People Problems

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Robin Rendle on

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Just the other day, Jeremy Keith wrote that problems with performance work isn’t only a matter of optimization and fixing code, but also tackling people problems:

It struck me that there’s a continuum of performance challenges. On one end of the continuum, you’ve got technical issues. These can be solved with technical solutions. On the other end of the continuum, you’ve got human issues. These can be solved with discussions, agreement, empathy, and conversations (often dreaded or awkward).

I think that, as developers, we tend to gravitate towards the technical issues. That’s our safe space. But I suspect that bigger gains can be reaped by tackling the uncomfortable human issues.

This was definitely shocking to learn when I joined a company a few years ago and found that there was a mountain of performance work that I couldn’t do alone. I started trying to teach folks about performance, as well as holding office hours and hopping onto projects and teams that needed help. But I realized that all this work didn’t help. The website I was working on in my spare time was getting slower, despite my best efforts.

Frustrated and exhausted, one day I sat back in my chair and realized that I couldn’t do all this work alone. The real problem was this: there’s no incentive for folks to care. If performance magically improved by ten thousand percent, no one in the company would have noticed. Customers would have noticed, but we all probably wouldn’t have. Except me, because I’m a nerd.

In Ethan Marcotte’s latest talk, he describes this people problem when it comes to design systems:

Creating modular components isn’t the primary goal or even the primary benefit of creating a design system. And what’s more, a focus on process and people always leads to more sustainable systems.

Design systems are about good, quality front-end code just like performance is, too. But if people within an organization are not incentivized to use the components within a library or talk to the design systems team, then that’s where things quickly get bonkers.

I’d maybe simplify this people problem a bit: the codebase is easy to change, but the incentives within a company are not. And yet it’s the incentives that drive what kind of code gets written — what is acceptable, what needs to get fixed, how people work together. In short, we cannot be expected to fix the code without fixing the organization, too.

The most obvious incentives are money and performance ratings, or even hiring a person or team dedicated to this particular line of work. Improving visibility into performance problems and celebrating big wins is another thing that can be done to shift the balance and make folks care more about this whole new area of expertise. But these things really have to come from the top down; not from the the bottom up. At least that’s been true in my experience.

My point here is that there’s no single solution to fix the incentive problem in large organizations. It sounds silly, but in order to make that website, the biggest hurdles to overcome are those incentives. If no one cares about performance work today, then shouting and screaming and being a jerk about it won’t help at all.

Trust me, I have been that jerk.