Understanding People Matters More Than Understanding Tech

Dear new developer,

I ran across this tweet a while ago:

If there was only one piece of advice that I wish I had known early in my career as a software dev is that understanding people is more important than understanding tech, by a long shot.

Jose Villalta, AWS engineer

I agree wholeheartedly.

Why? Many reasons, but the biggest one is:

Man is the measure of all things.

Protogoras, ancient Greek philosopher

(s/man is/human beings are/)

Have you ever run into someone who was very into their work? I have, multiple times. It’s kinda cool. Let me tell you a story.

A roofer who really truly cared deeply about roofs

One time, we were having our roof replaced. We asked around and found a roofer who had taken care of some of our neighbors.

We called him up and got an estimate.

The entire time he was at our house, scoping out the work, he was going on and on about roofing. Materials, hiring, types of shingles, you name it, he was passionate about it.

He cornered me a few times and kept going on and on about the roof job he was going to do for us.

We hired him, in part because you can’t fake that kind of passion.

But, while we were happy to pick him because of passion and to pay him well to understand roof replacement technology and strategies, at the end of the day, we wanted a roof replaced.

Or, to be more precise, in a “jobs to be done” sense, we wanted shelter from the rain and snow and protection for our belongings from anything coming from overhead. We wanted it to be durable, easy to repair, and hole-free.

I did not care one whit about the shingle type.

This is the attitude of people buying software. They want it to work and solve a problem.

As a dev, the solution is what you’re selling, whether the method is the time and labor to build software or the software itself or some combination thereof.

Buyers want a problem fixed. Software can do it. But they don’t particularly care about design patterns, languages, and type checking, just like I didn’t care about shingles.

What about inside teams?

That’s from the outside, though.

What about internal team dynamics? Isn’t tech much more important than people when you are building software? After all, the wrong tech choice can doom a project.

But the wrong people can wreck it even faster. People make decisions and choices. People sabotage or come with solutions.

Because software requires personal knowledge and creativity to both find the right problem and to solve it, people are foundational to project success.

Think about it this way. If you were trying to solve any problem with software, which would you choose?

  • A unmotivated, unskilled team with the best technology
  • A motivated, skilled team with the worst technology

Of course you want them all: motivation, skill and excellent technology together will get you the best solution.

But, if you made me choose between those two options, I’d pick the latter. For one thing, the technology isn’t going to put itself together (ChatGPT not withstanding).

At the end of the day, you work with people to solve problems other people care about. Just like a hammer or plywood, the technology chosen can impact your happiness and success, but people matter more.



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