Sunday, 29 April 2007


I had to take a workmate out for coffee on friday. While other workmates have previously taken me out for coffee when I needed it, this is the first time I've done it for someone else and it's made me rather sad.

To give you some perspective: the workmate in question is the team lead on the other half of a large project I'm working on. We don't work directly together but closely enough that I know what's going on. I've been making a point of keeping an eye on things for a while, going over to chat, asking him how things are coming along etc. On friday afternoon we had a team meeting in which we had, once again, gone over the various things that are making a particular section of the work less-than-fun. There had been some infrastructure issues between our site and the client site so progress had been slow and frustration levels were pretty high. Add to that another team member who was struggling and needed help, the senior team member busy with other projects and not able to give much time and a go-live date approaching fast... Result: one stressed and unhappy team lead (surprise surprise).

After the project manager had closed the meeting and left, a few of us just sat and looked at each other for a while until I informed my workmate that we should go get some coffee. We had coffee, and cakes, and I let him talk for a while about how upset he was. Then we talked about the shed he was going to be building over the weekend and his little son... and then went back to work. All well and good, and I was glad to be able to be there for him, but not how things should have been.

Now, some of the factors stressing him out could perhaps have been avoided, but I don't want to go into that here and I think most things are out of our direct control. Cause is beside the point, what I do think is a problem is that we had an upset staff member and it was left to me to do the coffee thing. It shouldn't have been me. I didn't have the authority to say what needed to be said (that he was doing a great job) or to offer help because I'm not involved enough or senior enough for it to mean anything.

Our project manager did, in fact, shout us all coffee on thursday. That was great and we all enjoyed a break and a chance to chat to everyone but there is a difference between shouting the team coffee and taking a particular staff member out to provide some one-on-one support/appreciation. Individual attention is incredibly important, especially when things aren't going so well. When managing a difficult project, I think it's crucial to ensure that each individual member of the team believes that you know and care how things are going for them. If you're pushed for time, at least make sure you have that kind of a relationship with the team lead and encourage them to do the same for the rest of the team. You don't need to take them out for coffee every time; just pull up a chair next to their desk and have a chat, then remember what issues they mentioned and ask them later how they're progressing.

I know I'm sounding very idealistic and that it's difficult to keep track of things to that degree but it is possible and I believe it's worth it. Go on, take someone who needs it out for coffee tomorrow :)

Thursday, 26 April 2007

Who am I?

I figure, since people seem to be reading this and someone at least has done a search for posts labelled 'Me', that I should probably provide some kind of overview of who I am. It should also give you some idea of whether to pay any attention at all to what I say. Wait... maybe I shouldn't after all...

I work as a Software Developer for Intergen in Wellington, New Zealand. Currently doing mostly windows forms development with a fair amount of SQL Reporting Services and Oracle thrown in. I've also been playing around with SQL Integration Services lately which is good fun. Intergen took me on as part of their graduate program and have been great at providing me with opportunities and supporting me to try things and take on more responsibility.

I started work in January 2006 after finishing my degree in Computer Science and Psychology at Massey University in Palmerston North. When I started my degree I was majoring in Information Systems and wanted to be a Business Analyst but I did an introductory programming paper just to see what it was like and loved it so much I changed majors. Now, I'd like to be an architect eventually. The Psychology major was because I've always been interested in usability and, as I usually put it, "I want to understand how both computers and people work so I can get them to work together without throwing each other down stairs". Plus, it was heaps of fun :)

I was involved in leading a church high-school-age (13-18 year old) youth group for 3+ years while in Palmerston North which I loved. When I moved to Wellington I started leading Guides (9-13 year olds) which has been a new challenge and lots of fun. I love spending time with young people; I find their energy and enthusiasm for life contagious and enjoy the feeling of being able to make a difference somehow.

When I'm not at work or Guides I'm a bit of a bookworm. I found the BBC Top 100 book list last year and am currently trying to read all of them - as at 26/04/07 I've read 68. It's been a (mostly) fun exercise and I've read and enjoyed lots of books I would normally never have picked up. Good times :) Normally though, you'll find me with my nose in epic fantasy of some description - most notably Robert Jordan, David Eddings, Robin Hobb and Janny Wurts, although that list could go on and on!

The other major way I tend to occupy any time that may be left in a week is getting people together for strategy board games. (Please note, this is nothing like Monopoly or Scrabble.) My current favourite is Munchkin but we also play a lot of Settlers of Catan and Ticket to Ride Europe.

So there you are, one fairly long rant covering (hopefully) all the things you never wanted to know about me :)

Tuesday, 24 April 2007


Something changed over the weekend - people are reading this. Flattering, but kinda scary too and happening much sooner than I had expected!

It turns out that an ex-workmate of mine, JD, now links here from his blog and another workmate, John, quoted me on his blog. When I discovered this on Monday morning it freaked me out a bit. There's something a little unreal about reading your own words on someone else's website. I'm not even sure how either of them knew I had a blog, which makes things rather mysterious. All good though, lots of warm fuzzy feelings :)

I'm not entirely sure why I feel the need to comment on this. I started this blog with the aim of producing something people would read so I shouldn't really be surprised if people actually do. I guess I thought it would take a lot longer than it has, or I didn't really believe anyone would read it at all. For once, I am very pleased to be proven wrong.

So, I suppose this means I should be getting some more decent content up here rather than writing random posts on how pleased I am someone linked to me. Not to mention doing the work on the template which I've been putting off because 'no-one will be looking at it for a while yet'!

JD and John: thanks for the link-love guys :)

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Developing Girls - 2

Following my previous post, it is worth noting that we have lots of female analysts and project managers. They may even outnumber the guys in those roles and quite a number of them are ex-developers.

So it would appear that women tend to move out of development roles into more direct people-facing roles. Why? I think development is much more fun... But maybe I'm just odd. I guess it's another reflection of the same need to be 'helping people' directly that keeps girls out of engineering/software development to start with.

Thinking of possible reactions to these posts I came up with a couple worth addressing:

  1. So? Who cares?
  2. But girls don't have the logical brains for coding, they don't get into development because they just can't do it. Simple.
The question of who cares is easy to answer: anyone who has complained about the general shortage of developers. If we want to increase the number of capable developers out there, not cutting out half the population is probably a good starting point.

As for the second objection - rubbish! I know four women who disprove that every day. Unfortunately I can't leave it there because I am enough of a psychologist (yes, I have a psychology degree) to understand that there are differences between the way men and women think. A major one of those differences relates to aptitude for mathematics and the pure logic necessary for good programming. Guys are better at it in general. However, 'in general' does not mean there aren't plenty of women out there who have that aptitude. No, there aren't as many as there are men; but the number differences aren't anywhere near as large as those we see in the industry.

So those male-female ratios are something we should change and something we can change. Lets do it! If you have a chance to speak to a smart young woman anytime soon, make sure she's considering IT as a career option and show her she can make a difference.

Tuesday, 17 April 2007

Developing Girls

This post was going to be about how junior developers can learn from the senior devs on the team. However, as I was mentally composing the first few sentences, I realised I was using exclusively male pronouns to refer to said senior developers. A moment's thought on why I was doing this revealed that we have no senior female developers.

In fact, there are a grand total of four female developers in our entire development team, three of whom started working for us as new graduates in the last three years. The fourth, admittedly is recognised as a senior developer, but our group of top senior devs/architects (the 'Development Steering Group') who I was going to talk about learning from are entirely male. To give you an idea of just how shocking these numbers are, our development team in Wellington probably includes upwards of 60 people. Once you add the other offices into the mix the number tops 100 and, from memory, I don't think there are any more women. 4% is a pretty dismal figure!

Don't get me wrong here - I do not for a moment believe that the company is discriminating at all. There just aren't many female developers out there to be hired! The situation was the same studying at university - it wasn't unusual for me to be one of two or three females in a class of more than 60. Female devs have sometimes gone to some fairly extraordinary lengths to assert their presence but nothing seems to be changing.

This reminded me of a blog post I read earlier this year about an article on cnn (unfortunately the link to the original article is now dead) about why women don't get into engineering. Apparently women aim for careers where they feel they can help people, hence the traditional female domination of roles such as nursing or teaching. I had a very close to home example of this recently when a younger friend who'd always aimed to be an accountant decided she never wanted to work for an accounting firm because it couldn't possibly be fun. "I'm a people person, I need to be working with people not with numbers." No amount of explanations could convince her that the numbers would be helping people, that she'd be part of a team, that any job was a 'people job'.

Now, I have nothing against wanting a career where you feel you're helping people - that was, and is, my aim for the work I do. I wouldn't be able to get out of bed in the mornings if I didn't feel that something I was going to do that day would help someone. My actions are focused around helping my clients get software that will make their lives easier and helping my workmates to be happier and less stressed. Yes, I spend most of my day staring at a computer screen; but my job is definitely a 'people job'. I originally got into IT after spending some time working as an admin/helpdesk person and seeing how upset and frustrated computers made people. I got to thinking that maybe if I could help create computer programs that were easier to use the world might be a happier place...

A lecturer in one of my university software engineering papers spent one of our ethics lectures discussing the lack of female developers. Her theory was that most guys get into IT through being interested in computer gaming. The problem is that most computer games, having being designed by men, don't appeal to girls; so the major entry point doesn't apply. Please note I said 'most' - there are exceptions (I'm a big fan of Myst and I have a friend who loves The Sims) but as a general rule gaming is considered to be a male activity.

So what do we need then? For games that appeal to girls we need game developers who understand what girls want to play and are willing to take the risk of trying to develop a new market. But, more crucially I think, we need to educate young women about all jobs being 'people jobs' and the opportunities there are to make a difference in the IT sector. I was talking to my high school computing teacher some time ago and we discussed the possibility of me talking to her classes. Maybe I need to get in touch with her again...

Thursday, 12 April 2007


Had a conversation with a project manager recently in which she said that she tries to figure out what motivates each person on her teams and what relieves their stress. In short, what makes them tick. She says I was easy - it's all about the chocolate!

Admittedly, I do love my chocolate and I have been known to accept undesirable tasks on the condition someone buys me chocolate. But I think she's missed a couple of things which are pretty major. I function not solely on chocolate but also on feeling like I've accomplished something useful. This made up of 2 things:

  1. Accomplishing something, anything! This means seeing progress, being able to cross something off the list, having some sense of achievement. We all need this, projects where progress seems to go backwards have been described by workmates as 'soul destroying'.
  2. Other people (colleagues or clients) appreciating what I've done. Recognition matters lots to me: a piece of paper with 'well done' on it will often stay on my desk for weeks! This is the bit that transforms "I've done something" into "I've done something useful".
No amount of chocolate will turn around a project where developers' work seems to be leading nowhere and no-one is acknowledging the effort they put in. I was involved in a project that ended up like that last year and the turnover rate was unbelievably high. Chocolate does contribute towards the second one though: "Someone bought me chocolate therefore they must appreciate me somewhat".

The other thing that I've noticed about myself is that I'm an information junkie. I'll put up with pretty much anything (including a lack of chocolate!) if I have all the information around what, who, when and why. Especially why. On the other hand, if I know something's going on but I don't have the details I get very frustrated very fast. One of my workmates in particular tends to try and 'protect' me from some of the larger client issues we come up against, I don't think he realises I'd be less stressed being involved than wondering what everyone else is trying so hard to fix. If I have a reason for what I'm working towards I'm very happy giving it everything I've got.

I wonder how many other people 'tick' this way. I wouldn't be surprised if both feelings of useful accomplishment and needing information are pretty common drivers for people. Maybe this is something to keep in mind when leading teams - ensure there is a sense of progress, provide recognition and give the team all the information you can about the bigger picture.

Buying people chocolate doesn't hurt either :)

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

A work rant

It's been a crazy busy couple of days with lots of conflicting demands on my time. I'm enjoying the feeling of being in demand and wanted although it reached the point today where I can no longer satisfy everyone which is far less fun. Still trying though, and hoping to swing some things and make it work.

I've spent quite a bit of time this week pulling people into little rooms with closed doors and talking about the decision I needed to make (see my earlier post) and I have been impressed at how willing people have been to listen and how much caring they've all shown. There's something really special about a workplace where it's perfectly ok for me to grab a senior staff member and agonise at him for an hour. There's something even more special about a workplace where the senior staff member being agonised at is happy to advise a course of action contrary to what his manager had recommended because he believes it would be more to my advantage.

I also had a neat discussion with my project manager this morning around why we all do what we do and what makes it fun. Both of us enjoy the challenge of direct client-facing work and love being busy doing multiple things at once. I really enjoy the ability to craft something to suit a client's requirements, tweaking it so it's exactly what they need and helps them do their job somehow. She gets excited about really difficult clients or large disasters that need sorting out, smoothing over or rebuilding.

Overall, the people I work with are incredibly consistently cool. They're supportive, encouraging, caring, enthusiastic, dedicated, patient and great fun to be with! We're all very different but that 'coolness factor' is so consistent it's always surprising me and I tend to rant on about it at length fairly frequently. Seriously though, I think you'd be pretty hard pushed to find a more supportive, fun and exciting place to work. Yes, there are lots of challenges and we sometimes work long hours to get something done. Sometimes clients throw curve balls at you and you don't duck fast enough, some people are less-than-fun to be around, some projects drag on and on and on... but there are always moments when something works and your workmates join you in shouting how pleased you are, or a client finally recognises what you've done and thanks you, or a team pulls together and produces something none of them could have on their own. I love my job :)

p.s. By the way, now that I've had my rant - we're hiring! Come work for us :)

Sunday, 1 April 2007

Golfing outcomes

Well golf was indeed a lesson in humility as expected - although thanks to Ambrose rules and Phil and Glenn being far better than they had claimed to be our team managed to come second! I intend to display the award somewhere conspicuous for people to marvel at. :)

At the start of the day I said my aim was for the ball to leave the tee and for it to go generally forwards. Goal achieved although I don't feel any particular sense of achievement. The moral perhaps that small goals, while realistic, aren't much fun! We discovered that I can chip tolerably well, but that any and all other shots (including off the tee with a driver) go about the same distance as my chip shots. I was surprised at how unnatural a movement a golf swing is. Professionals certainly manage to make it look natural and everything I've seen or read about how to play golf seems to talk about getting your swing nice and smooth so I was expecting it to feel, well, smoother! Some of the things people do in the name of fun really are rather odd. Overall, I'm not planning on taking up golf anytime soon but we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and if we do it again I'd be keen.