I was listening to a podcast a while ago and a discussion came up regarding why leaves are green. I found it fascinating. I’m neither a chemist nor a physicist, so I didn’t realize that green light is the most energetic light. I did, however, know that visible color is light which is reflected away from a surface.
So, the inevitable question arose: why, if green light is the most energetic, is the plant reflecting it away? It seems like the best light to gather would be green since it contains the most energy and the plant could use that to drive all kinds of internal work.
It turns out that, though it would be most energy efficient to gather all of the high-energy green light, green light is also quite unstable. There are, apparently, fits and spurts of energy. It’s not consistent or constant.
Plants, have optimized their structure around predictability and consistency of work.
Let’s suppose we have two different, experienced developers, Jim, and Ellie. Jim is known for getting things done fast. FAST. He delivers code faster than anyone else in the development group. Ellie is known for being consistent. Ellie’s work is consistently well executed. Ellie isn’t slow, she is just not as fast as Jim.
It’s common for teams to prefer developers like Jim over those like Ellie. People talk about how fast Jim is, and his seeming supernatural speed. Managers fawn over the number of tasks he is able to complete in a short time.
A Deeper Look
Jim is fast, but it’s also common for Jim to introduce bugs in the code. He’s willing to fix them, and he does so, quickly. He is also, however, subject to his muse. On an up day, Jim is fast. On a down day, he can’t stay focused and accomplishes next to nothing.
Ellie, priding herself in a metered, thoughtful pace, tends to notice potential bugs while she is working, which means she produces fewer bugs for the same amount of work Jim does. Ellie also has up and down days. Her highs and lows aren’t nearly as extreme. Even on a down day, Ellie produces valuable work she can commit to the project.
Given that Jim is lauded on his ticket count, the system is actually tipped in his favor. He is rewarded for producing bugs because it adds tickets he can close. When management looks at ticket count, a ticket is a ticket, and Jim finishes a lot of them.
What is Happening?
Jim is operating more like a plant if they were optimized for greatest energy consumption. His work is done at a frenetic pace, and it produces output that is inconsistent. Since Jim is optimizing his work around efficiency of completion, it tends lack intentionality which leads to unstable software.
In the long run, Jim is setting himself up to either become frustrated with thoroughly damaged software he cannot repair, or a pace of work which cannot be sustained. Frustration around unreleaseable software commonly leads developers to move to a new position. If Jim doesn’t leave, he has a future of long nights and weekends as his forward movement slowly grinds to a halt.
Jim has optimized his work for a speedy reward through energetic throughput.
Ellie is operating more the way a plant is actually optimized. Her work style is not optimized around energetic throughput. Instead, Ellie has optimized her work to be consistent, and intentional. Though Ellie is not completing as many tickets as Jim she is likely producing as much or more value for the work she does.
Ellie’s mindful intentionality lends itself well to producing high-quality work. She also is setting herself up for a sustainable work pace in the long run because her intentional practice leaves room for identifying mistakes, verifying work meets quality expectation, and value is delivered with care.
Ellie has optimized her work for consistency and a sustainable pace. In the long run, her approach is optimizing output centered on the developer.
We can learn a lot from the natural systems which have developed around us. Often the living things we see around us are actually optimized away from a hurried, careless behavior and toward consistent, intentional growth and action. In working, if we lean into mindful intentionality, the benefits we gain will outweigh any short-term efficiency gain.
As you work, ask yourself, are you optimizing your work for throughput, or the developer? What would you prefer to optimize for?