This episode is the final one in our Aristotle Project series. Over the past few episodes we have covered psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning, and last but not least, impact. Impact has a variety of ways that it can be defined, which makes for an interesting discussion. Traditionally, profitability has been the main measure of impact, but in today’s world, impact also has strong social and environmental components. Join us as we delve into some of the factors to take into consideration when determining the type of impact that your work is having.
Key Points From This Episode:
Transcript for Episode 226. Aristotle Project - Impact
[0:00:01.9] SC: Hello and welcome to The Rabbit Hole, the definitive developer’s podcast. I’m your host, Sophie Creutz. With me today, we have our co-host.
[0:00:08.7] DA: Dave Anderson.
[0:00:10.5] SC: Today, we’ll be talking about impact. This is part five of five on the Aristotle Project. We’re getting our information here primarily from Google Rework article, that’s our starting point here. And just as a quick recap, we had psychological safety, dependability, structure and clarity, meaning and now impact.
[0:00:35.0] DA: Here we are, what a long road it’s been and you’ve so quickly moved through the ranks. You’ve eliminated Bobby like he’s no longer an obstacle.
[0:00:47.2] SC: Fear not, dear listener, Bobby will certainly be rejoining us. He’s just gone down the path less traveled in one of these tunnels that The Rabbit Hole led to but he will surely return with even more knowledge.
[0:01:03.2] DA: Yeah. He’s just on vacation for a couple of weeks, there’s no violation of physical or psychological safety that happened in this transition of power.
[0:01:12.4] SC: There you go, yeah, it was a peaceful coup I guess you could say.
[0:01:17.9] DA: Yeah, but an impactful one. What is impact? How can we define that?
[0:01:23.7] SC: Yeah, this one is a little bit tough because as I’m sure you might notice, the word impact is a very buzz word-y term. It can mean a lot of different things.
[0:01:35.5] DA: It’s so powerful. I just want to put that at the headline of my blogpost, like, “The most impactful way to render a react component.”
[0:01:47.4] SC: I like it. You can even go deeper. “Impact all the way down; the most impactful way to make an impact.”
[0:01:57.7] DA: I think that’s really – this is the core of what Google’s Rework was about. They were trying to look for the most impactful way to make an impact which I guess, I like the short definition that they had which was, in terms of my perspective as someone on the team that if we are having a good impact and the team is aligned on that, then I understand how our teams work contributes to the organization’s goals.
[0:02:25.7] SC: Yeah, I think that’s a way to make the concept pretty understandable, and I also appreciate, Dave, that you qualified it here, right? It’s not just about impact in general which one might interpret as, “I can see some kind of effect that my actions are having but it’s a good impact. It’s a positive impact.” And maybe to add a little bit more depth to what this might mean, another definition that we have here is, “The results of one’s work, the subjective judgement that your work is making a difference.”
[0:03:00.0] DA: Yeah, I think that’s interesting, that’s subjective in the end. Because it just depends on your perspective and how you're measuring it and to a degree, like, a feeling. You could be having an impact but if you're not celebrating it or measuring it or looking for it, you could certainly feel like you’re not doing anything right.
[0:03:23.1] SC: That’s true. The fact that it’s mentioned as subjective here, the implication is a little bit that, unlike something such as OKRs, objectives and key results, it isn’t necessarily some sort of measurable external impact. However, as we’ll see as we continue to discuss this, one way you might also see impact is in how you’re affecting the world around you, right?
You might bring in here things like big global problems, causes that you care about, whatever that might be. Global warming, education, science research, et cetera.
[0:04:05.6] DA: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, like you mentioned OKRs and I guess, that’s the way your organization might think about their goals, like how to quantify their progress along those goals. There is like kind of a correlation there and if there’s like organization goals and there’s OKRs and you can feel like you're actually moving the needle on that, which is the subjective part, I guess, then maybe then, you can feel like you’re having a good impact.
[0:04:41.7] SC: Right, I’m sure, like I, for instance, would definitely rather choose to be able to see that I’m moving the needle on things like that than to not see that at all. However, I also want to counterpoint this with another idea from this research, which is that actually, impact can be described as the ability to see that you're having a positive impact on other people.
[0:05:07.7] DA: That’s a great callout. The people around us are the most apparent part of our subjective experience like our perception of our workplace. If we do work and we see it improving the lives of our colleagues and the people in our organization, that is definitely something that can be felt emotionally and otherwise. I think also, if you have users and you see that they’re engaging with it and they’re enjoying the product that you're building, that is also a direct person connection to the impact that you’re trying to affect.
[0:05:53.8] SC: Yeah, I definitely agree with you there. Thinking about the user experience, I think, brings a lot of meaning for me as well as demonstrating the impact that my work has.
[0:06:05.5] DA: Right, I’m sad that I missed the meaning episode but I guess they are a bit correlated, impact and meaning.
[0:06:13.0] SC: Yeah, you could think of meaning as the why, “Why do I do what I do?” Because I see that it has this positive impact on the end user for example, and you could think of impact as the what, “What is the result of my work on the end user?” It might be the end user has a more seamless experience and therefore, signs up for the thing and the client actually sees more revenue that might be a concrete way to see that happening.
[0:06:41.7] DA: Right, that’s an interesting thing there. I guess, you brought up revenue which is like – that is the OKR of OKRs I guess. How much money is in the bank and how much is the company thriving financially?
[0:06:58.3] SC: Profit margin, yes.
[0:06:59.2] DA: Profit margin, yeah. It’s interesting because although that is a common driver and there are many leading and lagging indicators that people try to impact that will drive profit or user engagement or things like that, which in the end, typically have been drivers for the profitability of the company. There are different perspectives now on more like social purpose and community impact that I think are pretty interesting now.
[0:07:32.2] SC: I think that can be in conflict, those two things though. For example, is it possible to do good in the world and also still make a profit?
[0:07:43.3] DA: Yeah, I think that there’s like a tension between those things but I think the point of emphasizing those things, and there are different ways of thinking about it, like normally, business is talking about the bottom line and there’s other framings for that like the triple bottom line or the quadruple bottom line where I’m –
[0:08:03.0] SC: Wow.
[0:08:04.9] DA: We gotta add more bottom lines.
[0:08:05.3] SC: That is a bit silly, it can’t really be the bottom line then, can it?
[0:08:10.7] DA: Maybe it’s a multidimensional space and you know, we’ve just been like little flat land people just wandering around in it.
[0:08:18.6] SC: Oh my goodness.
[0:08:21.0] DA: We were like, “It’s just money, that’s all we have, profit.” But actually, there is like a long-term financial impact of damage to the environment and the social good that you can bring to the table. It’s like, triple bottom line, let’s bring both of those things in there and there are also philosophies that say, the purpose of a company itself could be a further bottom line and a further thing that people can think about themselves having impact within the context of working on a team and a company.
[0:08:55.6] SC: I see. Is there one bottom line that trumps the others, though? Do you have to juggle all of them?
[0:09:02.0] DA: I mean, I think it’s up to the company leadership to really determine that, but I think more and more, companies, they want to succeed financially so that they exist, they continue to exist but I think they’re understanding that there is an important balance to be had amongst all of these things.
[0:09:24.2] SC: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense and I am absolutely not an expert in economics but it does sort of beg the question in my mind of how possible it really is within our capitalist system to – yeah, it’s a balance of all of these things.
[0:09:46.0] DA: Yeah, it’s a challenge but you know, we’re not trying to do it the easy way. I think Stride kind of, as a company, falls into this, to a degree as well, where the purpose that we repeat to ourselves at Stride, “To unlock human potential by engineering better systems,” is a bit lofty and can encompass all of those different kinds of aspects of bottom lines and different kinds of impacts that a company can have in the world.
[0:10:18.8] SC: Yeah, definitely. It sort of tries to monetize social good in a way by looking at our potential clients and evaluating them against certain metrics, certain rubrics that do look for such things as, is this company making a positive impact on the world? Or at least, are they not having a negative impact?
[0:10:44.4] DA: Right. And how can we get in there and help them be even more successful in what they’re doing?
[0:10:52.5] SC: Yeah.
[0:10:53.7] DA: Engineer those better systems, which is specific.
[0:10:58.0] SC: That’s what it’s all about.
[0:10:59.1] DA: But it could be general too. It doesn’t have to just be a class or like a bunch of code. Yeah, so let’s bring it back to the topic at hand.
[0:11:10.8] SC: Yeah, is it useful here to discuss signs that your team might need to improve impact? For example, have you ever been on a team where it feels like your work is just treading water?
[0:11:28.4] DA: Yes, absolutely.
[0:11:30.8] SC: Tell me more, what was that like?
[0:11:35.6] DA: There definitely have been times where there’s a clear mission and purpose and drive for the team. We are trying to deliver features in time for the users to have them on hand for a big moment. They need to use it and it is going to help them a lot by getting that thing, and then we deliver those features and then we didn’t have anything left in our backlog.
[0:12:03.4] SC: Hurry up and wait, yes.
[0:12:05.6] DA: We were like, “Okay, let’s see, maybe we can look at like tech debt and just try and clean things up and look at things,” and we’re like, “Wait, what are we even doing? What is the point of what we’re doing?” We have talked about that kind of work in the past and I think we have said that we are not going to talk about it anymore but really the idea is like, it may be better if we had like a purpose that are driving towards that we could fold in those kinds of improvements over time rather than just make up work for the sake of work.
[0:12:43.2] SC: Yeah because maybe then it would feel like, “Okay, I actually swam back to the beach and now I am sitting on the dock,” instead of, “I still have to exert energy in this treading water kind of way.”
[0:12:56.9] DA: Right because you haven’t moved the needle for anyone except for maybe yourself or your engineers, like where it’s like, “Oh yeah, that code is more beautiful or like slightly more performant,” or something like that.
[0:13:13.2] SC: Which is kind of an interesting point too because a lot of engineers, myself included, find a lot of meaning in writing code with good practices and getting rid of tech debt and really driving towards like honing our craft as people who write code.
[0:13:33.1] DA: Yeah, I think that’s true, but if you’re just doing it for that purpose or like with no impact on other people in the world then I think that’s when you kind of get that treading water feeling.
[0:13:45.9] SC: This is true. However, just to play devil’s advocate here, I might even go so far as to make the claim that even though it might not be evident to all stakeholders what kind of impact improving code quality has, it does in fact always have an impact.
[0:14:03.5] DA: Yeah, that’s true, unless you’re never going to change that code again, unless the code, like bad code that works and like who does what it’s supposed to do and it never has to change again can still remain bad code, which is an awful thing to feel but –
[0:14:18.6] SC: I’m sighing because I know what you’re saying is true, at least on some level.
[0:14:24.1] DA: Yeah, if that visual basic program is doing what it needs to do just leave it, move on.
[0:14:29.6] SC: Yeah, I suppose the bad code assessment becomes more evident when you try to do something like extend the code to have additional functionality and then it becomes evident that you can’t actually do what you need to do and there there might have been real impact if you had mitigated tech debt earlier.
[0:14:48.7] DA: Maybe, yeah but then you also didn’t know what you would have known at the time that you were trying to implement the new feature so you could have changed the code in a way that made the new feature harder to implement.
[0:14:59.6] SC: That’s true. I suppose you can’t really know with all of the certainty in the world but you can make informed predictions.
[0:15:08.7] DA: Yeah, that is certainly true. You can do some level of it but it is always good to wait for the last responsible moment I think.
[0:15:16.4] SC: I guess that is the over optimization problem, isn’t it?
[0:15:20.2] DA: Yeah, exactly. What other potential side effects are there that you might need to start working on this?
[0:15:27.6] SC: Yeah, not having impact. Let’s see, how about, too many goals limiting ability to make meaningful progress? Yeah, I could see that happening, if you don’t have one guiding North Star for instance.
[0:15:44.1] DA: Yeah, that’s true. I mean, I think in XP, there is a common practice, or one of the core practices is like doing one thing to completion. It’s better to have one thing fully done than two things or three things partially done because that thing is not going to have impact. It is not going to change the world or be useful for any people who might use it until it’s out there.
[0:16:14.4] SC: Isn’t part of XP also that the way that you quantify this thing that you just described is in a way that makes it possible to continuously deliver small items like small things. If you define something in a way that, not only, I guess refines what it is and what its impact is and what the goal of the work is but you keep doing that.
[0:16:43.0] DA: Yeah, that’s true and if you are able to release with more frequency then that’s great but sometimes like the MVP is the MVP and it is just not going to be useful until it has all of the buttons. If you have a cancel button implemented but not the save button then maybe don’t send it to the user. They’re not going to love that experience of like, “Oh, I just entered all this information and then now I can’t save it. Oops.”
[0:17:12.0] SC: Yes, so only send that to your enemies, not to your end user. Well, that makes sense. Maybe here we can also take a brief sojourn into, what would it look like if we’re having a negative impact? If someone is having a negative impact on their work, on their environment.
[0:17:33.6] DA: I mean, I guess they would be reducing the quality of life of the people around them, the users releasing bugs and outages.
[0:17:45.0] SC: I suppose so.
[0:17:46.9] DA: Losing money, destroying the environment.
[0:17:51.0] SC: Well Dave –
[0:17:51.8] DA: Tearing apart the fabric of society.
[0:17:54.0] SC: Here’s the thing, we are all, unless we are explicitly doing something otherwise, we’re all doing that all of the time.
[0:18:03.6] DA: Oh wait, am I? Me? Did I do that?
[0:18:07.5] SC: Oh, you know, now you personally, just like us as humans, right? We have had the most profound impact, destructive impact on the environment of any species in the history of the world.
[0:18:18.2] DA: Sure, yeah that’s true, shit but I mean, I think that is the important thing about being intentional, about what the impacts are that you’re having, of thinking about it.
[0:18:29.9] SC: Yeah, that is definitely right. I think that it stems from an awareness.
[0:18:34.3] DA: Right and even like, you know, to bring everyone’s favorite tech company into the fore because there is not enough conversation about it, like with Facebook. There are definitely meaningful positive social impacts of Facebook where, hey, it’s like, I can look at my niece’s photos, that’s kind of cool. I can keep in touch with people but then also there’s the negative impact of tearing apart this fabric of society and blah-blah-blah, you know, people being in bubbles and blah-blah-blah and, you know, so like both of those things can be true.
[0:19:12.3] SC: Yeah, I am curious whether, when analyzing that sort of thing, do we need to have the positive impact outweigh the negative?
[0:19:23.7] DA: Let’s shoot for that. Let’s do our best. To wrap it up, impact, super important part of our work and if you do everything else but you are not making the right impact or you’re not feeling the impact then you are going to feel bad about yourself at the end of the day. You should definitely try to take some action, try to create a clear vision that reinforces how each team members’ work contributes to the team’s and broader organization’s goals, and you know, think about how the work that you are doing impacts all the users and the clients at the organization. Just always think about people.
[0:20:06.8] SC: If those things feel a little overwhelming, do you think there are smaller things that we can do to make an impact and to notice impact more? Maybe for instance really working on effective communication skills, making sure that you speak up if you see a process that isn’t working as it should, things like that.
[0:20:27.1] DA: I think if you keep the people in mind around you and think about how you're impacting people and your surroundings, then I think that will be a good guide, like thinking about the user, thinking about your colleagues, thinking about the community.
[0:20:43.8] SC: Yeah, human first.
[0:20:45.7] DA: That will get you back, exactly.
[0:20:47.6] SC: Human first.
[END OF INTERVIEW]
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