The Art of Cautious Self Improvement

January 5th, 2019

Recently I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about self improvement. Some of this has been about creating better habits and making better or healthier decisions in my personal life, and most of this has been concentrating on work – how do I become a better developer, a better leader, a better professional.

But as I’ve been going through this, I’ve found that on the basis of aiming for self improvement, you first accept that there are things to be improved. And when you make this acknowledgement, not all the feelings that come out are positive, growth-y, or productive.

Starting Somewhere

My first instinct on self improvement is very literal – get better at something by educating myself and practicing that new skill.

So over the past year I spent time reading Robert Martin’s famous programming books: Clean Code, Clean Architecture, and The Clean Coder. These make up a portion of what Prentice Hall publishing calls “The Robert Martin Series” (clever naming pattern, eh).

And honestly, these books are fantastic resources, as advertised. Like, truly will make you better at your job, guaranteed.

The more I read these, the more I feel they are articulating a summary of critical feedback I’ve received over years of code review sessions, but packaged in an accessible and useful way!

The Dark Side

But there’s a downside to having these deep mysteries of the software universe articulated in such a way that they feel obvious.

Now that I’ve been exposed to the light and “know better” than to make the mistakes I made last year, I feel like following these rules should be as simple as reading them – and its not.

The Clean Coder is a book about being a “software professional” – not a technical programming book. So the arguments Martin makes are about how to differentiate between being a “good” employee/teammate/professional and being a “bad” employee/teammate/professional. How to make the optimal decision in a range of situations.

He makes it seem that there is a right and a wrong solution to every problem – like math, or software. A true professional finds that optimal solution, and executes it – and if you behave in any other way, you are being bad (at your job, or to other people).

I’ve found these lessons in The Clean Coder really hard to convert to real life in a constructive way.

And I think there’s a major piece missing in the book – the piece where you take the time to actually make these self-improvements.

Making Commitments – a study in failure

Martin devotes an entire chapter to the differentiation of estimates from commitments, for example.

He cautions that you should make sure that when asked for an estimate you make it clear that its an estimate, and then provide that estimate in the form of a probability distribution (it is an “estimate” after all). But “commitments” are different. It’s a powerful word, that should only be used sparingly and carefully.

“Professionals don’t make commitments unless they know they can achieve them

The cost of missing those commitments, to [colleagues and the business], and to your reputation, is enormous. Missing a commitment is an act of dishonestly only slightly less onerous than an over lie.”

Robert Martin, The Clean Coder

How are you supposed to read this and not feel like a dishonest professional, and a liar? I’m sure everyone can name countless times where they made “commitments” they’ve failed to follow through on, and I am no exception here.

Even after reading this chapter, and after making a big deal in a meeting about the difference between an estimate and a commitment, I still don’t have the hang of this – I failed to meet my very next commitment because an external force came up. But that was supposed to be the point of the “commitment” – you only commit when you’ve accounted for all those things”.

So what does this mean?

It’s ok

Well, honestly, I don’t think it means I’m unprofessional, or dishonest, or a liar (even though those feelings are super palpable and vivid). I think it means I’m recognizing this as a problem now, and opening the window to make the change in that behaviour. I’ve spotted it, in the wild, in its natural habitat (the infamous sprint planning meeting).

I think this recognition phase is where we need a little sprinkle of grace, and to allow oneself the opportunity to fail – a few times if necessary. Probably many times.

Applying the lessons from The Clean Coder requires us in some cases to break deep-seated habits, or fight our instinctive and emotional reactions. That’s super freaking hard. Especially when we’re under pressure, annoyed about something else, or over-tired.

So I’m not saying you shouldn’t read The Clean Coder – you absolutely should. It will make you better at your job, and a more professional software craftsperson.

But you shouldn’t expect to get to the end, mind-meld the information into your life and immediately be better.

Instead, take the lessons from this book, and give them prime real-estate in your brain. Then let them guide you in these situations, and point you in a direction that is better than you would’ve gone yesterday. Then do the same thing again the next day.

Over weeks and months, you will become a better employee/teammate/professional – just as long as you give yourself the chance to fail along the way.