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August 5, 2019 · 18 min read

Psychological safety in tech and software engineering with a human touch with April Wensel of Compassionate Coding

Software may be written on machines, but it’s written by and for human beings.

That’s according to Ledge’s guest, April Wensel founder, of Compassionate Coding, a company offering advice and workshops to engineering teams on how to bring a more human touch to the workplace.

“We weren’t caring enough about human beings in the engineering process,” notes April, who used her background in software engineering to tailor her company’s interactive workshops so the content deeply aligns with her technical audience.

In this episode, we get to hear April’s perspective on the importance of emotional intelligence in the coding process, and how to promote psychological safety, diversity, and organizational effectiveness.

April Wensel

Founder of Compassionate Coding

April Wensel is the founder of Compassionate Coding, a socially conscious business that’s bringing emotional intelligence and ethics to the tech industry. Away from the keyboard, she enjoys running ultramarathons and baking tasty vegan treats.

Read transcript

Ledge: It’s so cool to have you on. Thank you for joining us.

April: Thanks for having me.

Ledge: Can you just give a two or three minute background story of yourself and your work, so the audience can get to know you?

April: Sure. I have the stereotypical engineering background. I started coding in high school and went on to study computer science in college. I worked at almost 10 different companies in the Bay Area over about a decade, so I switched jobs a lot. I got a diverse experience in things like education tech, gaming, health tech.

I was working as software engineer, using all kinds of technologies, leading teams, did that too. Then I got to a point where I saw that there were a lot of problems in the industry. Things like burnout that were affecting engineers. Lack of diversity was something that was affecting me as a woman engineer; seeing unethical products, seeing conflict on teams. I saw that all of this shared the same root problem, which was just we weren’t caring enough about human beings in the engineering process.

In 2016, I started my company, Compassionate Coding, to help bring emotional intelligence to the software development process. That’s what I do now.

Ledge: Huge topic. This comes up… Literally, I’ve done hundreds of these and every single time, customer empathy and human process and soft skills communication, diversity. You got a big nut there.

What does this look like tactically on ground? How does a company even know that, oh, I might benefit from Compassionate Coding?

April: It’s cool, because I take the cue from my clients. I don’t ever try to really sell it to people. I just talk about the stuff that matters to me and then they come to me.

The reasons they come are maybe they do have conflict on the team, or maybe they do have trouble delivering software. It could be something like that. Or a very technical problem, like they’re dealing with legacy code and people are frustrated. That’s an emotion right there, frustration. Or they do want to diversify their team too.

For me, it all ties together. Some people isolate these problems as, oh, we have a diversity problem, or we need agile software development, or whatever it may be. I see that these are all the same problem, and it’s just not thinking enough about the individual human beings on the team.

As far as tactically what it involves, companies bring me on site. I do some interviews with people to understand problems on the team, and then I create a customized curriculum of emotional intelligence, targeted towards engineers.

I try to use language the engineers understand, because I can reference my background as an engineer, and show them how this is not just soft stuff. I avoid using soft skills, because I think engineers love to dismiss that as not as important as hard technical skills. I use terms like catalytic skills, which I got from Daniel Goleman, a psychologist. It means that it helps you catalyze your other skills. For example, being persistent, being curious, improving your communication skills; all of these help you do your job better. They catalyze the application of your other skills.

Then I teach this interactive workshop at the companies. Then afterwards, I’m available for them to consult me whenever they have trouble implementing the ideas we discuss, and that sort of thing.

Ledge: Sure. Absolutely. How do you find the stickiness of the lessons? It’s easy to sit and do your PD and check the box and say, “Oh good, we learned about some stuff.” Then go back to your old behavioral patterns.

How do you address that?

April: There’s a lot of good research on this, on how to form new habits and whatnot. One thing I do is I really try to tie it in to people’s own desires, and their own needs and their own wants.

A lot of people want their lives to change in different ways, so I try to get to the core of what matters to them. I think, in order to make change you really have to have a deep motivation. It can’t just be, oh yeah, I want to check this box. Usually, it’s not even enough to say, “I want to make more money,” or, “I want to get more job offers,” or gig offers or whatever. It’s more like, “I want to be happier at work.” Even down to that. Or like, “I don’t want to be stressed out all the time,” or, “I want to find ways of managing things so that I can spend more time with my family.” Something that’s a core motivation. Step one is finding that core motivation.

Then every workshop that I do ends with an action plan. We come up with specific steps for each person to do, and they commit to it and they say, “Here’s a small way I’m going to get started with this. Something I’m going to change in my life to bring more emotional intelligence to my software development work.”

Ledge: You’ve got a roomful of people, so it’s a group approach, but each individual is going to have a different vector that matters most to them. Then you’re shooting for the leveling up of emotional intelligence across the spectrum then?

April: Yeah. That’s exactly it. Actually, one of the sessions I gave is called Level Up Your Emotional Intelligence, so I’m with you on the language there.

It’s a group approach, but there are a lot of individual activities we do. A lot of written introspection that engineers are not used to doing. They break out that pen and handwrite things. It’s a different experience – which is why it’s fun and engaging too, I think, because it’s just something different.

Ledge: You don’t let them check it into GitHub?

April: No, no, no. None of that. No. I usually make them, or ask them – I don’t make anything. I ask them to put away their devices all together, just because then they can bring their full self to the workshop.

Ledge: That’s probably a really, I don’t know, liberating experience, kind of. “I’ve been instructed to detether.” I believe that that is something that none of us do.

It strikes me that you’re able to speak engineering language to that cohort, which is this smart. These are not principles that wouldn’t apply to really anyone in any context, department, what have you, any company.

Do you ever see that it bleeds out and like, “Hey, can you do this for the operations group? Can you do it for the…” whatever other group?

April: Yeah. That’s a good question. A lot of times, the workshops, I get approached by the VP of engineering or the CTO, or a manager of a team. A lot of the people who come, the marketer may come too, or the salesperson. Really, I try to keep the material… I make references to engineering but it is general purpose too.

It’s funny too because I was doing some banking for my company the other day and they were like, “Do you do this for the financial services, because I think we could really use some more emotional intelligence.” People do ask me about it for different fields, and I could totally see going in those directions.

I’ve just really enjoyed this niche though, just because it’s the people that I feel like I can resonate with in terms of, we have shared experiences and I have that background that’s like theirs. I can say, “Hey, I know we all used to make fun of this stuff and call it soft skills and just dismiss it as squishy people stuff.” I can say, “Actually, here’s how it can make a difference in our lives for real. There’s science to back it up and so we should really do this.”

Ledge: Yeah. Engineers like science, so as long as you brought your peer-reviewed literature, everything should be chill.

That’s interesting. I’ve been in the org development and coaching space in previous lives myself. There’s no question, I think, that there’s a hunger for this type of work across all the functions.

What I always notice, I’m curious if you see this, is that the language around it seems to be, people discover symptoms before they discover they cure. “We’ve tried lots of things and we’re spinning our wheels. I don’t know. People just don’t feel good. Productivity is down.”

Is that accurate? Do you have a diagnostic way to look at this?

April: I think that’s true. A lot of the times when clients approach me, it is because there’s been some pain on the team, one way or another. They have tried things, like you’re talking about like, “Well, we brought in an agile coach but…”

It’s like you can’t just slap a process on it when it’s something deeper. Really, what it boils down to most of the time is a lack of psychological safety on the team. People don’t feel comfortable speaking up. People don’t feel like they can share what’s bugging them so much.

The workshop that I bring in provides that safe space, at least while I’m there. It’s a starting point.

Speaking of the science, Google did a study about what makes for an effective team and psychological safety was the top thing. Nowhere on the list was a team full of rock-star developers. I think that that was really telling. I definitely lean on that when I talk to these groups, because a lot of them look up to Google. I don’t personally, but I know that they do, so I share that information with them, that hey, even Google who does one of the most toxic interviews in the industry, they’re starting to recognize that psychological safety actually matters.

Ledge: A little backhanded comment there. I got you.

April: Yeah, a little bit, just throw in there.

Even Linus Torvalds came out recently to say that he’s going to try to stop being so much of a jerk and learn about emotions.

Ledge: Absolutely. I’m curious, how do you catalogue the emotions? There’s like a million dimensions on this, and there’s endless numbers of assessments and behavioral and emotional and all those things. I don’t know if you use any quantitative metrics?

April: I’ve played around with that because there is. There’s been so much research now on this.

I mentioned Daniel Goleman, he popularized the term emotional intelligence There’s other people in this field too. I think Amy Edmondson is the one who really dials in on psychological safety. There’s a lot of these assessments.

Sometimes I’ve played with that with teams, but really what matters to me is helping those individuals on the team. I don’t even care so much about helping various companies – that’s just a side benefit. For me, it’s about helping the people because I think that they’re the power. They’re the source of change.

They may go on to other companies like I did. I always saw myself as a mercenary. I care more about the individuals. For that reason, I try to inspire them to do experiments in their own life. Even if there is a study that says, oh yeah, this is effective in 90% of cases, you could also fall in that 10%.

Really, what matters is trying it out for yourself, whether or not there’s research to back it up. Do a little experiment. Treat yourself like a lean startup. Do a little experiment like, hey, if I try journaling every night or if I try meditation or if I try whatever it is, let me see if it makes a difference in my life or not.

Ledge: Right, like a baseline. How do I feel? Check in with yourself, which is just good psychological personal self-awareness health. It tends to get lost when you work all the time and get this unidirectional approach – I’m just going to write code or I’m just going to sell or I’m just going to do marketing. Whatever it is, you start to lose touch with yourself there.

Talk a little bit more about the psychological safety. Do you really find that that is absolutely the root, like it’s a good place to land?

April: I think it’s a good place to start, especially in the tech world. I think that, because of the influence of academia on the origins of the tech industry – you can see this in the interview approach where it’s about algorithms and stuff and things like that – you see that there is this premium placed on proving that you’re smart and showing that you’re smart. Which is fine, being smart is great.

The problem is that it discourages people from showing any vulnerability or any potential weakness because of fear that you’ll be found out. We see this in terms of impostor syndrome, for example. Which affects under-represented groups even more but everybody experiences it, I think. They just show it in different ways. Sometimes people overcompensate by being a little extra cocky to show that they’re qualified, whereas other people act not so confident. I think everybody experiences impostor syndrome, it’s just a different matter how they display it.

I think that the reason for impostor syndrome is this lack of psychological safety in tech. It’s like, well, I have to be the smartest one in the room and I have to show that I’m the rock-star. It creates this fear of not wanting to show any vulnerability.

For psychological safety to be on a team, people have to be comfortable being wrong and making mistakes and admitting to them. Admitting to making mistakes. We have to shut down that ego.

Sometimes in my talks I’ll say, “Ego is the biggest problem in tech.” I think it’s the truth. I think that ego, that need to protect our ego, keeps us from relating to others and prevents psychological safety. It causes impostor syndrome in us and others because we try to put down others to make ourselves feel better.

A lot of this stuff is stuff that should be taught when we’re children, but people miss out on that sometimes. Especially people who gravitated more towards computers, and I did too, a lot of these lessons we have to reawaken in ourselves because we lost touch with them.

Ledge: You probably get a roomful of engineers sometimes, you go and you hear, “We totally agree with you, but it’s the people who aren’t in here that we have trouble getting through too.” It’s a lead-from-the-bottom kind of thing from culture change. You need to have a willingness from even the middle management or the upper management and leadership to embrace the expensive – or at least appearance of expensive – sit there and take feedback and listen to people and allow for that space of safety. It takes a lot of time. It takes a lot of input.

I think we would both agree, being aware with this work and practitioners would agree that it’s worth it. That’s not the standard view that grew up in American business culture. Faster. More. Not so many meetings. Not so much listening. Top down. There’s a lot of stuff there that transcends even modern engineering orgs.

How do you deal with that, when it’s really about somebody who’s not in that room and should actually be taking your class?

April: That’s why I love working with the whole team, if I can. I love working with small teams, because then everybody’s in there, whether they want to be there or not. The reason I don’t mind is, one, I’m pretty good at handling the skeptics because I used to be one and I would have dismissed all this. I can anticipate what their objections are going to be and have a study to point to to show actually… Then show them the study. That’s one way, is I show them actually, this is valuable and here are the reasons why.

Again, usually those people who are skeptical about the usefulness of this, they’re usually angry about something. There’s usually something that they’re annoyed about in their own life. Maybe their teammates are not as good as they are. Maybe they’re not using the framework they want to be using. They’re usually frustrated. If I can connect with that and show them how they can help alleviate their frustrations using these techniques, that a lot of times will win them over too.

They see, if I learn how to empathize and communicate with empathy, then I might get to use this framework I’ve been wanting to use, or we might be able to switch to this new, whatever. It’s like a practical skill. From that perspective, sometimes they’ll be willing to see that it’s worth the investment of this time.

One thing I point to is, it’s just more efficient to communicate with empathy, because whenever you don’t you trigger people’s fight or flight response. If you go at them and you’re just like, “Here’s why you’re wrong and I’m right,” they’re not even listening to what you’re saying. Their heart’s beating fast and they’re ready to respond and defend their ego. If you can approach them in a non-threatening way, you’re also more likely to get what you want.

Again, every time I can connect with what somebody else really wants, that’s usually how I win them over. Again, like I said, there’s lots of studies to back it up now. As far as showing them that it’s worth the time, I can usually pull those out.

Ledge: The frustration for a manager or a leader, whoever, assuming you can get them at the table, is just going to be the stuff they experience echoed back from the team. It’s really a personal thing. Like, “Are you having a little impostor syndrome about your leadership today?” That’s what makes that frustration come from. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense.

Do you have to advance sometimes and say, “I need to get… I keep hearing that name. I need that person added to the program because there’s something going on there?”

April: Yeah. Sometimes I’ll do private coaching with the individual – the problem individual, so to speak.

It’s funny because, like I said, a lot of times I identify most with that person. Some people who are familiar with my work will know I wrote this blog post, Confessions of a Recovering Jerk Programmer, where I talk about the fact that I used to buy into the fact, the idea, that proving that you’re the smartest in the room and being that arrogant jerk was valuable. I used to be that way.

A lot of times, that jerk on team and I get along just fine. Again, it usually boils down to there’s a positive spin, which is that they’re just really passionate. They’re really passionate about engineering or their craftsmanship or whatever it is, and they just don’t feel like their teammates are up to that. It comes across as aggression and lack of emotional intelligence. If they learn a few techniques, a lot of times, it can make a big difference. Then we can harness the power of their passion for good.

Ledge: I like that. Talk to me a little bit about diversity and how that fits in. A huge topic right now. It’s pretty hard to avoid diversity in the tech press.

April: It’s true.

Ledge: What’s that like on the ground? It is a piece of this pie or an overlapping circle, however you want to draw your model. It doesn’t stand alone.

April: Absolutely. It ties in. The reason I try to tie all these things together is that I understand that with all the pressures people are under, if they think they’re not affected by the diversity issue, they’re going to dismiss it because like, “Oh, It doesn’t really affect me so it’s not a big deal.”

That’s why my strategy is to connect it to these other problems. I’m not a diversity-inclusion consultant or anything like that. I just see how, underneath the diversity problem is this lack of emotional intelligence, empathy, et cetera. Empathy means being able to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes and being able to… I like to say, whatever weird stuff someone else is doing, it makes sense in their heads, and empathy is understanding how. What’s their model that makes this make sense to them, whatever seems weird to you? That’s how it ties in as far as emotional intelligence, is really that empathy piece.

I think too, valuing emotional intelligence on the team will also help with hiring a more diverse set of people. I don’t know if it’s because I’m a woman or whatever, but I’ve always had an interest in more than just the code. I like the code but it’s mattered to me what we’re building and what’s the meaning behind it and all of that.

That doesn’t necessarily come through in interviews for jobs, because people don’t really care about that. They’re like, “Oh, can you code?” That’s it. There’s problems with that too, because people from under-represented groups will feel more anxiety in software interviews because they’re worried about confirming negative stereotypes about their group.

If I know that I’m going in and people think, oh, women aren’t very good at coding, I know that that’s an unconscious bias that people have. It’s unconscious most of the time. They’re not consciously thinking this. I already know I’m at a disadvantage because they’re like, “If I succeed, it will surprise them. They’re not expecting me to succeed.” That puts even more stress on me.

If they have been taught about stereotypes, emotional intelligence, they might be able to take a step back and think, “How am I judging her and what’s affecting my judgment of her and whatnot?” That’s how it helps too, is just giving people another perspective on what’s affecting their decisions.

All of our decisions are affected by emotions. We can never turn off our emotions, and I think recognizing that is a big piece of this.

Ledge: You probably have stumbled on the least difficult way to get people to listen maybe to divisive issues. When I hear diversity come up, you can immediately see the walls. It’s like, “Well, where am I in that topic? I’m not sure. I feel insecure.”

If you say like, “We all have emotions, so what’s…” Treat the thing. The objective has that trigger. I think that makes a lot of sense. It’s a good articulation. Having spent a lot of time with technical leaders, it totally resonates. Thank you for sharing the insights.

How can people who are interested in this, obviously you’re talking to a lot of CTOs right now, so how do they find out? How do they get involved with you?

April: The best way is, my website. Also, on Twitter, @aprilwensel and @compassioncode, because of Twitter link limitations on user name. A lot of people just email me, [email protected]. Bring it on. I’m not worried about the spam.

Ledge: Awesome. April, thank you for spending time with us. Really cool to have you on.

April: Thank you for having me. It’s been great.