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Rashina Hoda on Pandemic Programming and Agile Nations

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In this podcast Shane Hastie, Lead Editor for Culture & Methods, spoke to Dr Rashina Hoda or Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, about the Pandemic Programming study,  the importance of research into human factors in software development focusing on the programmer experience, how biases impact software design and what it means to be an agile nation.

Key Takeaways

  • The Pandemic programming survey found a link between wellbeing and productivity and provided guidance for managers to support their teams through the COVID crisis
  • While some of the results seem pretty obvious, having an academic study confirm provides evidence which can be more credible
  • There has been a lot of work done on user experience and human factors in software product design, but not much, so far, looking at how human factors impact software design
  • Software is as objective and as unbiased as the creators of that software, and all people have unconscious biases so we need to bring more diversity into teams to help overcome these unconscious biases to ensure our users and customers are not disadvantaged through our products
  • The response of the New Zealand government and people to the terrorist attacks in February 2019 exemplified what it means to be an agile nation

Transcript

Shane: Good day folks. This is Shane Hastie for the InfoQ Engineering Culture podcast. I'm sitting down with Dr. Rashina Hoda. Rashina is an Associate Professor and the Associate Dean of Academic Development at Monash University in Melbourne. Rashina, Welcome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today.

Rashina: Thank you so much, Shane. It is so good to be here

Shane: Now, you and I have known each other for a while, you've been one of the stalwarts of academia in the agile space. You've done some interesting research and published a whole lot over the years, but I suspect that some of our audience don't know you. Do you want to tell us a little bit about who you are and what you've brought to the table?

Rashina: Sure,  Shane, my sort of journey into agile started with a PhD into the topic, which is really a deep dive to be getting into any topic. But I think it was the human aspects that spoke to me when I got introduced to the agile ideas. And that has really stuck with me and I wanted to do this, you that and ask some of the harder questions that perhaps weren't as clear at that time.

Things like, you know, we talk about self-organizing teams and agile, but what does it really mean? So, what does it mean for a team to be self-organizing and how does it play out in the real world? So that's kind of where my journey with agile research started and the other aspect of this is that my research was, and has been, always, has been industry based.

So that meant that instead of just reading on books, which are great, we have got a bunch of great books on agile literature. But the other thing I would do is to actually walk into companies and talk to individuals and look at how they practice in reality. So, observations and focus groups and interviews, and that opened up the whole world of agile practice for me.  As a researcher, being able to observe that is absolutely fascinating, but also made for some really good connections with people, such as yourself and some other people in New Zealand and around the world, primarily in India, I've done a lot of my data collection and that's continued in terms of beautiful relationships over the years.

So that's a little bit of my journey. Then I went into the University of Auckland as my first academic job, where I was there for eight years, and very recently made a very big, bold decision to move to Melbourne with family. And we're now on quarantine. So, yeah, that's where it ends.

Shane: Quarantine.  One of the things that you were part of fairly recently was the pandemic programming research. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that? We've published an article on it, which we’ll link to, but tell us what was the background, what came out of it and where's that going?

Rashina: The pandemic programming was an international survey study that we did. It is really special in many ways and one of the  things where it's special for me is as a software researcher, and I'm sure a lot of practitioners will relate to this, no matter what your profession, there was a little bit of a gnawing at your heart going, what am I doing for improving the situation in this pandemic?  Right.

And when my colleagues from Dalhousie and Adelaide came up with this idea and it became public and people started reaching out to them, and I was one of the people reaching out to them saying, "look-I want to help". Because it was in a very small way, but still something that I wished and hoped I would be able to give back to the community by doing a bit of very timely research on this. And so that was special because it was on that very relevant topic, quite timely.

But also special in that it's a team of, I think, 17 of us around the world. It's one of the biggest research teams that has come together for a cause. In a very short amount of time, we managed to translate that survey into numerous [00:04:00] languages, not just English and then we were able to reach out to 2000 plus software practitioners who responded.  So actually we reached out obviously to a lot more, but in terms of the full responses has been over 2000, which is quite a nice number for a software research survey, and these were from 50 different countries.

So a very special study, and in terms of what we found?  Well, some of the things it might sound like, Oh, we kinda knew that, but it's not until research comes with evidence and you're able to quote a study and say, look, research says...  So that's why it’s useful in that sense, hopefully. 

We were able to establish a very close link between wellbeing and productivity. And at this time when almost all of us are really,sort of, in the middle of this dilemma between wellbeing and productivity, being able to establish that from a research evidence is really big because we can go back toindividuals and say, Look, it's fine if you're not as productive right now, because you're not feeling well. Or the other way round, if you want to be more productive, well focus on your wellbeing first.

And similarly, we can talk to companies and give recommendations around, focus on the wellbeing of your employees, if you want them to be more productive. And also of course, focusing on productivity as a prime objective right now would be silly, to be honest.

Shane: That research was done towards the end of March, beginning of April. That was for many countries, the height of things. We're now almost at the end of July, what's changed?

Rashina:  That's a really good point. In fact, it's kind of urging me to start to maybe nudge the research team, to see if it's actually time for a follow up to see how people have done in this time. And mind you, this is very atypical for research that typically tends to be, you know, six months in the making and three months in the publishing.  We're talking a few months and that paper for example is already accepted.

So yes, I think you raise a good point, Shane, it probably is time to go back and look from a research perspective. Of course, we've got all our individual experiences as to what has changed in terms of all the stages of  this rollercoaster ride of emotions that we are on, from denial to anguish and depression to acceptance and then back to lock down, in our case, and whatnot.

So we know that, anecdotally, individually for each of us, but from a research perspective, we need to go back to the respondents and get some more data.  

Shane: Exploring beyond this, to some of the other work that you do, you lead, the HumaniSE Lab at Monash?

Rashina: I am co-leading that lab with professor John Grundy and he is the ARC Laureate Professor who set up the lab for us and the HumaniSE lab, basically it stands for humans in software engineering, and as the name suggests  it focuses on human aspects and human factors that must be considered when we are developing and designing software. So, these are things like personality, gender, race, age, ethnicity, all of these factors that make us human that up until recently, I would say a lot of software did not consider.

And the interesting thing is, when it was considered, say, for example, from the human computer interaction community has done a lot of work in this area. It has focused more so on the users, which is completely useful to understand the users and design for them.

But what we are suggesting is that these human factors also need to be considered for the developers who are producing the software. Because, whether we like it or not, our human aspects, our human factors, our biases, all of these things become part of the software that we develop, knowingly or unknowingly. So it's important to acknowledge them and this is also important study what effects it has on the design of software. That's kind of what we're doing at our lab.

Shane: Intriguing stuff.  Can you tell us some of the things that you're finding or exploring or bringing in the lab that look at?  Okay, if I look in the mirror, I am the middle-aged white man, balding and grey. I haven't written code in anger for a while, but what biases did I bring to the code when I wrote it?

Rashina: I should add with a heart and voice of gold Shane.

Yes. Look, one of the projects that we're doing is a project by a PhD student of mine and John's, and her name is Kashumi Madampe. Kashumi is looking at the effect of emotions on requirements engineering.

So human emotions, what we feel in terms of, are you worried? Are we happy?  Are we upset over something and when requirements or, you know, feature lists or desired, I'm trying not to use the word requirements, cause I know sometimes us agile folks are like "there are no requirements in agile". All right.

Whatever it is that needs to be built into the software that the customer desires or the user desires, what influence does emotion have on how we deal with it and how we build it into features?  So that's the question she is exploring and we've had a couple of short papers that she presented a couple of weeks ago at the International Conference on Software Engineering, exploring these ideas.

And some of the very preliminary work shows a)  emotions are important, they are very much there.  We pretend for example that, Oh, we are in a professional mode now almost robotic - that’s not true, we are humans.

If anything, this whole COVID situation has made us realize that even more as we sort of, you know, the professional and the personal has merged in the virtual world, working from home and everything.

So, yeah, that's one of them that's really interesting. And we want to explore a little bit more, of course, in that study and try and understand, if you're feeling a particular way during the day,  has that influenced how you perform and equally, if you are given a particular kind of requirement, does that make you feel a particular way?

Shane: How does this play into, let’s look at bias and ethics? Two big topics today.

Rashina: Absolutely. Look with the bias, again acknowledging that humans as humans, we will have bias.

And I know there are at least two major camps when it comes to talking about bias and ethics in artificial intelligence in particular, for example, and some will say, well, there's more objectivity than you can ever hope for from humans in any process that we find in software is more objective.

But I would say that I will side with the other camp, which suggests our software is as objective and as unbiased as the creators of that software. And this is not because people are malicious and they want to make it biased. It's all about the unconscious biases. It's all about the things we didn't consider.

It's about the makeup and the diversity of the team that's building the software. And we know from several examples of pieces of software that have been developed that were perhaps alienating a particular demographic of the community. So whether it be the elderly, whether it be female,  knowingly and unknowingly, because of the makeup of the software team that is developing it, the end product becomes something that speaks to a very particular set of people and maybe alienating some others.

So yes bias exists and we need to a) acknowledge it and b) then try to do something [00:12:00] about it.

And with the ethics side of things, recent world, affairs has brought this to the fore and made it a discussion point around the world. So, I mean, case in point, the live streaming of the unfortunate Christchurch attacks.

I mean, the attacks obviously should never have happened.   But the live streaming, I mean, come on, that should not have happened. So yeah, where's the ethics?

Shane: How do we, and perhaps this is going deep with it, the question, where is the ethics, but  what is the ethical framework?

Rashina: Very true. I'm just coming off of another conversation with a digital activist, Lizzie O’Shea who is also a lawyer and this was exactly the kind of conversation we were having.

This was for Melbourne Conversations hosted by the City of Melbourne, virtually, of course, and we were talking about these things and I was obviously looking at it from a technical perspective, but some of the ideas she brought to the table was that there are activist  groups that are lobbying for having ethical frameworks.

So think about, for example, consumer legislation around products and services that we use in our everyday lives, right? We are trained to be aware as consumers of our rights, and we are trained to be aware of what to expect and when we are not being dealt fairly with. But when it comes to software, we are a lot more relaxed about these things, and we are perhaps not as aware of our rights, our digital rights and what we are signing away in those little tick boxes that says terms and conditions and opens up into a massive three-pager that no one ever reads.

So coming back to the ethical framework, these are the right conversations that we are having right now and legislation is being put into place as we speak, even with the, say the COVID Safe app and so forth. But what we do find is that the software, as usual, the deployment of the software precedes  the deployment of the legislation. So yeah, definitely to be considered and more work needs to happen in this area.

Shane: You touched very briefly on the Christchurch incident, and one of the things that you are now known for is a really inspiring Ted talk on the Traits of an Agile Nation. Tell us more.

Rashina: I would just first of all, like to sort of acknowledge the fact that I should've never had to say that, or I should've never had to make that speech. I wish it never happened.

But the fact that it did raised a whole lot of questions and it was one of those moments, I guess, in my life where everything I knew and stood for was in question. Whether it's my personal choice or my religious affiliation or my software background or my agile research, all of I came into this one big mush of a collision and forced me to really think and put things together. And because I, as an agile  researcher for over 15 years, I can't help this anymore. This is kinda part of my DNA now, to look at everything through an agile lens, and I'm sure you struggle with the same, Shane.  So that's kind of what happened in that instance.

The standout thing for me was the response that followed, it was unprecedented. It was exemplary. It was beautiful. So the response of the New Zealand people, the response of the government, just forced me to sort of analyze it. And when I did, it seemed, the more I looked at it, the more agile, it felt it spoke to the basic agile values and principles.

So if I were to maybe just recap that for your audience, that's People and interactions over protocols and rules. And this was in the context of, you know, going out of your way to make a very small minority of the people and Muslim population in New Zealand feel at home, is what people were able to do.

Then you've got the community collaboration over closed decision making, and that was exemplified in the way the government went about consulting with communities, consulting  with the opposition,  consulting with lawmakers, and so forth, to make concrete changes.

Then there was policies and actions over speeches and promises and that is to do with the unprecedented pace at which the policy of the gun laws were changed, almost, if I say overnight.  That's just never seen before, because these things tend to be super slow and lethargic in parliaments to get through and bills an acts to be changed. So that was super agile.

And then finally then the responding to change over following the status quo.  So deciding look, this thing has happened, no one expected it, or no one wanted it to happen but now the critical thing is the response and that's where New [00:17:00] Zealand excelled. And, you know, I think that kind of response hasn't been matched by any other country, anywhere in the world.

Shane: What is it about New Zealand?  Now I'm biased. I live there. What is it? If we look at how the response to the COVID situation around the world, New Zealand somehow has come through.  I'm at home in New Zealand, but I don't have to stay at home, we are able to move out and around. What is it that you've seen that has enabled this?

Rashina: That's a great connection there, Shane. In fact, I have been asked on different sort of occasions about how the agile nations concept extends to analysing the COVID situation, for instance.

So initially it was all about New Zealand being an exemplary case of an agile nation. With the COVID situation, what we've seen is a global crisis is a challenge that humanity has faced. So how have we responded as human beings as countries and nations? And clearly there have been some winners and they've been some that could have done much better.

So we've got nations that have stood out as agile nations, and New Zealand and you know, countries where, until recently, Australia doing really well, unfortunately we are having a bit of a bad spike again but still relative to the world situation, done really well.  Whereas some other countries, and surprisingly these world superpowers like the U S and UK not doing very well at all.

So going back to, what is it about New Zealand? I think it's a combination of the approach of the government, which is what I call an agile leadership and the approach of the people, which has exhibited very agile traits.

Now, if I were to sort of, you know, talk to that a bit more in the COVID situation, one could easily say, look,  forcing a stage four lockdown doesn't sound very empowering. Yes. Where agile is all about empowering people. But in this situation, the challenge was such, the challenge was of a nature [00:19:00] that demanded a bit more of a authoritarian, hard handed approach, if you like. That's kind of what the government did. It did it very quickly and it consulted with the right experts, whether it's the medical experts, listening to the science, not denying it, not defying it.

And we see on the other hand instances in the UK and in US where, you know, you've got that classic YouTube video of president Trump with the chief medical advisor and he just goes, I don't know how to respond to this when he talks about disinfectants and the calls to the poison control centres rising as a result of those comments. 

It just goes to show it's a combination of the leadership showing the right traits at that time, as well as the people, then following them up, complying to it, adhering to it, having trust in the policies and just following through.

The one other thing I'll [00:20:00] also mention is the role of clear science communication has been amazing, and my ex colleague from University of Auckland, Siouxsie Wiles, and you've got people like Michelle Dickinson who played a really critical role in making sure that that communication has been super clear and simple, where people were able to follow it to the word.

Shane: So, effective communication, government responses that are appropriate and people abided by the rules.

Rashina: Abided by the rules, even if it meant a certain extent of disempowerment.

Shane: Yeah - I do know that there was a trust survey done during the height of level four lockdown in New Zealand and it was an interesting response.

Do you trust the government is acting in our best interests and the answer to that was strongly agreed for 88% of the population.

So I think that might have something to with it, we do actually think that our government has our best interests at heart.  I think so, too.

Rashina: That's what we were just chatting a little bit before: in a crisis, you know, you don't beat being in New Zealand, ever. That's where you want to be if there is ever a crisis of any sort.

Shane: Rashina, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today. If people want to follow up the conversation or see what you're doing at the Humanize Lab, where do they get hold of you?

Rashina: You could come up to my website, which is really simple, which is just my first name.com as a combination of registering it early and also having a relatively rare, weird first name.

So that's where you can find me and our humanize lab, the website is currently underway. If you just search for humanize with Monash, it should come up, but it's.

But  you don't have to bother remembering the whole thing, I'm sure you can link it up somewhere, but also if you just search HumaniSE and Monash.

Shane: Thank you so much.

Rashina: Thanks, Shane. Thanks for having me.

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