Becoming a Better Developer, Part 1: Making Fans

This is the first of what I hope to become an ongoing series about non-technical ways to improve yourself as a developer.

Becoming a better developer involves more than learning new technical skills; learning about your company and co-workers will dramatically improve the software you build. One of the most important lessons I learned during the first year of my career is to be so nice to the people around you that they can’t help but become your biggest fans.

When I graduated from college I began working for an electrical contractor in Northern California; the company where my dad has worked for 37 years. My first year of management training was spent shadowing the Chairman of the Board followed by a foray into managing construction projects. During that first year I was anxious to be accepted by the office staff and tried my best not be viewed as the kid out of college who was given a job because of my dad. As a result I went out of my way to spend time talking to people around the office, asking about their lives and families, and making conversation with pretty much everyone I met. Word got around quickly that I worked hard and I was a nice guy.

I didn’t realize the side effects of this reputation until a year later, when I went into the field and began managing projects.

Downtown Los Angeles

The first projects were overwhelming for me. I’m the type of person who needs to be in control, and on a construction site everything feels out of control until you get used to how it works (and even then everything’s out of control). So I was constantly calling the office, asking for favors and looking for answers to question. To my surprise people were willing to help me. It was like someone had gone around and asked everyone to make sure I was taken care of. And one day I realized it: unintentionally, that someone was me.

When I invested time in my co-workers I was unconsciously making them see me as someone they could talk to; someone who cared about them. This empathy meant that when I called they took the time to understand my dilemma and did everything in their power to ensure I got out of it alive, even if they had to drop what they were doing to help me. This is the power of making fans.

As an aside, I’m not suggesting that you build false relationships in pursuit of fans. That’s a lot like writing fake grass-roots letters in hope of creating a buzz; you’re going to get caught and it’s not going to be pretty.

I am suggesting that you invest in building genuine relationships with your co-workers, especially those in other departments who you would normally not have contact with. If nothing else you will learn to empathize with them so you can one day feel good about dropping everything to help them out.

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