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Compassionate Coding with April Wensel

Episode 32

​​Are you compassionate? In this episode of Programming Leadership, Marcus and his guest, April Wensel discuss compassion in technology and how it affects people. April shares how to become more compassionate as individuals and how we can bring more compassion into our organizations. Dive in to learn about a more compassionate future.



Show Notes

  • Compassion is about reducing suffering. @1:09​
  • Compassion is what’s missing in technology. @1:22
  • Emotional intelligence ties into compassion. @4:36
  • We’re all hardwired for cruelty and compassion- it’s our choice which we choose as humans. @5:44
  • Everyone has the potential to practice compassion in daily life. @6:25
  • To practice compassion, you must have empathy. @7:48
  • Curiosity and inquiry are risks worth taking to show compassion. @8:23
  • The four pillars of being a compassionate coder are compassion with yourself, with your coding and non-coding coworkers, with users, and with society. @11:58
  • Organizations contribute to keeping uncompassionate patterns in place (higher pay and special treatment for coders for example). @18:01
  • Everybody has the capacity to develop compassion; it’s about how we direct our energy, time, and effort. @21:29
  • Pausing, or taking a beat, to think is often the beginning of compassion. @25:20
  • You need to operate at human speeds rather than machine speeds to be compassionate. @26:53
  • Environments and working culture need to change in order to allow more compassion. @27:28
  • Burnout is an indicator that there’s been a lack of compassion somewhere in the organization. @27:48
  • Compassion is important in all relationships, especially with power dynamics. @28:53
  • Open up to build relationships and communicate to learn what others are thinking and actually going through, instead of making snap judgments. @32:48



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

Marcus:  Hi, welcome to this episode of Programming Leadership. I am very excited to have April Wensel with me today. April, welcome to the show.

April:  Hi. Thanks for having me.

Marcus:  April is the founder of Compassionate Coding, and which is really a movement that I’ve been watching from Twitter and on your blog and videos, and I kind of see you everywhere. And if you haven’t checked it out, we’ll have lots of links in the show notes. But April, what was the Genesis for this idea that there was a need for a movement like Compassionate Coding?

April:  Yeah, so I had been working in technology as a software engineer, and also in leadership positions in Silicon Valley for about 10 years. And I went through my own sort of personal transformation, seeing I became vegan and I found out about compassion, and I started learning about compassion from a scientific angle. This idea that compassion is really about reducing suffering. So when I learned about it and I heard that definition about compassion being about noticing and wanting to alleviate suffering, it immediately occurred to me, “This is what’s missing in technology. This is why we don’t have more diversity in technology. This is why people are burning out in technology. This is why we have addictive products. This is why we’re also creating a lot of gaps in terms of wealth gaps, in terms of how we’re using technology and the jobs we’re displacing and things like that.”

April:  So I just saw all these dimensions and at the heart of it was the same thing, was just this lack of concern for human beings involved in the process and affected by the process of technology. So you know and ultimately, I started a business, not a nonprofit because this also affects the bottom line. Compassion, treating your coworkers and your users and everybody with compassion helps with retention. It helps with you know meeting user needs, working together better. So compassion really has a business case as well.

Marcus:  When you started explaining it, you threw in vegan, right?

April:  Yeah.

Marcus:  How does that relate?

April:  I did. I snuck that in there. Yeah, so veganism really is about having compassion for all life. So veganism, you want to reduce suffering, and so you see that by using animal products were causing suffering. And so, but we often don’t think about it because it’s inconvenient to think about. And so when I really dove into it, I was like, “Wow, I always say I love animals, but my actions are not reflecting that.” And so I saw that in myself, and so I changed that and I don’t push other people to live by my values. I encourage them to live by their values.

April:  But for me, veganism is all about compassion. And so that’s how it showed up in my own life. And I saw that I needed to make some changes to live according to my values and be more compassionate, and so I thought you know compassion itself on a larger scale can also benefit these teams that I’ve been working on and throughout the industry.

Marcus:  Yeah you mentioned just such a wide range of places where compassion may fit and intersect with technology. You said addictive products. We have turnover, we have inclusion and diversity,

April:  Mmhm.

Marcus:  We have burnout, we have stress. So as you were thinking, I don’t know if you can remember this far back, but as you were thinking about tackling this problem, it seems overwhelming. Where did you begin?

April:  Yeah, that’s a good question. And I think for me, I kind of loved that it touched on all these things because I feel like a lot of these problems, other solutions were trying to go about it in a piecemeal way like, “Let’s address this, let’s address that.” But the truth is that you know even if your company volunteers for example, trying to give back, that’s compassionate, but if the actual environment in the company is toxic, then you’re really not getting the full benefits of bringing compassion to all angles.

April:  So for me, rather than being overwhelming, it was actually really exciting and that’s how I knew I’d hit on something core, and the root. I mean when you’re programming, you know when you’re debugging and you’re looking for that root cause and you’re doing that investigation, for me it was very clear that this was the root cause. And then it’s partly because of the nature of the work. We’re on computers who don’t have feelings yet, right?

Marcus:  Yes.

April:  Or not real feelings anyway. And so we get used to communicating with machines and thinking about machines and thinking in terms of logic. And we’ve left out the messiness of being human and you know what that means. And so that alone was enough to encourage me to start wherever I could. So as far as like the logistics of that, I started by teaching many of the things that I learned to improve my own life being a software engineer.

April:  So I started teaching emotional intelligence because that ties into compassion because you have to understand how you and others are feeling in order to help reduce suffering. So I started by doing workshops at tech companies on emotional intelligence, and I still do that. And that’s been great because companies reach out to me. They see the content I’m putting out everywhere as you put it, and they’re like, “We need this on our team.”

April:  And so what’s great is in running this business, I don’t have to do sales really. I just, I put out you know content to try to help people. And when it resonates with people, they reach out to me. So even how I run the business is sort of self-compassionate from my perspective in that I don’t have to do things that stress me out or don’t align with my values.

Marcus:  Mm. So, if somebody’s listening and they wonder if they are compassionate, if they wonder if they need to really think about this more, maybe they’re a manager of a team or maybe they’re a developer on a team, how can they begin to self-assess what it’s like there, or how can they begin to get more information?

April:     Oh, I love that. I love that question. So I’ve read this, I don’t know who to credit for it, but I found it from the UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, but one of their articles, they talk about how we’re all hardwired for cruelty and compassion and it’s sort of our choice in the matter like which one we choose as humans. And so I mentioned that because we all have elements of both, and we all have times when we want to be the best, and we want to compete with people and we want to seem you know our ego drives.

April:  And then we also though ultimately have that desire deep inside to you know connect with others and to care about others. And you can see that too in just how people always like cute animal pictures online, for example. It’s like everybody has a heart somewhere in there, you know.

Marcus:  Right.

April:  Or how they are with their family or their friends. There’s always some way that people have that loving energy inside of them and that they really do care.

April:  And so I think that everybody has the potential to practice compassion in daily life. So in terms of knowing whether you can grow more, the truth is everyone can grow more compassion, myself included, everybody. And one thing to look for though are one, how you’re feeling. So I always like to start with self-compassion because I feel it’s hard to be compassionate towards others if you’re beating yourself up inside.

April:  And so look at how you’re talking to yourself like when you make mistakes, if you break the bills or if you have a disagreement with somebody, how do you talk to yourself afterwards? Are you like, “Oh, you’re such an idiot” to yourself or are you, “God, how could I do that?” Do you beat yourself up? That inner critic is a good indicator that some self-compassion is in order. So that’s one thing to look for.

April:  On your teams, how do you respond when other people annoy you? Like do you get really angry and take it out on them? Do you assume people are lazy when they make a mistake or that they’re incompetent? Or do you think, “Hmm, I wonder what might be going on in their lives that caused them to exhibit this behavior. Like I wonder if they’re having a tough time in some other area of their life.”

April:  And so I would say looking for judgements that you’re issuing out in the world also is another good one when you’re, especially with your coworkers, and you know how you’re thinking about disagreements. So when you disagree with people, are you trying to understand where they’re coming from? I mean I like to see empathy as understanding that whatever weird things people do or say, in their own head it makes sense.

April:  And so empathy is about trying to understand their model of the world, and that will help you understand that even if you do ultimately disagree, for a moment you can take on their perspective. So I would say if you don’t often find yourself taking on the perspective of others and thinking, “Oh, I see why they think that way, even though I disagree, I understand why they might believe that,” then that not might be a sign to practice more compassion. So those are a few examples.

Marcus:  Mm, wonderful. I want to dive into one of the things you mentioned. What’s the place of curiosity and inquiry in compassion?

April:  Yeah, I’m glad that you highlighted that. Curiosity is very important. It’s sort of like the other side of judgment in some ways. And so instead of, you know a lot of times because we’re on computers and we’re looking at binary terms, we want to think in right, wrong, black, white. Curiosity is more being willing to live in that middle questioning space of, I’m not sure I don’t have all the information. The other person doesn’t have the exact same information I do, so let me try to figure out, let me try to understand more.

April:  And so I think, I’m glad that you use that word because I think approaching any situation with more curiosity is definitely beneficial and can be a pathway to compassion because instead of coming in with labels and judgments, you’re coming in with question mark and openness to understand what’s going on.

Marcus:  I feel like in our society having more questions than answers isn’t always looked upon very well. Often times it’s thought of as, “Well maybe … ” Well at least I worry about people thinking, “Maybe I don’t belong there, or maybe I don’t get it.” How do we start becoming comfortable not having the answers?

April:  Yeah, that’s a good question. Talking about questions and answers, of course always makes me think of stack overflow, which is also you know very prevalent in people’s lives. And a lot of people have been afraid to ask questions there, even direct questions about programming because they’re afraid of being seen as not knowing everything, and not… Because they’re afraid of the insults they’re going to get on there like, “How can you not know this and call yourself a developer,” and that sort of thing.

April:  And so you take that to a larger scale and yeah, on these teams, what’s been valued is seeming like the expert and having all the answers and all of that. So if you go in there with vulnerability and say, “I don’t have all the answers,” it’s true. You’re making yourself vulnerable and it’s a risk. And so that’s why too I talk about compassion and it’s true with curiosity too. It’s actually an act of courage to be curious, to be compassionate because you’re taking a risk by exposing that part of yourself, that more vulnerable side because it’s very easy to put up a shield and to let your ego kind of run the show.

April:  And it’s actually pretty easy to do that and it feels safe because then you’re not letting anyone in and you’re not opening yourself up towards criticism, but it’s just a very limited way to live. And I feel like it keeps you from being as happy as you can be and it keeps you disconnected from others. So although it’s a risk, I see it as one that you may find worth it because of the connections it can lead to in terms of connecting with others and also more with yourself.

Marcus:  Well I love… Let’s pivot the conversation to the name of your organization, Compassionate Coding. As I was thinking about this, I thought, “Well, it’s not called Compassionate Products, or Compassionate Testing or Compassionate UX.” It really seems to focus on coding,

April:  Mmhm.

Marcus:  On the act of developing software. Something that you’re clearly very well versed in. How does it look to be a compassionate coder, and maybe contrast that with the discompassionate coder.

April:  Yeah, so I chose the name one, because of alliteration. I liked that compassionate and coding can start with the letter C. And then also because the tech industry from the top to the bottom, and in academia as well in computer science, has been largely driven by the people writing the code like the culture has been for better or for worse, sometimes for worse, but the people actually writing the code have had a lot of influence on the direction of the culture.

April:  And so I think it can be very powerful if we’re going to start transforming the culture of the tech industry and everyone affected by it. So the world through, again, applying that level of influence, that people writing the software have. And so that’s why I’ve started in that area, and also because of my background as you mentioned. And so as far as what it looks like compassionate coders, I sometimes tweet out like, “You know you might be a compassionate coder if and like do some things,”

Marcus:  Mmhm.

April:  Because basically there’s four different levels.

April:  And like I mentioned, I started to mention before with self. So a compassionate coder is kind to themselves. So if they make a mistake, they talk kindly to themselves. They’re not going to check in with commit messages that say, “I’m such an idiot,” which they’re many of. If you search to GitHub for like, “I’m an idiot,” you’ll see lots of results. It’s just, I mean some of it’s self-deprecating humor, which can be healthy, but if we say it all the time and if other people see us saying it, it can have a negative influence on our sense of self worth. but so, compassionate coders are compassionate to themselves, and they’re compassionate to their coworkers.

April:  And what that means is when you’re actually writing the code, you are thinking about the people that you’re working with. And… Instead of thinking, “Oh, this is the best practice, which is why I should write the code this way.” Think, “Other people are going to have to maintain this code in the future, including myself, and if I write it in this way, it’s going to be easier for them to do that.” So anticipating other people using your code in the future, being compassionate towards those people.

April:  So, that’s another sign of compassionate coder is people who make choices based on consideration. So, to give a very concrete example, when you’re naming variables, the computer doesn’t care what you call the variables. The only being that cares about the variable names are the people who are going to read your code, yourself and others. And so choosing descriptive variable names is definitely an act of compassion and empathy. And so that’s a very like clear example, but also just how we architect systems, how we architect APIs. Okay, so that is the second level there, your coworkers.

April:  But it also includes your non-coding coworkers. So, I really don’t like this habit of people in technology of this hierarchy thinking that people who code are more important than people who don’t. And this is very prevalent. I’ve seen it, especially in the conversations behind closed doors with other coders. They dismissed the input from sales or marketing, and they dismissed those skills. And so I think compassionate coders see the value in all parts of this business and don’t put themselves on a pedestal or coding as a skill on a pedestal.

April:  And instead, recognize that we need designers, we need sales, we need marketing, we need all of the people involved, project managers. We don’t, kind of, we aren’t bitter towards management in the classic way. Those are just human beings, and so let’s respect them and what they’re bringing to the table. So, that’s another sign of compassion at that level.

April:  And then we think about the users. So, again, I mentioned designers. There’s often this conflict between designers and coders at least historically, and where a lot of times input from designers is not seen as valuable or we don’t, we call our users stupid because we think we’re these smart coders and users are just you know idiots. And this comes up a lot.

April:  And so compassionate coders do not do that. So you see that the whole point of building software is to help the users. The whole point is to eliminate pain points and things like that, which is like ultimately compassionate. If you’re trying to reduce suffering, eliminate pain points for your user, that’s compassion. And so it affects at the user level too.

April:  And then ultimately, the bigger picture here is looking at the effect on society. So, not just people using your software, not just people using it, so not just the people who may become addicted to software, that sort of thing, but anyone indirectly affected. So for example, hate groups were using Twitter to coordinate, but they were committing acts of in-person violence you know against certain groups. And so people who would never be on Twitter were facing the consequences of this platform that allowed these groups to coordinate these events and horrible behaviors. And so that’s something that people behind the scenes of Twitter need to think about, right? And they have started to, but there’s more to be done there. And so that’s sort of the bigger picture there.

April:  Also, how you’re giving back. Are you sharing your coding skills with people in the community who don’t have as much access? Are you volunteering with groups? I like to volunteer with groups to teach coding to people that are traditionally underrepresented in tech to spread the quality and to bring in that diversity and inclusion. So, it has that angle as well.

April:  So those are sort of the four levels and the four angles when you think about what makes a compassionate coder. And again, although I focus on coding because of my background, the workshops I do people from marketing often attend, the CEO often attends, the basic concepts apply to any human being really. And again, why I’m focusing on coding is because of the influence that the coders often have.

Marcus:  I want to take just a moment and thank my sponsor, GitPrime. GitPrime is sponsor to the show not just because they’re fantastic people, but because they really believe that leadership in engineering is about people. It’s about conversations. And GitPrime is a platform that allows you to have better conversations with people. Yes, it has lots of other benefits. You can probably plan better. You can see metrics about individual performance, but let’s just take that one idea about individual performance.

Marcus:  Whenever I talk with a GitPrime user, and by the way lots of my clients are GitPrime users, they always tell me how surprised they were at what was really happening on the team. See, it’s really easy for you as a manager to observe generally how people are working. You can look at PRs, you can look at whose assigned what tickets. You as the CLM, the software engineering manager, you get a notion for what people are doing, but there’s always these beautiful surprises about who is really performing well and who’s secretly struggling about who’s the person that’s saving everybody’s bacon, through fixing a lot of stuff behind the scenes, and who is absolutely doing all the PRs.

Marcus:            This kind of data lets you move from looking at people as just, “Well, they’re all engineers and they’re all kind of doing engineering work,” to seeing exactly where each one of them is strong and has opportunities to grow. That’s why I love this tool so much. I believe that new and surprising conversations come out of data that when you can sit down with somebody and start to understand and intuit why things are happening, you’re going to create even better quality of exchanges.

Marcus:  And by the way, you know here on this show we talk about the fact that leadership is what keeps people connected to their work, and prevents turnover, and keeps them motivated. It’s about the relationship. I like to say they GitPrime not only lets you build better software, it lets you build a better relationship with your team members. Start a free trial today at

Marcus:  Mm. What a wonderful overview. Thank you so much. I have this follow-up question. Do you see in organizations that you work with that there are organizational elements that hold some of these uncompassionate patterns in place?

April:  Let’s see. Can you rephrase that? I’m trying to understand it. Yeah.

Marcus:  Absolutely. For example, you mentioned developers sometimes feel like they’re the most important.

April:  Yes.

Marcus:  Which can give them, you didn’t quite go on this far, but I thought, “Oh, maybe they become arrogant and they think they’re smart,”

April:  They do. Yeah.

Marcus:  But organizations often pay them better

April:  Mmhm.

Marcus:  Than most everyone else, or are more concerned with their turning over rather than the help desk person’s turnover rate.

April:  Yeah, yeah.

Marcus:  So I guess I was thinking how sometimes unintentionally maybe organizations are contributing to what’s happening, these patterns, without really knowing it.

April:  Absolutely. Yeah, that totally makes sense what you’re saying. Yes. I think that’s a great example actually, the payment, and I think it’s sort of a… It’s sort of this vicious cycle where because developers are seen as so scarce, because we often rely on certain stereotypes about programmers, so our hiring practices are too narrow, which is you know a whole other discussion right there.

April:  And because of that, it’s seen as a scarce resource, and so yes, we pay developers ridiculous amounts and I think it’s unreasonable. Like I think that there needs to be some leveling there, and I think that will happen, and also just democratizing these skills. So getting them out to more people, not seeing this attitude that, “Oh, some people are just never going to be a good coder.” I don’t believe that’s true. I believe that through different educational methods, anybody can become a good coder if they want to.

April:  And so I think too, getting more people coding will show, and also changing our hiring practices, will show how abundant these skills really are. And also being willing to hire people who still have things to learn because we all do, and embracing that growth mindset. So not looking for somebody who’s an expert JavaScript developer right now, but somebody who has a coding background, and is open to learning and has a growth mindset, that’s a perfect person to hire too.

April:  And so with that, you see these resources as less scarce, and you see the developers are just doing a job like everybody else, and that all these jobs are important and we should be paying people closer to more balanced in it. And that’s because all of these other parts of the business are very important, and the skills to do those well also take effort to acquire. So I think that that’s a perfect example right there.

April:  And also just, yeah, it’s even in the case of like, “Oh developers are allowed to work from home because they need peace and quiet but everybody else has to come in.” That’s another example that you see. Anything where it’s seen as developers are getting special treatment. I think that’s something to move away from.

Marcus:  Yeah, and I want to pause and just thank you for your compassion and asking me to clarify the question. Here we are in a podcast, and you were willing to take that risk to say, “I would like more information.” So I just want to thank you for that. I think our listeners also appreciate it. I unwittingly created a question as I was writing that probably was too many words more than it needed to be for sure.

Marcus:  Let me dive into this idea. You say that what we really… I think you phrased it like this, I want to think about how you phrased it because it was the idea that, “Oh well, that person will never be a good coder,”

April:  Mm. Mmhm.

Marcus:  Which is kind of the opposite of the growth mindset,

April:  Yeah.

Marcus:  You’ve used that term. But do you think that sometimes it’s easy to look at people and say, “Well that person will just never be compassionate, they’re just not that kind of person.”

April:  That’s a good question. Yeah, it’s funny. That’s an interesting connection you made there. I really do believe and the science backs this up, that everybody has the capacity to develop compassion. It’s more about how we direct our energy, and our time, and our effort. And so some people also have further to go in terms of their progression, but I think that these skills because really empathy and compassion are skills and that is something that you touched on with that question.

April:  And I think that it’s important to highlight that because it takes practice. Just earlier today, I was tweeting about one way to practice is in traffic people get really irritated with other drivers when they’re driving in traffic. And that’s a great place to practice compassion and grow that skill. But I also see like you know as an example, Linus Torvalds, creator of Linux who has often been pointed to in the community as somebody who probably doesn’t demonstrate very much compassion. He uses harsh language in code reviews, things like that.

April:  Last year, he came out to say that he was looking to develop his empathy, and that he saw the damage that it had done, that he hadn’t had as much emotional intelligence. And so I admired that because it was a vulnerable thing to do. And you know whether or not he will be successful with that, who knows? But I just think that it was good for the community that that sort of figure came out to speak about the fact that emotional intelligence is important and humans are important.

April:  And so I think that’s an example where I think that if he really does invest the time and the effort, he could develop more compassion. Absolutely. And anybody can, no matter where their starting points are. That’s my belief.

Marcus:  And he took the risk to be publicly vulnerable about it, which I think a lot … That’s, that would be pretty hard.

April:  Yeah, it’s true. I mean, you know our society doesn’t always reward people for coming forward and being vulnerable like that. And you know and he did face some pushback on that, like people saying, “Oh it’s too little, too late.” you know some people are also always going to, to be fair his actions have hurt a lot of people in the community, and so I understand they’re upset as well. But I also tend to believe in people’s ability to change. And I don’t know if you saw this in my background, but for your listeners, I’ve written this article, Confessions of a Recovering Jerk Programmer wherein I discussed that I used to be not so compassionate myself.

April:  And so when I talked about going through a personal transformation that’s part of it is that I had to learn some of these skills myself. Ans so that’s why I guess I have even more compassion for people who are going from that maybe less compassionate position to trying to get better. And so, I maybe understand that a bit more and that’s why I’m a little more generous and when people come out with, you know “Oh, I did this horrible thing, but you know,” or, “I’m not proud of how I acted in the past and I want to do better.” You know I have hope for the industry as a whole.

Marcus:  Yeah. Wonderful. You know I don’t know whether I should share this or not. This morning, I had to go in for dental work. This was just like three hours ago and I’m sitting alone in the waiting room.

April:  Oh, uh huh.

Marcus:  And this person, this young woman is sitting on the other side of the room and she’s listening quite loudly to YouTube videos, which were not really my thing.

April:  Mm.

Marcus:  I was trying to read and I’m sort of an old white haired kind of crotchety guy.

Marcus:  And she’s over there listening, and about three or four times I almost said, “You know, other people can hear that or whatever.” And I looked at her and but she was oblivious.

April:  Mmhm.

Marcus:  She was right on her phone. I didn’t say anything.

April:  Yeah.

Marcus:  We got into where our dental work was going to be done. She’s on the other side of the barrier, right? And I can’t see her, but you can kind of hear in an open office.

April:  Mmhm.

Marcus:  And I hear the dental tech say, “Oh, your bridge looks good. Oh, you’ve got this bridge right in the front. I would have never known that. How did that happen?”

April:  Mmhm.

Marcus:  “Oh, my ex beat me up and did all this terrible stuff.”

April:  Ohh…

Marcus:  And in that moment,

April:  Oh yeah.

Marcus:  I just felt so awful for even having sat there and having a private in my own head conversation where I was,

April: Mmhm.

Marcus:  I’m getting a little verklempt about it now.

April:  Yeah.

Marcus:  Like just that moment of like, “Man, had I said something, I would have just felt terrible.” Thankfully I kept my mouth shut. I felt awful for even thinking it.

April:  Yeah. Yeah.

Marcus:  I think that that idea of censoring yourself sometimes for me has been the beginning of compassion of, I don’t want to say censoring in a bad way, but just taking a beat and thinking about-

April:     Yeah.

Marcus:  That’s another person and I have no idea what’s going on in their life. And I was right, I didn’t.

April:  Yeah, what a great example. Wow. Yeah. I think I like how you sort of changed it from censorship to like a pause basically like taking a beat, because I think that’s the key. And I think a lot of times we don’t do it in tech partly because we’re always moving so quickly and we’re trying to meet deadlines, or get software out and whatever. And so we don’t take that pause and we don’t think, you know we just want to make snap judgements like we would in the code. And taking that pause is so powerful and so how wonderful that you did take that pause.

Marcus:  I was glad I did. And now, you’ve turned the conversation to where I wanted to go about the effects of pressure,

April:  Mmhm.

Marcus:  The effects of the time pressure and the emotional stress that we have in tech. And you kind of brought this up, but I’d love to hear if you have other thoughts. Do you see that like how does pressure, time pressure, deadlines and stress impact us?

April:  Yeah, it’s true. Like a lot of times when I go into companies, they’ll share their list of values. And many times there’s one value that’s about moving quickly or to some effect. Like sometimes they use metaphors to describe it. One was we believe in running up escalators and things like that. So a lot of this like, “Move quickly, move quickly,” and you understand it because technology moves quickly itself, and so we just get stuck in these habits.

April:  But you really can’t be compassionate when you’re operating at machine speeds. You need to be operating at human speeds to be compassionate. Now, this doesn’t mean that your company’s going to move slowly and you’re going to fall behind. It more means to intersperse moments of slowness and stillness with moving efficiently. And so I think, especially like even if you think about like how the human body works, if we have adrenaline pumping, if our amygdala’s activated because we’re feeling stressed, if we have other stress hormones running through our bodies, then we do not have the ability to slow down to think about what’s that person going through, as an example you mentioned, because we’re too focused on dealing with what’s right in front of us and trying to meet this deadline or whatnot.

April:  And so I think absolutely like our actual environments, and our working culture needs to change in order to allow more compassion. Especially, and also for yourself, because you know I mentioned too that I talked about burnout. When people are burnt out, they’re also not going to have energy to be compassionate towards themselves or others. And on a related note, burnout is often an indicator that there’s been a lack of compassion somewhere in the organization because people haven’t been encouraged to take breaks, to take care of themselves.

April:  And also, it’s like stressful interactions, conflict that’s devoid of compassion is going to burn you out faster than if you have compassionate interactions that are full of understanding.

Marcus:  Mm. Well let me go back to one of the things you said. You mentioned these four kind of pillars or levels,

April:  Mmhm.

Marcus:  Compassion with yourself, with your coding coworkers,

April:  Mmhm.

Marcus:  With your non-coding coworkers and with society.

April:  Mmhm.

Marcus:  And I, forgive me if I got them wrong. Those were the four I wrote down. Was there another one?

April:  It was pretty close. The users was like the third one. So the coworkers I combined. And then the fourth one is society who may or may not be users, but yeah, close enough.

Marcus:  Right. Okay. Well thank you. As I think about compassion, it makes me think about relationship.

April:  Mmhm.

Marcus:  So in the first level I have a relationship with myself. I need to be more compassionate to myself.

April:  Yeah.

Marcus:  But the second one, are there some key relationships that most people would really want compassion from at work?

April:  I mean I think that it’s important in all relationships for sure. I mean I think when there’s power dynamics involved, of course it’s especially important. So we’re talking about if there’s somebody who has control over your hiring, and firing and promoting, I’m sure that you would want compassionate understanding from them. So that’s an example right there.

April:  And I think whenever too, there are differences. So, you know we talk about creating diverse and inclusive workplaces. So, I think whenever somebody does things in a way that’s different from you, or there’s certain things about somebody that you don’t really understand, I think that that’s a good … No matter what the specifics are of why there’s a difference there, but I think anytime there is what you feel maybe like a big difference in your attitudes or background or anything like that, compassion is really important because the alternative, that sort of snap judgment, or you’re wrong and I’m right is not going to be helpful.

April:  And so I think anytime too, there’s that. That’s really important. Also, I will say in the direction of like mentoring. So, any sort of situation, informal, formal mentoring, compassion is really key because like I said, a lot of times we want to go into, “Oh this person’s just lazy. They don’t know how to help themselves, or you know they’re just not competent or something like that.” And you really don’t know if there’s some sort of fear going on there because they’re afraid of looking bad because they’ve had bad experiences asking questions in the past, maybe on stack overflow, or they’ve been told they were an idiot for asking questions. And so you don’t know what people are coming to the table with.

Marcus:  Yeah. So April I am completely inspired. How do we begin building a more compassionate future?

April:  Yeah, so I’m excited too because I really do, like you know I often spend a lot of time pointing out problems as I have you know various times through this interview, but I do have a great amount of hope. And I really do think that we’re in a transition period where we’re starting to value things like compassion more. And so I think there’s a lot of potential to improve in this area. And I think it’s easy to start small.

April:  So anybody who wants to start growing compassion, I think really the key is what we talked about with the pause. So I think building in moments through your day, through your week for a pause to think about, “How are my actions today or this week? And are they in line with my values?” And so I like to do a personal retrospective, sort of like the agile retrospective, but about my own actions every week. And I look at, “Okay, what happened this week and what was in line with my values so I can feel gratitude for that? And where was I out of line with my values?”

April:  And instead of beating myself up with self-compassion, I instead say, and with a growth mindset I think, “Okay, how am I going to do better on this in the future?” And so I think moments of reflection really are definitely one of the easiest ways to get started on the path to compassion. And also, in addition to that, I think leaving time to think about what other people are going through. So in those pauses too, in addition to reflecting on your own actions, spend some time thinking about the people in your life, some of the person that you see on the side of the street perhaps, the people that you encounter in the grocery store, what’s their life like?

April:  And just spending some moments in imagination of what’s going on for them I think also can deepen compassion. And definitely, I want to emphasize compassion for yourself. So throughout the process, especially as you’re growing your compassion, you will still have moments where maybe you aren’t so compassionate. Like today, it sounds like you took the compassionate angle and you didn’t speak to that woman, but if you had beating yourself up, probably wouldn’t be the right reaction either.

April:  It’d be, “Okay, how do I learn from this for the future?” So that’s the other thing is we’re going to make mistakes. And that’s true too with diversity inclusion. You know we’re going to make mistakes as we try to be more sensitive to these issues, and instead of beating ourselves up or becoming defensive, it’s about embracing that growth mindset and believing that things can get better.

Marcus:  Mm. Just kind of one more follow-up there.

April:  Mmhm.

Marcus:  Since you mentioned, and we’ve talked a little bit about diversity and inclusion. Sometimes I project what I think the other person’s thinking. And I love by the way, the idea of being in the grocery store and imagining like, “What might be going on over there?” but if I’m in a work situation, it seems like the stakes are even higher to have empathy that’s grounded in what’s really happening for them,

April:  Mmhm.

Marcus:  Not just my impression of what might be happening. How can I start to have conversations where I find out rather than just making guesses?

April:  Yeah, that’s a good point. And I think there’s certain boundaries to respect, right? In terms of understanding what’s going on in people’s lives. But I think building that relationship and showing that you’re open to speak with the person about what’s going on with them. So especially if it’s you know somebody that you’re managing, you can ask them like, “How are things going with you?” And give them the opportunity to share if they would like to without pressuring them.

April:  And so I think asking, if you want to find out what’s happening, like ask. And also, communicating in a way of, “Here’s what I’m observing in a sort of an objective way and I’m wondering what’s going on leading to this. Do you have any thoughts on it?” Giving sort of an open-ended opportunity for people to share, and showing too that you’re not judging. Like instead of coming at somebody and saying, “Your work’s been sloppy lately, what’s happening?” Which you know it sounds ridiculous like in this context because we’ve been having a nice, pleasant conversation.

April:  But these sort of conversations do happen in the workplace where it’s like, “Your work’s really been sloppy lately. Like what’s going on?” And instead, “I’ve noticed that this project was delayed or I’ve noticed that this code was a lot different from other code you’ve checked in or whatever it may be. Is there something going on? Like what can I do to help?” And coming at it from that angle, whether or not you’re a direct manager or not. And I think that that gives the opportunity for people to discuss whatever they feel is relevant to what’s going on. But giving that benefit of the doubt I think is important.

Marcus:  Mm. April, thank you so much for being on the show. Where can people find you online, hire you, use your services, where are you at?

April:  Sure, so the best way to keep in touch is at I have a mailing list there people can sign up for to get announcements and hear about an online course I have coming up too. So that’s really the best way, I’m also pretty active on Twitter, so my handle is @AprilWensel and my company’s handle is @CompassionCode, and that’s because the Twitter link restrictions are too short for Compassionate Coding, but it’s Compassion Code to represent Compassionate Coding.

Marcus:  Thank you for being on the show today.

April:  Thanks for having me. It’s been really fun.

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

Announcer:  This has been a HumblePod production. Stay humble.

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