On Giving Technical Guidance to Others

I’m still working on my promised SOLID/Anti-Onion/Anti-Clean/Database Abstraction post, but it’s as usual taking longer than I’d like and I’m publishing this section separately.

So far I’ve followed up with:

Just as a quirk of circumstances, I pretty well went straight from being a self-taught “Shadow IT” developer to being a lead developer and de facto architect on a mission critical supply chain application for a then Fortune 500 company. The system was an undeniable success in the short term, but it came at a cost to me because as a first time lead I had zero ability to enable the other developers working with me to be productive. As such, I ended up writing the mass majority of the code and inevitably became the bottleneck on all subsequent production issues. That doesn’t scale.

The following year I had another chance to lead a follow up project and vowed to do a better job with the other developers (plus I was getting a lot of heat from various management types to do so). In a particular case that I remember to this day, I wrote up a detailed Word document for a coding assignment for another developer. I got all the way down to class and method names and even had some loose sample code I think. I handed that off, patted myself on the back for being a better lead, and went off on my merry way.

As you might have surmised, when I got his code back later it was unusable because he did exactly what I said to do — which turned out to be wrong based on factors I hadn’t anticipated. Worse, he only did exactly what I said to do and missed some concerns that I didn’t think needed to be explicitly called out. I’ve thought a lot about this over the years and come to some conclusions about how I should have tried to work differently with that developer. Before diving into that, let’s first talk about you for awhile!

Congratulations! You’ve made it to some kind of senior technical role in your company. You’ve attained enough skill and knowledge to be recognized for your individual contributions, and now your company is putting you in a position to positively influence other developers, determine technical strategies, and serve as a steward for your company’s systems.

Hopefully you’ll still be hands on in the coding and testing, but increasingly, your role is going to involve trying to create and evolve technical guidance for other developers within your systems. More and more, your success is going to be dependent on your ability to explain ideas, concepts, and approaches to other developers. Not that I’m the fount of all wisdom about this, but here’s some of the things I wish I’d understood before being put into technical leadership roles:

  • It’s crucial to provide the context, reasoning, and applicability behind any technical guidance. Explaining why or when are we doing this is just as important as the “what” or “how.”
  • Being too specific in the guidance or instructions to another developer can easily come with the unintended consequence of turning off their brains and will frequently lead to poor results. Expanding on my first point, it’s better to explain the goals, how their work fits into the larger system, and the qualities of the code you’re hoping to achieve rather than try to make them automatons just following directions. It’s quite possible that JIRA-driven development exacerbates this potential problem.
  • You need to provide some kind of off-ramp to developers to understand the limitations of the guidance. The last thing you want is for developers to blindly follow guidance that is inappropriate for a circumstance that wasn’t anticipated during the formulation of said guidance
  • Recommendations about technology usage probably needs to come as some kind of decision tree with multiple options to its applicability because there’s just about never a one size fits all tool
  • By all means, allow and encourage the actual developers to actively look for better approaches because they’re the ones closest to their code. Especially with talented younger developers, you never want to take away their sense of initiative or close them off from providing feedback, adjustments, or flat out innovation to the “official” guidance. At the very least, you as a senior technical person need to pay attention when a developer tells you that the current approach is confusing or laborious or feels too complicated.
  • Treat every possible recommendation or technical guidance as a theory that hasn’t yet been perfectly proven.

I’ve talked a lot about giving technical guidance, but you should never think that you or any other individual are responsible for doing all the thinking within a software ecosystem. What you might be responsible for is facilitating the sharing of learning and knowledge through the company. I was lucky enough early in my career to spend just a little bit of time working with Martin Fowler who effectively acts as a sort of industry wide, super bumble bee gathering useful knowledge from lots of different projects and cross-pollinating what he’s learned to other teams and other projects. Maybe you don’t impact the entire software development industry like he has, but you can at least facilitate that within your own team or maybe within your larger organization.

As an aside, a very helpful technique to use when trying to explain something in code to another developer is to ask them to explain it back to you in their own words — or conversely, I try to do this when I’m the one getting the explanation to make sure I’ve really understood what I’m being told. My wife is an educator and tells me this is a common technique for teachers as well.

Next time…

In my next post I’m going to cover a lot of ground about why I think prescriptive architectural styles like the “Onion” or “Clean” are harmful, alternatives, a discussion about what use is SOLID these days (more than none, but much less than the focus many people put on it is really worth), and a discussion about database abstractions I find to be harmful that tend to be side effects of prescriptive architectures.

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