Software Development is Entirely Too Loud

(me 🙋‍♀️, total introvert)

I recently read Quiet, a book by Susan Cain. It’s a really approachable aggregation of a ton of research around introversion. I read Quiet searching for ways I can be a better teammate to my introverted colleagues, and it did not disappoint. It highlighted a few ways we, software engineers, have built an ecosystem that may neglect introverts.

Before we begin…

So that we have a shared vocabulary, I’d like to share some excerpts from Quiet’s introduction (the only book intro I haven’t skipped):

Introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Introverts feel “just right” with less stimulation. Extroverts enjoy that extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people.

Introverts and extroverts work differently. Extroverts tend to tackle assignments quickly. They make fast decisions, and are comfortable with multitasking and risk-taking. Introverts often work more slowly and deliberately. They like to focus on one task at a time and can have mighty powers of concentration.

Our personalities also shape our social styles. Extroverts are the people who will add life to your dinner party, an laugh generously at your jokes. Introverts, in contrast, may have strong social skills, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family.

And most importantly,

There is no such thing as a pure extrovert or a pure introvert. This is partly because we are all gloriously complex individuals, but also because there are so many different kinds of introverts and extroverts.

Now, we should have a similar idea of introverted and extroverted characteristics. It’s important to remember that people are introverted in entirely unique ways, and in entirely unique contexts. There’s not a “one size fits all” introvert personality. So, for those of us who do have some of the introverted characteristics described above, here are some things we might consider for our work day…

Problem: We like to brainstorm

Stand-ups, Sprint Plannings, Retrospectives, Story Mapping, Product Design Studios. We have so many words and meetings that hinge on the concept of brainstorming IRL.

Except that, IRL group brainstorming isn’t the most optimal way to generate a bunch of ideas.

You produce more ideas alone, than when you’re working with a group, and those ideas are equal or higher quality when working individually.

And performance gets even worse as group size increases.

The one exception to this is online brainstorming. Groups brainstorming electronically, when properly managed, not only do better than individuals, research shows; the larger the group, the better it performs.

So, what can we try instead?

Brainstorm independently. Make decisions IRL.

Let’s look at the Retrospective meeting. We could send out the retro activity in advance, let’s say at the start of the sprint. We could open a Slack thread, or create a Cardboard board for the team to contribute new ideas and riff off of each other. Then at the end of the sprint, we all gather to discuss the ideas from our asynchronous brainstorming, and distill action items or the experiment we’d like to try for the upcoming sprint.

It’s worth noting that the IRL part is still important for social bonding. Physically coming together as a team to discuss and buy into an idea is a vital part in each individual’s ownership of and commitment to what’s being decided.

Problem: We like pair programming

Oh gosh, that hurt to type because I love paring so much. There are so many benefits to pairing: code quality, knowledge sharing, mentoring, etc. Just like group brainstorming, it’s also an important tool for social connections and bonding.

But, what does it cost introverts?

Personal space is vital to creativity.

Indeed, excessive stimulation seems to impede learning: a recent study found that people learn better after a quiet stroll through the woods than after a noisy walk down a city street.

I’ve been on teams where we create a team agreement, “we will pair 100% of time”, or “we can never say no to a pair.” Rules like these are great for establishing the habit of pairing, especially when it’s new and uncomfortable. BUT, it totally ignores the need for creativity in designing software, and the need of those who require personal space in order to do their best thinking.

So, what can we try instead?


Let’s start by getting rid of our absolute rules. 100%. Never. We can try freeing up our mornings to pair, leaving the second half of the day for deep thought and solo brainstorming.

Maybe the team works well pairing on everything. If that’s the case, we can try carving out a few “off” hours throughout the day, for short walks or coffee or a trip to the office library. Anything to restore the introverts on our team for the next pairing session.

Problem: We expect introverts to observe and participate in meetings

As a facilitator, I’ve been coached to make sure that everyone participated in team meetings. Which, I think is extraordinarily important advice. My interpretation of the advice could use a little work, though.

See, I always took “participating” to mean “talking.” But introverts might have trouble analyzing conversations while participating. Introverts are, however, great at analyzing a conversation in which they’re not participating. So, if the goal of the meeting is to absorb or inspect the information being presented, it would be necessary to give introverts the opportunity to observe, rather than speak.

So, what can we try instead?

Cain gave a really good recommendation for introverted children who are required to participate in group activities in school: have the child take on a particular role in the group, like scribe.

This solution totally translates to the workplace too. An introverted teammate may volunteer to take meeting notes. That way, the facilitator knows he’s engaged, without requiring him to verbally contribute.

It seems to me that an introvert allowed to observe would be a valuable person to query for things like feedback after a team meeting.

Problem: We bond teams with social, highly stimulating activities

We plan team lunches where we talk over the hum of the busy lunch crowd. We plan team dinners where we chat noisily around one large table. We plan happy hours where we drink in loud bars. We plan paintball outings where the buzz of adrenaline fills our ears as we shoot and are shot at for hours.

So, what can we try instead?

  1. Order in lunch.
  2. At team dinner, gather around a few, small tables, rather than one large one.
  3. Find a quiet dive bar before the happy hour crowd arrives.
  4. Be more creative when it comes to group activities. Maybe the team would be interested in a group trip to the library, a museum, a yoga class. Something social, but with less stimulation.

Problem: We don’t have enough extroverts.

“But… Author! you were just ranting that the software world caters too much to extroverts. Now you’re saying we need more of them?!”

We designed a world around extroverted activities (see above), and yet, how many developers are actually extroverts? In my company, I’d bet around 10% (totally unfounded gut-feel, turned data point).

Cain stresses the importance of introvert-extrovert pairings. Pairs like Rosa Parks and MLK Jr, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, or Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.

Yet the two types [introverts and extroverts] are often drawn to each other - in friendship, business, and especially romance. These pairs can enjoy great excitement and mutual admiration, a sense that each completes the other. One tends to listen, the other tends to talk; one is sensitive to beauty, but also to slings and arrows, while the other barrels cheerfully through his days…

There are a ton of valuable dichotomies, between introverts and extroverts, like the ones above, littered throughout the book. And so I’m curious if we, software companies, have enough extroverts to balance our heavily introverted demographic?

So, what can we try instead?

We should start with verifying my assumption that the number of introverts in the company far outweigh the number of extroverts. If the assumption turns out to be valid, then we would need to take a look at how to attract and hire more extroverts.

Written on February 10, 2020