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Software Engineering towards Sustainable Empathic Capacities



Peter Pilgrim discusses empathy in software development.


Peter Pilgrim is a recognised Java Champion and senior manager at Cognizant Worldwide. He has been an independent contractor, speaker and technical book writer. From Java applets to Swing, to JavaFX to WebLogic to Spring to Jakarta EE, he has developed scores of applications and written about Java enterprise technologies.

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QCon Plus is a virtual conference for senior software engineers and architects that covers the trends, best practices, and solutions leveraged by the world's most innovative software organizations.


Pilgrim: My name is Peter Pilgrim. I'm going to be talking to you about this, software engineering, sustainable empathic capacities, an excursion on the lived experience to minor creative genius. I am a Java champion, a senior manager at Cognizant. Previously, I was an independent contractor. I had this expansive view of software engineering. The first school of thought is that I would give an autobiographic view of my lived experience in software engineering. The second school of thought is that we are journeying, at least in my humble opinion, to empathy, to express empathy within our discipline.

Remote Sacking/Firing

First a corporate statement. The company has made a decision that the future of its vehicles going forward will be crewed by a third-party crew provider. Therefore, I'm sorry to say that this need to inform and employ you is terminated with immediate effect upon granted redundancy. Your final day of employment is today. Remote sackings and firings have happened so recently. British people wouldn't have heard of, but Americans, and Canadians, and North Americans have definitely heard of Vishal Garg, who fired over 900 employees over Zoom, in the 7th of December. How heartless and lacking in empathy was this, in the month of December? Yes, that's it. Then in 17th of March, 2022, in Britain, on these shores, P&O Ferries dismissed 800 members of its shipping staff primarily from the Port of Dover, and that the British government didn't take too well with this and the ramifications are still happening now.

What Is Empathy?

What is this thing that we are talking about? What is empathy? Where does it come from? This is a picture of the Homo sapien brain. It turns out, it's a concoction. It's from a German word, Einfühlung, which is a German psychological term, literally meaning feeling-in, inner, inside, intrinsic, the inner feeling. Germans are well known, famous for putting and inventing words from two separate words, so combining Ein, which is inner, and fühlung, which is feeling, to have this feeling in, or what we translate now, thanks to two scientists at Cambridge and Cornell University in 1908, as Empathos. Em is for in. Pathos is for feeling. That has been the early translation. This is why we have the word empathy in the English language. Thanks to Susan Lanzoni of Cambridge University Press.

Now for the technical details, or rather, the medical details. What seems to happen is we have an organ deep inside our brain, called the amygdala. This thing that looks like a grape or a squash grape, and we actually have two of this, because this picture is a cross section of the brain. We have our famous gray matter here, or the lobes, the frontal and parietal lobe, and the occipital lobe here, and the famous cerebellum, where we do a lot of our processing at the back of our brain. What seems to happen is that we have five sensitives, and I will concentrate just on one, the visual sense, when a photon hits the retina, a signal is transferred straight through our brain from left to right. Reach in and passing through the hypothalamus, which is this orange-yellow bit that looks like a bug's head, looks like a squash potato, reaches the back of the occipital lobe here. Enters the cerebellum, and then magically, these signals are transferred via the hippocampus to the amygdala.

What happened recently, it's been known since the 1960s, is that these signals hit the amygdala very quickly, so quickly they're known as microexpressions or microsignals. They are the result of, I suppose, voluntary and involuntary emotional response conflicting with another human being. If you think about it, this is the very essence of communication. Here's another human being, is threatening me, is he friendly, is he foe? What is it? We have to develop these social behaviors. This is because in the purple section here, we have an ancient part of our brain when we first cross-evolved through the millennia, or millions of years from amphibians that first called out of sea. We had lizard brains. What has happened through evolutions, we've kept on extending this brain structure, which we need.

It seems the amygdala is the heart of fear and flight anxiety. It's part of our lizard brain, the limbic system. It's responsible for connections, emotional learning, and memory regulation. That's where the cerebellum comes in. It's very complicated, and scientists are still trying to work out what is going on there. Essentially, emotions and empathy, and any chance of empathy comes from this little organ that looked like a grape or two grapes. Because we have one in the left and one on the right side of our brainstem, in our brains. We have two of them, just like two kidneys.

This is Labi Siffre, the famous singer, songwriter. I was listening to him a couple of days ago in fact, on a radio program, an interview he gave. I just quoted him here. "Humans tend to hate nuance." I wonder why, especially in 2022. "We want to put things in a box, we want to compartmentalize. However, the reality is that there's nothing simple about anything we do with human beings." I love this next part. "We are complexity upon complexity upon paradox on toast." That describes us. We have toast, the amygdala, and it's pure. Because we have these lobes and this interpretation, we mix it all up, together. This is from the brilliant Labi Siffre talking about his musical performance, and what he thinks about musical performance. That is from the BBC, Colin Murray show, Midnight Meets, from the 4th of May, 2022.

I love this quote from Vex King. "It is your subconscious mind that is responsible for your beliefs. All that you perceive is a result of what you accept as true in the conscious mind." You can choose to bury certain facts about the world, or have a total different independent view of the world for most human beings and what is deemed as reality. I would get vexed by Vex King, but you must live in a real world. How many people have had that said to them? The real world is what you actually believe to be true. You never suffer bullies or people when they force or coerce you into accepting something else that you know is true. That is not the way to live.

For me, as I was talking in the QCon London conference there, I had this observation in my life that, a change of contradictions, a series of disruptions that invalidates the assumptions or surroundings is a rug pull. I learned from my physics teacher who said, any news of the world that breaks the illusion, a system in a steady state condition is a whirlpool. My old physics teacher is proven right time over time. This isn't me doing a somersault or the backflip, but it's the start of my lived in experience. I went to a secondary school called Spencer Park in South London. Just like Harry Potter, we wore Blazers to school, in a secondary school. I have this coat of arms, Dieu defend le droit, defend the right, yours with God, defends the right, on my blazer here.

Feeling for Another's Suffering/Vulnerability

I think at 13 years old, I finally figured out what I wanted to be in life. The first thing that happened is that I discovered Research Machines 380Z in the 1980s, because I joined the electronics club, [inaudible 00:10:55] and I, and Pete went to the computer club, and learned BASIC. What got me into computer club was there was a friendly face here, an empathic face. A face that I could ask, how does a computer work? I went to a parents' evening where you could get the kids into extra-curricular subjects and you can stay behind after school and try certain things. I happened to talk to Mark and ask him, he was also in my school year, how does this computer work? He showed me. From that friendly face, this is why I'm talking to you now. This is proof beyond doubt that empathy does work, at least for me. Eventually, I persuaded my mum to get me an Acorn Electron. What I really wanted was the top right here, the BBC Micro Model B, but that cost £400. I ended up with the lower left, Acorn Electron. In the end, because the Acorn Electron is a cut-down BBC Micro, I was still able to program primitive games, learn assembly language, and write code like this that showed graphics. I honed my chops, just like a guitarist really, or a musician. I started coding. I really wanted to know more about it. I knew at 13 years old I was going to be something to do with computing. I didn't know if it was going to be a software engineer or architect, I knew this was my vocation. I didn't know how I was going to get there.

What I'm talking about here, I'm talking about the feelings for another, which is the seventh empathic capacity, which is, we express vulnerability when we're learning. It takes somebody with compassion, and maybe even pity, and somebody who is formed enough to give us guidance. Mark could have told me to go just bugger off, or he could have been in a bad mood. Because he was there on that parent's evening. Because I can imagine, I can play this game called perceptual positions, and imagine standing in Mark's shoes, and a young black kid comes up to him and says, show me how this computer works. Maybe I was rude. I could have been good. I could have asked him. I cannot remember. I owe it to Mark because he set me on the road.

Why Are You Here?

Fast forward. This would have happened to you as well. If you perform and close your eyes, you will know how you found this mentor yourself. Once you always know, because you're here watching this program, you can make it work for you always, just by using your cerebellum and imagining that you could get back to that moment when someone shows you your first code, your first project, your first laptop, your first ideas, or pointed you in a direction to become who you are or will be tomorrow.

Dealing with Restructuring

Let's move on with a story. Graduated, ended up working in Germany. Came back to Britain in the mid-1990s just in time for Blur versus Oasis, discovered that. In fact, instead of working in the outskirts of London, the heart of the matter, or the technology was in central London in investment banking. At the same time, I knew about Bjarne Stroustrup and C++. I wanted to be just like the next Stan Lippman. I already became a Linux system admin here, almost did. Then, I happened to chance on to and stumble onto Java. I had stumbled onto Java a year before, but it didn't click with me. When I joined banking, I said, this is Java? Then my life had changed. I was still interested in C++ a bit, but then Java definitely took over, by the millennium.

In the turn of millennium, Deutsche Bank, which is my first investment bank that I worked for. This is the office environment that I worked on, like hundreds of people with the old cathode ray tube monitors, maybe a few flat screens in this. This is before the financial bubble burst. Then, everything was hunky-dory, just like you're using the best technology in the summer of the year 2000, and that lasted for another year to 2001. There was Java. There was all these Dotcoms, fabulous technologies. Java 2 was just about to come out. We still didn't have broadband yet, if I remember, still had a bit of dialogue to get through. I was happy to hack on the bank's computers there because they had the most up to date technologies there. It's easy to be trapped in that environment. This is not less about empathy, but you can get trapped in a moment, the rewards of the environments that exist now, that means you can forget about tomorrow. September 11th happened, and the Dotcom bubble burst. I wish I was back at 1988. Life was a little bit simpler.

This is the biography continuing. Ten months later, my job was gone. There was Summer in the City. I became very lazy and very despondent. Ended up watching the football world cup. This is a guy called David Beckham, who'd take fabulous free kicks. Years later, I discovered agility and retrospectives, nearly 10 years later. If I could write or mark this on the board right then in the summer of 2001 and 2002 with a purple marker, this would be my positivity and how I felt. Because restructuring took it all out of me really. I was feeling really chipper, because I got money in compensation. Then everything trended down from there. You might wonder, what has this got to do with empathy? This is George Clooney and Kendrick, and if I'm Up in the Air, the movie, which does talk about restructuring and job loss. When you hit a downturn, you will become depressed, unless you're one of these very lucky people who managed one week later to be rescued or find the next gig immediately. Banks then, especially Deutsche Bank, they paid for outplacement, a decent compensation, half a year's salary, and help to kickstart a new job search and a new CV. A very good movie to watch, if you're going through this.

Then, years later, I realized that everybody is sharing this shared pain, so feeling as another does in the shared circumstance. It's birth, marriage, bereavement, war, famine, hunger, success, winning the world cup. Those are shared circumstances that you can share, that others can share with you. That is an empathy connection, which is useful in teams, for those of you who are managing, or thinking of managing. The first rule about restructuring, my advice, no matter, because it will happen to you. Your job is made redundant, you are never redundant. Say that again and say it well, your job is made redundant, you are never redundant. If you remember that phrase when it does eventually happen to you, because nobody ever escapes.

What do you have control of? You have control over you, your influence, and your reach. If you set fire to the school, with pupils in, you are influencing and harming students, as well as the teachers and the caretakers, so you have control and influence, and you have reach. The reach is to connect people to the wider community. It's a very negative example, I know. Then let's be Afrika Bambaataa about this in hip hop, turn that negative into a positive. That's what I did with myself. I needed to feel restructuring. I needed that disappointment to lose the semifinal, or quarterfinal, if not the final itself in the tournament. Because I then asked questions about myself like a sportsperson. Where's my community? What do I want to do? Should I stay with computing or leave it? I had empathetic thoughts. I was feeling these feelings but couldn't coin a name for them, or couldn't put my finger on to what I was feeling. Then, I happened to be contracting. I fell into contracting really. Then technology in the times changed, Java EE became big, Spring framework came out, financial services still had that rebound until 2008. Then it crashed again.

Imagining Another's Thoughts and Feelings

Imagining another's thoughts and feelings. I had dreams. What about other people in London, and also, working on technology? They had dreams, desires. I wanted to communicate. I wanted to learn and better myself. It just so happened that I finally did it. I didn't destroy the world or blow up the world, I created this thing called the Java web user group, a user group because I asked a question, are there other independent engineers who are willing to travel with me to JavaOne 2004? It turns out not only I had the money because I was a contractor, but because I started this mini-community, I got good at the MPV parts of it as facilitating, connecting, organizing speakers, getting in contact with Wendy Devolder of Skills Matter. Making presentations, as well as at QCon, and eventually at JavaOne. Getting involved with other people in the wider community to do with Scala, and Groovy, Spring Boot, Hibernate, HTML5, and even JavaFX. There are 20 other technologies that I could list including OSGi, that I could throw in here. Eventually, in 2007, I became a Java champion. It's because I was a contractor, I had money. I was able to travel and afford to see the greater and wider community that I became one myself. It's not something that you force yourself or apply to join, other people have to look at your contributions to the wider Java community. This Java Champion program, that was created by Aaron Houston, once of Sun Microsystems, he was the global outreach for Sun Microsystems. He realized that this technology is just not a panacea. It is driven by the people who believe passionately that Java and technologies around Java can help in the world. That's a huge lesson. He's still out there somewhere.

At the same time, I was reading Malcolm Gladwell, about connectors are people you seem to know who seem to know everybody. You find connectors in every walk of like. They're sociable, gregarious, naturally skilled at making and keeping in contact with friends and acquaintances. What Malcolm was talking about was the first genuine influencers, not the influencers that broadcast, but the influencers that facilitate, a facilitating influencer instead of taking money. In order to inspire interest, though, as a user group leader, and I tried to be as fair as I could. Be that connector between groups of diverse people and the audience. Remember to facilitate the conversation. I tried to do that and I did that well for much of my time as well in that user group.

Adopting Another's Posture for Achievement

What I really did is seeing these disparate speakers and how they presented at not only the user group, the Java web user group, but also at conferences. I learned by watching Neal Gafter, and Joshua Bloch in Java, or Mark Reinhold, or Brian Goetz in Java, by adopting and learning and modeling their accents, and the way they attenuated their tone. They spoke. They informed. They were passionate. They drilled down. They were respectful. They had empathy. That's who I wanted to be. I wanted to be like them. It's like Gianfranco Zola, the Italian footballer. He was lucky enough to play with Diego Armando Maradona at Napoli. He always goes on. Zola always goes on, "I was so lucky to see Maradona train." That's a sporting, I suppose symbology works in technology too. If you can model excellence in your heroes and heroines, it is a good way to be. In order to do that, you need to understand empathy, which is what this talk is about.

Switching Careers

Hunky-dory came, you know what comes next. The huge financial crisis of Lehman Brothers. Eventually, contracting ended for me. I became full time. I survived Lehman Brothers financial meltdown. I knew many people at Lehman Brothers who were fantastic. On a Friday, sometime in September, everything's hunky-dory, and over the whole weekend, a bank suddenly, an investment bank, Lehman Brothers suddenly gone. Incredible. This was a big meltdown. I don't think we've had the boom time since 2008. Have you had boom times for the general population? Maybe Elon Musk had some boom times. We haven't seen it, the ordinary folk in the trough. I stayed with investment banking. I tried up into 2012, I think, Olympic year. Then I'd had enough. Sometimes you do have to switch rails. My partner says, change it, leave it, or accept it. She is an NLP Master Practitioner. She has advised me time and time again, and other people have said the same thing. If you can't change your organization then change the organization. In order to change the organization, you need empathy. That has to come from you. That's the secret to that quote.

We get into the penultimate stage here. I left banking. This is the biographical part continuing, I became digital. That was the new way of earning money as a contractor. I stumbled into and I accepted digital web agency development. My head was blown. I heard about this user research and user centric web design, where you have call to action, the serious stuff, copywriting, content generation, structure of English, strategy, content strategy, all these new words. Here it is, including responsive website design. Suddenly, the frontend was taking off. Full stack hadn't come quite in by 2013. I think full stack is a horrible term, it's a lack of empathy, because people who are full stack, have a weakness. They may be good at frontend, but they may not be good at the backend, or in the Java side. I've never known someone to know all of the platform stack, including DevOps. It's impossible. Computing subject matter is too big. If you want to get things done, you're going to have to have empathy. You'll find out next.

It is because at the same time, the governments were realizing that its digital websites were old, they were antiquated. They were broken, disparate. This lady here, Dame Martha Lane-Fox submitted a paper to Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010, to form This is basically to adopt agile and become saving space. Here, code is a communication vessel of the external intent and behavior, between two or more different human beings. Code itself had changed to be unmaintainable, to definitely maintainable. Somebody has to look at your code, and be able to compile it, or to transpile it, years from now. We have to be agile, because now things were changing.

I'm so ashamed that my first experience of XP was, I think, 2014, or 2015, where I actually paired with a lead developer who was better than I, in terms of the web, JavaScript side. I had to learn pairing with him and her. Then I stumbled into Santander and started programming, become a Spring Boot developer. What I discovered in the Santander project, which was 100% pairing in 2017, is that it really requires empathy. I didn't have all the times then, but you have to be inclusive. I know this, people are racially inclusive. When you're coding with a junior, that you have to allow juniors to make mistakes. Likewise, if you're coding with someone better than you, then you are in the vulnerable state. The other thing about pairing, every two or three days, we would swap pairs, we would follow the Extreme or the Pivotal way of coding. No pair worked on the same story for two or three days, we will all swap a pair. Then we'd get knowledge sharing. That increases knowledge within the team. You'll see that you quickly need to know each other's thoughts and feelings for the win in order to get that agile performance and the team. That's why people were using pair program, and finally I got it.

What I discovered is that in the industry, we do have this negative gamification, which is contempt. It's a feeling of superiority over people, putting people down. What is required for high performance teams, and if you want to interview for a great team, you need compassion. It is required for effective agility. Then, when I dug deeper into the agile manifesto, one day, I was shocked to read that they've been talking about this in 2002. This type of situation goes on every day in marketing, management, external customers, internal customers, and yes, even developers don't want to make hard tradeoff decisions, so they impose irrational demands for the imposition of corporate power structures. This isn't merely about software development problem, it runs through Dilbertesque organization. Whoever wrote that as text was suffering because of lack of empathy. They were annoyed at what goes on in their organization. This is in 2001.

Interconnected, Empathetic Software Engineering

I joined that digital development. I had proper daily standups since January 2013. We are in 2020, and the world changed. I enjoyed my contracting days, but suddenly things changed. We had remote communication, remote repositories, remote deployment from being in remote laptops or positions, virtual private network issues. It was a whole smorgasbord, and then some. What's my opinion of high-quality software engineering? A healthy codebase, systems and application looks like a model of communication between people who exude compassion, and empathy. For interconnected, empathetic software engineering, there are two sides to it. There's the technical side, the maintainable side where we want less bit rot. We want testable code. We want adaptable code. We want code that is reusable, maybe, that is exchangeable, is that really required? Resilience? This is where we have the non-technical side. We want ethics, teamwork. We want to be open and seen. We want to be inclusive. We definitely need psychological safety, to ensure we also have fairness in the workplace. Because if people aren't treated fairly, then you're going to get attrition. We pair in a high-performance team, a high caliber team. Definitely, the people that I've worked with in those teams, they have synchronized and composed relationships. They get on. They have that trust and support. They collaborate. Sometimes that leads to innovation. If you want reusable fairness and innovation, get those things right.

Empathetic Toolset

What you need is this empathetic toolset, which first starts with actively listening. Then this is about the culture of content or addressing it. You definitely want to be actively listening, observing, and having that kinesthetic, that feeling. That is touching on the amygdala, listening. There's three sides to every story. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses. We want to show that we comprehend others and other people. We want to avoid indignation. We want to show people are included. We can do that in the same way we date other people or interview. We mirror. We have rapport. We don't want platitudes. We want to show that we are self-aware. We are sentient. We are nonjudgement. We also cultivate. We encourage. We collaborate. Then, if we are really lucky, and this is impossible, because even I have a big head, try to be egoless as much as possible. I know Ken Beck and the Scrum XP people proclaim this a lot.

High-Performance Teams

Evidence of high-performance teams. This comes from the Mind Gym, and less so about empathy, but really, is about it. Because the last bit of the sentence, the mixed gender groups consistently outperformed the single gender groups. This was a study about diversity, which is relevant. What's even more relevant is Kelsey Hightower, who is a Kubernetes [inaudible 00:38:53], Developer Relations at Google. He talks about running a customer empathy session, where he puts Kubernetes engineers through the same challenges that his and her customers face. He's still having fun. If you think you can avoid empathy, it's there in the FAANG baby, in those FAANG companies, at least in one of them. It's coming to a software developing engineering workshop and store that you are in right now. There is no escape, at least.

Empathic Capacities

Daniel Batson, who came up with the empathic capacities, American social psychologist, well known for the empathy-altruism hypothesis. Number one is knowing another's thoughts and feelings. That is the feeling that we have almost when an event in a circumstance is happening, or when we think, just like the other person. Imagining another's thoughts and feelings. This is slightly substantively different in that we are in a different plane. We are thinking of what it's like to occupy that person's corner of the universe. Adopting the posture of another person, the kind of method acting here. This is really useful for coaching. I believe this is true. Because if you want to learn from the best, then work with the best and model excellence. Feeling as another person does. This is the circumstances shared where you are in that same circumstance. You might be in Ukraine, in Mariupol right now, or luckily, you aren't, you're here with us, and you can definitely feel what is going on there.

Number five, imagining how one would feel or fit, or think in another's place. Again, slightly related to number two and one, but this how is projecting into the future, this one here. If you cause somebody's harm, or you put ice down that girl's back, as you did as a child, what stops you doing that? That is not a nice feeling to do, because maybe that happened to you, someone squirted you with water, and you understand pleasure as well as pain. You can imagine how one would feel in another's place. Feeling distress at another's suffering. This is an easy one. Bereavement, somebody's pet has died, family member receives medical bad news. Somebody has taken sick at work. The announcement of terminal cancer is a really severe one, and you can treat it with platitude. If you have a similar distress, or you know a family member that's had that similar distress, you will know number six. Feeling for another's suffering, which is the charitable way. That is more to do with pity and compassion. That means you're not actively involved, but you can feel. It is closely related to five, really, I think. You can feel without actually taking aboard all their emotions. Number eight is the classic projecting oneself into another situation, the actor. Imagine yourself emoting, being in that same person's shoes, as one says.


An inclusive environment is necessary to reap the benefits of employing a diverse group of people. I'm going to leave you with empathic leadership tips here. For those of you who are leaders, or want to become leaders, you want this seat right now that I'm sitting in, you definitely want to look at and study the things in yellow boxes, which is the blame culture, the unblocking of encumbrances, the sanctuary, and the flexible communication. I'm going to leave you with Bob Odenkirk from Breaking Bad, and Better Call Saul. He says you're not owed a career just because you want one. How true is that? Empathy. We continuously practice empathy even when we don't have a lot of it to start with. We share in everyone else's lived-experiences in order to build that better future for all of us, so say we all.


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Recorded at:

Mar 31, 2023