I’ve already written here in the past about “the love affair of the tech nerd with themselves“. I wrote back in 2012:

Developers (“makers”) aren’t some special race of superhumans, whose every sensitivity and quirk needs to be preciously catered for. We’re normal people and shouldn’t be made to feel otherwise. Developers love to scoff at project managers and HR people, clogging up important coding hours with pointless meetings and busywork. Again, while there’s some truth to that, it’s also supremely arrogant to label ourselves as somehow above the systems everyone else works with (grudgingly or not).

Maybe my slides are just plain wrong and these tips just apply to people in general. But when researching the talk and reading up on other people’s top tips for productive relationships with developers, these were the kind of points being raised time and time again. Do we really think that as a profession we deserve special treatment?

The woman at the end suggested there was some give and take in both directions, which I agreed with, pointing out I was teaching a class to journalists about working with developers, and not vice-versa. Still though: why do you think we treat developers like their needs are special and different from others? How much of this is really true?

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  • Jamie Knight


    We should not treat developers differently because they are developers.

    We should instead respect individuals and their methods of working. Much as we support people with disabilities, or people in general.

    I think it just so happens many (but not all) developers have similar traits and similar supports systems. If the developers are the only introverts in the office, then of course they would be the odd one out.

    Equality is not about treating everyone the same. It’s about giving everyone equal opportunity.

    If a specific factor (office noise for example) is causing someone to fail to reach their potential its in the interest if everyone (individual, employer, society) to sort that out.


    Jamie + Lion

  • James Dunmore

    Great article. Could it be that developers are ahead of the game, and due to the way we think about things, have managed to come up with “what makes us more productive”. I think all the things like “less meetings”, “DND” times, brief comms, etc. could/should apply to nearly everyone but so many other departments in a company lack the structure/culture of something like Agile that they have meetings for the sake of it, they do over talk, they do interrupt because that’s all they can do (or think that’s all that they can do). It’s similar to the way a workman on your house will down tools at 10am/3pm every day for 15mins to stop for a cuppa – you don’t mind it, but it’s what they do to maximise their work for the rest of the day.

  • Oliver Turner

    It sounds as though the “challenging” member of your audience is so supremely self-important that they can’t bear to wait their turn, either to be heard (in your case) or be answered (in that of the poor developers who have to deal with them).

    It’s nothing to do with treating developers differently because they’re “precious”. It’s because it’s well understood that they are more productive when they’re in a state of “Flow”. This effortless state ironically takes effort to achieve and is prone to being broken.

    Seriously, if you can’t function without immediate gratification you either need to organise yourself better or take a long look in the mirror and ask what makes you so very special. Being a tiny bit less self-absorbed will mean more productivity, happier co-workers and, ironically, a better answer to your question than the one you bludgeoned out of them.

  • Robin Barnes

    I wouldn’t say it’s about treating developers as special, but rather about recognising that different professions require different working environments. If you want to maximise the productivity of a team which works within a given profession you have to provided them with a working environment which, for that profession, is as close to ideal as possible.

    The idea that all professions should have the same working environments / ways of working is insane. Think of the following professions: brick layer, surgeon, developer, sales exec. Imagine if you tried to swap typical working environments within these professions.

    Imagine having to tell people that they can’t interrupt sales execs whilst they’re one the phone to a client, and they demand to know why sales execs think they’re special?

    Imagine having to tell people that they can’t interrupt surgeons whilst they’re doing surgary, and they demand to know why surgeons think they’re special? This is an extreme example, but you get my point.

    As an other commentator has pointed out, it’s probably best for all workers, not just web developers to decrease the number / duration of meetings. Business has long known that meetings are often a source of in-effeciancy, but things are rarely done to combat this.

    Constant interruptions have been proven to massively decrease a developer’s productivity. This means it isn’t simply a case of developers’ preference not to be interrupted too often, there is a business case for it. That means it’s about business productivity, not being precious. If I was a CEO and my company was creating a business critical app and we had lots of £500/day contract developers working on it, I’d be asking any member of staff who continually interrupted them why they were costing me so much money by harming dev team productivity.