Facilitating the Spread of Knowledge and Innovation in Professional Software Development

Write for InfoQ


Choose your language

InfoQ Homepage Interviews The Core Protocols

The Core Protocols


1. We have with us today Jim and Michele McCarthy, authors of the book Software for Your Head and also the formulators of the core protocols and the core commitments, a set of structured interactions for team greatness. Michele, how did you meet Jim?

Michele: I was working as the program manager at Microsoft and although I was really good at it, I had this intuition that it wasn’t what I was supposed to be doing with my life. And I started running experiments with my teams to try different ways of doing things and then it kind of hit me all at once of like, oh, this is what I’m supposed to do with my life. I started just broadcasting that to everyone I knew telling them and I got a lot of negative feedback, but I got one friend telling me you’ve got to meet this guy; he works over in Visual C++, his name is Jim McCarthy. I sent Jim an email and I said this guy says we should meet - so will you have lunch with me? And he said sure. So I sent him an hour-long schedule invitation and he sent it back with half an hour.

Jim: I didn’t even know that.

Michele: That’s how we met.

Dan: Beautiful. Now this team, this Microsoft --

Michele: Bad call by the way.

Jim: No, I just knew you were efficient.

Michele: No, you were worried I was going to be taking up too much of your time.

Dan: Nice. So this team, this C++ team, this is the one that gave Borland a hard time in the ‘90s, right?

Jim: Yes, as a matter of fact it is.

Dan: And isn’t this the team that really dominated the market for C++?

Jim: We took the market back. I used to work at a company called White Water and I was a consultant to Borland and we provided the object windows library for them and some other windows editing tools and helped them beat Microsoft to windows - was kind of the race in those days. So that got me my – well actually it ended up getting me a job offer at both places and so I picked Microsoft and got a great job there. Boy, I’ve never regretted that for one minute. And our first product Visual C++ 1.0 was the one that just kind of brushed them back and they had trouble every recovering from that.


2. So that must have been quite a team. Now the two of you worked at Microsoft, you worked together, and then you subsequently built a relationship together, left Microsoft and went on to study teams. Tell us the why about that.

Michele: About the why of which part?

Dan: The studying teams part.

Michele: Oh, why teams?

Dan: Yes. That was your passion?

Michele: You know, when we met each other, we already were independently on that. We were both just stuck on that idea of teams and that’s why when we met each other it just like immediately we were inseparable. Because then, not only was it like all the ideas I had coming out of me, but like now I have this other person with a whole new set of ideas that combined with my ideas. For me it was that I got that – well I really nailed that program management thing at Microsoft and I could do it in like an hour a day where all the other program managers weren’t able to do it and it was taking them 80 hours a week or whatever. And so I’m like - what am I doing different - and I said well I’m dealing with the people part. I’m not, like I don’t do things like write a 200-page spec, I don’t do things like put a schedule on the wall that takes me hours and hours; all I do is I deal with the people. Like, I go to each person and I establish a trusting relationship with them and make sure we all agree on what we’re doing, which was like a nascent shared vision, which is an idea I got from Jim. So that’s why I got stuck on it because I really got into psychology and like the people-to-people connections on a team and how powerful that was.

Jim: I remember at that lunch - that apparently brief lunch…

Michele: No, it turned into an hour.

Dan: Oh, it did, so you got --

Michele: Because I was correct.

Jim: Well, by the way, that’s a good strategy to set up meetings with people you don’t know. Like book it for an hour and you can let them make it longer.

Michele: Oh, I knew he would say that.

Jim: Anyway, I can remember asking you well what do you do exactly, oh I’m a program manager; well what’s your team, well I have 5 guys on a team - or whatever. And I said, well you mentioned one of them, the development lead, and I said, well tell me what are his issues and you went …

Michele: Do you mean what I think you mean by asking me that question? Like I couldn’t believe someone was like thinking about the same things I was thinking about. I’ve never run into this before.

Jim: Right; I was kind of puzzled like, did I do something wrong? Am I going to get sued by HR now? What did I do? You know.

Because there were certain thoughts in my head that could be – suit worthy.


3. So now let’s get into this. Let’s get into these thoughts in your heads, specifically Software for Your Head. This book was published in what year?

Michele: 2001.

Dan: So in Software for Your Head --

Michele: It was right after 9/11.

Dan: Right after 9/11 it was published.

Michele: Yes.

Dan: It discusses 11, what are called core protocols, which are structured interactions between people. And these protocols are based on something called the core commitments.

Jim: That’s right.


4. And the first commitment is to engage when present. And can you speak a little bit about the commitments and then that first commitment - especially and why it’s first, or how it’s essential?

Jim: Well, you know, like your physical presence has to mean something. So, in our system if you’re physically present or if you have a cursor in the chat, or if your name is on the board, you know, whatever - if you’re somehow present that means that you’re going to be engaged to the maximum capability that you could bring. And we’re totally cool with you not being there, but if you’re there, we have very high expectations of your level of engagement and that includes things like pursuing the best idea regardless of its source, disclosing what you feel, think, and want. A couple of other conditions - what?

Michele: Asking for help.

Jim: Asking for help. There are certain attributes of engagement of the healthy mature adult that are specified in those commitments and they’re under the heading of engagement.

Michele: One thing to know about kind of the background of that commitment is, we all as children have an ability to learn to check out mentally from what is going on - for whatever reason. When you’re little and you’re tiny, you get scared easily, you might misunderstand what’s going on, adults might get angry and that scares you, you feel insecure about something. And so we all learn the ability to kind of mentally check out. So your body is there but you’re mentally checked out. And, so we take this ability into the workplace. It doesn’t go away, you still can do it, you still can check out.

Jim: Check out.

Michele: And a lot of us don’t know we’re doing it; we’re not aware of when we’re doing it and it’s habitual. And so, this protocol is saying you’re going to be intentional about when you’re checked in and when you’re checked out. So you’re going to be aware of this thing you’re doing - that I’m here and I’m engaged in the now with this person. I’m trying to connect with this person or I’m not, I’m like elsewhere.

Jim: Right. And that’s the beginning of becoming aware of what you need to do about your environment - is to be engaged with it. Right, if you’re engaged with it and things are being talked about that are irrelevant, you’ll notice it - but only if you’re engaged. If you’re not engaged, if you’ve checked out, you’re sitting there and going hmm, hmm, hmm, you know, you’re immune, you’re inured, you’re numb. So no numb, numb is illegal.

Dan: We’re not doing numb?

Jim: We’re not doing numb, exactly.

Michele: Or if you want to do numb, you have to specifically check out in our system. You can be numb it’s just that you can’t be with the team.

Dan: You need to be explicit about it.

Michele: Because that affects the team when there’s a numb - when there’s a zombie there. Right?

Dan: Right. A zombie, yes.

Michele: And I need to go numb sometimes, right? I need to go in my little space and be numb. But I’m not going to like, do it in the team setting.


5. So let’s drill into this check out right. To understand checkout we need to understand check-in. Check-in is based on these 11 commitments - one of which is to engage when present. Right?

Jim: Yes.

Dan: So let’s talk, let’s unpack check-in like really quickly. Like just in 90 seconds, what’s check-in about, how does it work, what are the mechanics? And then we can get into – let’s do check in that way, and then let’s discuss checkout within that context. So what’s check-in all about?

Michele: So check-in is really two things happening at the same time. One is, it’s dealing with the emotions of the people on the team. So it gives you a structured way to deal with emotions and it can be used at any time. It’s typically used at beginnings of meetings or the beginning of the day, but it can be used at any time. And the other thing that’s going on when you check in is you are saying “I am in” when you’re done with your check-in. And that means I agree to the commitments that you referred to. And, so there’s kind of two things going on when you check in.


6. Do I have to state my emotions if I check-in?

Jim: No, you can pass. You can pass on anything. Freedom, the passion of freedom, an extension of freedom into the workplace is our principal value and purpose. So we don’t mandate anything. In fact, on the contrary, you’re totally free by adopting our structure; more free than when you started. That’s the goal. And, we’re using Copyleft provisions of our GNU licensing so that freedom comes in with the package.

Michele: Once we explicitly went into this research mode together, it became clear quickly that you cannot get greatness from a team unless you make the freedom part very explicit in many ways, over and over, until the people are used to it and they’re used to living that way and they insist on it. To the extent that like people feel they’re not free, or imagine they’re not free, or feel forced, or any of that, the greatness will be impacted severely.

Jim: It’s the first thing to go.

Michele: Very destructive.


7. So checking in and checking out, these are volitional acts. Nobody coerces, controls and manipulates me to do them?

Michele: That’s right.

Jim: That’s right. We do encourage people to check in at least to the extent of saying “I’m in”, which means I’m running the code, the commitments. You can count on me for those commitments. So if you don’t want to disclose your feelings and there’s a general check-in going on in your presence, you go, “I pass, I’m in”, but even that – you can pass on that too. That would throw the team for a bit of loop, but I give you that.


8. So when people act volitionally, they are free to express themselves with their team members as they see fit. Now the check-in has a structure to it, right? You can optionally say how you feel and even then it’s constrained by the four participant rights: sad, mad, glad and afraid. And they can mix those?

Jim: Right.

Michele: Right.

Jim: Yes, yes, we get – you know, I feel mad, I feel glad, I feel sad, I feel afraid, we just keep it to four because that seems to be sufficient. And those are the kind of four identified scientific feelings by Peter Jay and some other psychologists in the studies of cognition. But it seems to work, I mean so, you know, if you can say “I’m mad”, you’re safe to be with – with your anger. And so what we’re after is people that can think and feel simultaneously. That’s a part of engagement.


9. Can you drill into that for just another 30 seconds? Think and feel simultaneously, can you say what that means and then could Michele maybe riff on that a little bit too?

Michele: So, a lot of people don’t think about the difference between feeling and thinking. So feelings - it’s a very primitive mechanism in our bodies; it’s very physical. Feelings are physical. A physical feeling comes over you. They’re responses to the environment. They’re very primitive responses. Like, for instance, all mammals have them, but I mean even if you go down to lower (what would it be) orders, you’ll find feelings even in lower order animals. So mad, sad, glad, afraid, it’s one of the older parts of our brain and our nervous system.

Now thinking, that’s one of the newest parts, right? That’s like, you know, the front of our brain, the new part. That’s what kind of makes us human is this ability to like be self-aware or recognize ourselves in mirrors. I know that you can think and I can put myself in your shoes. These are like very new inventions of nature. And so it’s important to be able to manage both these things at the same time. If you’re feeling without thinking, you can get into a lot of trouble. Obviously, right? You could go into a rage for instance and be destructive and like hurt a relationship. If you’re thinking without feeling, you could also get into a lot of trouble, right? You could like rationalize something very well but like not be engaging the feeling part of you such as empathy with other human beings.

Jim: Or caring, you know, like passion. Everybody says “Well, you got to be passionate.” Well, that’s primarily a sublime feeling. That’s one of the bigger feelings, you know, motivational feelings. It’s kind of a mixture of glad and scared. We CARE about something, sublime, you’re caring, you’re caring - so it’s emotional primarily. Thinking, however, would be “Oh, wow I made this”, but then something doesn’t feel good.

Dan: It doesn’t feel right.

Jim: Yes, it doesn’t feel right or the gut check says no. Whatever, that’s intuition. Feelings are faster than thinking and more effective and more powerful. Intuitions are faster than feeling, but they’re very subtle. “What’s that?” you know, but you got to hear it. But those are the three levels of cognition that I’m playing with. So the other thing to do is go - if you’re mad, you have to say you’re mad to me, now that’s regardless of who is running what. You can just say that about your boundary. If you get mad at me, I don’t want you yelling, I want you saying I’m mad. Once they say that then they’re cool to be with. But if they refuse to say that, I won’t hang out with them.

Dan: All right so now, now we can unpack the checkout. With check in, I hear how you think, how you feel (optionally) and then use the utterance “I’m in” means that I commit to this agreement.

Jim: More or less, yes.


10. And then now we have our interactions and something chafes me, or otherwise distracts me, or I got a text message from my kid and maybe it’s buzzing in my pocket, I haven’t looked at it but I know it’s my kid. It’s triggering or whatever - what happens next?

Jim: You checkout. And checkout is pretty simple. You just go “I’m checking out” and then you go and you’re prohibited from discussing why and anybody else is prohibited from chasing you or being angry with it.

Dan: Ever?

Jim: Ever.

Michele: Yes; that’s a very important part. That’s the freedom part - right. It’s like, you can’t like corner me for checking out. Like, I get to manage where I am, like no else gets to manage it.

Jim: And we trust you to be wise. You should be where you should be and that’s the only place you should be.


11. Now this is very interesting because open space has a similar rule, right?

Jim: Yes.

Dan: You’re responsible for your own results with respect to the learning, and you may check out at any time. I mean it’s not said that way but the law of two feet says you can get up and walk.

Michele: Yes.

Dan: And you’re not required to do anything.

Michele: Right.

Dan: This sounds very much like what you’re talking about.

Michele: Yes; it’s very aligned with that idea.

Jim: A person came up to me yesterday and made a point of sitting down next to us at the Philly thing - before yesterday - and said I want you to know that I brought checkout home and my wife used that when I was angry at her, and she said “I check out” and (a) I, he said, became aware of what a jerk I was being and (b) she was protected - and from now on she just loves these protocols.

Dan: Beautiful.

Jim: Because he couldn’t do anything. And my own daughter, when she checks out on me, it’s just like - I just feel fulfilled. Like my purpose on earth is just realizing that little girl protected herself from the person who loves her most but is an imperfect man.

Michele: And knowing that she’ll protect herself from other men in her life in the future.

Jim: I know it’s just like such a moment.


12. Yes. So now let’s talk about the protocols in terms of the protocols’ goals. Not your goals for making them. What are the goals of the protocol’s design?

Jim: Well, as I said, to instill and extend freedom in the workplace and the family, to - let’s see …

Michele: Create and maintain a state of shared vision.

Jim: Yes, yes. To bring people to a state of collaborative intimacy really quick. Which would be, in the best case, becomes this multi-personal flow, shared vision state, where they can imagine together and so on - as one.

Michele: To create personal and multi-personal effectiveness.

Jim: Yes, effectiveness equals acquisition of what is desired at the least cost.


13. Great; so we know the goal. And we know the rules because they’re baked into the code of the protocols and the commitments, right?

Michele: Right.

Dan: For example, you’re prohibited from stating why you checked out and people are prohibited from chasing you. Those are the rules.

Jim: Right.


14. How do we know how we’re doing with the core protocols? Like, how do we get a sense of progress when we work with them? Like, how do we get a sense of movement and that we’re getting more alignment, and that we’re getting more effectiveness, right? Reaching that, getting closer with a steppingstone to the goal to being more effective; how do we get feedback on that? How do we score it?

Michele: Yes; well one important way would be to keep the commitment to maximize the effectiveness of your asking for help. Because the way you – through our experimentation, we found that the way you learn the most about yourselves and where you’re at is by connecting with other people and ask for help is the best way we have of establishing a close connection quickly.


15. Yes. Can you recite that commitment for the audience so they understand how it’s coded?

Michele: So the commitment is that I will maximize the effectiveness of asking for help.

Jim: Actually, I think it’s I will always seek effective help.

Michele: It’s something like that; and then that protocol itself is that to ask for help you say, “will you” and then you either “will you help me” or “will you” and then you ask for the help you want. And, that you will accept no for an answer.

Dan: Developers are allergic to that.

Jim: Not the great ones we’re working with. You know, like you have to get over yourself a bit right? That’s the culture, the default culture that prohibits asking for help. They fail you in school if you don’t ask for help. There’s all sorts of problems with it. But too bad, it’s time to overturn the culture a bit and create a culture that’s supportive. And if we create a culture where saying no is up to the person last and then there’s no way you can ask too much then, flow, boom, gifts, IQ, talents. The goal is I can get access to your gifts at the same cost I get access to mine. So all of a sudden I am a really rich human being.

Dan: But can you say that again?

Jim: The goal is so that everybody can get access to everybody else’s gifts as cheaply as they access their own and that makes us rich, very rich. Our teams don’t complain about resources, our teams don’t complain about time, our teams kind of don’t complain. They complain about other team’s craps - at worst.

Dan: Okay; so we’re getting near the end. I want to kind of sum up with a sort of crescendo note here, right?

Jim: Yes.


16. So, there’s some practical protocols like check-in, checkout, ask for help, right? There’s also this thing called the far vision protocol, right? And in the book it talks about how you have to look at least 30, 35, 30 to 35 years so you can –

Jim: Long time.

Dan: So you can extrapolate from current trends.

Michele: Right.

Jim: Absolutely, yes. It has to be intention and not prediction.

Dan: Right. So let’s assume that we have a team that’s using the protocols. They’re using them well and they’re competent.

Jim: Yes.


17. They’re not a master at them but they’re competent. Speak to what a team who’s competent in the protocols can do with the far vision protocol, describe it a little bit and then tell us why we care.

Michele: The far vision is really important because it’s important to let go of the idea of what we can’t do and how we’re limited and just dream. Because a lot of times, the assumption is that we can’t do this or we’re limited by these things. And when you can get the team into a state of dreaming about what we want to do, without thinking about limitations of time or resources or anything, then you can go back and go, “Okay, well…”, let’s you know, “…what would be a first step towards that?”.

And like one of the best examples that we can relate to is putting a man on the moon, right? Everyone thought that was impossible but it was idealistic enough to be a far vision. It was out in the future enough to be a far vision. And then there were a group of people who were brave enough and made a great team to say okay, well if we were going to do that, the first step will be get a rocket to orbit the earth. And then the next thing we do is we put a dog in the rocket, and the next thing we do, you know, and they came up, oh, like if we take steps we actually can do this impossible thing.

We think that you can do that with anything. Like let’s say you want to end poverty on the planet. Well, sounds impossible. People say it’s impossible, but I’ve spent time working on the problem, it’s not impossible. There are people that have the technology to do these things. It’s just a matter of getting the people working together as a team and taking the steps one-at-a-time to get there.

Jim: Yes. We can manufacture geniuses now and if you’re not on a team that you consider to be basically a development genius, you’re out of date.


18. All right, let’s talk about this, the genius team concept. Right? And let’s map this to the core protocols. There’s 11 protocols. They are capable of booting a genius team?

Jim: Well, the protocols provide a bit of structure but they’re not what’s in control. Like the people are in control, their hearts are in control. What we’re doing is like creating a little teeny trigger, and a little safety, and freedom, and radical democracy. Our teams are unanimous, you know, that’s as radical as democracy gets.

Unanimity precedes action. So, when they get all the trouble sorter out first, boom they can go anywhere they want, right? And that’s unanimity in action. So, like I love the team (I don’t know if you remember this, the team that was in mechanical CAD), we told them this concept of far vision. And we said okay, so what’s your far vision? And they tried this, they tried that, and then finally this one guy goes, “Well to be honest, our far vision is, - if you think it, it exists”.

And I was like exactly; that’s a far vision! That’s worth the devotion of 30 years of your life because that’s what mature people can do. They can do that and so why would you do anything else?


19. All right. So let’s wrap up. Mature people engage in healthy interactions. The core protocols have 11 core interactions that people can use to be mature and to be great. If I take one away - I mean, in other words what I’m asking, is this the primitive core base APIs that must be there to be mature - that has a potential for greatness?

Jim: We think so; that’s why we call them the core. It’s not like they’re carved in stone or anything. The commitment is to use the core protocols - or better protocols, right? So, to use something that’s structured interaction and designed interaction. It’s about designing interaction.

Michele: We use a qualitative research approach. So we like, you know, qualitatively watch teams over and over using this.

Jim: We don’t make them up either, they did.

Michele: And this kind of kernel, the core protocols (because we have lots of other protocols) but this kind of kernel we’ve established has been stable for many, many years at this point and so that gives us the information we need that like yes, like we probably got that part, you know, right.


20. So usually with kernel APIs you don’t actually use them directly as a user right? Some app makes a call.

Jim: That’s right.

Dan: Can you talk a little bit about that?

Jim: I’m glad you bring that up Dan. But yes, it’s time for apps, you know, for this kind of kernel, for this operating system or whatever you want to call it. It’s a collection of behaviors that will help you get to an order of magnitude improved relations with the people you’re with. And, you need an application to create products on time, you need an application - like all of the Agile for example could sit on top of the core - all of Scrum could, all of whatever could right? Psychology, psychotherapists are writing apps. Everybody will be writing apps; in fact the reason they will be is because we are going to be generating an app store for your head online in the next - little while.

Dan: And what’s the web URL for that; what’s the web address?

Jim: It’s not out yet. But it’s being worked upon. So it will be


21. What would be an object example of an app that’s being under development now?

Jim: Okay. How about - there’s one called Aftermath, which is how to clean up after a fight. You use it if you’re trying to reconcile and address the issues that were – violations that took place in a conflict that went awry. It would have an application in there for having conflict, an application in there for deciding meals with little kids. It’s the new book, only it’s shorter. Anybody has a great practical idea can do an app.


22. Awesome; last question. I’m stuck in a desert island. If I could pick one protocol, what does it need to be?

Jim: Probably one we won’t tell you about. I know the one I want-- The one that you need is the one that helps you figure out what you want. And that’s called The One, The Personal One. I think.

Michele: Yes; I can agree with that.

Jim: If you know what you want, you have hope of getting it. If you don’t, you won’t.

Dan: I really want to have that interview. I’d really be privileged to do, I think, a half-hour interview on what you just said. We’re out of time. Thank you very, very much for your time.

Jim: Thank you.

Michele: Thank you.

Jim: Thank you. By the way, this culture conference, you guys go to the next one, this is where it’s all happening.

Michele: This is awesome.

Jim: This is where it’s happening. This is the Homebrew Computer Club meeting in 1976 for you.


23. And where would they find more information on that, Jim?

Michele: I think it’s

Jim: Do you know, maybe you could look it up?

Dan: That’s yes, Culture Con 2012 and 2013 dot com.

Jim: Culture Con 2012, 2013 and InfoQ has tapes from this then look at the InfoQ stuff, it’s amazing. You’ll see some amazing people, something new is under the sun.

Dan: Thank you very much.

Jim: You’re welcome.

Michele: Thanks.

Dec 03, 2012