Empathy, Engineering, and People

A discussion of empathy in engineering:

Erin Cech at Rice University agrees that empathy is essential and names our current culture in engineering a ‘culture of disengagement,’ one in which engineers focus almost exclusively on technical details with little or no attention to empathy and moral issues. Cech’s recently published results show that engineering students’ level of empathy decreased over the four years of their engineering education. Yikes. Not only are we attracting students with lower empathy to begin with but they become less empathizing over the years of their engineering education.

Why is empathy essential in engineering? Engineers design and build products, yes, but these products are for people! To design effective products and processes engineers must understand the people who will use them.

[emphasis mine.]

For all of the focus on technology, on building things faster, more efficiently, it’s all for naught if it doesn’t serve the user’s needs. If we’re not solving someone’s problem, then what’s the point?

Finding, feeling, fixing friction

Without my intent, empathy tends to be a recurring theme for me here. I love this:

In the UX field we talk about a lot of things. Tools, processes, research, design, etc. But it’s easy to forget that a lot of those things are supposed to be ways of finding, feeling, and fixing friction and pain points of the people you’re trying to serve. Recognizing moments when you feel as others do are good reminders that all the work we do – no matter what our specialties, strengths, or backgrounds might be – has a common throughline: Empathy.

I do very firmly believe that taking care of your client’s experience, anticipating and fixing their pain points, is the key to success. And the same goes for your staff – take care of your people. The rest will follow naturally.

Regulating development

An interesting post on the Ken Schwaber blog:

Our  shortcomings were surprising to me. When I rolled out Scrum, I thought that the excellent developers that had been stifled by waterfall processes would emerge, and we would again do great work and build great software. Much to my surprise, many never had those skills or had lost any skills they had. The pressure of “get it all out now, cut quality to do so” had reduced most developers to unskilled, unprofessional, angry drones. The larger the organization, the worse the situation as “mediocrity scaled.” Organizations whose software is only five years old are already crippled by technical debt.

He posits that governance of software developers is imminent – whether the industry elects to self impose these guidelines or the government demands it – and that formal regulation of skills and capabilities is needed.

It reminds me of my real estate days – an industry with a very low barrier to entry, and an extraordinary range of practitioner proficiency.  (Sound like software development to you?  Yeah, to me, too.)  There is a plethora of “certifications” that are intended to provide proof of an agent’s skill.  A Certified Residential Specialist?  How about a Graduate of the REALTOR Institute?  When working with an agent with a set of fancy letters after their name, did the transaction proceed more smoothly?

Not generally, no.  In my experience.  They’re generally pay to play: read the handout, sit in a chair and exist for the required number of hours, pass a simple test, pay the man for the honor of putting the letters after your name for a year.  Clearly, this is not the model to adopt.

This, however, is certainly a problem:

If I were on a team, I wish that I knew the level of the developer that I was bringing on board, instead relying on personal references and “the usual suspects” to avoid getting swamped by unfounded braggarts.

I don’t personally believe a governance board can replace screening candidates for my personal standards for proficiency.  Might it give me some warm fuzzies that the candidate has at least tried to gain a skill?  Possibly.  But in a world where even a college degree is seen as optional, an archaic proof of capacity, what can a governance board provide?

It’s an interesting thought.  Can you regulate development processes across an entire industry?  Can anyone really certify skill, if proficiency is a relative determination?  Things to ponder.

The cost of what you want

An excellent point:

When you stand and petulantly demand some course of action without regard for the bigger picture, you immediately place yourself into a tiny little box. This person doesn’t understand the full scope of what he is asking, so I can disregard this particular request. Sure, you might know what you are talking about (might even be right in absolution), but the fact that you present your case in isolation makes it less compelling to the person you are trying to influence.

Instead of just taking the free ice cream, try a simple acknowledgment of the associated costs. By placing your request in context, you do a couple of things. First, you demonstrate that you are informed, which lends your position more weight. Second, you highlight that you understand the other person’s position, which helps build rapport. And finally, you open up a conversation about costs and tradeoffs, which is typically the core of the problem in the first place.

via DZone

What are you demanding from others without regard to what it will cost them?  Is that why you’re not getting results?

Who is going to look out for me?

Expanding spiritual capacity requires subordinating our own needs to something beyond our self-interest.  Because we often perceive our own needs as urgent, shifting attention away from them can prompt very primitive survival fears.  If I truly focus my attention on others, we worry, who is going to look out for me?

The Power of Full Engagement, Loehr, Schwartz

And so it goes in team building.  How do you convince a curmudgeonly team member to let go of fiercely protecting their personal needs in favor of the good of the team?  Fear – primitive survival fear – is not to be taken lightly.  What are they missing?  Trust of the team, most certainly.  Trust that their needs will be met.

It’s likely not resistance to new ideas out of a selfish or miserly spirit, but rather an indication of a perceived lack of safety and of trust.  Perhaps empathy is called for – seek first to understand.  Display the qualities you wish to embolden in others, oh fearless leader.

A whole lot of us go through life assuming that we are basically right, basically all the time, about basically everything: about our political and intellectual convictions, our religious and moral beliefs, our assessment of other people, our memories, our grasp of facts. As absurd as it sounds when we stop to think about it, our steady state seems to be one of unconsciously assuming that we are very close to omniscient.

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error, Kathryn Schulz