Edge of Chaos

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Fun at Work

Today I want to discuss a topic, that many of us thought about for sure. I want to talk about interest and fun at work.

An Interesting Task

What does “interesting” task mean? People are different and interesting tasks are different, but it is possible to define some common properties. Maybe you can provide many properties, but I think only two are particularly important.

An interesting task is usually challenging. It is close to the edge of your skills. You feel that you can crack it, but don’t know how exactly so far.

An interesting task should give you a new knowledge. If you solve the problem and learn nothing, it doesn’t feel very cool. When you solve the problem and learn some new concepts, then you feel much better in the end.

So interesting task is challenging and generates knowledge.

However, there is another thing — developer’s experience.

Junior Developers

They almost always work on interesting tasks. Any task provides some challenge, any task generates new knowledge.

That is why junior developers are happy and smiley. They learn a lot every day. Use MVC pattern for the first time? Wow! Discover prototype inheritance in Javascript? Wow! Fight with IE 8 rendering weirdness? Well…

Experienced Developers

Initial enthusiasm is gone and now it is a serious job with less and less fun. If the fun level drops below a certain edge, you are in trouble. It means you learn nothing. If you learn nothing, you will become a “zombie developer” eventually. A zombie developer goes to work and solves similar problems again and again.

No real thinking, no real challenges, more brainless activities like meetings, small talks (not the language), status reporting, hacker news, Facebook, Twitter, chats, death. True zombies don’t like interesting tasks. They like familiar tasks that demand minimal effort to complete. They work on the lowest energetic level possible.

The day when you say to yourself “I didn’t do any interesting task for weeks” should rise a red flag in your head. Go and fix that. Talk to managers, change position, change a company. There should always be a healthy mix of interesting and familiar tasks. Fight for that.

Veterans

After 10 years of professional programming they accumulated a good backpack of knowledge, experience and sarcasm. There are not so many tasks they find interesting anymore.

Some give up and just do their job. They say: “We are professionals and solve problems not for fun, but for the value to the people. That’s what we do”. They try to re-frame a problem and replace a real solution with psychological one. Sometimes that works, but often not so well. These people are unhappy. They do the job well, but you should not expect any enthusiasm, initiative and courage. Create one more 3-layers enterprise solution? OK. Build another one social network? OK. Zombie Developer Level 80.

Some try to find a way to the mastery, solving the same problems better and better. For example, writing compilers for 20 years. It is an honourable road only a few can ride. You should be very determined, patient and calm. These qualities are rare in the Western culture.

Some push forward to the limit to work on really challenging problems. They change jobs, change countries, change industries and technologies. They jump from problem to problem, developing astonishingly wide skill sets. Definitely, they don’t have depth in all the areas, but they do provide unusual point of views and can attack problems from surprising angles.

Company

Any good company should provide enough interesting tasks. It is a serious mistake to believe that people will do everything with equal passion. They can, but only if the balance of interesting/boring tasks is good enough.

Most likely, every company should have people with all levels of experience. Junior developers will be happy to work on tasks that veterans treat as trivial. Experienced developers will be happy to work on tasks that veterans treat as OK. And you need veterans to storm really challenging problems (if you have any).

I personally thought that junior developers were not required in our company. I was wrong. It leads to a situation when veterans have to work on simple and trivial tasks more and more often. Fun level drops. Productivity drops. Danger to lose veterans increases.

Which distribution of junior, experienced and veteran developers a company should have? It depends on problems you have. There are 25 developers in our company: 19 experienced and 6 veterans. So our current distribution is 0-75-25%. I think a more healthy distribution would be 25-50-25%. What we are going to do is to hire 6 junior developers to have 20-60-20% distribution so far.

Here is the distribution for various types of companies. X – developers expertise, Y – % of developers in a company:

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As you see, currently Targetprocess team is skewed into the “scientific projects” type, while it is certainly not scientific so far. We should move back into the product development distribution.

TL,DR

  1. Almost every task is interesting for junior developers.
  2. Experienced developers should maintain a healthy balance between interesting and OK tasks.
  3. Veterans have two viable roads: sharpen their limited set of skills to the mastery or attack new problems all the time and become a smart generalist.
  4. Company should care about “fun level” and have the experience distribution that fits existing problems.

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Continuous Problem-Solving Is No Accident

Cognitive Endurance Basics for Software Developers

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