A few years ago, I had the great opportunity to take a 2 month sabbatical fully-paid by Microsoft. For this time off, I absolutely did not want to just sit around at home. I arranged one month for my family to “live” in Hawaii. It was awesome and something the whole family will always remember. Although that was a few years ago, there are still lessons I learned from the trip and great memories that were made.
One such memory had to do with my daughter’s bedroom. We stayed in a vacation rental home and her bedroom was a loft, the only room on the second floor. There was a long, steep staircase up to the loft but once up there, the ceiling was high with exposed beams and windows at both ends that when you opened them, you got the cool breeze of the trade winds through the whole house. The house was surrounded by large palm trees and beautiful flowering bushes. The patio (lanai) was screened in but many times doors and windows were left open. My daughter was only 9 years old at the time but she loved the idea of having her own room, or at least she thought that until the first few nights. See, in Hawaii there are geckos. They make their way into houses (especially when the residents leave windows and door open). They shouldn’t bother you; they just like to hang out at night on the ceilings and high up on the walls.
Now in a house where the highest point of the ceiling is above the loft, there ended up being quite a few geckos up there every night. Can you imagine what if they lose their footing and drop down on you while you are sleeping in your bed at night? Or if they come down off the walls and into your dresser drawers, or onto the floor and then when you get up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom…and squish! Yes, I can imagine what my 9 year old was imagining. That room that was all her own wasn’t as fun as she thought. But we insisted that she sleep there and we would spend late nights watching the geckos and their behaviors. And eventually an interesting thing happened. They went from being creepy and scary to cute and part of the experience of being in her bedroom. We would notice where they went, how long they would stay there, and what seemed to draw their attention. After the first few nights, she slept through the night without a problem, doing things like clapping or shining a light on them to see what they would do and laugh. They basically became her pets. And eventually she seemed to forget that they were even there. They were just part of her Hawaiian bedroom experience and the culture of the island. Ok, are you wondering where I’m headed with this? How am I going to turn this into a lesson from an engineering manager?
Let’s turn this around into the world of software engineering. Haven’t you ever been thrown onto a new project or team and think to yourself, “what are they doing?” or “that doesn’t make any sense”. You expect normalcy and then get surprised by little differences in the team. I always find it interesting that a principle or process that one team absolutely lives by, another team absolutely does the opposite and would fail if they didn’t. But these little items (geckos) that seem new, different, or odd when you are put into a new environment need to be looked at more closely, analyzed, and then you need to determine if they need to be changed, or if you should learn to live with them. The time spent to investigate and analyze I would always recommend. Whether your geckos need to be changed or accepted is a little more difficult to decide. By default, we all eventually get used to them. It’s just natural. You will have an added advantage on a team if you don’t ignore them and keep that awareness that they are there.
Let me give you an example. As an engineer as you test, you’ll get a build and it won’t work exactly as expected. You’ll write some defect reports and continue to test the features. After consecutive drops where some defects aren’t fixed, you’ll start working around those problems so you can get into more features to test (hence the term “workaround”). Eventually, your workarounds almost become natural. You just know that you have to do some strange navigating or an unusual order of steps to make things happen in your features, but you have now done that so many times, if it wasn’t for that defect report, you’d not even remember that there was anything odd there. (So hopefully you wrote a defect report when initially found.) That’s why engineering teams do things like bugbashes, or beta testing, or hiring interns to come in and do some testing. A new set of eyes on the features will approach them just like you did when you first got to that bedroom and saw all the geckos on the ceiling. They were creepy and a nuisance, not something that you just expect or overlook. As engineers, we do this all the time. We get “assimilated”, become part of the culture, or forget to ask why. It helps us move forward on things and build relationships within the team, but what you lose is making sure all those different, unusual things that you first encountered are investigated and analyzed. You may find they are nothing, or you may just uncover a huge issue that everyone else was blind to because they already spent too long in their Hawaiian room looking at the ceiling. Don’t lose track of your surprises, the places where your expectations are different than reality. That’s the benefit a new person brings into a team and it helps others remember to see what’s there, hiding right in front of them. And if you aren’t planning on being a new person on a team any time soon, consider finding a new perspective, a new lens to look through to see those geckos that are hiding in plain sight.