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Changing How We Change Software with GeePaw Hill

Episode 39

What if we could create a trade culture that allowed for change rather than relying on mechanical thinking? In this episode of Programming Leadership, Marcus and his guest, GeePaw Hill, discuss how the doubling rate in the software industry has resulted in a complete lack of trade discipline. Drawing on his 40 years in the software industry, GeePaw’s solution is to develop a thick culture in which certain standards are established across the industry. They also discuss why the industrial model of work is so unsatisfying, the real reason why good workers leave organizations, and the importance of luck.


Show Notes

  • The doubling rate of makers has resulted in a total lack of culture in the software industry (2:12)
  • Defining Thick Culture, Thin Culture, and the Frame (4:01)
  • Using the generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) as a model for the kind of frame the trade needs (5:40)
  • How the doubling rate resulted in a lack of leaders that can develop an industry discipline (6:34)
  • Why good workers leave the organization (18:05)
  • Developing a common language of change in the trade (24:24)
  • The real-life challenges leaders face when implementing change in their organizations (31:40)
  • Why managers and HR are wrong about why employees leave (41:10)



Intro: Welcome to the Programming Leadership Podcast, where we help great coders become skilled leaders and build happy, high performing software teams.


Marcus: Welcome to this episode of Programming Leadership. I am Marcus, and today my guest is GeePaw Hill. GeePaw, thank you for being with us.


GeePaw: Oh, you’re very welcome. I’m very excited. Nice to see you, Marcus.


Marcus: Now, I am so excited about this, but I have to do a little bit of housekeeping. My producer tells me I need to ask the audience to go wherever you find fine podcasts and give us a nice rating and that will help everyone sleep better tonight, certainly will me. So if you’re listening to this and you like it, support the show by giving us a little bit of rating or a review. Now, GeePaw, as promised, I’m going to ask the question that you and I just said and I’m going to frame it just like you said it. All right. Here we go. GeePaw, what’s your damn problem?


GeePaw: One develops a certain reputation after all. My problem is a problem I talk about in terms of thick culture and thin culture. And there’s a backing story there. 40 years ago, the PC revolution exploded onto the scene. And almost overnight, you could have a computer on first, every office desk in America and then in every home, in every car, in your phone, everywhere, everywhere. And so for 40 years, we have been literally selling faster than we can invent and inventing faster than we can sell. And the doubling rate for, I use the word geek colloquially, but what I really mean is anybody who is a maker, anybody who’s down there in the Silicon mines being part of the actual active making of software. The doubling rate for makers over the last four years has been about 5.3 years. And what that means for those folks who aren’t used to thinking in terms like that, is that any given time, half of the makers in the world have less than five years experience in the trade. And at any given time, three quarters of them have less than 10 years in the trade. And what that creates is no culture. There’s no there, there. We’ve got a bunch of distinct pieces all separate, and there’s no uniting frame.


Marcus: Okay. I got to interject-


GeePaw: I got to answer your question first in one line. So problem is, how can we find and formulate and share a frame.


Marcus: Ooh, Okay. I knew this was going to be a deep challenging podcast. I’m already so excited. My expectations are already exceeded but I want to make sure I really understand and get a grip on what you’re saying. When you talk about doubling rate, it sounds to me like you were talking about the number of people working in this industry was growing, like it is doubling. Is that what you mean by a doubling rate? Like if 5.3 years ago there were 1,000 people, now there are 2,000 people, 5.3 years later, and so in 5.3 years we could expect 4,000 people.


GeePaw: Yup. That’s exactly it. That’s exactly it.


Marcus: And so what this has created is, I feel like you’re saying a lack of frame. Something I’m guessing, you mean that holds us together as a profession.


GeePaw: Right, like a worldview or a shared language or a, I call it thick culture. Thick culture.


Marcus: Now, is that what you wish there was more, thick culture? Like I’m trying to understand, give us an example of thick culture and thin culture.


GeePaw: So an example of that in our trade is this, there’s lots of procedures out there. Everybody who’s first encountering the world of agility, they’re going to encounter it almost always nowadays through some form of either Scrum or SAFe. And those are both specifications of method. They’re about structure, they’re about rules, they’re about procedures. So here’s a thing, you can’t really organize your way into community. You can’t build a team out of rules. You can hurt team using structure and rules and procedure far, far easier than you can help that team. But because there’s insufficient mass of people who’ve ever experienced what a real team is like doing real software for real money, because so few of us have that experience, there’s no mass there where the newcomers can learn, “Oh, this is how it all fits together. This is the frame. This is how you think and talk and act when you’re in the software trade.


Marcus: You know what this reminds me? A long time ago, I took… And maybe there’s no relevance here at all, so just tell me that I’m wrong, please. I took a course on accounting and they taught us something called the GAP, the Generally Accepted Accounting principles, and with that framed a set of guiding principles about how to think about accounting. And they said across the United States, everyone agrees generally that this is the way we’re going to think about business accounting. And I found that really useful in my work and as I’ve owned businesses, but I don’t see it in our culture. Is that what you mean, like this thing we’re all agreeing on?


GeePaw: I want so badly to tell you that you’re wrong, but you’re not. Well, you begged me there.


Marcus: Well, I did.


GeePaw: That’s it, exactly. The GAP is a perfect example of… it’s a worldview, and accountants have it. And you can talk to any CPA in the world and they’re going to use, and of course they use a lot of jargon too, but conceptually, they see problems the same way. In detail, they don’t see the number the same way, they don’t even necessarily see the meaning of it the same way, but they see the problems and the answers as all having all being part of this same discipline. And that discipline is called accounting. Well, we don’t have a discipline. We have a bunch of separate parts. We have a bunch of really, really dumb rules, and we have a bunch of geek young, we have a bunch of people with less than five years in the trade. And the people who are leading them, who have five to 10 years in the trade. You know, 10 years isn’t very much. If you are an accountant for 10 years, you’d know quite a bit more than the man on the street and quite a bit less about accounting than somebody who had been doing it for 30 years. And when I say no, I don’t mean like simple facts, I mean style, approach, influences, history, all of that rich stuff that goes into building a thick culture instead of a thin one.


Marcus: And I think the other thing that comes to mind, you mentioned we’ve got pieces, we’ve got new people in the industry, we’ve got leaders who’ve only been doing it seven to 10 years. But the other thing that just strikes me as you list those, is we’ve got an extreme dependence on software. Companies aren’t just saying, “Oh, well, if we had software that’d be nice.” I mean there’s billions and billions invested into and earned from these efforts.


GeePaw: The insane demand has totally worked our trade, we’re not like any other trade. It’s funny because we’ve seen trades in the past who have had the level of invention that we’ve had and we’ve seen trades that have had the level of marketing that we have, but you put those two together and certainly I can’t think of anything in our lifetime that has exploded in that fashion. Cars exploded in the marketplace, but technically they did not explode, it was a long, slow first 40 years in terms of technical. Now, the market is a gigantic mushroom cloud.


Marcus: A lot of demand. But what you bought between the 10 year period wasn’t fundamentally that different.


GeePaw: That’s exactly it. And we’ve had both of those nonstop for 40 years, and it’s making us crazy.


Marcus: Okay, so now we see your darn problem. What solution, maybe that’s even too big a word, but I’ll just throw it out there. Like what do you want to see? And who gets to say what’s the right culture?


GeePaw: So I think what I want to see is I want to see us thinking about it for one thing. I want to see it. I want to hear us talking about it. Of course, I should be made emperor of the universe, but I’m not holding my breath.


Marcus: That’s why you’re on this show.


GeePaw: I’m not expecting myself to be in charge of that culture, but what I’m trying to do is get us all thinking about something more than another branded methodology installation inside… In my day we call them VBCAs, Very Big Corporations of America. It’s a Monte Python allusion. And I’ve spent a substantial amount of my career running around in these VBCAs and watching essentially doing scrum rescue, and I’m sure you’re familiar with it too, Marcus, you’re sure it’s like somebody came in and they installed this thing that they called Agile, and it’s called scrum and it has these procedures and dah, dah, dah, dah. And to be honest, more often than not, it has made things not better and not the same but actively worse.


Marcus: So if somebody’s listening and they suspect they might have, I like the word installation, they have a corrupted installation. It reminds me of floppy disks or something, but if they’ve got corrupted scrum installation, when they’re thinking about it, they wonder if they do and they wonder what to do about it. Is there an approach that you would advocate for, for somebody to start thinking about, “I wonder if scrum is working for me?”


GeePaw: Well, I noisily advocated all the time and about a million different directions, that’s my other problem. Now, we go from the problem I’m having to the problem I am.


Marcus: No, no, you’re a great voice on Twitter and all the blogosphere and everything else, and we’re glad to have you on the show. I’m just wondering if there’s like a bit of, almost like the tip of the spear. If you go into organization, you look around, they say, “Our scrum is broken.” Is there a clear starting point for you?


GeePaw: Yeah, sure. Go to the bottom and work your way up.


Marcus: The bottom of the hierarchy? Like go to the developers?


GeePaw: Yup. I want to be careful about developer. I know we use the word pretty comfortably, developer and geek are often quite interchangeable. The people I think of at the bottom are the makers, and they certainly include product specialists, UX, actual programmers, database types, network types. The people whose job primarily consists of making a thing. And those are the folks who know best, not so much how to do things right, but they know best whether it’s working or not.


Marcus: Okay, so they’re going to be, I don’t want to use the phrase canary in a mine, but if you’re wondering if it’s working, they could tell you.


GeePaw: They can. And one of the more fascinating aspects of the method wars is this world of Jira. Jira or Rally, it doesn’t matter, whatever. Where we hope to find out how a team is doing by taking some numbers and adding them together and subtracting them and then dividing them and then rolling up and doing it all again. The best way to know how your team is doing is… It’s not a union in the best way. Honestly, the only way to know how your team is doing is to live with your team or trust someone else who does live with your team. And that’s it, there’s no other way to know it. And these things are an example of what I mean about thin culture versus thick. In thick culture, you would never say, “I can tell how my community is doing by measuring the acreage that it consists of.” You would say obviously to know how a community is doing, you have to go hang out with the community and see what they think and how they feel and how they act. But in thin culture you say, “Well, we’ll count the feet of plumbing that they have.” And it’s not that the feed of plumbing isn’t irrelevant measure, it does have relevance, but it certainly doesn’t capture the health of the community.


Marcus: Yeah. My mind is going in so many different directions. So I’m going to pick a direction here. So it reminds me of Descartes describing the world as a clock. All of universe is a clock, it’s something that can be assembled and taken apart and we can look at the pieces, and we can measure it, and we can put it back together in different ways. And he formulated science from that philosophical foundation of a clock and the mechanism, and I still think that most organizations consider their software teams as mechanisms, as things where people fit together. I’ve become increasingly frustrated something that I’m sure I can never change, but that’s the idea that we all have to have a job description and a role that neatly interleaves in some larger piece where we stay in our lane. I’m just really dissatisfied with this industrial revolution, industrial design approach to how we work.


GeePaw: Well, you and I need to go drinking because we’re absolutely on the same wavelength here. The mechanical arrangements, classic, simple, hierarchical causation, these things have been enormously successful in the world. They’ve created Western culture, they really have. And everything around you, all of this technology stack that we’re sitting on top of, as we talk, when we’re, what? Almost 3000 miles apart. All of that stuff, the mechanics are awesome. Here’s the thing though, when you build a machine whose parts are human, well, why don’t you just build a machine if you don’t need any humans in the game. I mean, this comes up to me over and over and again, what happens is we design a machine for creating software and some of the key, most important parts are humans. You know, humans are crummy machines.


Marcus: We really are.


GeePaw: Humans are organisms. And so our organization is made up of humans. And an over-reliance on mechanical mechanistic thinking is a really dangerous thing. And we can see it, again, thin culture, thick culture. We can see it out there. If you scratch the nearest CEO and ask him about his makers or she, she’s going to say, “They just want more money all the time. I just give them money, money, money, money, money, and I never get anything out of them.” Well, you know what? Humans want things that are actually not just money and it’s because they’re humans. And if you build your organization so that every transaction is a transaction about dollars, then every reward has to be dollars, every growth has to be dollars, every step has to be dollars. And this is the sort of malformation that I’m talking about when I talk about how the demand has dramatically twisted this industry up into this really weird thing. Most makers aren’t really in this for the money. I mean, we’re not. I don’t mean that we’re driven insane people who don’t have families to feed. I’m not saying that money is irrelevant, I’m just saying, yeah, not so much. How many people do, Marcus who work all day at an org making something and come home and spend all evening making something, and get up on a Saturday morning and go make something.


Marcus: And those other things, they don’t pay him a dime. So there’s something else at play. GeePaw, I’ve been interviewing engineering managers for one of my clients, helping them hire and we always have a beginning talk about salary. Now, these engineering managers are special in my opinion because they always, always used to be engineers, and they’re not that far from it. So these are not like MBAs, these are both engineers and managers. And so when I’ll say, “What are you looking for for salary?” Can you guess what most of them tell me?


GeePaw: I dunno, go ahead, tell me.


Marcus: They say, we know salary’s not that important if it’s a good fit and if my team is good and if the company culture supports me and I love my work. And I have interviewed something like 600 in the past year, so this is not like a few data points. This is a massive undertaking. I can also tell you why they leave if you’re interested because I always ask, “Why are you leaving?” Can you guess why they’re leaving?


GeePaw: Well, because they didn’t get that.


Marcus: That’s right.


GeePaw: Because they’re their hands are tied in certain ways or there’s no level of trust. And of course some of them are unhappy downwards, but most of them are unhappy upwards.


Marcus: Yeah. I have yet to… In fact, they always start the same way. They say, “Well, I had a great team, “that’s the first part consistently, they speak about how great their team was. And then they’ll tell me there was a change in their management. They got a new manager, they got bought out, their company got acquired, they got merged. Like some change that changed the relationship they have with their boss, which made them reconsider, “Is this the place for me?”


GeePaw: And that sounds, to me, that sounds completely standard. And of course, it goes on down from there. Now, what’s interesting about it is, at some point there does seem to be a divide because if we keep pushing up the org, well, you’re going to run into those very bosses who those folks were upset about.


Marcus: Yeah, absolutely.


GeePaw: What’s up with that?


Marcus: If only we knew. And it’s funny, you and I were talking over Slack, like we have this weirdly aligned goal, maybe a life goal, maybe a mission to change the world to bring about better places where people build software and better culture. And we were on Slack.


GeePaw: It’s my hobby. I actually specifically avoid saying that my mission is to change the world, it’s my hobby. Otherwise, I get too upset.


Marcus: Well, I like that. I’m internalizing that and that means a variety of things to me. But here’s what we were saying, we were saying, do we attack it at the bottom of the org, the problem, or do we bring change at the top? And I think you were saying like we have to find a way to work at many scales. It doesn’t maybe just work if you work at one or the other.


GeePaw: And I think that’s why I keep saying this word frame and I keep talking about thick culture. It does, we have to put it everywhere at once. But then of course what you need is the realization that you can’t do everything everywhere at once. So how does it go? Well, turn the knobs a little, turn the knobs a little, turn the knobs a little, turn the knobs a little. All the knobs, the knobs up at the top, in the middle, across the street and down at the bottom. All have to change at once. And one of the things that has to happen to do that is we have to develop some common understanding about, “You know, this is what we’re up to and this is what we do in this business.” And that leads me back once more to we’re missing a frame. My beginner take on that frame is that we’re not centering ourselves adequately around change.


Marcus: Talk more about that.


GeePaw: The centerpiece of professional software development is responding to and initiating change. Down on the ground, your geek in Java is constantly changing the code and responding to other people’s changes, similarly with the tech they use, including both the hardware and the software and the tech stack that they use. But then up at the top in the boardroom, they also are constantly responding to and initiating change only in the market. And we have no common language really about change and we do not center change in the culture. How many organizations have we both seen, I’m sure, where really they invest so heavily in not changing that you have to wonder if they get it at all. The day a piece of software stuff’s changing is the day we go out of business.


Marcus: Yeah. It’s interesting to center our work around change. And I was reflecting as you were saying that with accounting or agriculture, I’m not sure that every industry, like at first I thought, “Oh, is universally true of every industry.” But I don’t think it is. I think in some ways we may, if not be special, we have unique perspective and we may need to just become far more adept with change. And the other one that maybe that comes to mind is uncertainty. I feel like we want a lot, that’s where the mechanistic viewpoint comes in, we want a lot of certainty right in our work


GeePaw: A connects to B, connects to c. A steps to B, steps to C. All linear, all mechanical, all not what we do.


Marcus: So have you found a model for change that you have found is helpful or fit for developers, for people working in software?


GeePaw: I wouldn’t say I have a model, I would say that I have some words that have been helpful to me. I gave a talk at Agile & Beyond last year and in it I talked about my imaginary friend. I’m sure all of our listeners have imaginary friends too, named Alice who is not at the top of the org and not at the bottom of the org. A former developer, she’s worked up the ranks and she sees a city on the hill. She has a vision of the future and how it could be. And she’s going to come up with some scheme for changing things to be how it could be. And almost certainly, if she’s never been a professional coach, almost certainly, what she’s going to do is, she’s going to come up with something that is global, procedural, given, direct and final. And for every one of those five words, I have another word, and that’s what I’m thinking of as the GeePaw, beginnings of a way of thinking about change. Instead of global, I want the change to be local.


GeePaw: I want it to be a series of the smallest detectable changes. Instead of, “Oh, man. I’m never going to be… ” I’m pulling these completely out of my head.


Marcus: No, I like it. So we’ve got these five steps, almost think about the way you described it, sound a little bit like waterfall. It’s big, we’re going to design it, we’re going to do it, and then we’re done. So the first difference was, we’re going to go global to local,


GeePaw: Global to local, procedural to human. One of the things that we’ve already touched on, systems are beautiful, mechanical procedural systems are beautiful, but in fact, humans are what make almost all such systems work across time. If you go out and read a guy like Sidney Dekker, who’s an expert on well, really airplane safety investigator, and he’s written a book, The Field Guide to Human Error, in which he essentially turns the traditional wisdom of that industry on its head. That wisdom says, “The procedures are correct and the humans are the problem.” And what he says is, “But that’s not true. Far from being the source of danger in the airplane trade, humans are actually the sources of tremendous levels of safety. They actually provide far more safety than the procedures do.” And so that inversion is this procedural versus human. There’s given versus taken. Given means, I’m going to tell you what to do. It’s as simple as that. I don’t give people answers, I take answers from them. And that’s what I mean when I say given versus taken. Instead of final, where we aim for the city on the hill, here’s the first thing that happens as soon as you aim for a city on the hill, you start arguing about what color the paint is going to be on the walls in the city on the hill. So I never aim for a city on the hill, I never try to get to an end point because there isn’t an end point. As soon as we get there, we’re going to find better ways to do things than we ever imagined. So instead of being final, it’s iterative, and I in particular distinguish somewhat between iterative and incremental. Most people are pretty comfortable with the idea of adding something new every day. They hate the idea of changing again what they changed yesterday and, and yet, changing what you changed yesterday is exactly the thing. That’s what I mean when I say final versus iterative. The last one is direct versus a oblique. I featured it in my head, my tweet stream not long ago. There’s a little snippet from Game of Thrones, where the girl is demonstrating her archery skills, and she does pretty well, but then the guy says, “Yeah, no.”


GeePaw: And he tells her, “Never hold. So you lift the bow, you pull the string, you shoot.” And she’s like, “But I can’t aim.” And he says, “Never aim.” And she looks at him like he’s insane of course. And he’s, “Your eye knows where it wants the arrow to go, trust your eye.” So direct versus oblique, direct is all about, “We’re going to line up a bunch of linear steps to get to this thing.” Then an oblique is like, “Well, we’re going to trust our eye, we’re going to take the next step, the next step, the next step. And we’re not going to worry about whether they line up perfectly because almost certainly, as soon as you’ve change your position, it’ll be time to aim again.” So we just next step, next step, next step, and we don’t worry so much about being direct and targeted. So that that is my 10 minute blah blah, blah blah where I’m at with change. I’ve written it up here and there, I’ve given talks about it here and there, but I still haven’t really laid it all out.


Marcus: You heard it first here, folks. GeePaw, it does sound like there’s some influence on the agile ideas that have influenced what you’ve said, even though we say that there’s a lot of broken scrum and things like that, but I feel like what you’re talking about is a learning loop in some ways.


GeePaw: Well, it is, and there are lots of other examples of that. I mean, there’s no question. I was at the very first extreme programming immersion, which happened before anything called agile in 1999. And about midway through the week, it was a class and I was a student, about midway through the week, I jumped ships and I started hanging with the teachers instead of the students because I had already been applying extreme programming, slipping it under the radar at the programming gigs I was already doing. And that gave me actually a lot more experience than a lot of the other students. And it was a few months later that Bob Martin called me up and said, “Hey, did I remember to offer you a job?” And I said, “Well, about time.” And that’s how I became a coach. But I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I started it deep in the bowels of what became the agile movement. So unquestionably, there are ideas from that agile world that deeply influence my every take, everything from radical incrementalism to simple self-organization.


Marcus: Yeah. I want to rewind to something you said about if you want to know what it’s like on a team, if you want to know what the culture is, what’s like to live in the town, you either need to go live with the team or you need to trust someone who is, there’s just no other way to do that. And yet, man, it’s so easy to say on a podcast, but I do think it’s hard. Like if I were a director of engineering at a company and all the executives are thinking traditional, top down, hierarchical, mechanical ways of designing teams, and you’re listening to this right now, you may have to be exceedingly brave to consider alternatives that don’t fit in the culture you’re currently in.


GeePaw: There’s this guy, and I’m not going to remember his name, he’s a former a Navy submarine commander. Have you-


Marcus: Turn the ship around guy?


GeePaw: Yes. What he models for us is trusting his direct reports and maybe his grandchild reports and absolutely not treading about anything else, “This is what I can do. I can say turn the ship around, yo. I don’t have to say, ‘adjust the rudder by 0.5 degrees.’ I have to say, ‘I want to go that way. Can you go that way?'” And if you actually know how to turn the ship around, turn it around. And it’s a very charming book, I don’t know if-


Marcus: It is.


GeePaw: He’s a very sharp guy and he’s out on the talking circuit nowadays, but the underlying thing there is, yeah, he takes a lot of courage to not want to stick your fingers into that rudder control.


Marcus: It does. And I think that we have just grown up in a culture where the teacher was at the front of the room, they were bigger and more powerful, I get started for me in kindergarten or first grade, learning that the expert knows what they’re talking about, that I was small and they were big, that I had no power, that they had all the power. All these weird things that then translate into money and organizational stuff, and so when you’re a leader, it’s just become your second nature. Like the idea of letting your organization form itself, self-forming organizations seems almost irresponsible, even though we’re in the enlightened almost 2020 right, it almost seems irresponsible. And I think a lot of people like the idea that they say, “How do I even try this?”


GeePaw: Here’s what I think everyone should do who is up there at the top, I think they should meditate far more deeply on luckiness. Have you ever been down to Hollywood? Ever spent the afternoon wandering around Hollywood, stop at a restaurant, go look here, go look there wander the park? Here’s what you see when you get to Hollywood, everyone you see, everyone, your waitress, the guy washing the car, the guy behind the counter at the 7-Eleven, everyone you see there sings and dances and acts better than anyone you know personally. And Broadway’s like that too, most people are insanely good. So when you get to a movie, when you’re actually in a movie and you’re starring in a movie, the odds of anybody getting there, and I’m not trying to deny anybody their talent or their skill, I’ve worked hard. I’m successful in part because I’m good at what I do and I work hard. But you know what? I’m also wildly successful because I’ve been insanely lucky, ridiculously lucky. I am almost the luckiest person I know, and I wish more people who were winning could rest inside themselves and say, “Yes, yes, I’m gifted, I’m talented, I’m skilled, and I’m extraordinarily lucky.”


Marcus: I think that there’s a beautiful question in there, the teams maybe could even ask in retrospectives to say, over the last sprint, where did we get lucky? What happened that we can’t take credit for because we’re just so darn good-


GeePaw: Just right place, right time.


Marcus: Exactly. Is it a new addition? Is it two pieces of technology that work together? Is it that, I don’t know what it might be, but I do find that teams are able to identify when they get unlucky, that’s when they start to say, “Oh, this thing happened and we couldn’t control it.” But how often do they talk about the things they couldn’t control that contribute to their success?


GeePaw: Yeah, yeah. That’s a great question. And I think it’s important because… You know what, reducing the one’s sense of agency is pretty helpful. I’m an agent in the world and I act and the world responds,and anything that goes wrong must’ve gone wrong because I acted, and anything that goes right must have gone right because I acted. And you know what, I don’t even control my body very well, let alone the rest of the world. I wonder around the world, I’m like… I went into the store yesterday, here’s this guy, there’s this old guy, I’m 60 I must be brilliant, I’m a successful computer geek, I made a lot of money. I’ve been a computer geek for 40 years. I ran into the store and I was going to pick up a four six packs of diet Coke because I’m a diet Coke guy, and the store often doesn’t have it. So I run, I go dashing back and I get there and there’s four six packs of Diet Coke, and I don’t have a cart, because I’m an idiot. So now instead of going to get a cart and bring it over, now I grab four diet Coke, six packs, I’m holding them in my completely skinny, weak, pathetic arms. I’m staggering back to the counter, and it’s all because I was too sure-


Marcus: That they wouldn’t have it-


GeePaw: Or something, I don’t know. But this ability to look at yourself and say, “Yeah, I’m not in as much charge of things as I think I am.” We all like to think that we own the situation, but no, mostly you just try to get by. I think most-


Marcus: I’m sorry, I interrupted. Go ahead. Say that last part again.


GeePaw: No, I think most of us, I think we try to get by. That’s what most of us do. And that’s good, that’s because we’re human.


Marcus: What more can we do? Psychologists call that to somewhat the locus of control. Do you believe the world happens to you? Do you believe you make things happen? And I think that can be a useful idea, but the other thing is psychologists tell us is that, your conscious and subconscious, your conscious is like an eight year old on top of an elephant of your subconscious. It’s thinks it’s telling the elephant where to go. The elephant’s going wherever it wants, and your conscious is usually just saying, “Oh, that’s where I wanted to be is wherever I got taken.”


GeePaw: And that is again, we’re reaching a really almost creepy level of some paddock here, but that is exactly right, that I’m in charge of way less than my conscious likes to tell me I am. One of the things that I do when I work with developers and walk them through TDD and try to get them to understand why TDD works, because I try to get them to notice that. When you pass a test, when you’re writing TDD, you write a test, you pass the test, you write a test, you pass the test. Every time you pass a test, it’s like a rat pressing a lever and getting a food pellet.


Marcus: A little dopamine hit?


GeePaw: Yeah. Hit me baby, give me some drug.


Marcus: There you go.


GeePaw: And the thing is, they all recognize it. They all recognize it, but most of them never thought just structure their workday around giving themselves a little dopamine hits, and so their evaluation of TDD is actually all about theory of chess and perfection and quality and dah, dah, dah. And I’m like, “No, no, you don’t understand, it feels good.” And now I rationalize it, now, that I know it feels good, I’m perfectly willing to rationalize it in any number of ways, but it does feel good. And that’s really important


Marcus: Because I can’t go to my boss and say, “Well, this feels good and I’m smiling 50% more so you should let me do it.” Although, interestingly enough, that might be a pretty compelling argument to some managers and they might say, “Hey, if that reduces turnover, increases happiness, productivity, all motivation, let’s just do it because it feels good.”


GeePaw: My sense of the trade, this is not a genuine factoid, but my sense of most of the folks that I work with, they tend to stay at these orgs for two years and jump, two years in jump. And I look at that and I’m like, “Wow, that’s horrible. You can’t keep some girl around for more than two years at a time before she’s disgusted with you and wants a pay raise and another swing at something more amusing, then that’s a horrible setup you’ve got going.


Marcus: And you hit the nail on the head because I think managers and even HR gets this idea that people are leaving because recruiters are poaching them and they’re offering them more money, but if the hypothesis is, is they’re not just in it for the money, and in fact, if money is the thing, people keep telling me, it’s not that important if the team, the project, the culture are right, then the problem is the team, the project and culture. If people are not at… The other thing is of course, GeePaw, when people leave they don’t really tell you why. So they tell you whatever reason makes sense, the logical, “Oh, I’m getting 20% more over here.” They don’t tell you it’s because I literally cannot stand to look at your face anymore. That is rare.


GeePaw: I cry before I my brush my teeth. That’s why I’m leaving your organization.


Marcus: And there are people out there who are listening who got up this morning and cried before they went to work, and I don’t want to diminish that because I am sorry if you work in a place like that. I really truly am.


GeePaw: Same here.


Marcus: My wife worked at this one organization and I won’t say too much, but she came to me one day and she said, “I’ve been having this feeling as I drive to work that I would rather, maybe the car go in the ditch and I won’t have to go in that day.” And I was like, “We need to make a change.” That was really big for me that you’d rather like skid off into the ditch, that is a preferable outcome to doing your job at that place anymore.


GeePaw: I spent the last almost 15 years, really, most of my clients, I work with big and small and various clients, but most of my clients were great big companies, and the work involved me being on the road three, three weeks on and one week off. And I came home three years ago and I said to my wife, I said, “Baby, this is killing me. I can’t do this anymore.” You make a lot of money, I made a lot of money doing that, but I can’t do it anymore, I don’t have the space to be away from my family for three weeks at a time, to worry about… I’m pretty committed to helping teams I work with, but a lot of times in these bigger companies, there’s a limit to what you can do. Then I get frustrated because of that, and it just all adds up. My wife to her credit said, just like what you just said to your wife, she said to me, “Well, I guess we better change things, huh?”


Marcus: What a beautiful phrase, just so open ended. It’s like it would be so easy to say, “Well, what about the mortgage and what about this? And what about that?” And that’s the typical reaction that sometimes people have when they get fearful. But what a lovely thing to say. Can you imagine if you’re listening and somebody comes to you and they’re frustrated and all you responded with was, “I guess we better make a change.”


GeePaw: Cool.


Marcus: That is cool. That is really cool. All right, GeePaw, I have to say, this has been one of the most enjoyable hours I’ve spent in a very long time.


GeePaw: That’s terrific.


Marcus: And I feel like we just scratched the surface, but I hope we can do this again. Where can people find you online and engage with your work? I feel like it’s so important.


GeePaw: The easiest place to find me anytime night or day, really, is Twitter. I am at, it’s GeePaw Hill. It’s G-E-E-P-A-W H-I-L-L. GeePaw is a nickname that is a real name, that is almost everybody calls me GeePaw. I became a grandfather at a ridiculously young age, I was just 31 years old, and my friends and family thought that was hilarious. So that’s why they all call me GeePaw. Anyway, GeePaw Hill, and you want to check my website, my musings, which are what I call those long tweet threads that I do, are almost all collected as blogs and podcasts on


GeePaw: And I am always interested in respondents, I’m happy to talk to people about comments, questions, critiques, whatever. So I want to stress that if you feel so moved to reach out, reach out, I’m out there. This is what I’m trying to do with my life these days as a hobby.


Marcus: It’s a great hobby.


GeePaw: Yeah.


Marcus: Well, we will include those links in the show notes. We do appreciate you so much being on the show. If you like this, give us a few stars, send the email or the show off to a friend, tell them they need to hear this, this is life-changing stuff. And that is a wrap for this episode of Programming Leadership. We’ll see you next time.


Outro: Thank you for listening to Programming Leadership. You can keep up with the latest on the podcast at And on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, or wherever fine podcasts are distributed. Thanks again for listening and we’ll see you next time.

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