Monday, August 13, 2012

Plight of the introvert programmer

I have grumbled before about the trend away from private offices towards cubicles and open plan offices. At the same time, there are people who genuinely prefer these offices, which I considered inhumane. Then I read a book: "Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can't stop talking", by Susan Cain. It helped clarify the differences between introverts and extroverts, the rise of the latter, and the implications all this has on workplace productivity.

Introvert, extrovert

Cain's definition of introversion and extroversion is pretty much what you would expect if you are familiar with Myers-Briggs. She emphasizes that "introvert" does not mean shy nor anti-social. Rather, an introvert tends to focus on the inner world of thought and feeling, enjoys solitude, dislike conflict and focus well. An extrovert would be the opposite, focusing on the exterior world and social interaction, are comfortable with conflict and enjoy multitasking. Another way to look at this is to say that introverts are more sensitive to outside stimulation, such as noise or people, and thrive at lower levels of such stimulation. Conversely, an extrovert needs a greater intensity of stimulation to feel "right". An introvert needs solitude to recharge after experiencing elevated levels of stimulation. An extrovert is the opposite: he recharges with social interaction.

The difference between introverts and extroverts -- keep in mind this is a continuum rather than a binary distinction -- in terms of optimal stimulation levels helps explain work environment preferences. An introvert works best in a relatively quiet, distraction-free environment, such as a private office. An extrovert is energized by the constant social interaction of pair programming and the bustling activity of an open plan office.

There have always been introverts and extroverts, so why does the work environment tend to favor the latter? It's not just the cost-savings from packing more people into less space. Cain points out that there has been a change of culture in the US. (I am writing specifically of US culture because not all cultures have the same antipathy towards introversion).

Extroverts triumphant

Some time around the beginning of the 20th century, Cain claims, the Culture of Personality replaced the Culture of Character in the US. Outward charm replaced inner virtue. From Dale Carnegie to Tony Robbins, we are now exhorted to express ourselves, to perform, to sell ourselves. "We actually have schools for 'self-expression' and 'self-development', although we seem usually to mean the expression and development of the personality of a successful real estate agent", observed one Harold Stearns in 1921. Movie starts became our role models. Parents of introverted children fretted and tried to push a more gregarious personality.

When Cain went to Harvard Business School -- the training grounds of countless business leaders -- to do her research, she was told "Good luck finding an introvert around here". Students are pushed to be extroverts: mandatory study groups, grades heavily dependent on class participation, late night group outings … "socializing here is an extreme sport". Even before college, many elementary schools now arrange their desks in clusters or "pods" for group or cooperative learning activities. This emphasis on team and verbal skills reflects a wish to prepare kids for work in the business world.

This culture has washed over the business world and into every nook of the workplace. Software development for a long time attracted introverts due to the nature of the work. But even here, the extrovert ideal is taking over. You probably know the manifestations: heavy emphasis on collaboration, open plan offices, people packed together into team rooms, constant verbal interaction such as all-day pair programming, lack of privacy, and of course noise. The workplace is now a high-stimulation environment and seems suited for extroverts. So at least some people will thrive in there, right?

Noise and consequence

The funny part about the extrovert workplace or culture is that there really isn't any proof that it works. The merits of collaboration are asserted, not proven. I would say that we end up with offices that extroverts like to work in, not necessarily offices that get work done. Remember those Harvard Business School extroverts? They are probably the ones who end up being the managers who decide how the office should look and push for socially intensive "collaboration". But these choices hurt everyone's work performance, not just introverts'. For example, Cain points out that brainstorming doesn't work: studies show people generate better ideas individually.

For software development, Cain cites Tom DeMarco's work, also documented in his classic book Peopleware. DeMarco ran the Coding War Games, a study testing programming performance of over 600 programmers from 92 companies. The best outperformed the worst by 10 to 1. Folks, this is the origin of the "good programmers are 10 times more productive" axiom. There was no correlation between performance and experience, time nor salary. What is significant is that programmers from the same companies performed at the same level, even though they did not work together! The key piece of data is that top performers worked for companies that gave them the most privacy, personal space and a distraction-free environment. Another study tells us that office noise reduces knowledge worker productivity by 66%. Yikes.

Proponents of collaboration may have been inspired by open source projects on the Internet (Linux, for example) as examples of successful collaboration. But Cain points out that there is a significant difference with online collaboration: developers are physically isolated. They work alone, and only interact when they want to. The tools of collaboration -- email, mailing lists/forums and bug tracking software -- are asynchronous and undisruptive. This works great for introverts.

Cain names numerous famous introverts (e.g., Newton, Einstein, Chopin, Spielberg, Ghandi, Wozniak) and describes many strengths associated with introversion. A third to half of all people are introverts. The bottom line is that it makes no business sense to alienate a substantial part of the world with so much to contribute. Ideally, the physical workspace should allow options so introverts and extroverts can pick an environment suited to their temperament. She also wrote of "restorative niches", opportunities for solitude so introverts can recharge. I am fortunate to be allowed to work from home a couple of days a week. Most importantly, in my opinion, we need to appreciate the differences in our temperaments and accommodate them so both introverts and extroverts feel welcome in the modern workplace.

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  1. Excellent, and well said! I definitely fall to the introverted side of the fence. I've often wondered if it's simply a matter of extroverts not understanding introverts, where I think the converse is the opposite - introverts understand extroverts, they just don't don't want to be like them.

  2. Also, if you count complaining loudly, I would think extroverts would be over-counted as they are more comfortable with conflict, enjoying the discourse, often like to be the flag-bearer and being at the center of controversy and attention. If the squeaky wheel gets the oil, then management will tend to accommodate their preferences disproportionately to their actual ratio.

  3. I think this entire pair-programming fluff has been advocated strongly by consultancy shops to charge their clients more than they were able to before pair-programming. I have yet to come across a productive team where developers do not collaborate, even if they are not pairing ab-initio. My personal instinct towards having somebody sat with me coding on the exact task I am supposed to be doing is disturbance and distraction and at one point of time utter disgust as the guy could not distinguish between if and if-else evaluating mutually exclusive cases. I am sure if he was sat alone on his own he would have been more relaxed and would have thought clearly. And I have been at loss of clear thought myself while pairing.

  4. Well put! The pressure for introverted people to become more "articulate" is amazing these days. While occasionally I can wing-it as an extrovert, I found it as an energy drain. I've always like my own space, being able to concentrate and work in a series of undisturbed and focused stretch of time. I found I work faster and better that way, as opposed to having interruptions that pretty much scratch a good train of thought and causing the need to recapture what the previous train of thought was (if that's even possible - sometimes the idea's just gone, never to come back). Things are changing and I just have to keep in mind that the goal these days is to get paid. Dealing with all the non-sense is part of what it takes to attain the goal.

  5. Thanks Chris for posting this. I am in an open plan office now with a very argumentative peer who questions every line of code I write and seems to enjoy it to no end. He is quite the talker as well, and I find I absolutely dread my job and I'm looking for a way out. I am also in the interview process with one of the world's top software companies, also open plan office, and a no-work from home policy. I am thinking this may not be the company for me either.

    I am so desperate for a better job that I'm also doing some preliminary investigation into what it would take to change careers and turn my back on programming forever just to keep my sanity. This industry used to be tuned for introverts. What happened? I feel as though it has been hijacked and invaded by impostors.

    1. I'm sorry to hear about your experience, but do hang in there. It seems like your main problem is with one particularly inconsiderate colleague. All you have to do is make him an EX-colleague. Software developers are in high demand right now (my own office in Wakefield, MA has a hard time finding new hires), so you can make it work to your advantage. If you have a long commute, you might be able to justify working from home some days of the week.

      My current office is also an open plan office, but it's not too bad. My boss had white noise generators installed in the ceilings, which helps IMHO. Also, my manager lets me work from home once a week.