“Oh, I know you should never interrupt an engineer. They don’t like that.” I hear this from time to time and whether a person says it with a straight face or with a wink it sounds like engineers are a very touchy people. Like they can’t handle interruption well in the same way that they stereotypically can’t handle eye contact well.
I work in an office with an open floor plan. There are three floors of the building connected with an amazing staircase. The food is incredible, the people are incredible, and the work is important. And the office is finely tuned for anyone with a manager’s schedule.
Paul Graham coined this maker/manager schedule dichotomy seven years ago in one of his more insightful essays. Essentially, managers need low-latency interactions where they don’t have to wait long for a small piece of essential data. And makers need huge blocks of uninterrupted time to carefully work through an idea. These two schedules are completely at odds, so if a whole team has to work together in the same physical place then the team needs to pick one schedule for everybody. Good managers want the work to get done so they typically pick a maker’s atmosphere where the developers are safe from unnecessary interruption. Part of that process is educating people outside the team on how to interact with the team.
Getting to a concentrated, deep flow state on a tough software problem can take fifteen minutes to two hours. This means that interrupting someone for a five-minute chat has roughly the same impact on their contribution as them taking an extra hour or two for lunch. Interrupting them multiple times a day is a recipe for sending them home at night frustrated and kicking themselves for not making enough progress.
Open offices render people on the maker’s schedule particularly vulnerable. It’s not just the manager or a teammate who might interrupt. Any of the six hundred other folks in my office could, if they so chose, walk up to any other person and begin a conversation. Which means we need good training materials to help people know what kinds of traps they might be stepping into. We teach our people how to file an expense report, we teach them how to find the seventeen or so different places we have food, we have a class on email management thanks to my colleague Xavier, and in an informal way we train people to respect the maker’s schedule.
The best visualization I’ve found to help me teach it is this: Imagine you’re in a big conference room with thirty important people. You’re standing and presenting a proposal that’s central to your job. You have slides, you’ve rehearsed the talk at least once, and you’re hoping to convince the folks in the room that your idea should be staffed and given a high priority at the company. You’re up in front smiling, using carefully-practiced hand gestures with your shoulders relaxed and your back straight and you can tell the audience is receptive. This is going great.
And then Melissa the engineer opens the door to the conference room, walks up to you with her back to the audience, and says “Hey, quick question. Do you know what our data retention policy is?”
Now, imagine that in this bizarro world it would be rude for you to say “Not now, I’m in the middle of something” with a smile while spreading your arms toward the confused audience to show her that you are, in fact, in the middle of something. No, in this world you can’t even say “Uh, I’m in the middle of something. Can you come back in an hour?” because even then you’ll start to get a reputation for being unhelpful. So you stand there describing to Melissa the data retention policy in full but you do it quickly and she leaves thinking that you talk too fast and maybe you’re not “good with people”. Then you turn back to the audience to see that half of them are on their laptops doing god knows what and the other half have quietly left the room.
That’s what it’s like when an engineer gets a walk-up in physical space (the effect is muted but still real over chat). If you ask Melissa a “quick question” she’s not allowed to look at you like you have two heads, point to the source code on her screen, and say with a smile “Not now, I’m in the middle of something” and wait for you to realize how ridiculous your behavior is.
If only we had some kind of visual aid, some kind of cultural reference point to help us visualize the bizarro world example. To help us imagine how ridiculous it would be for someone to absolutely shut down an important presentation.
Which is why I’m so grateful for Kanye West.
“Imma let you finish, but I’ve got a quick question about our data retention policy.”
That’s a visual that perfectly captures what happens when somebody interrupts a craftsperson deep in their work. There’s no way to know if the maker is finding flaws in the elliptic curves behind the latest crypto or simply browsing their personal email. It’s impossible to know for sure that you’re not interrupting a crucial state of flow without asking in the most sensitive, patient, latency-tolerant way. And when you do it’s best to remember that any interruption at all is much like climbing on stage during somebody else’s special moment and grabbing the mike.
So if you work with any makers at all or if you need help training people who haven’t worked effectively with makers before, here are the rules for how to get the attention of someone who requires a flow state for their work:
- When in chat, obey nohello. This means you don’t say “do you have a moment?” or “are you there?” forcing the person into a synchronous, low-latency dialogue. Instead, just ask your question and allow them to triage it when they get a chance.
- Always communicate how time-sensitive the question is in the original request. Is it something you’re curious about that could wait until tomorrow or is it information you need by the end of the day or sooner?
- If you have to walk up to them skip the niceties. Ask the meat of your question succinctly and as soon as you have the answer say “Thank you” and walk right away. Even if they feel compelled to perform the social handshake of asking how you are and elaborating on the response you do them a huge favor by letting them get back to their work in thirty seconds or less.
(this is day 6/100 in my #100days challenge)