Coders with Heart can Change the World


Discovering the softer side of software coding can revolutionize—and revitalize—the industry.

Being a software engineer or programmer isn’t easy. Burnout is rampant, turnover is sky-high, work-life balance is nonexistent. It can be cutthroat and fiercely competitive, where everyone is sure they’re the smartest person in the room, and even asking a question to clarify an issue can be seen as a weakness. And the weak don’t survive for long.

April Wensel wants to help change all of that. She’s the founder of Compassionate Coding, an organization that cultivates human-centered software development practices by strengthening people’s emotional intelligence.

“Compassionate Coding is software development with a heart. It's a new approach that focuses on minimizing suffering for people in and around technology,” says Wensel. She wants to alleviate the suffering of software engineers themselves by helping to change ingrained industry practices, but it doesn’t stop there. The results of teaching emotional intelligence and compassion can be revolutionary for coders, nontechnical colleagues, end users, and even the world at large.

Been There, Done That

After ten years of working as a software programmer in various Silicon Valley companies, Wensel saw pain and suffering at many different levels. Not only the extreme pressure and subsequent burnout individually, but also alot of unhealthy conflict among team members. Serious lack of diversity. No respect among coders for nontechnical coworkers. An elitist attitude among programmers that discourages collaboration.

“I used to exhibit a lot of the negative behaviors that I'm trying to change in engineers, because I thought I had to have that sort of arrogance to keep proving how smart I was,” Wensel says. “I didn't like the person I had become in order to succeed in technology and fit in with this ‘brogrammer’ culture.”

Suffering also applies to people who have poor user experiences. Some technology companies add to the troubles by building unethical products that are addictive or that prey on people’s psychological vulnerabilities. And finally, even at the global level, technology affects people who might not even use it, by displacing jobs or giving platforms to groups that want to harass others.

“I saw that all of these issues had a common thread,” says Wensel, “which was that we've been building technology without really caring enough about the people who are being affected and involved in the technology.”

"We need to … realize that coding skills are not more important than the emotional intelligence skills, the empathy, and compassion that actually help us create good code. We need both.”

How It Works

Through workshops, keynote presentations, and online learning, Wensel trains software engineering teams in the emotional intelligence skills that breed productivity, conflict resolution, inclusion, and retention. 

The main skill she focuses on is compassion, which she defines as empathy plus action. “Empathy is about understanding that other people are suffering,” she says, “but compassion adds another layer, which is wanting to take action to alleviate that suffering.”

“I think we all have compassion within us,” Wensel says. “A lot of us have had to push it down to succeed in a very cold kind of business and technology world.”

Rebooting a person’s compassion takes introspection, which can seem impossible in a programming environment. “We have very aggressive deadlines and that is not a human pace where you can have empathy for people,” she says.

By talking about how people are feeling and giving them space to sit and think about concepts that don’t normally enter their workday, Wensel helps teams build awareness and opens them up to the value of considering other people in everything they do. They discuss conflicts from the coders’ pasts and break the incidents down to talk about how everyone could have approached it differently.

“In computer science, there’s no training in emotional intelligence or ethics,” Wensel says. “And it’s not just that they don’t teach it; it can actually be looked down on because it’s not considered as important as these hard technical skills.”

The problem with pursuing only those hard technical skills—even if that’s what a software engineer prefers—is that no matter how great the code is, no matter how fast it gets done, Wensel explains, if it doesn’t take into account the human component, it’s not the best code. If it’s not maintainable, people in the future can’t use it. If it’s not what the user wants, it’s not as effective as it could be.

“We need to expand this very narrow stereotype we've been living with since the 1960s of what makes a good software engineer and realize that coding skills are not more important than the emotional intelligence skills, the empathy, and compassion that actually help us create good code,” she says. “We need both.”

A Better Way For A Better (Coding) World

Today, there are many consultants with thriving businesses teaching emotional intelligence and human-centeredness to corporations—that’s not a new concept. Wensel’s organization is unique because it focuses on coders, a group that is rarely targeted for this type of education. It’s also a group with a stereotype of socially awkward, unemotional individuals whose idiosyncrasies have long been overlooked or indulged because of their critical role within the company.

Compassionate Coding teaches general concepts of compassion and emotional intelligence, but then Wensel puts those ideas into a programming context to show coders that there are different ways to work and be successful. She gives them practical, real-life ways to be compassionate in their day-to-day workflow.

“It helps that I'm an engineer, so I can speak the language and empathize with the issues,” she says. “It does help me now. In my ideal future, however, that wouldn't have to be the case because [the coders] would see that they can get valuable input from people from all disciplines.”

Once learned and put into practice, compassion in coding can permeate throughout an organization to improve its products, streamline processes, strengthen partnerships, encourage collaboration, and break down silos.

“Compassion can be a factor that affects any decision you make on a daily basis,” says Wensel. “That goes down to even the code level.”

She explains that coders can show compassion even in what they name their variables in software code. Instead of just naming them x, y, and z, a coder could name them more descriptively so others will know what they are when they look at the code. “Just think about what humans will be reading your code in the future. The machine doesn’t care what you call the variables, but humans do.”

It’s a matter of thinking beyond what’s merely the most efficient or easy way to do something in the moment, and taking other people into account. Coders can think about how to architect a whole system to be more compassionate to future coders as well as users. They can exercise compassion in code reviews, which is similar to a peer review of an article and can become extremely contentious. They can give empathetic feedback and receive others’ input with grace.

Compassion can change meetings with designers into valuable information sessions where both parties work to understand each other’s point of view. It can also provoke a coder to leave a company that is using data unethically or creating addictive products.

It can help improve the user experience even if a desired feature is tough to build or takes longer to create. Compassion can help in prioritizing the features and capabilities that end users want, not solely what the coder thinks is most important.

Another critical area where compassion can transform technology is in artificial intelligence. “We've had computer vision applications that don't recognize darker skin colors or that mistake different eye shapes as being closed when they're not,” says Wensel. “When coders understand bias and can have compassion for different groups, then that will help to address some of these issues that we're dealing with.”

Times Are Changing—But It’s Slow Going

Wensel has had great success with the corporations and individuals that have requested her services, but like every intrepid trailblazer, she gets her share of trolls and naysayers.

“Some of the earliest feedback I got when I created my company was that the name was girly,” laughs Wensel. “It was so illustrative of the problem, which is that technology is seen as masculine and compassion is seen as feminine and it’s a negative to be girly. You can tell just by the word choice that there's an immaturity there and that is part of what I'm trying to address.”

Wensel has also gotten resistance from “middle manager sat some of the bigger tech companies who embody alot of the most toxic traits in terms of ego. They want to deny that there are any problems in technology and so sometimes they'll push back and say, ‘What are you talking about? Everything's fine.’” But Wensel has compassion even for them, she says, “because that sort of aggressive behavior comes from fear. Fear that he's going to become irrelevant in this new phase where humans matter.”

Despite this type of minor resistance, however, Wensel has seen the beginning of a shift in the industry toward a new way of working. “There’s a hunger for this because people realize that when you’re caught up on this treadmill and you keep going and going, that’s not the best approach in the long term,” she says. “Companies recognize there is a problem and it’s about solving the problem now.”

Awareness is great, but it’s just a first step toward a solution. Wensel says she’s happy to see more empowerment among underrepresented groups in software programming, and that building awareness about the human factor in technology is critical to making big changes. “We still need some deep cultural changes, though,” she says. “They’re still affecting us and how we interview people, how we recruit people, how we promote people—even how we teach in schools.”

She says the tipping point likely won’t come from changes within today’s big, established technology companies—although any movement they make toward more compassionate practices is valuable. Wensel sees the realsolution as software businesses created by women and other underrepresented groups. Businesses that don’t have the brogrammer legacy, that can start with new values and more human-centered approaches to coding.

In the meantime, Wensel continues in her quest to relieve suffering. “For me, the value comes from helping individuals,” she says. “What's most rewarding is when somebody says, ‘I've never thought about it this way. This is really going to help me.’”

Wensel believes in compassion and its ability to drive change. On her website, she says, “Compassion has the power to heal the tech industry. Software may be built on machines, but it's built by, with, and for human beings. It's time to start focusing on the human factors of software development, including the importance of cultivating compassion.”

"Compassion has the power to heal the tech industry. Software may be built on machines, but it's built by, with, and for human beings."

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