Being Nice / by Matt Wrock

friendsOne of qualities that I think make a great Software Development Engineer not to mention a good human being is the ability to be nice. In fact if I had to list the top 5 things that have helped me in my career, being nice would be one of them. I’m not saying that I have been particularly successful in the art of being nice (yes, it is an art) and I can think of far too many times when I was not nice, but I have made being nice a guiding principle from which I draw to color my decisions and actions and it is an incredibly powerful tool. This may be obvious and if you are thinking the same, that’s a good sign for you and your employer. One may think that it’s a shame that such a concept even deserves a blog post but alas…

The world has far too many meanies

I came head to head with this reality many many moons ago when I worked as a waiter. Up until this point I was certainly aware that there were a good share of not nice and downright mean and inconsiderate people in the world. However, I thought they were a small minority. Waiting on tables for a “Just a notch above Denny’s scale” restaurant quickly brought home the reality that there are a lot more unpleasant people than I had ever thought. I had never suspected that there could be so many rude, inpatient, and down right awfully behaved adults among me.

Well fortunately I run into fewer not nice people per capita in the Software industry, but they are there. However, this post is not really intended to focus on mean programmers, but about developers who go the extra mile to be nice. Sure a lot of us can be nice or at least  tolerable, but some of us are lacking when it comes to being nice backed with intention.

Being nice adds value

When I think of the top dozen people that have been a true joy to work with and taught me the most in terms of leadership and software best practices, they were all nice. Being nice provides a wonderful delivery mechanism for all sorts of value beyond just being nice. While I believe there are rare exceptions, being nice is the best means by which you can color your personal interactions and effectively drive home quality. Of course quality can certainly be delivered without being nice – certainly without going out of one’s way to be nice, but I guarantee you that if you add niceness to your interactions, it will positively influence your ability to drive home your philosophies, to promote adoption of your software and to unlock career opportunities.

Going back to thinking about the people in the industry I admire who are either “celebrity” types I don’t personally know or people I have worked extensively with, their ability to be nice really is more than a nuance, it a concrete thing about their character that is obvious and ends up being something that I specifically call out as being something I like about that person and motivates me to want to interact with them again.

It has to be genuine

The last thing I want is for someone to interpret this as a Machiavellian attempt to gain favor from others or get others to do your bidding. We have all been exposed to those types. You’ll see this a lot in recruiters or sales individuals. You can often smell the insincerity. They like to say your name a lot in a way that makes you want to shower with a wire brush after each utterance.

No. When I think about these nice value packed individuals, they are nice because it’s a core part of who they are. They didn’t just read a pamphlet of nice pointers. They are nice because they want to be nice and they enjoy being nice.

Nice. A definition.

So what is this nice I speak of? Perhaps nice is not the best word for the point I am trying to get across. I’m talking about more than just good manners but I’m not necessarily talking about Jesus Christ either. Nor am I talking about Santa Clause. But he does seem super super nice.

I’m taking about an intentional, proactive means of communicating and relating with others that seeks out their benefit (and perhaps among several other benefits) and is ignorant of status or other artificial cast systems in your organization. Interacting with others as an equal and trying to be helpful. Here’s a small but perhaps tangible example. I’m talking about the difference between someone that answers all their IMs with “Hey”  or “Yeah” compared with Hi Matt. This can be incredibly subtle. Here is why this example resonates with me. I used to work with a developer in Chile. Remotely of course. He was incredibly competent and he was very nice. He never sent me flowers or showed huge concern if I was sick but there was a tone to every IM conversation and email he sent. A tone of sincere helpfulness. Every initial answer to an IM was “Hi Matt!” His emails were often genius. But there was no ego in them, they were plain, to the point, clear and thorough and had an air of “I hope that this is helpful” to them. Everyone thought he was nice but then no one would say, “That Fernando, he is one of the nicest guys I know.” He was pretty ordinary but an example of how simply being nice can go a long long way.

In an an environment where the dev team hated to work with offshore vendors, everyone loved working with this person. He was one of the most highly paid engineers on staff. At the time he reported to me, he made more money than I made and he was worth every penny. In large part because he was nice. Honestly, when I think back to working with this individual, that was one of his most valuable characteristics. Sure his technical competencies were superb, but colored with his niceness, they were effective as well.

Can brilliance be an excuse for not being nice?

I know there are some who will argue that although being nice is indeed a desirable quality, There are some who are certainly not nice but they are “brilliant.” I agree. There are some truly brilliant minds who are not nice. Yes, these people have often managed to be successful and influential. But generally speaking, I’m not interested in working with them. I may value a lot of what they have to say, but I’m not particularly keen to really engage with them.

When it comes to recruiting, I simply will not hire someone (or suggest hiring someone) who comes across as being a jerk. While we should strive to produce quality software and attract  candidates who are great problem solvers and solution architects, above that I want quality of life. I want to work with others who are pleasant to be around. Its good for me, its good for the product and its good for the team. Software development competence is easily taught, being nice is built on a lifestyle developed over a lifetime  Having interviewed hundreds of candidates, if I could put candidates into buckets of not nice, some what nice (basically not not nice) and candidates who were truly nice. The ones in the not nice bucket just don't get hired, the somewhat nice group have a fair chance of being hired proportional to their standard competencies. The nice ones often get hired and people are excited to hire them and look for ways to justify hiring them. Don’t get me wrong. They have to show promise as developers, but being nice is like the Malt Vinegar on fish and chips. It’s the more than subtle nuance that makes me say Mmmm.

Things that make me go Mmm (Things that make me go Mmm) Things that make me go Mmm, yeah-eah-eah.Things that make me go Mmm, Mmm, Mmm (Mmm). Things that make me go Mmm.

I apologize. That was embarrassing. I will now commence with the blog post.

Compare two developers next to each other, one is difficult to be around but extremely competent and the other is very pleasant and competent but not as much as the former. I would argue that the potential of the second individual’s success is greater than the first.

The consequences of impolite behavior is often more destructive than valuable

As software engineers, many of us were not popular when we were younger. We escaped to a world of code and video games to avoid others and feed our spirit with challenges and opportunities for private success. Many of us were not stars on the soccer field. We were asked to kick the ball out (I was) instead of risking what we might actually do with that ball in the extremely unlikely event that we manage to actually gain control of the ball at all (I never did).

So it should come as no surprise that many of us share the urge to put others down in order to enhance our own sense of lacking self importance. Just spend a day reading your technically saturated twitter feed. There is a lot more complaining and snark than truly helpful tweets. But I’d ask anyone to think back on their own snarky remarks. The ones they thought were true gems. They really put a person or followers of a particular technology in their place. A place much inferior to your own views. Now consider how valuable the comment was. How many were likely to change their attitudes or stumble upon better practices after hearing such remarks? Did the remark have an impact? Yeah it felt good to say at the time, but looking back did it add or subtract from your net value as a contributor to your craft? I’m gonna guess that it deducted more value than it added. At least that is my own experience.

When I think back on some of the scenarios where I publicly put someone down or spoke condescendingly to someone as I complained about their technology or practices, in the end I really only made myself feel good and look bad at the same time. And none of those moments were moments that “made a difference” in moving my team, my values or my career forward.

I hope you have found this to be a nice post.