Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Navigating in the wrong level of abstraction

It was a big agile conference in the US, and I participated a session on with a demo of mob programming. Demo meant the facilitator of the session called for volunteers, and of the 5 people that ended up in front, I was one.

The group of 5 was two women and three men. It wasn't my first time mobbing, it wasn't my first time mobbing on the particular exercise and I was looking forward to seeing how the dynamics with this team of random people would turn out.

The exercise we were doing followed a routine of example to English, English to test code, test code to implementation.

I remember that session as awful but I have not talked about how awful it was because I was told back then that I just did not understand it right. So today, I wanted to write about the idea of mild gaslighting when someone is seeking acknowledgement for their feelings you think they should not have felt.

The other woman in the group went before me as both navigator and then driver, and made it very clear to everyone it was her first time programming. Mob programming is great in the sense that this is possible, and in addition to remembering her emphasis on not knowing a thing, I remember the joy she felt and expressed on having contributed on creating something. As a total newbie, the group navigated her on the lowest possible level of abstraction. We'd tell her letter by letter what to write, not using conceptual language at all.

So when the next two in the rotation after her were men, the difference of how people navigated her and how they navigated the men was very obvious.

My discomfort came from being bundled together with the other woman. As far as I can see, I did none of the "help me, I know nothing" mannerisms. I sat with the crowd, navigated with the crowd, knew what I was doing. And yet the moment I sat on the driver seat, I was navigated on keystrokes, no concepts. I felt humiliated and paralyzed into a role I hated. The mob navigated me on keystrokes, and I was unable to correct them. I was holding myself together not to ruin things for everyone else.

As soon as the session was over, I expressed my emotions to the facilitator who told me it was all my fault. I would have needed to assert myself by saying "just tell me what the thing is you want me do", I was supposed to not feel like I was just treated as not a programmer but a woman trying programming with a mob, bundled together based on my gender with the other "representative". I missed out on the joy she was feeling, so we were clearly individuals regardless of the bundling.

My lesson of this is that to not offend people in ways they remember years later, you may want to always err on the side of navigating on an abstraction level that is too high rather than too low. Tell the intent and if you see no movement, then tell location and details. If you jump directly to the details, there's a chance you're explaining things your driver won't need, introducing inefficiency as well as making the other feel like they've been weighed on their looks and found not worthy.

It would have felt a lot better if the facilitator would have at least acknowledged my feelings. But as usual, it was a problem with me: me feelings were wrong, as a result of my (lack of) actions.

I rarely volunteered in mobs after this unless they would run a long time, unless I was the only woman or unless the other woman was even more of a programmer in her manners than I was.

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