Jef Claes

On software and life

15 Feb 2015

Side by side

This week marked my first year at my current employer. While that event went by rather silently, one year in, a few of my observations are finally shaping up to be cast into writing.

Where I used to work in the typical battery cage, I’m now part of a team of just four people, having the luxury of a big dedicated room to ourselves - a whole floor actually. The room is set up almost symmetrically; two desks on one side of the room and two more on the other side, with quite some space in between. Having only four people in the room makes it easy to casually throw something at the group - be it a question, a critique or a random idea.

I made good use of this perk early on, but noticed that I would too often find myself amid a Mexican Standoff. We would often get ourselves into discussions that quickly turned into a my-opinion-versus-your-opinion and would lead nowhere.

It didn’t make sense how I got myself into this situation time after time, until I read somewhere how to approach petting an unfamiliar dog.
Our species have more in common than you would think. Our shared history of pack hunting has made both our species highly social and interdependent.
For example, when you approach an unfamiliar dog, you shouldn’t pet him on the head since this can be very threatening. It’s better to approach him from the side to rub his ears, neck or back. This behaviour is an evolutionary remnant of pack hunting; members of the pack would rub each other’s shoulder constantly chasing their next meal.

It occurred to me that the cause of our unproductive discussions might be as simple as our desks being in an aggressive position, desk-to-desk or face-to-face.
Looking back at my previous jobs, I found no precedents of having discussions in this position. The horrors of the open plan had always forced me to either walk over or to find a meeting room.

But when I look at my personal relationships and discussions, I find more situations that confirm this theory. When going for drinks, most of my friends prefer a noisy and crowded bar, which force you side-by-side just to make yourself understood. Even when communicating with my girlfriend, it’s not the cliché tete-a-tete dinner dates that yield the best conversations, it’s taking a walk, long road trips or even cooking together.

When it came to avoiding these unproductive situations at work, I now carefully consider which things I can just throw out there, or which things require a side-by-side approach. Even when you got yourself in trouble face-to-face, you can still guide things into a more constructive direction by changing the situation.

Getting side-by-side shouldn’t be too hard in a professional environment. Both pair programming and whiteboard sessions (or one of its more exotic evolutions - model storming, mob programming etc) are ingrained in most places now.

Evolution has wired our brain in a way that makes being side-by-side, preferably chasing the same goal, extremely amicable. Although we’re no longer hunting for food, we still find ourselves chasing different means of prosperity and success. Just like before, it’s still the case that we’re at our best as a team, side-by-side, in pack.