Propinquity

Propinquity can be described as the rather obvious idea that you interact more with people near you. Not just physical nearness – it also encompases mental nearness like shared beliefs, common experiences, or a shared ubiquitous language. This comes up in software development in a number of different ways. Propinquity is teams that are more efficient because they understand each other and the domain at a deeper level. It is a team that intimately understands each other and the domain. It has negative expressions too. You get software ecosystems that become insular and don’t integrate new ideas. It is even sexism and racism. It is an unconscious bias that influences the way you think about things.

Recognizing propinquity can help you overcome your negative biases, build stronger teams, create solutions to your hardest problems from outside the box. Team culture is propinquity – it can be good forming bonds between coworkers, it can be bad when the team looks for people like themselves and ends up rejecting the best candidate because they didn’t have a strong enough resemblance. This can also be seen as a kind of implicit bias; when you start to think of the discussion of diversity in the workplace in terms of propinquity, it starts to mean something different.

I recently heard an interesting discussion with Leslie Miley of Twitter on a podcast (starting about 12 minutes in) about how the lack of diversity at Twitter could be negatively impacting their ability to solve problems. His thesis is that if you hire everyone with very similar backgrounds that they will all look at the same problem the same way and come up with the same solutions. They would then miss the same things, and get stumped by the same problems. This is why you often get great solutions from people outside of the problem, because they are looking at the problem from a different perspective.

I don’t have much insight into how other professions interview people, but in software it seems like the interview is more to determine if you can do the job than if the applicant is the person you actually want to be working with. But the way we go about determining if you can do the job is to ask questions that you don’t truly need to be able to answer to do the job, but implicitly reflect schools of thought on how the job should be done. If you ask a question about red-black trees you are looking for someone who had a computer science education; you aren’t expecting anyone to build a red-black tree but you are using that as a proxy for having been exposed to certain ideas. If instead you ask questions about TDD or design patterns it says you are the kind of people who care about those ideas instead and have less of an interest in computer science fundamentals and optimizations.

I went on an interview previously where they asked lots of low-level questions. The job had nothing particular to do with those skills, but they felt that those skills were what differentiated good programmers from bad ones. Their understanding of what makes a good programmer is that you can twiddle bits and will micro-optimize solutions. The interviews we gave at a place I used to work were focused on design patterns, which  was the language everyone there shared. At that job we didn’t have the low-level optimization skills to find a particular optimization that would have been a big win for an ongoing performance problem.

This ties back into the post I had on evolution of the javascript ecosystem. The ecosystem has propinquity in terms of javascript language itself, but has diversity in that most of the developers came from different stacks with different backgrounds. This level of creativity is what can be achieved if you balance propinquity and diversity against each other well.

Propinquity looks like culture superficially, but it really is a double-edged sword: a team that intuitively understands each other, but blocks out other perspectives that could be valuable to solve problems better. The values espoused by your organization are all about creating a culture and a shared experience to build the positive aspects of propinquity, but the negative aspects can appear too if not kept in mind. The different aspects of what an engineer looks like can’t be too rigid, otherwise you reject great candidates for lack of a degree, or interview for markers that imply competence but aren’t competence themselves. Conversely diversity is more than ethnic diversity – it’s diversity of thought. You need people who think in design patterns and people who think functionally and people who buck the trends of what you are doing right now.

Ideally you could get people who can do all of those things. That’s obviously not a realistic way to do recruitment. You want people who fill in your weak areas, ideally creating something like this.

overlapping

It represents the whole organization and how each individual’s competencies overlap but are each valuable. Each individual is close enough to the others to have some propinquity, but the whole group embodies the diversity you would want to get different viewpoints on problems. Conceptually with smaller units you can also look at this as a radar chart, if you map out where your team is currently strong and where it is currently weak, you see where you need help and where you don’t need as much, but it’s still hard to find the right way to find that person when they look different, and may not be in your normal talent pipelines.

Even just considering these sorts of issues points you in the right direction. If you consider that the person you are looking for is different than those you have, you might be willing to ask different questions or judge the responses differently.

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