Think first about what problem this is solving and for whom

This is a guest post from Kate Catlin. Enjoy.

Dear new developer, 

Welcome to tech! Wow, I remember those days– Confusing, exciting, challenging. Nothing is certain except that you are in for a wild ride. Hold tight! 

The advice I’m writing to share with you today is this:

Before you write any code, think first about what problem this is solving and for whom.

As a little background, I’ve spent my whole career in tech. I’ve had two stints writing code (once in Android and once in Ruby) and neither lasted long. The rest of my career was a journey through Community Management, Sales, Startup Foundership, and now Product Management. While I love code, I love understanding people’s problems and figuring out how to solve those as well. That side always sucked me back in. 

Even in my roles where I wasn’t a developer, I’ve always interacted with developers. Many of them were new to the industry, just like you. The ones who have since excelled in their careers were the one who embodied the advice I just shared.

And so, every time you pick up a new Jira ticket or sit down to complete a new requirement, I suggest that you ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Who does this solve a problem for? 
  • What is the problem they’re trying to solve? 
  • How does this ticket solve it? 

There are three reasons this is going to help you out. 

First, it will keep you motivated. 

I think software development is one of the closest real-life professions to having superpowers. 

Why? Because your job is to use skills that most don’t have or understand in order to solve someone’s problem. 

Some of the problems you’ll solve may be big– Maybe you’ll work on an app that facilitates financing for renewable energy and measurably reduces climate change emissions. Some problems may be small– Imagine someone quarantining alone who misses their grandkids and has tried not to cry all day. Perhaps they have a slightly-less-frustrating time ordering a gift to send someone because you fixed a bug in a website’s UI. 

The world is a tough place to exist sometimes, especially in a pandemic. As a software developer, you get to use your powers to help make life a little easier for people. Remember that! Focusing on the problem rather than other things (like the shiny tech) will help you do so. 

Second, because you can start to push back if you see an easier way to solve that problem. 

A few months ago, I prioritized a new feature for CircleCI that would allow software developers, our users, to import Environment Variables from one project to another. I wrote up a long list of acceptance criteria involving multiple screens and checkboxes. 

The junior developer who picked up the Jira ticket for that feature was someone who regularly practiced user empathy. He paused, thought about it, and then suggested a simplified approach.

The simpler version worked! We were able to ship the feature in half the time, and it still resulted in a measurable lift to organizations adding new projects. This was good for the user, good for the developer, and good for the company. 

This is just one example of many I can name where by embracing user empathy, our team has solved more people’s problems faster. And so can you! 

Third, because it’s how you advance in an organization. 

Product thinking is so important at CircleCI, it’s a skill we specifically review our developers for during our annual review cycle. A minimum-threshold rating is necessary for a promotion. 

This is obviously not true of every organization, but in no case will the mindset not serve you well. Leaders simply need to understand why we’re building what we’re building for our users. How else could they help us achieve the future we’re working together to bring about? 

I would love to hear how a user-empathy mindset works for you. 

Everyone’s path is different, and every organization values different skills. You can find me on twitter at @Kate_Catlin, and I’d love to hear from you! 

Sincerely, 

Kate Catlin

Kate Catlin is Senior Product Manager of Growth at CircleCI.

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