The 'Scenius' of Software Engineering
By John Durrant
The ‘Scenius’ of Software Engineering
The unrecognised importance of the cultural environment in the flourishing of genius, with particular regard to Software Engineering.
Brian Eno, the unconventional musician and pioneer producer involved with Roxy Music, Talking Heads, U2 and his own ambient works, recognises the role one’s cultural surroundings play in providing a substrate for the emergence of genius. He asserts that the geniuses of art history such as Picasso, Rembrandt, and Shostakovich all lived in and drew from very active flourishing cultural scenes. He suggests that genius doesn't emerge within an individual unless they are fed by a nourishing scene. So Eno combines Scene and Genius to give us the idea of a ‘Scenius’, the intelligence and the intuition of a whole cultural scene, or the communal form of the concept of genius.
Evidence of the fertile nature of a Scenius is everywhere in the arts, science, and in business. From the Agoras, Stoas, Academies, and Symposiums within the intellectual scene of Ancient Greek Culture from which emerged the insights of Pythagoras, Archimedes, Hippocrates, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle - through to the cultural vibe of the Renaissance and Enlightenment, to the many musical scenes that birthed genius in Delta Blues, New Orleans Jazz, Nashville Country, Memphis Soul, Detroit Motown, Merseybeat, Jamaican Reggae, Berlin Electronic Music Scene, Seattle Grunge, Britpop, and East/West Coast Rap. In business, we see the technical innovation surrounding the Silicon Valley scene and the competitive rivalries between Ferrari and Lamborghini that emerged from the Motor Valley scene in Northern Italy. The Scenius catalyses the emergence of genius through the energy, the competition, the support networks, and the inspiration and excitement of the prevailing culture.
Hollywood often depicts the software engineer as the loner genius misfit archetype. The hyper-rational, socially-inadequate, sunlight-deprived obsessive whose superior coding skills and frenetic typing speed give them an air of dominance over their complex computer systems and the mere mortals that depend upon them. In our incessant transformation from the analogue world to the digital promised land the Software Engineer has ultimate control. But as with all depictions in the movies, this is a gross mischaracterisation. From my experience of working with software engineers across many different teams, I’ve found few that conform to the hacker stereotype in films, and as people, they can be the most humble, thoughtful, self-aware and ethical souls you could ever meet.
Modern software development is a team sport. Collaboration is normalised with philosophies such as Agile, and the loner engineer as the gatekeeper of a single system is an anti-pattern, to use an engineering term, which would signify a risk to the business due to creating an intolerably low ‘bus factor’ - another engineering term relating to the number of people who could be hit by a bus before we are left without anyone who knows how the system works. The genius software engineer certainly wows us with their technical wizardry as they work their digital sorcery, but this only comes through years of experience in a fertile culture of learning, and they must also have an accompanying social genius in their armoury as such a large part of their value is in mentoring, partnering, collaborating, and articulating their work to others.
I’ve worked in software engineering environments that have been fairly fertile, convivial scenes with a high degree of trust and autonomy and dependability between people, where we feel safe to innovate and learn from mistakes as we seek continual improvement. I’ve also worked in environments that feel sterile, where engineer apathy prevails, where people can’t take risks without fearing blame, and where they don’t feel they can take ownership of issues. The resulting software is overly complex, delivered late, costly to maintain, and fails to engender a sense of pride in its creators.
Psychologist Kurt Lewin gives us a formula which appeals to the algorithmic interests of engineers: B = f(P,E)
Where Behaviour is a function of the Person and their Environment. Dr. W. Edwards Deming, father of the Total Quality movement reinforces this thinking by stating “The fact is that the system that people work in and the interaction with people may account for 90 to 95 percent of performance.” - with our tendency to focus on individual performance, I would argue that most of us overlook the hidden influence of the prevailing cultural environment.
Culture is hard to grasp, and hard to measure, because it is a ‘tacit knowing’, to borrow from Michael Polanyi, we intuitively know if we are immersed in a good culture by how we feel in our participation with others. Genius engineers recognise that they are part of the system and that software is crafted and delivered not through servers but through relationships with others. In my management positions, I know I can’t impose culture, but I do try wherever possible to remind engineers that we co-create our relationships through our behaviours and therefore co-create the system. We can model good (or bad) culture in our behaviours and that becomes contagious. We can collectively foster the conditions for the emergence of our own micro-Scenius which in turn will re-enforce our collective genius, promoting our sense of engagement with our work. We are the system and we have more individual influence than we realise.
According to the State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report by Gallup, employee engagement has reached dizzying heights of 23%, largely due to a recent surge in engagement in South Asia. In the UK it is up a whole percentage point to a whopping 10% among a European average of 13%. Only one in ten people in the UK engaged in their work is an indictment of a sterile culture, a non-Scenius. The cost of disengaged workers is huge. Gallup claims that actively disengaged employees and low engagement costs the global economy $8.8 trillion dollars, or 9% of global GDP.
A fertile engineering culture with engaged engineers brings hard benefits. As a hiring manager, it is much less costly to add to our collective genius when we can talk honestly with candidates about working in a strong culture. Attrition rates are lower as people can grow within the culture, retaining knowledge and generating a higher bus factor. A high degree of trust means that engineers can fearlessly expose reality, calling out risks and failures rather than letting them fester, producing better quality software that is more cost-effective to maintain in the long run.
We don’t create good cultures by injecting lovely-sounding company values into our corporate literature, we create human-centric cultures by tending to human needs - people have fundamental needs to be seen, heard, and understood, as well as the needs of belonging and contribution. Company executives have the same fundamental needs as the software developers stoking the digital furnaces in the engine room. I believe that executives sincerely want their people to be part of a thriving culture, but we all get trapped in the thinking and the language of the industrial age - inputs, outputs, productivity, efficiency, and other ‘work jargon’, all caught up in the cult of measurement - when we might benefit more from the language of the horticultural era, the language of planting seeds in a fertile ecosystem, knowing that the hard benefits of innovation, operational efficiency, and engineer productivity will ensue with sufficient nourishment and care. Culture defies easy measurement of industrial machine-like thinking, only qualitative surveys in the style of the methodology of the Gallup polls will yield insights, but we have to be careful about the conclusions drawn, I’ve seen the results of culture-based surveys weaponised against the employees when executives didn’t like the results.
Culture is currently ‘homeless’ in organisations, no-one knows who is responsible for it. If you are an external provider of culture-related services, who do you sell to? Do you use the language of the industrialist or the horticulturist? Often, culture gets kicked into HR as a people or resourcing problem. I would argue that it is actually our combined responsibility to nurture and foster a cultural Scenius through our own behaviours, principles and the quality of the relationships we create. This can only be done by acknowledging our humanity, the good parts and the bad parts, and having an evolving conversation about a shared ideal for thriving company cultures which bring out the best in our humanity.
We spend much of our waking lives in work, we have an ethical obligation to one another to not make it miserable and to encourage a Scenius in which we all can thrive.
Ref: State of the Global Workplace 2023 Report by Gallup
About the author
John Durrant has been dabbling in software since the birth of the home computer era in the 80s and has managed several teams of software engineers, seeing how genius flourishes in the right environment. John also keeps up a daily fitness regime of cycling and kayaking and indulges his creative urges as a multi-instrumentalist.
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