Keeping the Creativity in Code


February 3rd, 2017

Keeping the Creativity in Code

A January 2016 New York Times op-ed piece by Wharton professor, Adam Grant, discusses why the most successful adults are generally not child prodigies. He reasons the vast majority of highly and unusually gifted people are exceptionally good at following the rules. You give them a problem and they solve it in the most textbook way. Technical mastery of any task is a very good trait to possess. It is, however, detrimental to creativity. The problem being it leaves no room for originality.

What does this have to do with code? Good devs know coding is a creative act, and it is for several reasons. The first being developers are often creating products from ideas. Next, great code can actually inspire others to change their lives in any number of ways. The biggest marker of creativity, though, is solving problems. That act alone makes the job intrinsically creative. Since code is creative, it’s important not to stunt that creativity. Instead, foster it by pushing people towards autonomy and keeping an open mind about problem-solving.

Allow for Some Autonomy

According to researchers, the number one rule to raising a creative child is to back off. The parents of highly creative children gave those kids space. They limited the number of rules for homework and bedtime, and they didn’t force their children to think or feel a certain way about things. In the same vein, adults that make waves in and out of their industries are influenced by more than just their specific talents. Creatives who invested in travel and artistic hobbies had more ideas and more success in their fields.

We all work on some sort of team; the best way to encourage the creatives on our teams is to give them the space to be creative. Make balance a core value of your professional life. The easiest way to do this is to remind yourself what you do outside of work directly affects what happens when you open your laptop.

There will always be a time when working 100+ hours a week will be necessary to complete a project. Don’t make that the norm. If you notice someone on your team—be it a direct report or a coworker—is showing signs of burnout, push them to take a few days off to recharge their batteries. Autonomous workers are more creative and more successful than those that are constantly micromanaged.

Remember There Are Multiple Solutions to One Problem

As the old saying goes, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. This same paradigm should be applied to solving problems. If you work with junior developers, it’s easy to walk them through the issues they come across from your specific perspective. This is great as your knowledge is what helps them get answers. Instead of telling them what to do, however, ask them what they think they should do. Focusing on the process instead of the solution helps them not only think for themselves, but also encourages them to be creative.

Therein lies the value of multiple solutions to problems. Those that skew towards the creative will always have new and interesting ways to tackle the same old issues. You, as the more senior dev, are more set in your ways which can result in being more rigid and less creative. Maybe you’re not working with a junior dev; you could be working with a few other team members and reach an impasse. Since you are embracing the fact that there is no predefined way to solve a lot of the problems you’ll encounter, this is your opportunity to discuss processes and not squabble over the fact that you disagree.

Shutting down differing opinions wipes out creativity, and that’s a part of the reason why arguments are so detrimental to team success. Keep an open mind, and start looking for different solutions to the daily problems you face. Remember, coding is creative. Make sure your contribution to the work environment fosters that creativity.

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Sharon Steed

Sharon is an empathy consulting, public speaker and writer. She has over a decade of experience creating and managing content for businesses. A lifelong stutterer, she utilizes her experiences with her speech along with her background in marketing to help companies communicate more effectively both internally and with their target audience. She writes and speaks about improving communication through empathy. She lives in Pittsburgh.