Introversion, Extroversion and the BBC Software Engineer

introvert

Whether you agree with Myers-Briggs personality profiling or not, like fellow BBC’er Ian Forrester I have found them a useful frame of reference from which to discuss my personality, because I see similarities between my perception of me, and the classification.

I took the Myers-Briggs personality profiling, and it has labelled me on several occasions an INTP:

INTPs are marked by a quiet, stoic, modest, and aloof exterior that masks strong creativity and enthusiasm for novel possibilities. Their weaknesses include poor organization, insensitivity to social niceties, and a tendency to get lost in abstractions. Keirsey referred to INTPs as Architects, one of the four types belonging to the temperament he called the Rationals

I – Introversion preferred to extraversion: INTPs tend to be quiet and reserved. They generally prefer interacting with a few close friends rather than a wide circle of acquaintances, and they expend energy in social situations (whereas extraverts gain energy).

Is this bad news for me? Introversion can be seen as a negative in today’s hyper-communicative world, especially for a team-based work environment. However I don’t think it need be a problem in an organisation that prioritises abstract thinking and creativity, because introverts are often very strong in both. The technology and R&D side of the BBC, I would argue, is such an organisation.

I know a few people from Imperial College London, one of the top universities in the world for Computer Science (and Science Technology Engineering and Medicine in general) and have found it full of technically gifted introverts. Now, I didn’t go to Imperial myself, but it does seem that there is a correlation between introversion and high amounts of technical ability. I have found this also with a lot of software engineers that I have worked with.

I am not saying necessarily that all good software engineers are extreme introverts, in fact I would say that this is untrue in a number of cases. This is because Agile software engineering often uses techniques such as pair programming from Extreme Programming, and it helps to have extroversion when dealing with hyper-social practices such as programming as a pair every day all day (which I have done, and found it very draining).

In fact, I have noticed that technical ability is less important than your ability to work in a team at the BBC. I generally have fairly good social skills and tend to like introverts so I personally have not had a problem with dealing with people who were very introverted but were technically quite brilliant. However it was clear that these types of people just didn’t seem to fit in quite as well in BBC teams with high collaboration aspects. I think this may be down to cultural fit rather than something we can extrapolate over all software engineering organisations.

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Indeed, aside from my anecdotal evidence, in the book ‘Making Software’ Jo E. Hannay analyses the academic research on what type of personality programmers have, and what effect this has on their work. She writes;

We found that programmers deviated from a reference group in that they are lower on Extraversion, lower on Emotional Stability, and higher on Openness to Experience [Hannay et al. 2010]. See also [Moore 1991], [Smith 1989], [Woodruff 1979], [Capretz 2003], and [Turley and Bieman 1995] for related results. Programmers are also more homogeneous than the population as a whole; that is, programmers vary less in personality than do people in general.

So programmers tend to be introverts. Not really hugely suprising is it? However, she also notes:

We investigated .. in the context of 198 professional programmers pair programming over one day [Hannay et al. 2010]. We found that personality was a weak predictor of pair programming performance. Even crude measures of expertise, task complexity, and even the country in which the programmers where employed had greater predictive power than personality. The study also included an analysis of personality on individual programming and whether the effect on performance of pairing up had anything to do with personality. Again, expertise and task complexity are stronger predictors than personality.

Therefore an introverted personality is a poor predictor of pair programming performance across the industry. She goes on to say:

In ethnographic studies focusing on personality issues and disruption in software engineering team collaboration, it was found that disruption is bad, but lack of debate (which is a mild form of disruption) is worse [Karn and Cowling 2006], [Karn and Cowling 2005]. It is argued that pairs or teams with personalities that are too alike will lead to lack of debate. This finds empirical confirmation in [Williams et al. 2006] and [Walle and Hannay 2009]. In particular, differences in Extraversion has the largest effect: pairs whose peers have different levels of Extraversion collaborate more intensely (that is, engage in more discussion) than those with more similar levels.

She is saying that a pair of extroverted and introverted personalities collaborate more strongly than a homogenous pair. To me, this is good evidence that introversion and extroversion have their place in modern software development teams across the industry, and both types of personality should be culturally valued for collaboration, not just extroverts, even at hyper-collaborative organisations such as the BBC.

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