The Wonderful, Messy, People Side of Software Development

The Wonderful, Messy, People Side of Software Development

Humans are so inconvenient, aren’t they?

Let’s see.

Engagement. Change management. Alignment. Servant Leader. Cultural fit.

Sanitised terms from our corporate dictionaries that mask the basic challenges of getting human beings to work well together.

When companies fail to deliver, how many of the problems behind it are truly technical?

And how many arise because of systemic issues that lie with people, process or culture?

Well, today, I’d like to zoom in on “people” challenges, and the number one People Anti-Pattern I commonly come across in the workplace.

Your Perfectly Imperfect People

First: a question.

  • How many people would agree with these sentiments?
  • “I don’t want a manager who cares about me.”
  • “I don’t mind never being thanked for my work, even when I go above and beyond.”
  • “I’m okay with my ideas always being rejected.”
  • “My boss never tells me how I could improve… and that’s alright

I sincerely hope your answer is low, tending to zero.

And yet, I’ve seen all of these in the workplace - and I suspect I’m not alone.

In this month where the term “quiet quitting” is trending like crazy, how about we look at some of the expectations our employees might reasonably have?

And a couple of ways in which we could create an environment that supports them.

I want to be treated fairly

Fairness in Pay

An obvious example of fair treatment is compensation: getting and keeping it right.

One of my former (and wise) managers once said that if someone somehow came across our departmental salary spreadsheet, they should agree that it looked fair.


“Fair” can mean different things to different people.

I’ve come across start-ups with a fully transparent pay structure. Everybody knows everybody else’s salary. Everyone at a particular level (e.g. Senior Software Developer) is paid exactly the same amount.

Other companies have a range, and try to ensure that prospective employees fall into that range.

With hiring, I feel it’s important to disrupt systemic injustices in people’s pay.

This can particularly affect people who’ve moved countries and aren’t aware of the market rates for their skillset. A talented individual can be haunted by the ghosts of companies past if your compensation offer is coloured by what they’re currently on, propagating an unfair salary from company to company.

If someone is asking for a much lower salary than you would place them at, don’t low-ball them. Instead, delight them by offering the figure you think they’re operating at.

Do the right thing and break the chain.

Market Adjustments

Some companies are reactive: someone strongly challenges their pay, or lands an offer elsewhere. Only then, the company considers adjusting it.

This favours a certain, more assertive demographic of people. But there are plenty of people out there with the mindset, “if I work hard and do well, it’ll be noticed and I’ll be justly rewarded”. Do we really want to exclude these people.

Other companies are more proactive and will periodically look at adjusting certain segments of people within their bands, such as high performers.

This is also an opportunity to - in particular - look at diverse populations as a cohort, spot and correct any underpayment patterns: however accidental or explainable they may have seemed at the time.

Fairness in Performance


  • Do your people leaders all use the same yardstick when it comes to measuring performance?
  • Do they place the same weight on delivery and behaviour (aka “the what and the how”) as each other?
  • Does someone’s promotion case rest on the capabilities of their manager - and if so, is that manager sufficiently supported?

I’ve come across managers who were intending to grade performance based on how well that person did “for them” - rather than for the level or role - that the company was expecting.

The important factor in all this is consistency.

One way to ensure fairness in the traditional annual performance review is calibration sessions.

Calibration sessions may be familiar to some: we compare and contrast individuals at the same level, particularly in the same role.

In doing so, we can uncover useful examples of what merits the difference between people in performance ratings: a rich seam of feedback for the review itself.

In a lighter weight version, you may calibrate by exception: identifying those individuals exceeding expectations, or in danger of trending below.

Does it take time? Yes.

Can it expose poor draft performance reviews by the manager? Yes.

Are your people worth the effort it takes? Yes, yes and yes.


Sometimes the stresses of life can get in our way and cause performance dips.

It’s only fair…

  • to these people, to flag it to them early, so that they can course-correct quickly.
  • to the rest of the team, to aim to address it quickly, so that they’re not over-compensating for others for too long.

And again, when beginning a performance measure such as a PIP, it’s fair:

  • to genuinely offer a chance for that person to pass,
  • to be clear on what’s needed, and
  • to instil a belief in the individual that they can pass
I want to be valued


We likely spend more time at work than we do at home.

If you’re devoting one year or in other words two thousand hours of your “one wild and precious life” to a team, to a company, it’s only human to hear in some way that it’s all been worth it.

Sure - sometimes projects get canned, and that’s life.

But we also need to hear those magic words, “thank you”, from time to time.

Whether there’s a formal reward and recognition scheme or not - for everyone’s sake, make sure your people hear those thank yous, and make sure they’re thanking each other.

Another wise and former manager of mine offered that we should “judge a company on how it says goodbye to somebody”.

I love this idea. It’s another opportunity to publicly thank someone for all they’ve done for the company: to show your value their work, and to show others that you care what they’re doing right here, right now, too.

Being Heard… and Making a Difference

There are so many levels where we have the chance to listen to people.

  • In our 1:1s, drawing out people’s thoughts, hopes, ideas, challenges.
  • In a team-level meeting, ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to speak or ask questions.
  • In engagement surveys, reading aggregated answers and anonymous comments that might pinpoint hotspots to tackle.

Listening is good but means little without action.

As a leader, this is the domain where you can truly make a difference:

  • Incorporating ideas where possible, and giving helpful feedback where not.
  • Connecting with people who can help change things, and updating people on progress off the back of their suggestions.

When seeing it written down, it may seem obvious. But do all managers do this?

As a leader, following through is the greatest way of keeping your promise. That promise being to do your best by people.

I want to grow

One of the top reasons people leave a company is because they feel there’s a lack of career opportunities. So how can we help with that?

One is to ensure you have a fleshed out and comprehensive career development pathway that extends levels beyond the band where most of your employees sit.

And the other is to help people get there. Which brings us on to…

Actually Useful Feedback

Keep doing what you’re doing”: one of the most useless pieces of feedback I’ve come across, particularly when it was delivered to underperformers who believed they were on track for a promotion.

Feedback can be a minefield. Some actual examples of ‘interesting’ conversations I’ve been in:

  • “I can’t give critical feedback when one of our company values is ‘fun and friendly’”.
  • “In our ‘feedback circle’, he told me ‘I’m not happy you joined our team’”.
  • “In my last company we always gave everyone honest feedback, so I read what they wrote about each other verbatim”.

Creating a culture in which people are able to give, and - just as importantly - receive constructive feedback in a way that helps improve things is no easy feat.

As per the Radical Candor book by Kim Scott, we’re not helping our people if we’re not giving them insight on how to get better.

There are books and training courses for days on this topic, with good reason.

The important thing we can do is to keep practising delivering it - for if there’s one thing we know about feedback, it’s that you can always find a way to do something better.

That “Number One” People Problem

We have but skimmed the surface of the huge topic that is people leadership.

But here’s an observation.

Did we discuss system or application architectures? The pros and cons of different technical frameworks? Advanced debugging?

Could it be that these are entirely different skills from people leadership?

So why is it that companies keep falling into the number one People Anti-Pattern: putting individual contributors (ICs) in people leadership positions?

If someone isn’t keen on managing people, don’t put them in that position.

It’s bad for them, it’s bad for the team… and the results are entirely predictable.

Value your ICs for the skills they bring to the table.

Ensure that they can be paid more without needing to become a manager.

Brief your managers that they may end up line managing someone who out-earns them.

And then: value people leadership for the complicated and impactful skill that it is in itself.

And maybe your wonderful, messy people will come together to deliver something amazing.