Perhaps the greatest lesson of this summer has been in taking advantage of the power of collaboration.
When my boss decided to hire me, he told me that it was in large part because of my communication skills. I don’t know if he still agrees with this, but I like to think it is true.
One of my greatest prides is the ability to openly lose an argument. For a long time, this has quite often been my reason for entering an argument, and I try to make it easy to lose. If someone seems to know they’re right, we must together find the bridge of what I’m missing that will be convincing beyond a reasonable doubt of their correctness. Making it easy to lose means figuring out what you actually think, making that clear, and not wavering from that initial point of view even when more facts come to light. Or at least acknowledging that the original viewpoint was incorrect, and now this is what I [honestly] believe to be true. A regrettable human tendancy is to change one’s opinion during an argument as the facts come to light because “with these facts, my original point of view was wrong, and clearly I wasn’t wrong, so that couldn’t have been my real point of view.” This needs to be consciously avoided.
But still, I haven’t always taken advantage of opportunities to collaborate. There is a lot of overhead when working with a partner. A lot of your time is spent explaining to them stuff you already know. These could be things which took quite a while of staring at text trying to understand, and now it feels like you’re letting them off the hook by just explaining it outright. Sometimes there are petty disagreements in which I like to code things my way and she hers, etc.
One small example is that in one project I wanted the code for a very complicated function to have the following structure
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15
whereas my partner wanted something more along the lines of the following
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
It’s a petty issue; either way the exact same code is going to execute, and we each had very good reasons for finding our own way easier to understand. We didn’t bicker over it because we got along very well, and in the end we actually did it my way. But in reality the actual function was considerably more complex, and perhaps there were entirely better ways of structuring it that neither of us noticed.
Now, at work, there is a new-hire considerably more senior and experienced than
I, who started 2 days ago, and who is taking over my project once I go back to
school in a few weeks; so it has been my responsibility to teach him how
everything works. Very often, he feels the need to obsessively ask me: “Your
code that says
3 + 4, that means you’re adding 4 to 3, right?” Sometimes he
says “right?” and I say yes, then he repeats what he said and I repeat “yes,
you are correct”, and this can continue and I wonder what he is getting out of
At first I resented this because it sometimes felt like no one taught me much about the codebase when I arrived; for the more complex bits, I just stared at it until it clicked. This was fun to me, and no one ever seemed to have the time to go in depth with it anyway. It was good practice at reading others’ code and understanding what it does. Learning new ways of accomplishing many things that were unfamiliar. Getting used to seeing code that isn’t formatted my way, and accepting it for what it is. Learning how to utilize their code from mine even when there is no explicitly exported clean API, and so forth.
But well it was the new-guy’s day 3 today, and it seems we have really begun to click as a duo. It is abundantly clear that he has a wealth of skills I lack. Sure, he could definitely learn this code without my help, but I benefit a great deal from seeing how he navigates it. What are the parts that he finds especially confusing? The importance of variable names shines immediately through. There are a few patches of code where I worked some Scala feature in there just to try them out. Some of these turned out to be easier to understand and reuse code from, and for some of them, something more cut-and-dry would have been better.
Plus there’s the fact that two minds are better than one. He’s always questioning my assumptions. To the point where he often straight up doesn’t believe what I say until I prove it. Sometimes he finds flaws in my arguments. Sometimes, with my assumptions in hand, he invents better solutions to the problem. Sometimes he understands what I did better than me and tells me its advantages and disadvantages and alternatives.
My new partner’s oft-stated goal is to get to a point where he can start contributing to our project without my help, so that our concurrent efforts will speed things along. People with a smart, helpful attitude like that have been rare in my experience, so if he’s being honest, I’m all for taking him to that place as quickly as I can.
I think maybe I just have a bias that everyone who doesn’t know what I know just wasn’t smart enough to realize it. That is the thinking pattern of a real asshole and this experience is making that abundantly clear. Everyone knows that when learning something new, everything is always surprisingly confusing, and then once it clicks, everything becomes “trivial.” However, I have not spent much time teaching others, so I haven’t had the opportunity to see this “click” moment in others, and how dumb they all look before that moment occurs. I do remember teachers explaining something, and me looking at it sideways in confusion, and asking them to repeat it slower. This happened on many occasions, and they must have thought I was a real idiot on each of those occasions, but I was always so relieved when they did repeat, and I often would strain my brain muscles and actually (partially) “get it” the second time through.
The new-guy has taught me a lot from his attitude in joining a new team at a new workplace. He’s not trying to just “set to work” writing code willy-nilly as quickly as possible. Compared to him, that’s basically what I did. He wants to truly understand what’s going on. What does the architecture look like? Who is the expert on what? Who is good at explaining things? Who is willing to take the time to explain things? What do our users want? What do they expect? What is the timeline? What has been built? What is he responsible for? What are the alternative solutions that have been under consideration? Who has decision- making power? Which teams do we collaborate with?
These are all questions that I know the answers to, as they are the necessary fundamentals of how to operate and move forward. I started actively learning the answers to these questions as soon as I arrived as well. However, I wasn’t as conscious and certainly not nearly as thorough at answering them as he is. And over time I may have slipped a bit into a position of people trusting me to do the right thing, so I don’t feel as pressured to be on the ball with everything at all times. But his arrival has been a reality check in the importance of having a firm grip on the fundamentals of what are we doing and why and how best to accomplish it in a strictly-business manner. There is no excuse for losing one’s professionalism, including having a “casual” workplace.
So far it has been 3 days. On a personal level of course I have learned more during those 3 days of working with the new guy than I did during the previous few weeks of working on my own. During this week I have probably also been slower to accomplish those tasks remaining to finish before I leave. It is firmly clear that this is a worthy tradeoff, and I will continue to spend the rest of my time making sure that I am playing as great a part as possible in his success in moving our project forward into the future. There maybe some hiccups in our working relationship, because alas I barely know the guy, and we’re from different societal cultures, and my first impressions of people are always notoriously off-base. However, now it is clear that the responsibility is my own to make sure any future road-bumps are known to be my fault and my problem and mine to fix with his help.