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Posted on: Friday, April 02, 2010

Jack is a seriously kick ass programmer who gets his job done. He is not a hard worker in the conventional way but he works smarts. Put really simply, he gets things done.

Over a period of a couple of years he climbs the steps of promotion and becomes an integral part of our core product development team. Every single one of us respect him for the volume and the quality of work that he puts in. For some of us, over a period of time, Jack seems to have become a the rock-star problem solver of the team and we find ourselves depending on him every time a particular kind of problems need to be addressed.

But then as the sky starts to fall, I notice a tiny-fundamental problem with Jack. The first time I see it, I ignore it as a lousy co-incidence. Maybe I am just being paranoid. Maybe it was just bad luck. The second and the third time I see it, the problem worries the heck out of me.

Jack, as it turns out, has the habit of moving out of the pond every time a stone is thrown at it and ripples are formed. Michael Lopp describes the idea rather articulately. He explains:

When I think of communication in a large group of people, I imagine a pond. Small, round, slightly green water. You can see the edges of this pond and there’s a willow tree over there looking both informed and sad. Metaphorically, all the people in the organization are standing somewhere on this pond. Our positions are based on whom we know and where we are in the organization chart. When something happens in the company, when something noteworthy is said, a drop falls in the pond and creates a ripple.

The ripple is the piece of information traveling from one person to the others. Big drop, big ripple… travels further.

With me so far?

There is a constant flow of information in your company. That means there are constant drips in the Pond, creating various-sized ripples traveling every which way, bumping into each other, and transforming each other into slightly mutated ripples. These mutated ripples are the rumor mill, gossip, and all those small pieces of slightly bizarre information that cross your path during the course of the day.

If you’re in the Pond, you’re gathering data, whether it’s intended for you or not. It’s inevitable. It’s what we do as curious humans; we receive information, digest it, alter it, and then send it on its way tweaked to our own personal wavelengths.

A remote employee is not in the Pond. Yes, he’s on the mailing lists and he aggressively updates the wiki, but the subtle, unintentional, tweaked, quiet information that is transferred throughout the Pond doesn’t leave the Pond.

Ripples are getting formed all the time. Then there are also boulders, both big and small ones being thrown at the pond and your job as a team, is to deal with those ripples and boulders without switching to the panic mode or doing something stupid like killing each other or more specially, without getting each other fired.

Not being around when the ripples are formed is not just a problem with someone who works remote. It actually a bigger problem when someone who works with you actively chooses to move out of the pond every time a ripple is formed.

If you want a really hip and enterprizy way of describing the process of moving out of the pond, you can describe yourself as someone who acts professionally and keeps your personal life separate from your work life. Which effectively means that if hell breaks lose after six and the entire team is struggling to fix a bug in production you not just decide to leave but actually turn your cell phone off so that you cannot be disturbed.

That is you acting professional. But then, any programmer, manager or leader worth his salt will tell you that there most things that decide your career path or your organizational culture chart, are not professional. They are insanely personal.

If you are a young and budding programmer on your way to becoming someone who people will eventually look up to and if there only one advice that I can give you from all that I have learnt out of my professional life, it would be this -  when the sky starts falling, don't run away, don't disappear and cancel your personal parties if you can. When someone in your team or your organization needs you, show up. Consistently.

You may not be the best developer in your organization, but if you are dependable, people will depend on you.

On the other hand you might be the best developer in your organization, but if your team cannot depend on you to be around when they need you the most, chances are that they will not give a rat's ass to your talents very soon.

So the next time your personal life calls and your team is out struggling to keep the boulders off the pond, the least you can do for them, is leave your cell phone on, walk out of the party and take the call if they need your help. Or better still, go ahead and reschedule the party if you can. Be approachable, be dependable and above all, be there when people need your help because that is what makes you special or wanted.

I wish you good luck.