Think Left

My first career was in public education, as a Special Education teacher. I worked with students with severe emotional and behavioral disorders. The most inspiring conference talk I ever attended was titled, “Think Left.", and I want to share the story here as context for how I approach change.

The gentleman who gave the talk was a university professor who also ran a private school for students with these disorders. When he took over the school, students were regularly physically restrained, both by staff, but also by being locked in isolation rooms. Hundreds of times per month.

The story he shared was of going skiing for the first time with his wife. They did not have enough money for two lessons, so his wife took the lesson, and then shared what she had learned. She shared some info about getting going, and slowing down, and then he asked, “what did the instructor say about turning?” She reported, “to go left, think left, and your body will follow.”

This is incredibly simple and incredibly powerful. The question he posed to his staff with this story was, “What if we never restrained kids? What would that look like?” At first this was considered impossible, but when you challenge people to think in terms of the impossible, things start to seem more possible. It’s hard to think of these solutions, but it can be done. By the time I heard him give this talk at a conference, his school no longer physically restrained kids. Ever.

I never forget that talk. It has become part of my core.

One of the hardest parts of “think left” is getting others to believe. Sometimes you have to be the one who thinks left for long enough that some small part of your plan happens, and then others start to get on board.

I started my current job two years ago. At that time, and for much of the time since then, a common practice has been something known as “red-term’ing.” This vocabulary came from early developers at the company who would connect to the production database with read/write credentials to execute inserts/updates/deletes, and shared a script that turned their terminal red to warn them they were connected to prod. To execute something against prod was to “red-term.”

Six years into the company this was still happening, multiple times per day.

My first reaction was, “well, that has to stop.” Everyone’s reaction was basically, “Well, yeah, we know this is bad, but there’s no other way to do it.”

Today is my 2nd anniversary with the company, and as of today, we no longer red-term. All scripts, whether code or SQL, get committed to git, run through code review, and then go through an automated pipeline against staging, then get manual approval before being automatically run against production. The repo containing these one-off commands is loaded into a container, and then we execute them as kubernetes jobs.

There has never been a day at this company where I felt that red-term’ing was inevitable. So it wasn’t.

I believe that the most important quality I bring to my work in software development is a tolerance for the passage of time. As a Special Education teacher, I had students for multiple years. I measured my success in those terms. Students don’t get over emotional trauma in a sprint. Pushing through organizational change in the public sector doesn’t happen in a Product Increment.

In software development people start to believe that if it can’t be accomplished in a quarter then it can’t be accomplished. But true change, of people, of processes, takes time. You can think left, but the body doesn’t always instantly follow. The key is continuing to think left. Hold to your principles, if not your opinions. But you have to start by thinking left.