Are interruptions a necessary evil? Here’s what developers really think
Metaphor about catharsis or cognition because of Pandora's Box image via Shutterstock
We opened Pandora’s box because we wanted to know how developers really feel about interruptions. It turns out that interruptions (especially planned ones) truly are real-life kryptonite and they can hinder productivity. Developers weighed in on this issue on Reddit — so let’s see how they cope with interruptions.
Interruptions in software development are not something developers take lightly — according to a timeless article by Game Developer Magazine’s Chris Parnin, developers lose more time going back to a task after they’ve been interrupted than people working in other industries and the time spent away from their tasks is directly proportional to the amount of time they need to resume work. If unplanned interruptions force people to waste at least 30 minutes because let’s face it, jumpstarting a task in two minutes is simply not realistic, planned interruptions are possibly the worst kind.
Paul Graham, computer scientist and venture capitalist described the difference between the maker’s schedule and the manager’s schedule and pointed out how meetings (a.k.a planned interruptions) can “blow a whole afternoon.”
I find one meeting can sometimes affect a whole day. A meeting commonly blows at least half a day, by breaking up a morning or afternoon. But in addition there’s sometimes a cascading effect.
We kept an eye on the Reddit discussion prompted by the revival of the interruptions discussion and we decided to summarize the most popular opinions. So here we go.
Do we really need more communication?
One of the most popular opinions is the one expressed by dimnakorr, one of the Redditors who commented on the thread, namely that “the typical software development firm today does not need more communication, it needs better communication.”
Others jumped in and wondered if the answer lies in the (boosted) number of communication channels. The answer is no, according to MotherofTheShizznit, who thinks that the most important thing is to “foster an environment where one feels comfortable to speak up.” This Redditor claims that “fostering communication” is usually interpreted as “making it easy to become interrupted”. Others agreed that the best way to describe the true cost of interruptions is this.
Radixdiaboli lost an entire day “responding to emails explaining that the feature in question is something which everyone who has used the app has asked for.” People shared their stories and frustrations about companies’ decision to move to open workspaces which are packed with noises and distractions —a heaven for interruptions, a nightmare for those who want to complete their tasks in a timely manner.
Another Redditor compared the idea of being interrupted to blowing up a balloon because “if you stop blowing it up to talk to someone it deflates and you lose progress.” Tolley compared programming to dreaming because “you can’t just jump straight into a dream at will. You have to through your pre bedtime ritual (pajamas, brush your teeth, etc) and then you have to lay down and fall asleep. Once you’re asleep you might start dreaming. When in the dream, you create your landscape and the setting of your dream. If someone wakes you up, sure you can just go back to sleep, but it takes time, and even if you do, you may not end up with exactly the same dream scape.” Meanwhile, one Redditor named Atario called Scrum an “insane disease.”
Solutions to interruptions
Dixond shared something he saw that might help programmers describe interruptions to non-programmers.
You draw up a list of numbers to be added, column-style, for example:
Make it a bit longer than my example. And then give it to them and tell them to add it up in their heads. And then sit there interrupting them with questions and statements that involve numbers – “Have you added up five of them yet?”, “Do any of them add up to thirteen?”, “How many dishes did you wash this morning?”, etc.
Most people find this task insanely hard. At which point you can explain that this is exactly what it’s like being interrupted when you’re dealing with a hard problem programming – every time you have to start right back at the start again.
Leachmanh opined that in order to avoid interruptions, one should “get reserved time where people can’t interrupt you, let everyone know and try to get leadership sanctioning or if someone is going to interrupt you, tell them ‘just a second’ and take 15 seconds to comment where you are and what you were trying to do next.”
Other popular solutions developers use to cope with interruptions is to prioritize (or re-prioritize) tasks, designate someone to decide when (or if) developers should be interrupted and use services such as Slack (especially its Do Not Disturb mode) and Skype that give them the freedom to respond whenever they want. Some people choose to take care of e-mails and easier tasks before their daily stand-ups and some prefer to work remotely. Others work at night but admit that this is not a healthy approach because more often than not it leads to burnout.
Despite the overwhelming number of people who agree that interruptions come at a price, it is worth mentioning that some people can be productive even if they are interrupted and others consider stand-ups a necessary evil. What do you think?