Programmatic Thinking as a Workplace Solution
Outside of our tech bubble, it’s easy to forget that most people have a varying degree of comfort and knowledge about technology. Within your organization, your friend groups, and your life, you may be surprised at the lack of understanding about what we consider to be basic computer science.
There’s a psychological phenomenon [I’ve written about this before here] known as the Dunning-Kruger effect. Essentially, “a cognitive bias in which people of low-ability mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is, as low-ability people do not have the ability to recognize their lack of ability”.
Even the most highly competent individuals can fall prey to this, because we overvalue the skill of our fellow intellectuals and wrongly assume that intelligence equals an equivalent knowledge or training base.
I want you to consider a simple idea to drive home. Computers have a language, and like any language, there are rules to that language.
Computers are not magical, freely operating machines. They follow a series of very simple rules, and never deviate from what they are programmed to do.
One of my favorite examples of this is “If this, then that”, a fundamental concept of how computers operate, and how code is written.
We have found a key idea to drive home with non-technical people is that: computer are always logical. But we are not always. And because we’re emotional creatures, it’s easy to understand why we project our own views on machines. But when we try to think like computers, we might realize a different way to problem solve.
Computers aren’t magic. They do not have personalities, and even though we as humans find it easy to attribute emotional responses to their actions — like a computer freezing up on us, or refusing to send an email, we have to remember that they are just machines, effectively following a series of rules.
This is key to dispelling the mystery, and opening ourselves up to the idea that we can understand why they do the things they do, even without knowing the full technical details, or a full arsenal of programming knowledge. We can then even use this to better structure why we do what we do. Using programmatic thinking can reduce decision fatigue and increase the effectiveness of your daily operations.
There’s been well over 100 studies, on everything from diet and exercise to negotiation and time management, that more or less study the effect of “if this, then that” thinking on task completion effectiveness, and they have shown that deciding in advance when and where you will take specific actions to reach your goal can double or triple your chances for success.
Making if-then plans to tackle your current projects, is probably — without exaggerating — the most effective single thing you can do to ensure success, and an incredibly practical way to implement programmatic thinking in your workforce.
Take some of these examples of how to apply this type of thinking.
“If it’s 12 o’ clock, then respond to un-answered e-mails.”
“If my colleagues spend more than 10 minutes water-cooler chatting, then I will remind them to get back to work.”
Why are these plans so effective? It’s because they are written in the language of your brain — the language of contingencies. Human beings are particularly good at encoding and remembering information in “If X, then Y” terms, and using these contingencies to guide our behavior, often below our cognitive awareness. It becomes a simple framework for your brain to operate within, and unpleasant to deviate from the decided plan.
Once you’ve formulated your if-then plan, your unconscious brain will start scanning the environment, searching for the situation in the “if” part of your plan. This enables you to seize the critical moment (“Oh, it’s 4pm! I’d better return those calls”), even when you are busy doing other things.
Since you’ve already decided exactly what you need to do, you can execute the plan without having to consciously think about it or waste time deliberating what you should do next.
(Sometimes this is conscious, and you actually realize you are following through on your plan. The point is it doesn’t have to be conscious, which means your plans can get carried out when you are preoccupied with other things, and that is incredibly useful.)
Implementing programmatic thinking in the day-to-day behaviors of your teammates makes it easier for them to understand and troubleshoot when things go wrong.
“If this is happening, then I need to look for this trigger.”
“If our web-server goes down, then we need to reset x.”
“If the shipping address is missing a zip code, then verify with Google Maps.”
Mental fatigue is present in all organizations, and anything we can do to reduce it aids in the productivity, and thus success, of our workforce.
It’s been crucial to our success as an organization to plan and embrace this methodology. Programmatic thinking helped our team understand how things work, to demystify technology and more effectively scale our e-commerce business by reducing operational inefficiencies by teaching our team logic framework to solve problems.
*Special thanks to Sean Geng for co-developing this work with me.