17 May 2019

Compassionate Coding – What We Learnt at Impact Summit 2019

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Josh Carson

Recently Andrzej and I had the opportunity to attend this years Impact Summit, an annual event held and facilitated by FutureX. I wasn’t able to attend last year, but having seen the calibre of speakers, the subjects and caught a sense of the general vibe, I was eager to go.

Impact Summit is all about bringing together open minded people and purpose driven businesses that want to tackle global challenges. At GearedApp we provide services for a range of businesses, these solutions that we provide can bring impact both locally and globally. At Impact Summit however, one speech in particular got us talking. Compassionate Coding.


April Wensel, a developer for over 17 years came to find that through her career that there are a lot of developers suffering behind tech companies and their table tennis tables, beer fridges and free food. It often goes unsaid is that a lot of tech industry is toxic. As a result, April started her company, Compassionate Coding, to help promote and teach empathy, emotional intelligence and ethics.

During Aprils talk, there were several points that resonated with us and I wanted to take the time to explore them a little further and look at how they affect the team at GearedApp.

Firstly, developers don’t like people*.

This prompted quite a few laughs in the audience, but what April went on to describe was a very real situation. Back in the ‘60’s IBM commissioned a study on programmers, where one outcome read:

“Programmers are crazy about puzzles, tend to like research applications and risk-taking and don’t like people.”
– Cannon & Perry. A vocational interest scale for computer programmers 1966

Due to the influence IBM had on programmer hiring over the past 50 years, they have helped form our own assumptions about developers. As a result, we have broken hiring processes, we reward toxic behaviour and we have alienating stereotypes. This is largely true for larger businesses, however at GearedApp we have an ace up our sleeve. Since starting GearedApp, we have been unencumbered by old processes and ideas and have been able to instead define our own. As a result we’ve always taken a different approach to hiring. We don’t require you to have a degree, we don’t expect you to work on side projects in your spare time and we certainly do not promote toxic behaviour. All we ask for is that you are a respectful human being, have a willingness to learn and are passionate about what you do. Now, obviously we require you to have the relevant coding ability for the position we’re hiring for, but how that ability is demonstrated is not defined.

Secondly, burnout

Burnout and stress, it affects everyone to some degree, but it’s particularly prevalent in the tech industry. As mentioned above, some developers don’t like people, or as April told us, ‘Developers pretend to not like people to fit in’. The result of this is that there is a lack of empathy for your colleagues, your fellow coders. There’s an underlying expectation to be the best at your role, and as a result people don’t often ask for help…and when they do they’re faced by dogs abuse on platforms such as Stack Overflow. As April says (and we wholeheartedly agree) is that being kind is more efficient because you don’t trigger a defensive threat response. In other words, looking out for one another leads to improved wellbeing, improved productivity and an in-sync team.

Our final takeaway from this talk was what compassion actually means for the workplace.

How do code-reviews and retrospectives work? Are we developing software that improves people’s lives or does introduce suffering? Does the team have enough mentorship and access to resources? Since the beginning at GearedApp, we have strived to create a culture of inclusion, open communication and zero judgement; employee satisfaction and wellbeing isn’t just a KPI for us. I like to think we do a pretty good job of it, but are we doing enough? April’s talk was a great reminder to us that compassion is so important.

As the day continued we heard talks from many inspiring people, including global entrepreneur Steffen Stäuber who talked to us about creating a new world with purpose driven solutions. We also heard from Irina Preda from Code Your Future, a non profit ran by volunteers to help refugees learn to code. I We also heard from the founder of Karma Cola, Simon Coley, who talked about the work they do with local tribes in Sierra Leone, where the key ingredient for their first product is farmed. It was great to hear a series of candid talks from people who genuinely care about the impact that they and their businesses have on the world, and the theme of compassion and impact really hit home for us.

Impact Summit ‘19, was a great experience, and we are looking forward to discussing these issues further with the rest of the team to sense check our own working practices, cultures and habits, so that compassion and ethics continue to be at the forefront of everything we do.

*We’ve found that most developers do actually, like people.