055: Change Ourselves a Little, Many Times with Keith Bennett


Jessica Kerr | Sam Livingston-Gray | Astrid Countee | Jasmine Greenaway

Guest Starring:

Keith Bennett: @keithrbennett | about.me/keithrbennett | Bennett Business Solutions

Show Notes:

00:16 – Welcome to “Metamours United For Frequent Dialogue” …we mean, “Greater Than Code!”

01:47 – Keith’s Background and Superpower

10:03 – Conflict Resolution

Open Spaces session on Conflict Resolution this summer at DevOpsDays D.C. (and the precursor to this conversation)

Difficult Conversations: How To Discuss What Matters Most

12:01 – Opinions on Mediators/Mediation

14:21 – Approaching Conflict

News Story Re: Portland Murders

17:31 – Radical Helpfulness/Kindness

Keith Bennett: Kaizen and Radical Helpfulness

The Smoke Filled Room

20:49 – Being Okay with Being Different and Speaking Up

Triumph Over Fear: A Book of Help and Hope for People with Anxiety, Panic Attacks and Phobias

Congressive/Ingressive Chat with Dr. Eugenia Cheng

Join Our Slack Channel!
Support us via Patreon!

31:17 – Fire Alarms and Radical Helpfulness (Cont’d)

35:50 – Knowing When to Step Back or to Step Forward


Astrid: The way to change ourselves a lot is to change ourselves a little, many times.

Sam: Decide that you’re okay with being different and training yourself to be bold.

Jasmine: Be mindful of yourself and your actions.

Jessica: There’s a lot of conscious thought and choice in both being helpful and resolving conflict.

Keith: Working together to create a safer and happier world.

Are you Greater Than Code?
Submit guest blog posts to mandy@greaterthancode.com

Please leave us a review on iTunes!


JESSICA:  Good morning and welcome to Episode 55 of ‘Metamours United For Frequent Dialogue — MUFFD.’ I am happy to be here today with Sam Livingston-Gray.

SAM:  Thank you, Jessica and I’m pretty sure this is still Greater Than Code but I love that also. I’m also really thrilled to introduce my friend and co-panelist, Astrid Countee.

ASTRID:  Thanks, Sam. I think we need our own really cool acronyms so that it’ll be easier for us to [inaudible] introductions but I would like to welcome our new panelist, Jasmine Greenaway. Take it away, Jasmine.

JASMINE:  Hello. I am Jasmine. I’m super happy to be here. I am based in New York City in nice, beautiful Brooklyn where the lattes and kale is abundant — and the kombucha, can’t forget that kombucha — and I’m a Cloud Developer Advocate at Microsoft.

SAM:  And our guest today is Keith Bennett. Keith is a long time software developer who started his software development career writing an in-house accounting package for a construction company on an Apple II in Applesoft BASIC. That takes me back. He’s worked with several languages since and has been working mostly with Ruby for the last few years. He’s lived on four continents and now spends most of his time split between Chiang Mai, Thailand and Reston, Virginia, a suburb of Washington DC. His other interests include karaoke, current events, foreign languages, massage, technical community and becoming a better human being. You can find him on Twitter, GitHub and LinkedIn as KeithRBennett — two N’s, two T’s. Welcome to the show, Keith.

KEITH:  Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

JESSICA:  Keith, we often like to start the show by asking you for your origin story. What is your superpower and how did you get it?

KEITH:  If I could think of one superpower that I have and I don’t know that I have any but one thing that I did think when I thought about this question was I’m pretty good at explaining things to people and understanding what they mean. Sometimes, I’ll be in a conversation and I’ll notice that the two people talking are just not understanding each other at all and I’ll step in and say, “Did you mean blah-blah-blah?” and just expressing that in a different way, seemed to enlighten the group and help people understand each other better.

ASTRID:  Keith, this is a trait that you’ve always had or is this something that you actually worked on over time and got good at?

KEITH:  I’m not sure. I think it improved over the years. I’m a pretty introspective person and trying to understand my thoughts, my actions and their effect on other people and that includes the other direction — thinking about the thoughts and actions of others and how they affect me. I guess just focusing on that helps.

SAM:  You seemed to be in some doubt and in my book, that definitely qualifies as a superpower.

KEITH:  Thank you, Sam.

SAM:  I find, sometimes just being able to notice when two people are using the same word to mean two different things, just noticing and identifying that one thing can make a huge difference in their conversation.

KEITH:  Absolutely. A shared vocabulary is so important.

JESSICA:  Yeah and when you think you share a vocabulary and you don’t is the worst. It’s like the word ‘persistence’ in functional versus OO development or property. We use this totally differently and it confuses the snot out of people.

KEITH:  Yeah.

ASTRID:  There’s a lot of stuff in your bio. I would love to hear more about your origin story and how all those little pieces came in.

KEITH:  I grew up in New York City, graduated high school when I was 16, went to college for a year, got bored, went to Europe, drove around in a motorcycle for six months, lived in Sweden above the Arctic Circle for free, couldn’t find a job so I studied the Swedish language so I speak a little bit, joined a very unconventional religious group for nine years of my early adulthood, left it, live in the Central African Republic for three months of that time, got married, had a child, studied accounting in school. As I was working as a bookkeeper and accountant, I started getting interested in computers because we got a computer at our office that was a turnkey hardware and software combined system for client accounting.

I found that there were a couple of basic manuals in the drawer that I could actually get to do things that it wasn’t already programmed to do and it was really exciting because as a bookkeeper/accountant, you have a calculator and the only thing that you really have to work with is a single register. There’s no instructions they can give. You can just store one value. To have this incredible machine that had so many possible storage areas and an infinitely flexible behavior was super exciting to me.

Although I continued to study accounting part time at night so that I could just have a degree, I realized that I was way more interested and enthusiastic about software development than I was about in accounting so I never became an accountant. I had the help of a mentor/friend who helped me learn C language in the beginning but after that, it was totally self-taught. I didn’t have any formal education in computer science or programming, which in a way is unfortunate but in other way is not because I have a feeling I would have lost interest if I had. I got a D in my first computer course. It was about mainframes and it really wasn’t a very interesting course and it wasn’t like it is now, anyway.

SAM:  Yeah, the nice thing about when you started is that you came in at a time when it was possible to understand everything about the machine you were working on.

KEITH:  Yeah, almost. I downloaded the assembly language but didn’t get too far but it was certainly a much more limited scope than it is now. Much, much more, I agree. I lived in the Washington DC area shortly after I started my career so some of my jobs were in governments, some were in commercials. Most of them were in places that were kind of rigid. It’s totally different from the startup culture today and the more flexible culture of today. To be honest, there are a lot of jobs that I had where I felt like I was just one cog in a huge machine and had a very narrow responsibility.

I didn’t really learn that much. I wasn’t really happy and in addition, I had some really good managers and I had some really bad managers and over the years, I just realized how incredibly connected my human experience was to my happiness in the workplace. How important it was to have people that were understanding and flexible and inquisitive and energetic? I started to see more and more how things were so much an issue of human interaction and not so much about technical things so I decided to think about that more and talk about that more and that’s when I started writing about it. I am very interested in how we can improve the human condition and I want to try to do my part to help.

JASMINE:  That’s wonderful. Keith, I noticed something you said in the beginning about your origin story. You said you live in the Arctic Circle for a bit. Can you talk a little bit about that? That’s really fascinating.

KEITH:  I was 18. I went to Europe. I bought a motorcycle. I started riding and I got tired of industrial cities and I asked people, “Where should I go?” It’s different from where I’ve been. One person said, “Go up to Lapland,” and I say, “Where’s Lapland?” Oh, it’s the northern part of Sweden and Finland and Norway. I looked into it and I took a ferry from Denmark to Finland and rode up the way to Finland, cross the border and arrived in the town called [inaudible], which is above the Arctic Circle. I was greeted at a gas station by another motorcyclist who started talking to me and he said, “Do you want to meet my club?” I said, “Sure.”

I followed him out of town and it was about six kilometers and I was wondering where am I going? Is it going to be a motorcycle gang? Is my life in danger and everything? We ride up into this club and there’s like seven to eight bikes out there and they were the nicest people. I decided to stay in that town where I stayed for about three months. They let me sleep in their motorcycle club house. I didn’t have a place to stay. One of them, his father was a parliament member and he took me under his wing and introduced me to people there.

It was really a very interesting experience, [inaudible] without any skills at all. Although I wanted to find work, I couldn’t so I spent all day just studying Swedish. This friend, Johnny has a sister helped to teach me Swedish and I continue to study a bit after I returned home. It was August when I arrived and by November, it was already about 30 degrees below zero. The Northern Lights were gorgeous but it was too cold for me and it was too cold to ride a motorbike.

JASMINE:  Was that in Fahrenheit or in Celsius?

KEITH:  I think they kind of converged at about that value.

SAM:  If Celsius, it’s -44, I believe. Any time you’re in the negatives on either scale, I’m like, “We’re done.”


KEITH:  And that’s why I live in Thailand during the winter whenever I can.

JESSICA:  I was wondering what the balance was for Thailand.

KEITH:  Yeah, it’s partly a climate thing but it’s also I’m tired of the stressful life in America. There’s so much conflict here and so much stress. I just want to go somewhere else and relax. I stay in Chiang Mai a lot of the time. It’s a wonderful place.

JESSICA:  Why come back?

KEITH:  Because I have a daughter and I want to stay connected with her. She’s grown up. There’s that and also, I found that I really enjoy coming home and reconnecting with friends. I just went to bootcamp last weekend and that was an amazing experience and one that I hope to repeat every year. There are things to appreciate about being an American too. I love this country and I love other countries as well.

JESSICA:  Keith, I think you said the word conflict. You said the one reason you go to Thailand is because there’s less conflict there. I believe you do some work to reduce the conflict that we have here.

KEITH:  I try to butt in whenever I can and whenever I think I can be helpful. It was in conference so I just proposed the subject conflict resolution. I got up in front of everybody and I said, “I want to talk about conflict resolution. I don’t really have any solutions but I want to hear yours.” We got a group of really good people who shared some interesting experiences and got some good ideas from that.

JESSICA:  What are some of the suggestions you’ve got? What did you learn?

KEITH:  One of them, which I echoed was to read the book ‘Difficult Conversations.’ I found that kind of slow and difficult to read at times but it has some incredible ideas about understanding the other person’s point of view and resolving the situation. One of them was by, rather than assuming that a problem is due to one person or the other being totally at a fault, understand that usually, it’s more nuanced than that and each party has some responsibility in the problem. I gave an example of a time when that happened to friend of mine.

Another thing was to listen first. We always want to be right and provide a solution and be the hero and everything but a lot of times, we just need to listen and understand what the other person is saying. Sometimes, they just need to feel listened to so we have to suppress ourselves and our, “It’s not about me. It’s about you. It’s about everyone.”

JESSICA:  I like that phrase — it’s not about me. I use that a lot when there is any conflict and I start to feel defensive at almost everything, another person says or how they react to me is about their situation, much more than it is about me.

JASMINE:  Keith, I have a question. How do you feel about mediators? I asked that because mediator’s purpose is to be the neutral party between two numbers of people who are trying to work something out. I’m curious, do you think mediation is ever harmful or like the ways it can be harmful and helpful?

KEITH:  First of all, let me say that I do not at all consider myself a scholar or an expert on conflict resolution but I’ll be happy to share my personal opinion. I think mediation is extremely helpful as long as both or all parties are open to it. If they’re not, then it’s kind of a waste of time, I think. But if so, mediators are skilled at understanding one person’s point of view and sometimes expressing it in a way that is understandable to the other and also in initiating or suggesting a compromise, which may not have thought about otherwise.

JASMINE:  How do you feel when mediators are trying to stay in that narrow road in that middle lane and one party is mentioning they feel offended by that, that this mediator is saying, “I’m trying to stay neutral into this,” and the other person or party might say, “That’s wrong. Why are you not taking a side?” Maybe it’s a moral thing or maybe it’s a big priority to one person but might not be to the other. How do you feel about that? What are your credence on that?

KEITH:  I’ve had personal experiences in mediation where this happened to me and it’s extremely frustrating. I don’t know the answer. I guess we just have to think of the two sub-optimal paths, which one is the better one and hope that when it all resolves out in the net, that it’s better.

JASMINE:  Yeah, I know. I’m sorry for asking you such a hard question. That’s a question I’ve been actually thinking about for a while now.

KEITH:  It would be really interesting to get mediators on the show and talk about their experiences in mediating people. That would be wonderful.

JASMINE:  Oh, yeah.

SAM:  Keith, do you have a framework for conflict resolution that you use or you just go in there and wing it according to what seems right at the moment? How do you approach this?

KEITH:  You know, I’m not really a scholar or anything about this. I haven’t read a ton of books or anything. I do just kind of wing it. Sometimes, you have to make a decision not to enter the situation at all, if there’s a threat of physical danger for example. I think about the two men who lost their lives helping the two Muslim girls in Portland and they’re my heroes. There are not too many of us that are willing to risk our lives to do the right thing. It’s a personal decision.

Sometimes the question is ‘if’ and not ‘how.’ As far as how, I just try to do the right thing. Sometimes [inaudible] and sometimes I don’t. The other day, I wanted to go to a co-working place. I went to a great place I’d like to go to in Chantilly, Virginia but it was all full so I had to go somewhere else. I drove to about 10 minutes to another coffee shop, got in there and all of the tables were filled except one. That table was between myself and a man two tables down from me. He had his backpack on the bench just almost where that middle person would have been sitting. I got really angry. I thought this guy should know better and I thought about, “Well, what am I going to do here? I’m going to say something or not?” If I say something, is my anger going to show and will it be counterproductive or will it have a happy ending when the person says, “Oh, yeah. I’m sorry. You’re right.”

Eventually, I decided to say something about it and I said, “Excuse me. Is that your bag?” and he said, “Yeah.” I said, “Would you mind moving it to the chair across from you so that if somebody is coming here, they don’t think that the table is taken.” He got very angry —

SAM:  Really?

KEITH:  — And he started being sarcastic and nasty. I tried to dive under my emotions and say the ‘calm’ thing in response to him. There were some interchanges and eventually, I just decided that I’ve done all that I can do here without escalating it to an unacceptable level so I’m going to stop now and he left the bag there.

There are a lot of obstacles to initiating an action like that. One of them is the possibility that you’ll fail anyway and another is that you’ll be verbally abused or at least disrespected. Another is that you’d be physically abused and there are others as well. Sometimes, we’re just shy to do something which other people don’t already do. We don’t want to be different. I’ve decided that I don’t mind being different and if there’s something I can do to help people around me and it’s not going to hurt me to do it, I’m going to try to do it even if it’s weird or embarrassing or whatever because we only have one life on this Earth, why not spend it trying to help each other. When we help each other, we’re helping ourselves. It’s kind of a cliché but it’s really true that when I help somebody, I feel really good and I enjoy it.

When I wrote this blog article about radical helpfulness and another term for that could be radical kindness, there is so much conflict now these days in our country and all over, really. I feel like a lot of it is because we’ve become so distant from each other. We hang around in our own virtual and ideological worlds. The one thing that we can do is perform acts of kindness totally agnostics to our beliefs. I saw a great news article many months ago. There was a pro- and anti-Trump demonstration and one of the anti-Trump demonstrator is an adult. I forget exactly what he did but I think he said something really nasty to a young boy, maybe eight years old and the boy started crying.

One of the anti-Trump demonstrators, a woman went up to the boy and comforted him. I thought, what a beautiful story. This is what we should be doing more. This is what we should be talking about. If we can make those connections, then maybe we have a shot at reducing the amount of violence, negativity, hate, conflict, selfishness that plagues our society, that plagues humanity. Now more than ever, we don’t have time to be bickering. Human race has existential problems that we need to be addressing. We need a thousand Manhattan Projects on how to deal with climate change. There are so many things, so many problems that we have. We don’t have time to be messing around this little stuff. We have to start thinking about our future — future of our children. It’s really important.

SAM:  Something you said early on in there really strikes a chord with me about just being willing to take that first step and that puts me in mind of a psychology study, which you can find by Googling ‘psychology’ and ‘the smoke-filled room.’ This is an experiment where they had people come in and the experimental subject was asked to fill out a questionnaire. There were some number of confederates in the room as well, who were also pretending to fill out a questionnaire.

The real experiment was they started piping smoke into the room through other room’s vents. The experiment was to see what the person would do. What they found was that a lot of the people in this experiment would sit there and they would see the smoke and then they would look around to see what everybody else was doing and the confederates were instructed to stay calm and just keep filling out their surveys. People would take a remarkably long time to actually respond to the smoke, to the extent that if there had been an actual fire, they probably would have been dead. That really speaks to me about what you were saying about the willingness to just take that first step. That can be, as you say radical.

KEITH:  Absolutely and I find that a very good antidote for that is karaoke. It sounds ridiculous but actually it’s really true because when I first started doing karaoke about 20 years ago, I felt very shy, I didn’t feel comfortable doing something that’s going outside of myself. We really have to overcome our shyness in that respect because it’s really a fear. It’s really an insecurity like how could I do something that other people are doing and it’s inappropriate and it’s not constructive.

ASTRID:  Keith, to go back to what you said about how you had to decide that you’re okay with being different, I think that that decision is something that’s hard for a lot of people. Many people even consider that that might be something that they need to think about because what you’re talking about with making certain decisions and choosing to say something or not say something, also means that you have to have some sort of self-awareness. It seems like to one of the earlier points that we spend so much time in our virtual worlds that we don’t really spend that much time thinking about who we are or what we want, what kind of impression we want to make on others. Do you have any advice for how somebody who maybe notices that they would like to feel a little more intentional before it could get started?

KEITH:  You mean besides the karaoke?

ASTRID:  Besides karaoke.

KEITH:  I think it’s just practice. A few years ago, I had a fear of flying. Whenever I would be in a plane and I heard some noises or I feel some vibration, I would be frightened and I would think, “What does this mean? What going on?” I read a book called ‘Triumph Over Fear.’ It was a great book and eventually, I resolved my fear of flying by taking a couple of flying lessons and feeling what it was like to dive and to feel 2 gees and that kind of thing and understanding that the sensation I was feeling on the plane were nothing compared with what would happen if there were a serious problem.

But the reason I’m mentioning this is that the approach that she use in the book, Triumph Over Fear was that she would take people of very gradually through their phobias. I don’t think it’ll be too inappropriate to call it a phobia when somebody is afraid to reach out. I believe, it was long time ago that I read the book but I believe the example was of a lady who was afraid of high floors and tall buildings. She brought the woman to a building and she said, “How far can you go before you start feeling uncomfortable?” She said, “Oh, maybe 10 feet in front of the elevator.” She said, “Okay, let’s walk 10 feet from the elevator,” and then she said, “You think you could take one more step?” She took one more step, then maybe that was it for the day and they went home. They kept on doing this. After a few sessions, she was already on the 10th floor.

My point in saying this is that we can hack ourselves, we can change ourselves and the way to change ourselves a lot, I believe is to change ourselves a little many times. We can ask ourselves in a situation, “How far am I willing to go before I start feeling uncomfortable?” and then ask yourself, “What can I do in addition to that? How much further can I go in addition to that without feeling super-uncomfortable?” and doing that. Once we start exercising that muscle more and more, we can make more progress than we would otherwise. A lot of times we cripple ourselves by just thinking about where it is you want to go and we look at how far that is and we think, “Oh, man. I’m never going to get there so I’m going to try,” and that’s unfortunate.

JASMINE:  I can so identify with you on the fear flying. My strategy was very similar as yours. I did not learn how to fly but I read a bunch of books on flying. I read a blog post about this pilot who basically has his blog about folks who are afraid of flying and he goes through the whole entire process. He’s like, “When you take off, you’re going to hear the landing gear drop. It might sound a little funny. It sounds funny from plane to plane. Every plane sounds different but these are the normal things or the things that you’re probably going to hear,” because that was a big thing for me. It’s just the sounds. For me, working through that and trying to face those things, I kind of read about it and be like, “Okay, I can do this. I can do this,” and I also started very, very small, very few short trips and then worked my way up. That definitely resonates with me. It’s little by little.

KEITH:  That’s great.

JESSICA:  Keith, the discussion about fear of being different reminds me of a conversation we had in this podcast with Eugenia Cheng, where she defined the words congressive and ingressive, where congressive is behavior and needs that are about helping everyone — we want to be part of the group and advance the group. Ingressive is it’s about me — I want to advance myself. As humans, we naturally have a lot of congressive urges and we get rewards from things that help everyone. I think this whole part of not wanting to be different from the group is part of our congressiveness.

Personally, I use that word congressive inhibition, which I made up, which is that impulse that holds us back from standing out or doing something that might annoy other people. That fear of being different in some ways is part of us wanting to do things to help everyone but it can hold us back too much.

KEITH:  Yeah, a lot of it is just trying to make and form judgment about where that line is.

JESSICA:  Yeah, you’re right. It’s about learning that because that part where you don’t want to stand out, that is part of you wanting to help the world. That’s not something bad about you but there’s a balance where you can help a little more by being different in some situations.

KEITH:  I agree. That question about, “Is this going to be annoying or helpful?” is an important one but I think only for a subset of behaviors because there are some behaviors that are indisputably beneficial and there is no really gray area. I have mentioned in an article about one time when I was at a hotel in Toronto and there was a fire alarm and we were all told to leave the building. We were out there for 20 minutes and I saw this family who had apparently been swimming and they were freezing. I just walked up to one of the hotel staff and I said, “That family over there, they look really cold. Could somebody get them some towels or something?” so he did and in that case, there really wasn’t any kind of downside to acting but I’ve had to condition myself to do that, to be the one to go up and say something.

Just a couple of days ago, I was at my gym and they were playing on the TV a political commentary show, which was not really news, it was commentary. It was about Donald Trump and I won’t even mention which side it was on. It was actually on the side that I support and I said to the man there, “I think a lot of people would feel bad seeing this on TV. Can we put it on something more neutral?” He said, “Nobody’s ever complained about it before and I get that a lot because I am more vocal than anybody I know.” What I should have said was, “Someone just did.”

JESSICA:  Yeah, there’s often that unspoken thought that everyone has and no one wants to be the one to say because you do you risk that rejection, right?

KEITH:  Yes.

JESSICA:  I asked myself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” and really, usually the worst that can happen is somebody says, “No, don’t do that,” and then I say, “Okay.”

KEITH:  I was at a seminar on Kanban and had lunch. It took about 15 or 20 minutes for everybody to get fed. Later, the leader of the session said, “I noticed that at lunch time, it took a very long time for people to be fed. The table was up against the wall so there was only one line of people that could have gotten through. If you have moved the table a few feet over, you would have had two lines and it would have taken half the time.” I thought to myself, that’s really true. If I had thought of that, would I have said anything or if I would’ve said anything, why would I have not said anything? There are so many reasons —

JESSICA:  Yeah, there are a lot of reasons and those reasons are usually like, “Maybe, there’s a reason that the tables up against the wall.” There’s a lot of reasons for things that we can’t just see but what’s the cost of asking, of suggesting? There really is that personal risk of projection. I think some of us are more sensitive to that than others. Personally, I’m really not so my theory is, “I’ll ask because it’ll cost me less if I’m wrong than it might someone else.”

ASTRID:  I understand the feeling of not wanting to say something but I also grew up in a family with a grandmother who was that person who said something. There were very many times, where we would go to the store and then they would bring up her stuff and it was not the price that it said. A lot of people would be like, “It’s a few cents. It’s not a big deal.” My grandmother is like, “No, that’s not what it is.” She would stop the whole line. She didn’t care because to her, it was, “Why should I have to pay for your mistake?” She thought that was important enough because she felt like, “If I don’t say anything, then other people are going to have to pay for this too and that’s crazy.” That’s her attitude about a lot of that. More so, the idea of how can you help the group, for her it means, I speak up, as opposed to I don’t because I don’t want to ruffle feathers.

JESSICA:  Nice. That behavior of speaking up is actually congressive.

ASTRID:  Yes. There was a trip we took where we were all on this bus together going somewhere. We were going between states and this woman had these little confetti things she was popping because they believe it was 4th of July, which was annoying and she was close to us. My grandmother stood up and said, “Excuse me,” and I don’t remember all the words because I was cowering in my chair but she said basically like, “What you’re doing is very loud and rude and you’re getting confetti in other people and I would very much appreciate it if you stop because it’s not necessary,” and the woman was like, “Well, nobody said anything,” but then after my grandmother sat down, the entire bus started clapping.

They all felt this way but they were so afraid to say anything and my grandmother was saying, “The bus driver must have said something because that’s the person with some authority but if they’re not going to speak up, then I’m going to speak up because this is crazy and we shouldn’t have to go through this because this woman doesn’t have manners.”

SAM:  Right. All of this is reminding me of a conversation we had yesterday in our Slack channel. By the way, if you’re listening to this and you’re not in our Slack channel, you can get into there by going to Patreon.com/GreaterThanCode and donating any amount. We have some really interesting conversations in there but yesterday we were talking about fire alarms because Jessica posted something in there about fire alarms and their function as a tool to make some of these decisions a little bit easier. Jess, you want to talk about that a little?

JESSICA:  There was that thing where we talked about it earlier, we did experiment where people didn’t get up —

SAM:  Uhm-mm, the smoke-filled room.

JESSICA:  Right and it turns out that if you turn on a fire alarm, then they get up and they go out.

ASTRID:  It’s like the permission thing.


SAM:  Yeah, I think you dropped a tweet in the guest questions channel about how fire alarms aren’t useful because they tell you there’s fire. They’re useful because they tell you it’s socially acceptable to react.

JESSICA:  Right and then Jacob pointed out that also when the smoke detector goes off, no one panics because a smoke detector is a socially acceptable and calm way to announce a fire, as opposed to running around screaming. Yet, a great comparison to linting, like pointing out that you’ve forgotten a semicolon at the end of this line might be constructive but it’s annoying as hell so we have the linter do it. The fire alarms are kind of like that too so that we can build automated machines to do that interruption, that pointing out activity for us when it’s socially painful to have a person point out that you put a space after your stupid curly brace.

SAM:  I wonder if there are ways that we can use our processes, build these points into our workflows, where we can have checkpoints and make sure that everything is going smoothly and make it socially acceptable to say, “I noticed this thing.”

JESSICA:  My friend Emma, to her job currently, to notice failed builds and pester the developers who’s built failed after she determines that it wasn’t just a transit in failure and this is hard for her. We’re currently working on an automation for this using Atomist — plugged for my work — but there’s reasons I work there and one of them is because she’s building an automation to look at the build log, determine why it failed and then ping the developer. When a bot does it, there’s not that social cost. Keith, you called this radical helpfulness?

KEITH:  Yes and it’s important that it be radical because you want to go well beyond our normal level of healthfulness and even our comfort level.

JESSICA:  So it’s radical because it’s uncomfortable. I like that because the name gives us permission to be uncomfortable in order to be helpful.

SAM:  Yeah.

JESSICA:  There’s something that you talked about way back at the beginning and it’s when you said and this is why I laughed at that at the time, “I try to butt in whenever I can, whenever I think I can be helpful.” But then you immediately followed that up with one of the things you can do to be helpful is listen and that it’s not about you. In this radical helpfulness, in fact if you feel really good about it like, “I’m so badass. I am going to move this table,” then it becomes about you and there’s a decent chance you’re not being helpful at all. Unlike if you walk into someone’s conversation and maybe they don’t want you there. That’s a question. You mentioned, you heard two people who are not communicating, how do you ask them whether they want your help at all?

KEITH:  I guess it depends on the context. I mentioned in a blog article and also in the conflict resolution meeting that we had, I had a situation where a couple of my coworkers were arguing. It was a very heated argument and I just walked up to them and I said, “Would a third party be helpful here?” because I realized that [inaudible] turning on me. I didn’t want to be the problem. I want to be the solution so it’s a delicate balance. I’ve learned from hard experience that sometimes I’m wrong so I try to always keep in mind that I might be wrong here so I must not be arrogant about what I think is the right thing to do or what I think the solution is.

JESSICA:  And if someone doesn’t like your help, you got to step back.

KEITH:  Oh, yeah. That wouldn’t be helpful if not to step back.

JASMINE:  Keith, I’m curious about the things like the markers that you see when it’s time for you to take a step back. One of the things I think about is body language and I guess, it’s probably the main thing that I can think of right now but what are your markers?

KEITH:  Body language is a huge thing. Of course, asking up front is probably the safest thing to do. Sometimes, that’s not an option and just got to make adjustment. It’s a calculation, the perceived probability of success and failure and the perceived risk of danger and all these things has got to make a calculation at the strobe of the moment and I hope that you’ve made the right decision.

I have had the experience of proposing what I thought was the no-brainer solution and it turned out there was something deeper that I hadn’t thought about. That happened in code all the time too. I look at some code and I think, “That’s silly. Why did they do it that way?” and then it turns out that they had a really good reason so I really need to be very respectful of others and not jump to conclusions and not think that I’m infallible because I’m not.

JESSICA:  Yeah. There’s a lot of ugly code out there that is beautiful you just don’t know why.

KEITH:  Yeah.

JASMINE:  One situation that I find it very hard to do that sometimes is when you are in remote environment. Lately, in the past few years, a lot of companies are embracing this remote, I don’t want to say culture but remote setting where folks didn’t have a chance to sit down and be in their comfort zone at home to do their job. I think about when you’re in a video chat or sometimes, when the audio is off, I think about how well do I know my team, to know when I need to either step back or input something. It can be very challenging especially when you can’t see everybody and sometimes, a lot of the communication is just through chatting in the chat room.

KEITH:  Yeah, that’s a big issue. That’s why it’s so great when remote teams can get together in person sometime periodically.

JASMINE:  Yeah, I agree.

KEITH:  I think in the end, we just have to give ourselves permission to make mistakes and just make sure they were doing things out of the right intention and make sure that they were being respectful of other people. But there are times that I’d rather take a risk than not, even if I’m not sure. It’s really a judgment call and we have to give ourselves permission to make mistakes.

JESSICA:  Yeah and when someone tells me, “No, because…” or even just, “No,” I say thank you because that’s a piece of information I did not have.

KEITH:  If I were on the receiving end of the, “No,” I would be really curious to know why. Why ‘no’? Is it disrespectful to ask somebody why?

JESSICA:  I guess it depends on the context. Like with my kids, there’s a few times when I just say no. That’s because it’s like dangerous or we don’t have time to explain it or something like that. Other times, I do think it’s rude to say no and I owed them an explanation. Sometimes the answer is, “No and you don’t want to know why.” They don’t want to know about grown up things.

SAM:  I get that with my daughter a lot too.

JESSICA:  That was some really good advice. I like how you said that we need the right intention and respect for other people because the right intention is not enough. We also need information and other people have that.

KEITH:  Yeah. Our context as individuals are so limited.

JESSICA:  I think it’s time for reflections. This is where each of the panelists gets to bring up a piece of the podcast that they found particularly insightful or bring something else in to think about.

ASTRID:  Keith, as part of my reflection is that your life sounds like a movie so I need to do more.

KEITH:  I have more time than you have.

ASTRID:  Well, still. I mean what you have done by 20, I’m still on my bucket list. You said that the way to change ourselves a lot is to change ourselves a little many times, which is I think a great amazing quote because I feel like oftentimes, I have goals and I can see the path but getting there feels very overwhelming. I think it’s the same when you’re really talking about working on yourself, which can be sometimes harder because nobody can see what you can see. I love what you’re really saying here is just do something really, really small but just do it so many times that eventually, you’ll get there without even really thinking about it.

SAM:  I also wrote down that quote about the way to change ourselves a lot is to change ourselves a little many times. I really liked that. One of the other things that struck out for me was this idea that you should decide that you’re okay with being different and I like that you call that out as an actual step that we need to take because I’ve known a few people who just were different and that’s just how they were but I feel like there are a lot more of us who need to actually be explicit about that.

I also really liked your suggestions about doing karaoke or taking flying lessons. Those were more interesting things that I hadn’t really thought about in terms of ways of training yourself too, in one case, get over your fear of flying and in the other case, I think of it as just to train yourself to be bold. This is really useful. Thank you.

JASMINE:  For me, I think that same quote also resonated with me and also, made me look within myself to really think about how my character and how I just connect with other people. It was a really great reminder just to be mindful of myself and my actions.

JESSICA:  One thing that I noticed in this episode, like you said Jasmine, it’s about being mindful. There’s a lot of conscious thought in all of these ways of being helpful in resolving conflict. There’s a lot of conscious listening and thinking and then making deliberate choices of what to do. The karaoke is a very deliberate choice to how to deal with the fear of flying. Change ourselves a little many times, each of those is conscious thought and choice in order to form the habits that we’re trying to become. You know what? If you’re doing that, good job because that’s a lot of effort. It’s not easy and it’s not comfortable and that’s okay.

KEITH:  I find it very heartening that all of you are so introspective and caring about wanting to live a good life, the right life, helping other people. My hope is that there are many, many other people like you out there and we can all work together to create a safer and happier world.

JESSICA:  Group hug!

KEITH:  You cannot see my arms but they’re out in front of me.

JESSICA:  All right. Thank you for joining us, for uniting for frequent dialogue. See you on Slack and on the next episode of Greater Than Code!


This episode was brought to you by @therubyrep of DevReps, LLC. To pledge your support and to join our awesome Slack community, visit patreon.com/greaterthancode.

To make a one-time donation so that we can continue to bring you more content like this, please do so at paypal.me/devreps. You will also get an invitation to our Slack community this way as well.

Amazon links may be affiliate links, which means you’re supporting the show when you purchase our recommendations. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.