#43 - The SPACE of Developer Productivity and New Future of Work - Dr. Jenna Butler

 

 

“Hybrid work is here to stay. It is going to continue. But we want to make sure that it comes in a way that’s equitable and everyone gets to experience the benefits of it."

Dr. Jenna Butler is a Visiting Research Fellow at Microsoft Research in the Productivity and Intelligence Team. She is also an adjunct Professor at Bellevue College in radiation therapy. In this episode, Dr. Jenna shared about the SPACE of developer productivity framework and how developer teams can use the 5 dimensions to measure and increase productivity. Dr. Jenna also shared about the New Future of Work research by Microsoft, especially on the impact of working from home on people and their well-being. Towards the end, Dr. Jenna also mentioned some predictions of the new future of work post COVID-19, that includes some of the upcoming and exciting tools and the potential societal impact of this new work environment.  

Listen out for:

  • Career Journey - [00:04:54]
  • SPACE of Developer Productivity - [00:10:06]
  • S = Satisfaction and Well-being - [00:13:48]
  • P = Performance - [00:17:45]
  • A = Activity - [00:19:53]
  • C = Communication and Collaboration - [00:21:50]
  • E = Efficiency and Flow - [00:27:11]
  • New Future of Work - [00:31:26]
  • Emotional Aspect of WFH - [00:35:52]
  • Remote Work Meetings - [00:40:00]
  • Impact of WFH to Well-being - [00:44:52]
  • The New Future of Work Predictions - [00:49:08]
  • 3 Tech Lead Wisdom - [00:53:17]

_____

Dr. Jenna’s Bio
Dr. Jenna Butler is a Senior Software Engineer who is currently doing a Research Fellowship with Microsoft Research in the Productivity and Intelligence Team. She received her PhD in Computer Science from Western University in Canada in 2015. Her work examined cancer simulation using cellular automata with a focus on the hallmarks of cancer and combination therapy. She has always been interested in interdisciplinary studies and the intersection of different fields such as biology and computer science, social science, technology. Currently, she is focusing on developer productivity, specifically on the human element in software engineering. She is interested in individual and team well-being, decision making within an organization, relationships between engineering disciplines, and diversity in engineering organizations.

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Quotes

Career Journey

  • I really prefer the intersection of multiple areas of study. And I find that with software engineers, they tend to be the opposite: they’re very good at doing software engineering, they go deep on the code, but they don’t often pick up and look at the broader picture of “Is this how everything should be fitting together?”

  • The fact that I understand the way systems work in different systems — and the way they interact, and the way different levels of a system can play together — really helps me look at software as more than just a code and look at the different layers because software is built by humans for humans. And there are all these elements along the pipe that are not just the code we write, and they can greatly impact the end user and the quality of our software. And I think often engineers miss that piece, and they’re just really focused on the software itself.

SPACE of Developer Productivity

  • And especially with COVID, everyone was asking, “Are people productive working from home?” And we saw papers coming out and news articles saying, “Oh yeah, PRs are up and check-ins are up, or lines of code are steady. We’re good.” And we thought that’s not productivity, like you’re not really measuring it.

  • The paper came out of a bit of a desire to explain from an academic well-grounded research point of view what productivity is.

  • We were nervous that companies were making these broad decisions to remain remote based on three months of check-in data. And they thought that was sufficiently measuring the productivity of their employees. And we knew that missed a lot of dimensions that could potentially be at risk, and that doing this long term might not be great.

  • Some of the issues we’re seeing slowly creep up in productivity could potentially impact innovation down the line. You might not see it if you only measure developer activity, which is what a lot of people were doing instead of measuring productivity.

  • The SPACE framework gave five different dimensions of looking at productivity. The acronym SPACE, that’s for these five different dimensions. Our recommendation was that you pick at least three of them when you’re trying to measure productivity.

    • So we wanted to look at things like collaboration and satisfaction and wellbeing. For years, we’ve known that satisfaction is a great sort of proxy measure. Looking at how your people are feeling as they do their work, it’s actually a great leading indicator that they might become burnt out, and your activity metrics will be impacted. So looking at satisfaction and wellbeing for the S.

    • Looking at performance, so how the system is actually working together. Not just the individuals - not necessarily their performance - but altogether, how is everything going down the pipe? The whole DevOps process.

    • Activity is one, and that tends to be the one that we go to first, and it’s often the easiest to measure when we have telemetry. Those things that we’re kind of used to measuring, maybe PRs or bug fixes.

    • Collaboration and communication, because how people work together, especially in today’s world of large software products, is really important.

    • And then efficiency and flow, which I think is one that any engineer understands. Like they know when they’re in the flow, they know when they’re feeling good. And you can look at that from an individual or even a team or organization level when things seem to be moving well and working.

S = Satisfaction and Well-being

  • Things like you can actually ask people. So we have a tool internally that checks in with individuals who opted in every evening and asks “How satisfied were you with your work day today?” And then it asks them to list a gratitude and a challenge they faced.

  • We looked at the aggregate data of what challenges our engineers face in general. That helped us learn about people facing too many meetings or burnout. But when we ask the individual themselves, the act of reflecting on their satisfaction and listing a gratitude actually made them feel better about their work.

  • There’s a lot of great goal theory historically that shows, if people write down something they’re grateful for or write down what they want to do, then they’ll be more likely to achieve it and feel more satisfied.

  • And then on a larger scale, you could look at retention or your developer satisfaction metrics across the org. So lots of companies do tiny pulse surveys or try to see how people are feeling.

  • And then you can also see how people feel about their system and their tools that they work with.

  • With engineers in a large chunk of Microsoft, we asked them every day to just say, what [is] the one thing that they’re most grateful for.

  • I sit down with my laptop and I write out what I need to accomplish for the day. And I try to start with three things that I’m grateful for. I find that really helps.

  • So I think even just checking in with yourself at the end of the day, “Hey, what went well today? What am I grateful for?” can be kind of a simple thing that you can do.

  • There is existing research on gratitude: that the act of practicing gratitude actually helps you feel better overall and improves your mental health. I definitely think that a lot of people would say it should be daily, but I’m not sure if we have hard numbers on if it actually needs to be or not. But yes, it’s the act itself of practicing it that can help improve wellbeing.

P = Performance

  • For an individual, that can just be things like code review velocity. How are they doing with helping other people? The outcome of that process of code reviews. You can also look at story points that are being shipped.

  • From a system, you can look at customer satisfaction or reliability like the uptime of your service.

  • I think the best guidance would be when we’re looking at the five elements (SPACE Framework) and we split them out into individual metrics, team metrics, and system metrics, and you want to try and hit as many different dimensions as you can.

    • If you’re picking three kinds of letters out of the acronym, you might also want to make sure you’re splitting them across individual team and system.

    • Similarly, if you’re looking at internal metrics, you might want to also have an external metrics.

  • If some of your best engineers only did code reviews, then their own activity metric of how much code they’re checking in might go down. And so you want to kind of get this more holistic view so that you can see all the elements. Whereas we know if someone only checked in code and never did reviews, then the junior members of a team wouldn’t be able to grow. So you’ve got to weigh them all.

A = Activity

  • Sort of simple things like coding time or number of commits, lines of code. Those are all great individual ones. And then same as a team, you could still do things like story points. From the system, you might look at the frequency of your deployments and how often you’re able to ship.

  • Some of these, especially lines of code — this is the big one — you definitely want to use them with caution. Because we know that they can be gamed or used in not so great ways. That’s another good reason to make sure you have metrics from all the different levels that you can so that people can’t use them in negative ways.

  • I would think that often when you have someone like that on your team, I think a lot of the individuals know. So I think gathering feedback from peers is a good way.

  • A lot of this metrics are quantitative. But numbers cannot tell you the whole story or the story behind them.

  • So making sure you’re getting different types of feedback, not just quantitative, but qualitative. Asking people, observing people and how they work, observing how they handle junior employees.

C = Communication and Collaboration

  • A great one would be things like knowledge sharing and discoverability. Perhaps if you have an internal Wiki, and it’s really still, then people aren’t really communicating their code and what they write in an easy way, or the comments in the code.

  • Then more obvious things might be the quality of meetings: are people feeling like meetings are inclusive and they get done what they need to get done.

  • You could also do scores for code reviews. I know I’ve been on teams where the code reviews are mostly just nitpicks about white space because no one’s really putting in the effort to like actually help with the design.

  • You could look at PR merge time. So that is a proxy measure for how people are working together. Are their codes able to come together?

  • The system level, again, just knowledge sharing and how well people are able to bring things across teams or across the company.

  • One of my early productivity studies was looking at what percentage of our code reviews were just nitpick comments. And it blew my mind at how high it was, and how much time senior software engineers, smart people, were putting into this.

  • To be fair, if you have a large code base, nitpicks might be important because you need to follow convention. But you can get away with taking all of that away, if you just put in some good tools. There are tools that do this for us.

  • If people are nitpicking, I feel like you miss something earlier in the process.

  • Beyond that, making sure that there’s a healthy culture for code reviews. I think sometimes people don’t want to point out, “Hey, you could have done it better.”

  • Maybe just having a little bit more information around, “Hey, this is what we expected a code review to actually look like. This is what’s helpful.”

  • We have research on how the number of chats has changed since we went home, and instant messaging is way up, especially instant messaging after hours and managers instant messaging.

  • Some correlations we’ve seen is that managers are feeling a lot more burnt out with this. We know that their number of meetings, their email, their instant message, their after-hour work are all up, and so are issues with burnout, so that’s correlated.

  • One thing we talk about in the future of work, so not in this paper, is setting up some new guidelines for communication. Because in the office, there was just normal sort of human rules, like we knew how to behave, and you would do the thing where you’d walk by someone’s office and you check and see if they look busy, and if not, then you could pop in and ask a question. And now we’re reduced to this very one dimensional way of communicating.

  • Set up a communication contract with your team. We’re just learning new ways of working and new ways of doing work, async, leaving chat comments and docs, and all new ways of working I don’t think we know how to deal with.

E = Efficiency and Flow

  • I think flow is abstract. This is one where some of that more qualitative data might come into play. So one way you could measure is just the perception of productivity.

  • To individual engineers, the difference between coding for 2.5 hours and 3 hours might seem like the difference between a good and a bad day.

  • So asking people just, “Did you feel like you were in the flow, in the zone?” That can be a great way to measure that. Also looking at kind of code review timing, how quickly things are going through your system?

  • What we call ‘ideas to data time’ internally is how quickly does something pop into the mind, “Hey, this would be a great feature.”, all the way down to I’m getting telemetry, someone using my feature and how well that flows through the system is another way that you can look at it from more of an end-to-end point of view.

  • We know from psychology, and goal setting, there are ways to do this; you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. So one way is to journal your time and your energy and to understand for yourself.

  • So understanding your own energy, we call it energy management instead of time management. It’s not necessarily the time, but understanding for yourself, when you’ve got the best capacity to get really good work done and utilize that time.

  • And then also having good boundaries with your work tools. So it is possible to close your email completely and not get the ding. You can set to not be notified. I don’t think we do it, because everyone has FOMO and there might be that important email.

  • Making sure people take care of themselves, set their own boundaries, and understand how they work, can help them protect that flow time. Cause if you don’t deliberately protect it, it just disappears. I mean, we get so much emails. You have to really be proactive about it.

New Future of Work

  • From a technology point of view, it’s [COVID-19] also been an accelerator. So it’s really moved us to where we were seeing things going in the first place.

  • The other thing with COVID is — I’m on a paper and we call it “A Tale of Two Cities” — the change of work: the remote work, the hybrid work; is such a double-sided coin. There are people who love it, there are people who hate it, and there are very many people who simultaneously are in both camps.

  • It depends what they’re doing that day or what their life looks like at any given moment, whether they love it or they hate it, or there are certain elements of it that really worked for them, and certain elements that really don’t.

  • Whether or not you had children didn’t correlate. But whether or not you had good childcare did. So having children, that didn’t really matter. But if your kids were home and there was no one to take care of them, those people want to get back to the office often. Whereas if your children were home and there was someone taking care of them, they love being home.

  • And one quote we did see was, and this was about software engineers, they said, “There’s just no digital equivalent for getting a bunch of engineers,” - or actually they said a bunch of nerds - “in a room with a whiteboard.”

  • If you’re working on your features and it’s well-defined, and you know what you’re doing, being on your own, being in a flow, that’s great. But when you’re trying to brainstorm or problem solve with other people, we don’t seem to have tools that really do that remotely well.

Emotional Aspect of WFH

  • Remote meetings are more taxing on the brain. If you are in back-to-back meetings in person versus on the computer, you really feel it on the computer. And there’s been brain scan studies, and what we find is that it’s a lot more effort to do a meeting online.

  • And one of the reasons they found is you don’t get these body cues, and you don’t have all the other rich context, the non-verbal context that you get in a meeting. There’s no social cue.

  • So yeah, definitely the lack of nonverbal cues, body language cues. We know that those are actually proven to be taxing on the brain and causing some of this Zoom fatigue that people are reporting.

  • When it comes to more of just the social connectedness, one thing we’re seeing is, direct teams are often saying they actually feel more connected. Whether that’s because they’ve been sharing their struggles with the pandemic or having more check-ins.

  • But we have seen across many research studies that weak ties are weakening, so kind of distant ties. Those weak ties are really important for the social fabric of the company. They’re important for innovation, creativity, retention, satisfaction at work, and those serendipitous moments that might happen at the coffee machine or in the cafeteria, those are all missing.

  • I think finding ways, unfortunately right now while we’re remote, those things might be things you need to take care of yourself.

  • And then of course we are encouraging people and teams to do a little more social events, maybe play some online games.

Remote Work Meetings

  • If you can have your camera on, that’s considered better. One of the important things with being a human, but especially remote work, is to have a lot of grace for other people and assume best intent.

  • Having the camera on works for a lot of people, but can be very difficult for neurodiverse people. [With] people who might have ADHD, all the different faces with different backgrounds can be very hard, and so they actually need to turn off their video and incoming video.

  • It’s best practice to have your video on if you can, and if you can’t or other people don’t, you assume that there’s a good reason and it’s not that they’re not paying attention. Cause I think it’s easy to feel like, when someone doesn’t have their video on, it’s cause they’re half paying attention.

  • There’s also some cue things that were published. One’s called CHARM. And it’s how to make your meetings charming.

    • The C is for chats. So you discuss, how are we going to use in meeting chat. For some people, it’s very distracting if it’s secondary conversation that’s not actually related. And for other people who maybe aren’t directly involved in the meeting, that feels like a way to connect and be present and be involved. So you can decide ahead of time. How are we going to use chat?

    • The H is for hand-raising. Do we just jump in? Do we use a virtual hand? Do we literally raise our hand if all our cameras are on, how are we going to do turn-taking since that is not easy in a virtual environment?

    • The A, you want agendas with virtual meetings.

    • The R is recording, deciding ahead of time.

    • And then the M is for moderator. Another thing we lack in the virtual world is those cues that people are getting tired. Maybe they’re shuffling paper, or they’re looking at the clock … Virtual meetings just go on and on, and if someone is talking, and no one cuts them off, it’s very challenging. So ahead of time get a moderator.

Impact of WFH to Well-being

  • My study that looks at how people are feeling in their gratitudes and challenges has found that physical and mental well-being are some of the number one struggles, as well as feeling overworked and burnt out.

  • For sure, in the beginning, the back-to-back meetings, people were feeling the physical impact of that. Whether it’d be sitting in a chair for too long, not getting up. Literally things like getting up to get a glass of water suddenly seemed really hard or going to the bathroom.

  • It seems so obvious, but we instituted the five-minute break between meetings. So all 30 minute meetings are now 25. An hour long meetings are 50.

    • But the key is you start late, so you don’t end early. So let’s say you have a meeting at 3 and you try to end at 3.25. No one is going to stop talking. The meetings are already going longer.

    • Instead, you start at five minutes after, and if you don’t show up, you get your break. You just don’t log in yet, and you’re not late. Cause that’s another thing we found people saying, I can either go to the bathroom and be late or go on time.

    • So now you have this built in time where you’re not ever late because that was by default. But you can still end at the time when everyone’s brain naturally wants to end.

  • We are seeing people feeling some pressure to be in meetings because they’re not seen. So there is a bit of feeling of “Is my boss going to know I’m doing work? If I don’t show up to a virtual meeting, what are they going to think?”

  • As well-educated folks, we should have a little bit better trust. And that was something we saw early on with managers [who] suddenly were really micromanaging.

  • That was something we saw was concern around seeing and being seen. I think that has leveled off because companies realize somehow things are still happening, and our company is still delivering, our software is going out the door.

  • And then there’re some physical issues too. I think, again, this is another one that’s starting to get better as we realize this change is for the long term. Those kind of physical issues of not having a good workspace or a place that they can focus was a problem.

The New Future of Work Predictions

  • One of the things that we think is pretty clear is that hybrid work [is] here to stay. So we’re never going to go fully back. There’s not going to be this ‘going back to normal’. There’s going to be hybrid work to different degrees.

  • What we’re concerned about with that is we want to make sure that we’re actually building the future we want and not just accepting the future that’s coming. Because if you look at how the pandemic has influenced people, there’s been a lot of social problems. If we continue with hybrid work the way it is, we might exacerbate some of those discrepancies.

  • We know that hybrid work is going to continue, but we want to make sure that it comes in a way that’s equitable and everyone gets to experience the benefits of it, if they would like it to.

  • Since hybrid work is going to happen, that’s actually in a lot of ways, harder for companies than either of the two places we’ve been before. So we used to have everyone in the office. Now we have everyone remote. Soon we’re going to have this mix, and that’s actually going to become really complicated.

  • Another equity issue that can come from that is that the people in the room are the real first-class citizens and the digital people who are there aren’t. We don’t want to go back to a place where maybe half [of] your team decides to be remote, and none of their opinions counts as much.

  • The experience used to be not equitable for people who weren’t physically present. We need to design our software and our systems and our processes so that it is fair and equitable for everyone, whether you’re in the room or not.

3 Tech Lead Wisdom

  1. My first would be to keep learning and to view learning as a real part of your job.

    • I would often take a break from coding and pick up a book, and it didn’t necessarily need to be a technical book. I consider this part of the eight hours I’m supposed to be at my desk. If I’m getting smarter and better, that’s great for my company.

    • Every other discipline like ours actually has a requirement for continued learning.

    • I think engineers need to view themselves as intelligent workers in the same way that have an obligation to keep learning, and that’s really going to help in your role.

  2. My second piece of advice would be to build your network.

    • You never know what doors will be open, and who’s going to open them for you. So really continuing to build your network by becoming friends, taking opportunities as they come up, is great.
  3. My third piece of technical advice would be to not only view the world technically.

    • Software is usually built for humans and usually built by humans. And so getting to know the other humans involved, whether that’s knowing your customer or knowing your co-workers, is going to be really important.

    • I find that making sure my team is healthy and thriving and has good relationships is one of the best things I can do for the software we built. So I always think about people first, and human centered design, and how the humans are going to be impacted by what we’re doing.

    • Continuing to think of technology as a tool for the people who build it and use it, and not just as the only thing that we do.

Transcript

Episode Introduction [00:01:06]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:01:06] Hey everyone. It’s great to be back here again with another new episode of the Tech Lead Journal podcast. Thanks for spending your time with me today listening to this episode. If you haven’t, please subscribe to Tech Lead Journal on your favorite podcast apps and also follow Tech Lead Journal social media channels on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram, and you can also make some contribution to the show and support the creation of this podcast by subscribing as a patron at techleadjournal.dev/patron, and help me towards producing great content every week.

For today’s episode, I am happy to share my conversation with Dr. Jenna Butler on the SPACE of developer productivity framework and the new future of work. Dr. Jenna is a Visiting Research Fellow at Microsoft Research in the Productivity and Intelligence Team. And she’s also an adjunct professor at Bellevue college in radiation therapy.

In this episode, Dr. Jenna shared about the SPACE of developer productivity framework. For some of us who follow the State of DevOps reports, we know that the DORA four key metrics have been used successfully to measure the high-performing DevOps organization. SPACE is an equivalent framework that development teams can use in order to measure and increase productivity. With a clear understanding of defining, measuring, and predicting developer productivity, it could provide organizations, managers, and developers with the ability to make higher quality software and make it more efficiently. There are five different dimensions of SPACE, and Dr. Jenna explained each of the dimension with great examples, so that we can all start implementing some of them in our development work.

In the second part of our conversation, Dr. Jenna also shared about the new future of work research done by the Microsoft Research team, especially on the impact of working from home for many people and how it affects their emotion and well-being. Towards the end, Dr. Jenna also mentioned some predictions of the new future of work post COVID-19, and that includes some of the upcoming and exciting tools and the potential of societal impact that this new work environment would bring.

I personally really enjoyed this conversation and I hope you will enjoy this episode as well. If you like it, consider helping the show by leaving at a rating, review, or comment on your podcast app or social media channels. Those reviews and comments are one of the best ways to help me get this podcast to reach more listeners. And hopefully they can also benefit from all the contents in this podcast. So let’s get this episode started right after our sponsor message.

Introduction [00:04:11]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:04:11] Welcome everyone to a new show of the Tech Lead Journal. Today I have with me a guest called Dr. Jenna Butler. She actually holds a PhD in Computer Science and specialized in bioinformatics. So Dr. Jenna is also an Adjunct Professor at Bellevue College in the radiation therapy department. And currently she is also the Visitor Research Fellow with Microsoft Research, focusing a lot on the productivity and intelligence team. So today we are going to talk a lot about developer productivity and also about the new changes due to the pandemic in terms of the future of work. Welcome Dr. Jenna to the show. It’s really great to have you here in the show

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:04:52] Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Career Journey [00:04:54]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:04:54] So, Dr. Jenna, maybe in the beginning, to introduce yourself, maybe your career journey and highlights or turning points.

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:05:01] Yeah, absolutely. And feel free to just call me Jenna. Yeah, I guess my career journey, I feel like it started so long ago. When I was younger, when I was a teenager, my mother got sick with cancer and she passed away when I was 14 from pancreatic cancer. And so I decided, you know, the optimism of youth, I thought, well, I’ll cure cancer. I’ll just be a scientist and I’ll cure cancer. That actually really led my career largely. In grade 12, I went to a science school, a private school that specialized in advanced sciences. And then I did my undergraduate in biomedical sciences. Throughout my time in undergrad, that’s when I started to learn about computers, and how they could be part of this journey of wanting to cure cancer. And so I ended up going into bioinformatics and doing biochemistry with Computer Science. And that opened a lot of doors because I always wanted to study cancer, but I did not actually like being in the lab or touching all those things. And so when I found out that you could simulate it on a computer, I thought that’s exactly where I want to be, like, send me there. So I decided to do my masters in bioinformatics and then ended up getting a PhD. And I specifically was looking at using cellular automata. That’s a very technical thing. I actually quite like the theory of computer science, and use cellular automata to model cancer growth.

Over my years in my PhD, I kind of just found that I really liked doing the computer part. It wasn’t only a means to an end, and so I ended up doing some internships at Microsoft, and I just absolutely loved them as a company. So when they offered me full-time after my PhD, even though it wasn’t in the same space, I decided to take it. It was strange at the time because the boss who I got hired to work with, he ended up being moved in the time between when he hired me and when I started. So he brought me to his new team, and it was so completely unrelated, and I ended up working on updating the Office programs, like updating Word and Excel and PowerPoint. And I thought, “Okay, this is different. But that’s okay.” So I got a lot of experience just doing core software engineering, working in a large code base. And I didn’t like that as much as solving problems. So even though my research was in bioinformatics, it was still big, interesting problem.

And so I started doing some research for my boss at the time, more around how we were doing our work. So our actual work to me, it wasn’t as exciting, like updating code was fine, but I was really interested in how we did it. Are we doing it in the most productive way? Why are people carrying so many bugs? That doesn’t seem productive. What about technical debt? What’s happening there? Just all of these kinds of questions. Again, to my surprise, just like an undergrad, it turned out that was an entire field of study, and we had people doing it at Microsoft Research. So I got in touch with some really amazing researchers at MSR, like Tom Zimmerman and Christian Bird, Andy Bagel. They did the kinds of questions that I was asking. They had been studying those for years. And so we partnered on some work, and then eventually I went over to do this fellowship with them. So for about a year, I’m going to be working with them, studying developer productivity. And of course, COVID hit just as all this was starting, and so we’re looking at the impact of COVID on work from home, and then the future of work, and what that’s going to look like. In all of that, how do we help developers and how do we maintain their productivity? And what does that even mean and look like?

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:08:22] So thanks for sharing your story. I think one question related to your background is that I rarely see someone who has, for example, bioinformatics degree, and also doing computer science and software engineering. So in your view, what advantage do you have by having these two skills mixed together as a software engineer?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:08:39] That’s a great question. I think that for me, I never really enjoyed something, one thing deeply. I really prefer the intersection of multiple areas of study. And I find that with software engineers, they tend to be the opposite. They’re very good at doing software engineering. They go deep on the code. But they don’t often pick up and look at the broader picture of is this how everything should be fitting together. More of that higher level kind of architectural thing. And so, I actually wasn’t as successful as a level one and level two engineer, because my managers were like, “Just write the code. You’re just supposed to do what we tell you.” And I thought, “Well, I don’t want to just write this feature you designed, I want to be designing it and looking at the big picture.” And they said, that’s not your job. That’s the job of a senior and a principal." And so I thought, “Well, I’ll just be one of those then.”

So I think my interdisciplinary background, like the actual things I learned in biochemistry, do not help me whatsoever. But the fact that I understand the way systems work in different systems, and the way they interact, and the way different levels of a system can play together, I think really helps me look at software as more than just a code and look at the different layers because software is built by humans for humans. And there are all these elements along the pipe that are not just the code we write, and they can greatly impact the end user and the quality of our software. And I’m very interested in all of those. And I think often engineers miss that piece, and they’re just really focused on the software itself.

SPACE of Developer Productivity [00:10:06]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:10:06] So speaking about developer productivity. You mentioned Microsoft has been doing this research for many years. In the first place, why you came up with this SPACE developer productivity framework, which was recently launched like few months back on ACM, right, if I’m not wrong. So what led to that research paper, actually?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:10:25] That’s a great question. So this paper was co-authored by some brilliant people. Nicole Forsgren, many of you will know as a founder of DevOps and the author “Accelerate”, and Peggy Storey, who’s a researcher at U Vic and studies these kinds of things. All of us, whether it be Nicole at GitHub or us at Microsoft and Peggy and academia, we had heard people talk about productivity. And especially with COVID, everyone was asking, are people productive working from home? And we saw papers coming out and news articles saying, “Oh yeah, PRs are up and check-ins are up, or lines of code are steady. We’re good.” And we thought that’s not productivity, like you’re not really measuring it. So I think the paper came out of a bit of a desire to explain from an academic well-grounded research point of view, what productivity is, it’d really help companies, at least that was my take. I’m definitely the most junior out of those amazing people on the paper. But we were nervous that companies were making these broad decisions to remain remote based on three months of check-in data. And they thought that was sufficiently measuring the productivity of their employees. And we knew that missed a lot of dimensions that could potentially be at risk, and that doing this long term might not be great. So we wanted to give people a broader view of what it was. Almost a future-proof because we know that some of the issues we’re seeing slowly creep up in productivity could potentially impact innovation down the line. You might not see it if you only measure developer activity, which is what a lot of people were doing instead of measuring productivity.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:11:58] So if I hear you correctly, in terms of measuring development productivity, we should not just focus on the output and the activities. What should we focus on instead then?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:12:09] So the SPACE framework gave five different dimensions of looking at productivity. Activity was just one of them. So the acronym SPACE, that’s for these five different dimensions. Our recommendation was that you pick at least three of them when you’re trying to measure productivity. So activity is one, and that tends to be the one that we go to first, and it’s often the easiest to measure when we have telemetry. But there’re other pieces of the puzzle. So we wanted to look at things like collaboration and satisfaction and wellbeing. In fact, for years, we’ve known that satisfaction is a great sort of proxy measure. So looking at how your people are feeling as they do their work, while I think some people thought, oh, I don’t really care how my employees are feeling. Well, it’s actually a great leading indicator that they might become burnt out, and your activity metrics will be impacted, right? So looking at satisfaction and wellbeing for the S. Looking at performance, so how the system is actually working together. So not just the individuals, not necessarily their performance. But altogether, how is everything going down the pipe? The whole DevOps process. Looking at, again, activity those things that we’re kind of used to measuring, maybe PRs or bug fixes, collaboration and communication because how people work together, especially in today’s world of large software products is really important. And then efficiency and flow, which I think is one that any engineer understands. Like they know when they’re in the flow, they know when they’re feeling good. And you can look at that from an individual or even a team or organization level when things seem to be moving well and working. So picking metrics somewhere, at least from three of those categories is a better way to be looking at productivity.

S = Satisfaction and Well-being [00:13:48]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:13:48] So if you don’t mind, let’s go through one by one, five different dimensions. The first one you mentioned is about satisfaction and wellbeing. I mean, to me, it’s a little bit abstract to actually measure them. Like, how do you suggest we measure this part of the dimension?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:14:03] Yeah, I think that’s a great question. So this is the one that I’m most involved in. My work at Microsoft is actually studying how COVID and working from home impacted the satisfaction and wellbeing of our employees. So I feel like this is one I can do. Things like you can actually ask people. So we have a tool internally that checks in with individuals who opted in every evening asks how satisfied were you with your work day to day? And then it asks them to list a gratitude and a challenge they face. Of course, we looked at the aggregate data of what challenges our engineer’s facing in general. That helped us learn about people facing too many meetings or burnout. But when we ask the individual themselves, the act of reflecting on their satisfaction and listing a gratitude actually made them feel better about their work.

So you can measure it in that kind of qualitative way, just asking people or having check-in mechanisms. And there’s a lot of great goal theory historically that shows if people write down something they’re grateful for, or write down what they want to do, then they’ll be more likely to achieve it and feel more satisfied. So that’s easier. And then on a larger scale, you could look at retention or your developer satisfaction metrics across the org. So lots of companies do tiny pulse surveys, or try to see how people are feeling. And then you can also see how people feel about their system and their tools that they work with. Before we move to Git, I know the satisfaction with our systems was really low. Now, people are a lot happier that now that we’re finally on Git. So you can look at that kind of thing too.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:15:24] Speaking about gratitude, I know this is probably related a lot with the mindfulness practice, which is already popular these days. So as a software engineer, how can we actually practice this gratitude? Like maybe give us some example how we can apply that?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:15:38] Yeah, that’s a great idea. So look, what I’m doing right now. So this is with engineers in a large chunk of Microsoft. We asked them every day to just say what the one thing is that they’re most grateful for. And we have the text box require something. So they actually have to type nothing if they really are not grateful for anything. I think that simple act of checking in personally, I do it in the morning. So I usually sit down, I still act like a grad student. I sit down with my laptop and I write out what I need to accomplish for the day. And I try to start with three things that I’m grateful for. I find that really helps. What was interesting in our studies is we found a variety of things. Of course, we saw regular things like I’m grateful for the sunshine here in the Pacific Northwest. That doesn’t happen a lot, so people will be grateful for that. Or I’m grateful that I can work in yoga pants. That happened a lot when COVID started. But then people also were grateful for finishing a really hard bug or finally getting to check in a feature they’ve been working on. So I think even just checking in with yourself at the end of the day, “Hey, what went well today? What am I grateful for?”, it can be kind of a simple thing that you can do. I believe Microsoft Viva is a new tool that will have elements of that kind of end of day check-in and mindfulness practicing. So you can use our tools.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:16:50] Right. So, is it that we have to do it every day? Just to have this check-in, and assess how grateful you are, or what kind of challenges that you foresee you experienced for the day, right? Is that the act of itself that we have to do every day that will boost our wellbeing, in a sense? Maybe a little bit of research, how they relate?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:17:08] Yes. So there is existing research on gratitude that the act of practicing gratitude actually helps you feel better overall, and improves your mental health. When it comes to how often? I’m not sure what that would be. So when we started this study, we were doing every day, and then for purely logistical reasons, we moved to three times a week. Because as the person who codes that data from qualitative into something quantitative we can look at, I couldn’t keep up with the number of entries we were receiving. So, I definitely think that a lot of people would say it should be daily, but I’m not sure if we have hard numbers on if it actually needs to be or not. But yes, it’s the act itself of practicing it that can help improve wellbeing.

P = Performance [00:17:45]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:17:45] So let’s move to the next dimension, which is P, the performance. So what are some of the things that we should measure in terms of performance?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:17:52] Yeah, there’s lots of options there. For an individual, that can just be things like code review velocity. How are they doing with helping other people? So the outcome of that process of code reviews. You can also look at story points that are being shipped. From a system, you can look at customer satisfaction or reliability, like the uptime of your service. So those are all ways that you can see how well your system and you as an individual are performing.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:18:19] These days, every team has multiple dimensions as well, right? Some may be forward facing with the customer. Some may be more internal. So how should we choose between all these? Is it like there are some common ones? For example, if you run agile software development, so maybe story points is one that you always would have. Or are there any guidelines? What kind of a must have performance metrics that we need to track in terms of measuring productivity?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:18:41] That’s a great point. I think the best guidance would be when we’re looking at the five elements, and we split them out into individual metrics, team metrics, and system metrics, and you want to try and hit as many different dimensions as you can. So if you’re picking three kinds of letters out of the acronym, you might also want to make sure you’re splitting them across individual team and system. And then similarly, if you’re looking at internal metrics, you might want to also have an external metrics. So I know we often look at how is our new development going, and then how is our external things that are already out with the customers, bug fixing shield, how is that going? So you just want to make sure you’re not overloading any individual dimension and that you’re representative of everything you’re looking at.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:19:25] I think it makes sense as well, because if we focus too much on this performance, you might impact the other dimension of the space as well, right?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:19:31] Yeah. And that’s actually a problem with, you know, for instance, looking at code reviews. Like if some of your best engineers only did code reviews, then their own activity metric of how much code they’re checking in might go down. And so you want to kind of get this more holistic view so that you can see all the elements. Whereas we know if someone only checked in code and never did reviews, then the junior members of a team wouldn’t be able to grow. So you’ve got to weigh them all.

A = Activity [00:19:53]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:19:53] So the next one probably is the easiest, activity, right? So there’s plenty of activities in software engineer. So maybe some examples on that?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:20:00] Yeah. Yeah, of course. Sort of simple things like coding time or number of commits, lines of code. Those are all great individual ones. And then same as a team, you could still do things like story points. From the system, you might look at the frequency of your deployments and how often you’re able to ship. And then some of these, especially lines of code, this is the big one, you definitely want to use them with caution. Because we know that they can be gamed or used in not so great ways. So that’s another good reason to make sure you have metrics from all the different levels that you can so that people can’t use them in negative ways.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:20:34] So I think another common pattern of abuse is that you measure by number of tests, but actually there are some cases where people wrote the test, but there’s no assertion inside. So yeah, I think a lot of gotchas in this part, measuring activities. So I think maybe for technical leaders or managers, how should they figure out if something is being abused or in terms of someone is cheating the system?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:21:00] I would think that often when you have someone like that on your team, I think a lot of the individuals know. Like you sort of know, oh, that guy is not doing what he’s supposed to do. So I think gathering feedback from peers is a good way. A lot of this metrics are quantitative. But numbers can not tell you the whole story or the story behind them. And actually we see this with someone, maybe they’re not even gaming the system, they are just killing it, and they’re a jerk to work with. That’s still not really great for the health and productivity of your team and your system. Like maybe it’s good for them, and maybe their small team gets by, but, you know, eventually that’s problematic. So making sure you’re getting different types of feedback, not just quantitative, but qualitative. Asking people, you know, observing people and how they work, observing how they handle junior employees. I think that’ll help with whether or not people are gaming the system or even if they’re just not helping in some other way.

C = Communication and Collaboration [00:21:50]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:21:51] So let’s move to the next one, which is C, communication and collaboration. I feel these days, especially with working from home, there might be parts of it that are working not so well because not everyone is looking into each other, and we are not in the same space. So what about communication and collaboration here that we should think about?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:22:10] Yeah, that’s a good one. I think that there are some areas there that are not as quick to come to mind. So a great one would be things like knowledge sharing and discoverability. Perhaps if you have an internal Wiki, and it’s really still, then people aren’t really communicating their code and what they write in an easy way, or the comments in the code, you could look at things like that. Then more obvious things might be the quality of meetings. Are people feeling like meetings are inclusive and they get done what they need to get done. You could also do scores for code reviews. I know I’ve been on teams where the code reviews are mostly just nitpicks about white space because no one’s really putting in the effort to like actually help with the design. And then other people, you know, you always want that guy to review it, because he’s really going to find things that maybe the code is functional, but it’s not as great as it could be, and he’s the one who’s going to help you with that. So you could do scores of how well people code review. And again, all of these come with that same caveat of, you know, that could go poorly, so it’s this balance. But those are some of the good ones. You could look at PR merge time. So that is a proxy measure for how people are working together. Are their codes able to come together? And then yeah, the system level, again, just knowledge sharing and how well people are able to bring things across teams or across the company.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:23:23] So speaking about nitpickers in the code review, there are plenty of examples of course, in the real life. So how shall we go about dealing with nitpickers? So like white space vs tabs, or maybe just some stylistic comments. Any approach that we should take?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:23:38] Yeah. One of my early productivity studies was looking at what percentage of our code reviews were just nitpick comments. And it blew my mind at how high it was, and how much time senior software engineers, smart people were putting into this. To be fair, if you have a large code base, nitpicks might be important because you need to follow convention. I work in code that’s been there 30 years, it’s important that we’re following convention. But you can get away with taking all of that away, if you just put in some good tools. There are tools that do this for us. There are things that ensure you have the white space you need that auto-generated. You can get some good linting to fix things that you don’t like. You can run pretty simple tools. So I think that’s one of the top things is if people are nitpicking, I feel like you miss something earlier in the process. You need to get some tools, some style cop things happening. That’s the first one, cause that shouldn’t be necessary.

Beyond that, I think it would be making sure that there’s a healthy culture for code reviews. I think sometimes people don’t want to point out, “Hey, you could have done it better.” They think, well, it’s functional, and I don’t want to bug them, so I’ll just say this so that I look like I’m taking part in getting feedback. And maybe just having a little bit more information around, “Hey, this is what we expected a code review to actually look like. This is what’s helpful.” And then explaining that if you look at it and it’s all great, you don’t have to find a missing space just to participate in the process.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:24:57] Another quite common around this team, which is about chat system like Slack or whichever chat system that we use. I hear a lot of people also being overwhelmed by the amount of chat. Because everything now is on chat, especially working from home, right? So is there research done that actually relying a lot on chat system actually is counter productive to collaboration?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:25:18] Great question. So I don’t know research to that effect. Before you even get to that point, we do have some research. So we have research on how the number of chats has changed since we went home, and instant messaging is way up, especially instant messaging after hours and managers instant messaging. So those are all things we know. How it’s impacting their productivity? We’re not sure. But some correlations we’ve seen is that managers are feeling a lot more burnt out with this. So we know that their number of meetings, their email, their instant message, their after hours work is all up, and so is issues with burnout, so that’s correlated. But you can imagine there’s probably some causation there. One thing we do talk about in the future of work, so not in this paper, is setting up some new guidelines for communication, and I really like this idea. Because in the office, there was just normal sort of human rules, like we knew how to behave, and you would do the thing where you’d walk by someone’s office and you check and see if they look busy, and if not, then you could pop in and ask a question. Or you might message them for certain things, go by for different things, email for different things. And now we’re reduced to these very one dimensional way of communicating.

So setting up a communication contract with your team on, " Hey, it’s totally cool for you to randomly video call me." Some people might find that really weird and obtrusive, and others might find that just the digital equivalent of stopping by your door. And so talking about you can reach me in these ways for these types of things, that can help reduce the chat on Slack, you think of everything being in one way. So we do talk about sitting down with your team and going over the new norms of what do we message for? What do we audio call for? What do we video call for? What’s a meeting for? And then we’re just learning new ways of working and new ways of doing work, async, leaving chat comments and docs, and all new ways of working. I don’t think we know how to deal with. I know my Teams has like a little red thing, it’s 99 plus. Oh, well.

E = Efficiency and Flow [00:27:11]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:27:11] So, let’s move on to the last one, which is E, efficiency and flow. I could figure there are things that we could measure in terms of efficiency, but how about flow? I think it’s a little bit abstract as well.

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:27:22] Yes, I do think flow is abstract. So this is one where some of that more qualitative data might come into play. So one way you could measure is just the perception of productivity. There’s a paper, “Today was a good day,” I believe is the title. And it’s looking at the difference between people who feel like they had a bad day and a good day. You’d have to look it up to know for sure, but I recall it was very small differences. Talking to individual engineers. The difference between coding for 2.5 hours and 3 hours might seem to them like the difference between a good and a bad day. So asking people just, did you feel like you were in the flow, in the zone? That can be a great way to measure that. Also looking at kind of code review timing, how quickly things are going through your system? That can be a good way. What we call ideas to data time internally is how quickly does something pop into the mind to, “Hey, this would be a great feature.”, all the way down to I’m getting telemetry, someone using my feature and how well that flows through the system is another way that you can look at it from more of an end-to-end point of view.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:28:21] Speaking about flow, as you mentioned earlier, as an engineer, you would realize if you’re in the flow or in the zone, so to speak, right? But these days, of course, meetings, chats, requests from anybody from emails, maybe tips from you, how shall someone be conscious about their flow? And how to actually ensure that there is flow within their day to day work.

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:28:42] I think as an interdisciplinary person, I’m always looking at existing research from other areas, and so we know from psychology, and goal setting, there’re just ways to do this. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. So one way is to journal your time and your energy and to understand for yourself, when I first wake up, I have a ton of energy and that’s a really good time for me, and then after lunch, I start to feel tired. You might deliberately block the morning hours to get work done, and then save email or things for when you’re a little bit more tired and you don’t need that mental capacity. So understanding your own energy, we call it energy management instead of time management. So it’s not necessarily the time, but understanding for yourself, when you’ve got the best capacity to get really good work done and utilizing that time.

And then also having good boundaries with your work tools. So it is possible to close your email completely and not get the ding. You can set to not be notified. I don’t think we do it because everyone has FOMO, and there might be that important email. So what I do if I have direct reports, I might give them my cell phone number, and say, if you really need me for some reason, text me. Because I might be heads down on something and I need to close this out. Or similarly, I might take a nap in the middle of the day, because I know that this is when my energy really lags, and I’d rather hit the ground running early, cause that’s the way I like to work. Nap after lunch, and then come back in the afternoon. So making sure people take care of themselves, set their own boundaries, and understand how they work, I think can help them protect that flow time. Cause if you don’t deliberately protect it, it just disappears. I mean, we get so much emails. You have to really be proactive about it.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:30:16] Speaking about naps, I’ve read a research about naps. Short power nap, like 20 to 40 minutes, not beyond that, because then you go into sleep cycle. So yeah, in terms of your research, maybe have you got any good research to actually maybe promote or advise people to have a short power nap?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:30:33] I have not, but I mean, everyone would sign up for that study. I should probably do it. In my old team, actually, our director had a couch and a blanket in his office, and he offered it to anyone who wanted to take naps. He said, if you’d like to go, have a nap. Because he knew that for him, 20 minutes when he was starting to fade was so productive. And then we actually dubbed it a nappuccino, and they would drink a coffee right before they went to sleep, and then have their nap, and when they woke up, the caffeine was just hitting their system, and they would be so awake. So I think, yeah, if that works for you, it’s great. But I haven’t seen the study. It would be very fun to do it.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:31:09] Right, right. Yeah. I’ve heard about nappuccino as well. So the idea is that you drink a cappuccino before you take a nap, and then by the time before you go into sleep cycle, both the caffeine and your energy will come back strong at the same time. So it will be multiplied.

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:31:23] I love that. It’s just a fun idea.

New Future of Work [00:31:26]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:31:26] So let’s move on to the next big topic that we have for our conversation, which is about new future of work. I know there are a lot of papers and research as well from Microsoft around this. So maybe let’s start with the overall theme, which is about pandemics impact on our work practices in terms of new future of work. So maybe a little bit of light in this front. What have you been seeing so far?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:31:46] Well, there’s two major things in this space that I like to talk about. One is that obviously COVID has been horrendous and a really huge issue. So we don’t ever want to speak lightly of that. But from a technology point of view, it’s also been an accelerator. So it’s really moved us to where we were seeing things going in the first place. We have teams that study the future of work, and this idea of being more dispersed and more things happening online was coming. But this just jumped us forward, 5 to 10 years into the future. That’s been fairly clear, which is great because that means there was some things that we knew and were able to anticipate. The other thing with COVID is, I’m on a paper and that we call it “A Tale of Two Cities”. The change of work, the remote work, the hybrid work, it is such a double-sided coin. There are people who love it. There are people who hate it. And there are very many people who simultaneously are in both camps. It depends what they’re doing that day or what their life looks like at any given moment, whether they love it or they hate it, or there’s certain elements of it that really worked for them, and certain elements that really don’t.

This lack of a clear answer, where the only thing we really can say for certain is that we can’t say much for certain. You can be at either side of the fence at any moment is another fairly strong, constant thing we’ve seen. A lot of the research I’ve seen, whether we’re asking people how productive they are? How satisfied they are? Their ability to do creative work. How connected they feel? You get these bell-like curves, where lots of people say it’s the same. But then there’s a good number of people who say it’s way better, and a good number of people who say it’s way worse. We haven’t really found what puts people in one camp or the other. There are certain things that correlate with different pieces, but in general, you can’t necessarily look at a person, and understand the demographics about them, and say, “Oh, they’re going to love work from home, or they’re going to hate it.” It’s really dependent on different individual factors, and we’re still learning what all those look like.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:33:33] So what I’ve heard about software engineers specifically, right? I heard that many of them prefer working from home, remote because software engineers tend to be working solo, just working on the code. Is there something also examples showing that software engineers actually prefer not working from home?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:33:50] Yeah. Yes, there is. So there was some early papers on it. I think I believe “The Tale of Two Cities” has it as well. But we saw that there were software engineers on both sides. So some people preferred it, and I think more people preferred it than didn’t, but there were absolutely people who were excited to go back to the office and we still see that. Again, as I mentioned, we don’t know exactly which things put you on either side, but some became obvious. Whether or not you had children didn’t correlate. But whether or not you had good childcare, did. So having children, that didn’t really matter, but if your kids were home and there was no one to take care of them, those people want me to get back to the office often. Whereas if your children were home and there was someone taking care of them, they love being home. Cause they could stop and see their kids when they needed to, but they could also focus when they needed to. So that was one thing.

I think some software engineers in our company, we had individual offices, and then we moved to open space, and there was this big, “Oh, it’s going to be horrible. We don’t want to do this”. People were really upset, and a good chunk of the office team got moved to open space. And then just due to weird happenstance, about two years later, they had to come back to the offices, and it all happened again. “Oh, we don’t want to go back to offices. We loved open space. Why are you taking this away?” They were really surprised at how much they liked working together and actually liked that collaboration. So I think some people who were used to working in spaces like that also miss it, and want to get back to that camaraderie, and that team way of working. I think some product managers, as well, they probably are having a little bit of a harder time in some cases where you can’t find people as easily, and you can’t get people together in a room. And one quote we did see was, and this was about software engineers, they said, there’s just no digital equivalent for getting a bunch of engineers, or actually they said a bunch of nerds in a room with a whiteboard. That’s a place where I think we really feel the lack. If you’re working on your features and it’s well-defined, and you know what you’re doing, being on your own, being in a flow, that’s great. But when you’re trying to brainstorm or problem solve with other people, we don’t seem to have tools that really do that remotely well. And so I think some engineers are missing that piece as well.

Emotional Aspect of WFH [00:35:52]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:35:52] I really love that quote. Speaking about this, I would call them social aspect of human. So, working from home, definitely we don’t see each other. All of us, what we can do is actually just through meetings, right? Just like this. But there’s certain aspect of emotion and body cues that we can’t have with this. Any take on this? How shall someone actually work around the emotional part when they are doing working from home?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:36:18] That’s a great, great point. So to start just with what you said on body cues, this is something we found in the research on remote meetings. Remote meetings are more taxing on the brain. If you are in back-to-back meetings in person versus on the computer, you really feel it on the computer. And there’s been brain scan studies, and what we find is that it’s a lot more effort to do a meeting online. And one of the reasons they found is you don’t get these body cues, and you don’t have all the other rich context, the non-verbal context that you get in a meeting. This plays out with things like turn-taking. If you’re in a physical meeting with people, and you see someone shuffle, maybe they sit up a little straighter, you can tell, like they’re about to try and jump in with their comments, and you don’t both come in at the same time. And then bandwidth and latency make it even more awkward and you’re waiting. There’s no social cues. Same with giving presentations. If you’re using Teams or Zoom, and often it’s just a void, and you have no idea, and you’re constantly worrying, like, is this working? Can they hear me? Did that joke land? Are they getting it? Are they with me? Do I look ridiculous? When you can see yourself, that is very stressful. We know that people tend to just look at themselves. That is something you don’t have in a regular meeting. So yeah, definitely the lack of nonverbal cues, body language cues, we know that those are actually proven to be taxing on the brain, and causing some of this Zoom fatigue that people are reporting.

So that’s one thing, and we are looking at ways to deal with that. I mean, there’s fascinating stuff coming down with cameras, and positioning of multi-camera devices, and ways to have shared workspaces. So there’re things coming. But that’s tough one. When it comes to more of just the social connectedness, one thing we’re seeing is direct teams are often saying they actually feel more connected. Whether that’s because they’ve been sharing their struggles with the pandemic or having more check-ins. I know a lot of teams are having more check-ins. But we have seen across many research studies that weak ties are weakening. So kind of distant ties. Those weak ties are really important for the social fabric of the company. They’re important for innovation, creativity, retention, satisfaction at work, and those serendipitous moments that might happen at the coffee machine or in the cafeteria, those are all missing. Again, these are things where there’re some technical solutions we’re looking to provide.

So I’m on a study right now that’s looking at how we can connect people who are somewhat distant in a company, but working on similar things to try to bridge weak ties. There are social tools like Yammer, where we’re looking at how do we make feeds where we can connect people who orbit similar communities that maybe don’t know each other? But those are still all virtually mediated connections, and it’s not the in-person connection. And so I think finding ways, unfortunately right now while we’re remote, those things might be things you need to take care of yourself. Whether that’s, you know, the pandemic puppy that everyone got. We just got a puppy 3.5 weeks ago. So you can do that. Maybe you’re checking in with yourself more and doing mindfulness or meditation. I personally like getting out for walks. So where I am in America, we can now walk outside without a mask if you’re vaccinated. The first time I walked and passed another human who smiled at me, and I saw their smile, I almost teared up. I didn’t realize how much I missed just those small social, we’re both human kind of interactions. So finding ways to gain those outside the workplace, and then bridging weak ties inside the workplace, are still mediated, but it’s something. And then of course we are encouraging people and teams do a little more social events, maybe play some online games. I was on a team last summer where every Friday afternoon we played Werewolf, which is like a game we used to play at camp. It was so fun and there was a way to play it over Teams. People could Google it, but it was just like funny Friday afternoon activities. And all of those things are helping people feel a little bit more connected.

Remote Work Meetings [00:40:00]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:40:00] Thanks for sharing all of these interesting stories. I also like taking a walk in the evening. It’s also like a cue for me to stop working and get detached. And speaking about meetings, coming back to your points about presentation, and things like that. One of the worst thing that could happen, you are in a meeting where there’s no camera, actually everything is maybe just alphabets or just avatar, and also people are on mute. So it will be like talking to yourself or talking to the screen, while you don’t get any feedback at all. So is there any kind of best practice in terms of remote working meetings that maybe you have done research?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:40:34] Yeah, so I didn’t do the research. But Sean Rintel and Abigail Sellen, some other folks at MSR have studied meetings. There’s a few different things. If you can have your camera on, that’s considered better. One of the important things with being a human, but especially remote work, is to have a lot of grace for other people and assume best intent. So one thing that John Tang found, he’s a researcher at MSR, was that having the camera on works for a lot of people, but can be very difficult for neurodiverse people. So people who might have ADHD, all the different faces with different backgrounds can be very hard, and so they actually need to turn off their video and incoming video. Some people with different abilities or different mental health challenges might like to have, like a stuffed animal with them in order to feel comfortable, and they might not want that on video. So it’s best practice to have your video on if you can, and if you can’t or other people don’t, you assume that there’s a good reason and it’s not that they’re not paying attention. Cause I think it’s easy to feel like when someone doesn’t have their video on, it’s cause they’re half paying attention. I know that I turned my video off when I want to do stretches during a meeting, and I don’t want everyone to see that, but I’m very much listening, and I’m taking care of my own energy. So, turn it on when you can, but definitely help people.

There’s also some cue things that were published. One’s called CHARM. And it’s how to make your meetings charming. It’s an acronym. It stands for the C is for chats. So you discuss, how are we going to use in meeting chat. For some people, it’s very distracting if it’s secondary conversation, that’s not actually related. And for other people who maybe aren’t directly involved in the meeting, that feels like a way to connect and be present and be involved. So you can decide ahead of time. How are we going to use chat? What’s that going to look like? The H is for hand-raising. Do we just jump in? Do we use a virtual hand? Do we literally raise our hand if all our cameras are on, how are we going to do turn-taking since that is not easy in a virtual environment? The A, you want agendas with virtual meetings. The R is recording, deciding ahead of time, and then the M is for moderator. So another thing we lack in the virtual world is those cues that people are getting tired. Maybe they’re shuffling paper, or they’re looking at the clock. I know at Microsoft, all of our meeting rooms are shared. So someone else would literally be like knocking saying, “Hey, it’s time for my meeting. You need to get out of here.” We don’t have that. So virtual meetings just go on and on, and if someone is talking, and no one cuts them off, it’s very challenging. So ahead of time getting a moderator. These side things are all shown to help virtual meetings run more smoothly, be more effective, be more productive. So that’s one.

And then another really neat thing, and this isn’t a best practice, unfortunately. But this was a study about technology and how technology can mediate it. Mary Czerwinski’s team built this thing called MeetingCoach. Basically, as you’re giving a meeting, it could give you feedback on using AI on did you use the same words too much? Or did you have too many “uh ums”? Did you give enough space after you asked the question for people to actually respond? Cause you don’t know, like you mentioned, if it’s just a bunch of avatars, you don’t get that feedback. So it kind of gave you this dashboard after how well you did as a presenter. They also developed effective spotlight, which people opt in to. So as a viewer of a meeting, I could say, I’m going to have my camera on and you can use my camera feed. And what it would do was, again, using some AI, it would show the presenter different people’s faces fairly large. So you’re not just seeing the tiny little faces, and it would give them a chance to understand. Do people in the audience look confused? Are they laughing at the right moments? And they would kind of get almost as if they were scanning a room and could look at people, and get that real-time feedback. So that’s another tool that’s under investigation. Of course, it’s Microsoft. So privacy is very important in all of these, you know you’ve opted in. But really neat. I actually just gave a briefing this morning to a company in Paris. English is not their first language. I’m giving this hour long talk. I literally didn’t see a single person. I had no idea how it was landing. And I just wished that I could get a glimpse of different folks in the meeting and see, and see if they’re looking at their phone or they’re paying attention. An effective spotlight could have done that. So indeed camera’s on, just best intent and grace for everyone, and then hopefully, some tools that will solve some of the problems as well.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:44:38] Thanks for sharing all this. I really like the CHARM. Because I think when we went into this working from home, nobody is actually consciously taking a decision on what kind of online meeting or webinar kind of a norm. So I think having this CHARM, I think I should check that out. So thanks for sharing that.

Impact of WFH to Well-being [00:44:52]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:44:52] Regarding about all these meetings and online communications, and maybe back-to-back meetings during working from home, because now it’s so easy to have back-to-back meetings. Basically, this will impact personal wellbeing, so to speak. You said in the beginning, people are feeling more fatigued. Maybe less productive because of that. So what are some of the impact of this pandemic as well that you can see in terms of well-being, personal wellbeing?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:45:16] Yes. So my study that looks at how people are feeling in their gratitudes and challenges has found that physical and mental well-being are some of the number one struggles, as well as feeling overworked and burnt out. The study is in its 15th month. And so we’re still seeing that reported. Although it’s an opt-in study, so I do always caveat it with the fact that perhaps people who are having a hard time are more likely to take part in a study like this, where they get to talk about how they’re doing. So the number’s probably a little skewed from the general population. But for sure, in the beginning, the back-to-back meetings, people were feeling the physical impact of that. Whether it’d be sitting in a chair for too long, not getting up. Literally things like getting up to get a glass of water suddenly seemed really hard or going to the bathroom. I just talked about this with a company this morning, and it seems so obvious, but we instituted the five-minute break between meetings. So all 30 minute meetings are now 25. An hour long meetings are 50.

But the key is you start late, so you don’t end early. So let’s say you have a meeting at 3 and you try to end at 3.25. No one is going to stop talking. The meetings are already going longer, and you’re not going to be that person who says, oh, it’s supposed to end at 3.25 so I can go pee. You’re not going to do that. Instead, you start at five minutes after, and if you don’t show up, you get your break. You just don’t log in yet, and you’re not late. Cause that’s another thing we found people saying, I can either go to the bathroom and be late or go on time. Those are my only choices. So now you have this built in time where you’re not ever late because that was by default. But you can still end at the time when everyone’s brain naturally wants to end. This is actually coming out in Outlook, the ability to default your meetings this way, and it existed for years. But it was five minutes at the end. Users said like it does not work, and so we switched it. So that’s one thing. I think every company in every meeting should do that. And now whenever I have a meeting that doesn’t have it, I’m like, what’s going on? Why can’t I get my drinker? Go say hi and get a snack. So that’s a great one.

We are seeing people feeling, I think, some pressure to be in meetings because they’re not seen. So there is a bit of feeling of is my boss going to know I’m doing work? If I don’t show up to a virtual meeting, what are they going to think? That’s really problematic because we have diary study reports of people saying, “I don’t need to be in this meeting. It is a super big waste of my time, but I’m showing up just so my little bubble is there and they know that I’m at work.” As well-educated folks, we should have a little bit better trust. And that was something we saw early on with managers suddenly were really micromanaging. They did not know how do I be a manager when I can’t even see my team? How am I going to make sure that they’re working or the team is healthy? I can’t just walk by. The flip side of that was, well, I better show up at everything cause I want people to see me. I want my manager to see me. That was something we saw was concern around seeing and being seen. I think that has leveled off because companies realize somehow things are still happening, and our company is still delivering, our software is going out the door. So I guess it’s okay, and I think people backed off that one a little, but feeling pressure to show up and be seen online, definitely I think was early on an issue that’s improving.

And then there’re some physical issues too. I think, again, this is another one that’s starting to get better as we realize this change is for the long term. But even a few months and people thought, “Well, I don’t know how long this is going to last. I don’t want to set up an office.” There was a study that looked at people’s workspaces and had them take a picture and send it in. And it was so funny to see all the different ways people were trying to work. Whether it was on their bed or one person said they literally had to break down their office three times a day because it was at the kitchen table. And so for breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day, move it all aside, bring it all back. So those kinds of physical issues of not having a good workspace or a place that they can focus was a problem. And another one that is starting to be alleviated, as we realize this is long term. We need to deal with this.

The New Future of Work Predictions [00:49:08]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:49:08] So in that sense, we don’t know when this pandemic will end. Hopefully, it will be one day. But in terms of new future of work, the result of this study, what are some of the predictions that would happen? For example, if the pandemic is prolonged or the pandemic suddenly just finished one day.

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:49:23] So one of the things that we think is pretty clear is that hybrid work, at least is here to stay. So we’re never going to go fully back. There’s not going to be this going back to normal. There’s going to be hybrid work to different degrees. What we’re concerned about with that is we want to make sure that we’re actually building the future we want, and not just accepting the future that’s coming. Because if you look at how the pandemic has influenced people, there’s been a lot of social problems. People who were able to go to remote work were more likely to be white and well off. People who were people of color or poor were more likely to have to continue to work out in the world. So if we continue with hybrid work the way it is, we might exacerbate some of those discrepancies. Same with people who don’t have as much money, might not have good enough internet to work effectively remotely. They might not be able to turn on their computer. This was an issue with students where some students couldn’t turn their camera on and be able to hear the teacher well enough without it becoming choppy, and so they didn’t get as equal of an opportunity. Whereas previously, a classroom or a physical office space were levelers of opportunity where everyone was equal and everyone was on the same playing field. So we know that hybrid work is going to continue. But we want to make sure that it comes in a way that’s equitable and everyone gets to experience the benefits of it if they would like it to. So that’s one thing.

Another thing that we’re hoping is that since hybrid work is going to happen, that’s actually in a lot of ways, harder for companies than either of the two places we’ve been before. So we used to have everyone in the office. Now we have everyone remote. Soon we’re going to have this mix, and that’s actually going to become really complicated. Another equity issue that can come from that is that the people in the room are the real first-class citizens and the digital people who are there aren’t. So a great thing with the pandemic was people who worked remote before, they said, “Hey, I feel finally like I’m really part of the team and everyone gets it.” And these people who used to kind of be forgotten, on the screen while you had a meeting, people were looking to them like, how do you do it? How do you work? And they were the fancy people. So we are worried when we go back, we don’t want to go back to that. We don’t want to go back to a place where maybe half your team decides to be remote, and none of their opinions count as much. Or we see decisions happening as you leave the conference room, walking down the hallway, and they’re not actually there for that part.

So we’re looking at that. That’s a prediction we have is, Hey, the experience used to be not equitable for people who weren’t physically present. We need to design our software and our systems and our processes so that it is fair and equitable for everyone, whether you’re in the room or not. So I know Microsoft especially is putting a lot of research into what do the telepresence things look like, or what do the conference rooms look like? So that everyone has a similar experience. That’s fun. I was actually in a meeting the other day with someone, and they said, “John, be quiet!” And I’m like, what is he talking about? John wasn’t on the meeting, I’m just using John as an example, and I thought, what are they talking about? Finally, they moved their camera so we could see, and one of those little rolly computers had wheeled into their office. And it was a coworker who was working from a totally different country, but was using a physical robot to come and bother them in their office and ask them a question. And I thought, this is amazing. This is the future. People are going to wheel into my office as virtual robot, telepresence machines. It was the coolest thing. That guy was literally on the other side of the world at that time, and this is happening. And then I was in the third country watching this happened in front of me. So there’s lots of fun research in that space of how do we make sure that everyone’s there when not everyone is there. And so that’s another prediction that we have that’s coming, and we don’t want it to be like it was before.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:52:56] So speaking about all this technology enablement, another episode that I had quite recently is talking about the impact of 5Gs. I think with the 5G becoming more prevalent, many of such technologies will become widely available. Speaking about equitable, equal opportunity for people, hopefully with these technologies becoming more and more prevalent, people will be able to tap into those.

3 Tech Lead Wisdom [00:53:17]

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:53:17] So Jenna, thanks so much for your time. We come to the end of our conversation. But before I let you go, there’s one question that I normally ask for all my guests, which is to share your three technical leadership wisdom that maybe you want to give to our listeners to think about, or maybe take for best practice or things like that in your career.

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:53:34] Sure. So my first would be to keep learning, and to view learning as a real part of your job. I would often take a break from coding and pick up a book, and it didn’t necessarily need to be a technical book. It might be a business book or even people management, or people behavior dynamics book. And I would read for half an hour or an hour, and people would often say, I don’t know how you find time to do that. And I said, I don’t. I consider this part of the eight hours I’m supposed to be at my desk. If I’m getting smarter and better, that’s great for my company. So to continue to learn, and to really view that as an important component of being an engineer. Every other discipline like ours actually has a requirement for continued learning. If you’re a doctor, you have to continue to read and take courses, and that’s part of the job. So I think engineers need to view themselves as intelligent workers in the same way that have an obligation to keep learning, and that’s really going to help in your role. So I think technically continuing to learn and grow your skills is great.

My second piece of advice would be to build your network. I love getting coffee with people. Talking to just about anyone. Actually, I had a manager whose daughter was in the docs and dentist club at her school, so kids who wanted to go on to be doctors and dentists. She asked me, would you come speak at our club about doing medical research? And I thought, yeah, sure. I love meeting people, and it’s just a bunch of teenagers, but I’ll come and do that. So I got to speak to lots of smart kind kids. But I didn’t realize that the person who oversaw their club was one of the faculty members at the college who was in charge of some of the hiring. And so I got an email after, saying, “Hey, we have an open faculty position. I think you’d be great.” And I ended up getting an adjunct professorship through that. You never know what doors will be open, and who’s going to open them for you. So really continuing to build your network by becoming friends, taking opportunities as they come up, I think is great.

And then my third piece of technical advice would be to not only view the world technically. So of course, growing our technical skills and learning is so important. But as I said before, software is usually built for humans, and usually built by humans. That’s finally starting to change, but historically that has been how software works. And so getting to know the other humans involved, whether that’s knowing your customer or knowing your coworkers, is going to be really important. I find that making sure my team is healthy and thriving and has good relationships is one of the best things I can do for the software we built. So I always think about people first, and human centered design. And how the humans are going to be impacted by what we’re doing. Often, even I’m surprised at how big of an impact that has on the technical bottom line issues. Continuing to think of technology as a tool for the people who build it and use it, and not just as the only thing that we do.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:56:28] Thanks for sharing all the wisdom. I really love them, especially the last one. For me, coming from engineering backgrounds, sometimes we tend to think everything in terms of technical. So thanks for reminding that for us to think about the human aspect as well. Dr. Jenna, so for people who would love to connect with you online or follow your research, is there a place for them to go to?

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:56:46] Yes. So on the Microsoft Research site, you can find all of the great researchers that I’ve mentioned. And I do want to mention Nancy Baym as well. She does the societal work that I was talking about, and I didn’t get a chance to plug her. But yeah, if you go to the Microsoft Research website and look up my name, my papers are there, you can check out various things that I’ve done. My email is there as well. If you want to contact me, I’m definitely open to chatting with people. As my second point said, I love to make connections and meet people. And then you can find me on LinkedIn, under Dr. Jenna Butler.

Henry Suryawirawan: [00:57:17] So thanks again, Dr. Jenna. So I wish you good luck with all the research that you’re doing.

Dr. Jenna Butler: [00:57:22] Great. Thank you again for having me. It was great to be here.

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