So, is Technology still an industry which is primarily suited to introverts? And if so, where do collaboration and communication fit in? Are XP and Agile bad news for introverts?
My Experience Report, which I’ll be presenting at this year’s conference (Wed, 10:30-12, Duddingston, JMCC building), is on the topic of Women and XP*. My own story is that working with XP has made my life easier as a woman, and a lot of that is because of communication and collaboration.
But in this post, “Agile Killed the Introvert Star”, an ex colleague of mine discusses the effect of Agile on the introvert:
With the adoption of Agile, the previous plentiful habitats of the atypical introvert are under threat. Pair and mob programming have eroded the landscape even further, making programming an ‘almost’ sociable activity, reducing the opportunities for introverts to recharge.
(cartoon courtesy of xkcd: http://imgs.xkcd.com/comics/hamster_ball.png)
This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. At the end of David’s article, he links to a quiz which allows you to define yourself as either introvert or extrovert. It gives the impression that everyone is hard-wired to be one or the other. Maybe I am unusual, but I found myself fitting squarely into both camps. I enjoy spending time alone, and I answered “Strongly Disagree” to this one:
Being alone is boring and depressing.
…but I also answered “Strongly Agree” to this one:
I like speaking to large crowds of people and mingling.
When I first embarked on a career in computing, one of the big attractions for me was the ability to spend my working day sitting quietly in a corner, conversing with nothing other a computer and largely avoiding people altogether. If I needed to talk to anyone, I fired off an email or an IM – and I resented people that turned up unannounced at my elbow. Work fed the introverted side of me, and my social life fed my extrovert.
When I heard about pair programming, I laughed in derision. Seriously? Two people sitting at one computer? Quite apart from the apparent glaring inefficiency, it sounded like the height of discomfort. What if you didn’t like them? What if they were annoying? What if they just got everything wrong?
But over a period of months and years I discovered the benefits of all the different types of collaboration that XP offers. Not only was I gradually convinced of the advantages, I believe I became a slightly different person.
Whether or not it’s actually true (and according to some research it might be all in our heads), and whether it’s caused by nature or nurture, women are perceived to be more sociable and better communicators. The stereotype of the computer geek as the socially-awkward loner who prefers computers to people, may be one of the things that discourages women from playing and working with technology.
Recruitment and education are in some areas taking a while to catch up, but the fact is that communication and collaboration are key skills for professionals working with XP. And if my experience is anything to go by, it’s not just that we need to recruit for a slightly different type of person. Existing professionals are becoming slightly different people.
Initially I wanted to stay in my bubble, be in total control of every line of code, and not rely on anyone but myself. I resented the idea of asking constantly for feedback, and I was nervous about letting somebody watch all my mistakes over my shoulder. I confess, when I was at school the phrase “working in teams” was the one I dreaded the most.
But when I lowered my barriers, I learnt how much better – and satisfying – my work was when it was produced in close collaboration with others. Not only that, I discovered how much more comfortable my working day was when I could ask for help without feeling inadequate. When I could stand up at the beginning of each day and be honest about my progress, without fearing censure or ridicule.
Agile and XP have taught me how to confine my introversion to the places where it is genuinely enjoyable and useful, and here is my theory: The vast majority of people, whether they admit it or not, experience an urge to belong. In my own case, because I felt like I didn’t belong, I redirected that urge so that I could belong to the misfits. But it was still a form of belonging. If computing is something that excites someone, and if the stereotype of the computer geek is that of somebody who’s not that great at socialising or communicating, maybe that encourages people to exaggerate – even fetishise – those aspects of themselves.
But one of the many fantastic things about human beings is how malleable we are. We learn, we change, we evolve constantly. And maybe XP is teaching us all, bit by bit, that it’s OK to talk. It’s even rather nice.
But. Maybe I’m down-playing the fact that I’ve always had an extrovert side to me. Maybe, for people who are more introverted, the amount of collaboration involved in (for instance) pair programming and mob programming is just painful? And that’s a permanent problem?
I don’t know the answer to that, but I do know that when I suggested an experiment in mob programming to my team at @LateRooms, I expected them to be reluctant. But in the end, none of us wanted to stop.
*I’m also facilitating a goldfish-bowl debate on the topic, “Can XP Close the Gender Gap?” (Thurs, 14:15, Pentland East, JMCC). I’m eager to get as many different perspectives as possible, so do please come along and contribute.