A Developer’s Sixth Sense

Most engineers are fact driven by nature. Which is a good thing. I am here to argue that listening to your intuition does serve a purpose and can help you become a better developer…or anything for that matter. We don’t always have all the facts. The best people know how to use their instincts to their advantage. This is something I have been working on over the last year and I still have much room to grow.

Below are 4 areas of software engineering where intuition can help.

1. Task Scoping

You are given a piece of work and told how long it will take. Do you get a “shit…I can’t waste a single second” feeling? Or just a “this is going to be tight”. We can’t as developers be expected to remember how everything works. There will always be times when we forget about a particular use case, which inevitably blows an estimate up. But our gut (or unconscious mind), does surprisingly well at alerting us.

Try to recognize that feeling and ask yourself why you feel that way. Was it because the last time you refactored that class it ended up being a tangled mess? Or was it because the last time you built a component that interacted with components A and B it took much longer than expected. If it makes you anxious or pressured, the task is probably under scoped.

When estimating, listening to your gut can help you surface problems sooner rather than later. Which is what all engineers should strive for – and project managers love! The key is to recognize those feelings.

2. Code Reviews

Code reviews are where I use my intuition the most. At Thinknear, we code review everything and using this sixth sense helps speed up the process for me. Once you start doing code reviews regularly you start to spot “code smells” faster. But many times I will look at a piece of code and say “that looks wrong” or “something here doesn’t look right”. I might not know how to fix it or what is exactly wrong, but my gut has served its purpose – identifying a potential issue.

Some examples of things that I tend to pick up on are:

  • Am I having a hard time reading the code? (better method/variable names?)
  • Why is this method so long? (too many things happening in method)
  • Why are there so many unrelated methods (too many responsibilities of the class)

Those are just a few to give you an idea. Once you found a problematic area, you can move to suggesting fixes.

3. Architecting Solutions

We at Thinknear, collaborate on all major architecture designs. Usually a single engineer is responsible for figuring out the design. But that person is responsible for running the solution by at least one more engineer. I can’t tell you the number of times I came up with a solution and then had a better alternative or alteration suggested by one of my peers.

Intuition also helps in these discussions. This is the place where we all probably use it the most. Someone explains a design that makes us go “eeek!” inside. We explain why it might not be the best idea. But what about those situations where you can’t quite put your finger on it?

Still bring it up.

Many time just bringing up the fact that something feels off, will jog someone’s memory. “Oh yeah, I remember when we created component X we did that and we had to re-write it”. Contrast that queazy feeling with the feeling of “wow that design is slick”. That can help you recognize when you should be pushing back. Or what about that “there is got to be a better way feeling”? Listen to yourself. Bring it up. Give yourself credit for the knowledge you have amassed.

4. Interviews

Your unconscious mind processes a ton of visual cues. And it only brings things to your attention what it thinks you need. Its really amazing. We’ve all heard about the experiments done with dinosaurs walking across television screens while the onlookers were distracted with something else on the screen.

Culture fit is one of the most important factors in hiring a candidate. Yet its hard to gather empirical evidence on how someone might fit in. With such a limited timeframe to evaluate someone, on something so important, it can be difficult. At Thinknear, we always have lunch with the candidate for them to meet the team in a more informal setting. It also gives the candidate time to assess who we are. Yet intuition should be used as another data point in these scenarios.

This is one area I have tried to improve on the most. I have interviewed over 150 people for sure and I can speak from experience that your intuition only gets better with experience when evaluating people. From my experience, gut feeling is grounds for turning down a candidate, but not for accepting a candidate. It can be a useful tool, one of many you should be using when hiring your next co-worker.

Those are the four areas I have seen that intuition helps in improving my work. Sometimes you don’t have all the facts. Use your gut to your advantage. It is a great ally.


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