Technical Leading - LeadDev London 2024

At The Scale Factory we are always learning. Yes, that means the technical side of what we do, but just as important to us is developing our interpersonal skills, our people processes and our work culture. That’s why Craig and I attended LeadDev London a couple of short weeks ago.

Timelapse photo of a London double-decker bus.

Lachlan Gowen / Unsplash

LeadDev is a conference series and community platform aimed at folks leading engineers, developers and other troublesome technical types. The idea is to provide insights, resources, and networking opportunities to help hone skills and share best practice. The takeaways were many and varied from the event this year, but a particular highlight was Dr Cat Hicks spotlighting her work on the ‘AI skill threat’. She and her team at the Developer Success Lab explored the impact of AI-assisted coding on software developers across multiple industries. Specifically the uncertainty and anxiety this can bring. The framework they then propose, based on their empirical research, brings a human-centred approach to dealing with the rapidly changing skills landscape that AI proponents promise. In her talk, Cat highlighted several social science observations and concepts that appear to be at play.

Belief in the 10x engineering unicorn

The first of these was around brilliance beliefs. Developers and engineers tend to have their professional identity bound up in the stereotypical skills and abilities that are associated with the role. More than that, these groups of people identify strongly with the profession itself. This results in an investment in the intuitive sense of what practices, knowledge and beliefs define the role. This can lead to endorsement of field-specific ability beliefs, where people believe success in a field is attributable to an innate special ability, a brilliance. This can become detrimental as contest culture becomes the norm. Individuals seek to prove their innate brilliance, leading to competition and a fear of demonstrating doubt. The brilliance trap describes the cycle that results; seemingly helpful beliefs about performance and potential actually create a culture that discourages people, decreases equity (particularly for women and historically underrepresented groups), and lessens progress.

Everything is cool when you’re part of a team

Thriving culture is posited as a corrective for the negative aspects of contest culture. This is centred around sustainable productivity and effort-focussed collaborative behaviours. The intent should be to foster belonging; a developer or engineer feeling recognized for their technical ability, supported in their learning and accepted in their mistakes. This increases agency and motivation. Alongside belonging a learning culture is also associated with increased productivity and better organizational outcomes. The philosophy here should be of a shared team goal; the expectation that people will learn, fail productively and use those outcomes to drive effective change.

It is easy to see the contrast between a contest and thriving culture. On the one hand an (over)work ethic and position become highly valued and can drive negative consequences such as the threat of change to the brilliance paradigm, team dysfunction, disengagement, lower productivity and simple poor wellbeing. On the other hand, by tapping into values of the developer and engineering professions around life-long learning, creativity and collaboration the aim is to enable individuals to thrive, teams to up-skill and share and ultimately organizations to succeed.

Building better

Whilst this evidence based research specifically focussed on the impact of AI-assisted coding, the principles and themes make general sense for the working environments of all technical teams. At The Scale Factory we hire smart people, and operate as AWS experts. How then can the right sort of team and organizational traits be fostered and the brilliance trap avoided? Our focus is on collaborative working, with each other and with clients. We celebrate learning by exposing our own knowledge gaps and sharing regularly with each other. We include everyone and embrace our differences. This paper and the framework proposed by the team provide us with the data that support some of the good things we do, but it also gives us the models and language to allow us to interrogate and iterate to improve in the future.

As ever with conferences, other fascinating presentations were shown, far more than can easily be shared in a single blog post. Check out the LinkedIn posts of attendees for their own highlights. LeadDev also has breakouts to table talks (peer sharing) and coaching. The whole event is well worth a visit, as well as the community being friendly and willing to share. Finally, the paper for the research discussed above can be found here: The New Developer: AI Skill Threat, Identity Change & Developer Thriving in the Transition to AI-Assisted Software Development.

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This blog is written exclusively by The Scale Factory team. We do not accept external contributions.

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