Today I was lucky to hear part of the Thomas Jefferson Hour as I drove down to the ranch to work the donkeys. Thomas Jefferson, channeled by the actor and scholar Clay Jenkinson, quoted from his first inaugural address: “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle”. Jefferson believed that our elected officials should respond to moments of tension (and as he says, there was just as much rancor in political debates back in his day as now) with politeness, good humor and respectfulness. He recommended that our current elected officials, if they can’t find common ground, should adopt “artificial good humor” and assume the best about their opponents.

TJ and I might both have our head in the clouds, but I’m a big believer in civility. I’m not recommending that we all walk around on eggshells and worry about offending people. But I do think we need to all work hard to make sure that everyone on our software team feels safe to express opinions, and conversely, is willing to accept the team consensus or majority rule, and work to make whatever approach is taken successful.

This is something I want to take to heart for myself. Here’s an example. I’m trying to explain an issue to the programmer who is on production support this sprint. I’ve analyzed the problem and think I know how it should be fixed. He seems not to understand, gets impatient with me, throws up his hands and tells me I am mistaken. I could feel mad and hurt by this, or I can remember that being the production support monkey is frustrating and stressful. I’ve given him the information I wanted to convey, and I can leave him to process it. He’s smart and motivated to take care of our customers, so I know he will find a good solution. He shouldn’t be rude to me, but if I can avoid escalating the tension, we will have a good outcome.

Indeed, later the programmer comes over and apologizes, says now he understands what I was trying to say, and appreciates the research I did into the issue. We talk about the fix and how to test it.

I’m lucky to work on a team that, though there is lots of joshing and joking, is composed of people with a deep commitment to providing a quality product, and open minds willing to consider anyone’s ideas. I’ve been on teams that didn’t provide this atmosphere of respect and civility, and I must confess, I hightailed it away from those toxic environments.

The “agile” movement was built on principles and values. “Every difference of opinion is not a difference in principle”. Give your team time and space to agree on principles and values. Going forward from there, each team member will feel free to float their ideas and opinions, and have healthy discussions. That’s what makes a project successful.


Janet Gregory and I have an article, and are interviewed in, this month’s Software Test and Performance Magazine, devoted to “Women of Influence in Software Testing”. Please check it out, it’s a great issue with lots of meaty articles.

I have a sidebar in Dawn Cannan‘s terrific “Be the Worst” article in the inaugural issue of Agile Record.

Matt Davey wrote a wonderful thumbnail summary of our book in his review of it, we are grateful.

One comment on “Civility

  1. I agree with your post whole-heartedly. It seems that software development keeps moving toward processes such as Agile that rely on more and more collaboration. If people have to work more closely together, the need for social graces such as civility will continue to be amplified.

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