Developer growth

There is no time for empathy

After my post on empathy as an essential skill, a commenter said that the most successful developers don’t need empathy, referring to John Carmack & Linus Torvalds. Not sure about John Carmack, but Linus certainly has had a brush or two with his lack of empathy when communicating with people. There is nothing to suggest that he lacks empathy, just that he on occasions doesn’t utilize it to its fullest. But this isn’t about how a man in the open-source community goes about his business…

There seems to be a more fundamental implication; That being successful or skillful comes at the cost of skills like empathy.

Success: Success means different things to different people. Your definition of success will most certainly be different from mine. Money, fame, appreciation, free time. This will have to be aligned against your personal values.

Skill: To be skillful is to have a certain level of competency within a given area. For us developers these skills are often highly technical in nature, and often quite focused. They can often be directly correlated to ones profession.

Technical skills are usually quite straight forward to acquire and master. Not to be mistaken for being easy, but rather that a technical skill set often requires a methodical approach to a given subject and setting off time to learn.

Cost: Cost can be measured in several ways. The most common is to refer to it as the price or value of an object. It can also be measured as something which takes time, where the value can be derived by the time needed to focus on a given activity.
There’s also the concept of opportunity cost when doing something of less value when compared to something else.

The cost value of empathy

It seems to me that empathy is (mis)placed high up on a pedestal as this magic skill that some people supposedly just have, not as something aquirable for the rest of us.

On the one hand, experiencing true empathy may be more rare than we’d like to admit, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a benefit from trying. From a simpler perspective, it’s all about attempting to understand someone and making a connection to their needs. Talking less, and listening more. Acknowledging alternative views, beliefs and approaches.

It isn’t a skill that has to be prioritized against technical skills, but rather one that can enhance and be nurtured alongside. I truly believe that every small step towards empathy will greatly help in all aspects of our lives. Technical and personal.

As for building awesome communities, there may be other ways than dictatorship and bad mouthing.

Can you afford not to spend time on a more empathic approach?

  • Great observations.

    From my own personal experiences, the problem has a deeper root. Most devs, and people, see empathy (and caring for feelings) as a weakness. Ironically, I’ve met a LOT of hyper-senstive devs hiding on their ivory towers, putting down others, and telling others that their way is the right way.

    It’s a facade to hide from the world. The roots are usually a mommy or daddy issue(s). I’ve seen the pattern again and again with people. But it’s much easier to see it on devs (myself included).

    Empathy cannot surface from someone lacking emotional intelligence.

    IMO, Humility – leads to -> empathy.

    TL;DR: Dbags will continue to be dbags.

    • I’m not sure about the “most devs” part, but there is certainly something to the general impression that software developers have some issues with arrogance. I too have experienced this, but not to the degree to which I understand from you. Maybe I’m blissfully ignorant in my echo-chamber?

      You’re on to something with humility. Humility or being humble means opening up for the possibility that your views aren’t the only way. Opening the door to introspection, thus allowing yourself to be the one that changes and adapts to others needs. Which in turn opens up for others to do the same.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Jose 🙂

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