Hacking with your family

The world used to be such a nice place. You were able to peacefully code away like you always wanted. Maybe working remotely from home, maybe at the office, it was just you and the code. Noise-canceling headphones on your ears, Darcula before your eyes, all the outside world comfortably sealed away - you were in the zone

Now you’re stuck. Working from home, yes, but with all your roommates or family constantly in your face. Always wanting something, always having some problem only YOU can fix...

So, what can I do?

This pandemic really made a mess of things. In the big world, of course, but also in your small enclave, where you got so comfortable in. Whoever you are now stuck with, it’s likely that their life was hit just as much as yours - maybe harder. Some people, especially those accustomed to a free, entertaining, and enterprising lifestyle, took a particularly hard hit. They have so much to offer to the world, and yet now they are confined to these four grey walls. However, perhaps they can still contribute something, through a programmer - through you. Don't tell them to get lost - invite them to get involved.

As a father of three (and husband of one) I want to suggest that instead of seeing others as a part of the problem, how about you try making them a part of the solution?

Make their life an RPG

“All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts”
- William Shakespeare (and Civilization IV)

A successful project requires many people, filling different roles. Let’s assume that the design is ready, you know what to do, but you want to do it better. I believe that with the help of role-playing and some creative gamification you and your fellow inmates actually can do a better job. Roles such as:

The Coder

The hero of programming, the backbone of every modern enterprise, salt of the earth really 🙂 well, that’s you. You know how to do your job in normal circumstances and I’m not going to lecture you about it. If there’s one thing I would like to suggest in current times though, it would be this - establish a routine and stick to it. Even (coding) heroes need solid ground to stand on.

The Graphic Resources Researcher

While some projects already have their texts and pics created for you, others (especially if you’re working solo) require you to do the job. That, or you can delegate. You already know the theme of the project, scouted all the good stock photo sites, now it’s just the matter of finding some great images for your app. Sounds like a job for someone with too much free time, too much energy, and a certain propensity for “pretty, pretty pictures”? Congratulations, honey, you found yourself a job! 

Admittedly, your app might end up with a few more princesses and unicorns then you originally planned, but that is a small price to pay for a quality daughter-time. And perhaps a suggestion for the direction you should pivot your app to 🙂

Of course, a parent’s supervision and a pre-screening of these stock photo sites are strongly advised.

The Tester

It might not be true for all applications, but a solid portion of them are supposed to be so easy that a 6-year-old could use them. Well, then how about employing your 6-year-old child to do it? Many of them can already read, often also write (or at least click-write), and would love the opportunity to play with a parent’s smartphone or computer. Then it’s just a simple matter of explaining what a crash is, establishing a bug reporting routine and you’re good to go. I guarantee that many kids will just love creating Jira tickets 🙂

Admittedly, when it comes to concepts like Selenium Automated Testing, professional help might be required.

“Ok, but my kid is just 3 years old! He can’t read or write yet, has an attention span of about 10 seconds on any given task, and prefers to just monkey around. What then?” - you say. 

Well, funny you should ask since he seems to be the perfect person for the role of:

The Monkey Tester

Maybe not the most fortunate name of a child’s role, but at the respectable age of 3, the child will likely enjoy playing the role of the Curious George. You just need to wrap the job in a story - one of a curious monkey, who found a phone and is checking whether it has bananas. Just make sure to implement a banana popup to show up from time to time, configure Crashlytcs or other bug-reporting software, find a monkey-test-resistant phone and voilà.

The Devil’s Advocate

There are some people who seem to be able to overhear or notice everything and then point out the one thing you forgot about. One flaw in your perfect creation. People that upon seeing your perfect Easter Cake will just say “Did you forget about almonds again? You promised you would remember this time.” 

In normal circumstances, such a character trait will surely turn into something the prosecutor likes to call a motive, when you describe what happened to oh, so sympathetic jury. So, if this situation happens in the world of pastries and your significant other happens to bring before you his/her pride and joy, whatever happens, whatever is inside it, just eat it, say it’s delicious and keep smiling (at least until the Eye of Sauron turns elsewhere).

However, in the cruel and unforgiving world of professional programming, these people can actually perform an important public service. Just think about the person who invented the parachute - I’m pretty sure that he was one of these naysayers. Someone, who heard about people going up to crazy altitudes in a balloon and instead of being inspired and in awe just thought “And what if they fall?

This attitude is very important in a project. For every 3-5 people thinking how can this “revolutionary idea built with cutting edge technology” succeed and make your company a unicorn, there needs to be at least one person dedicated to thinking how it can fail. And usually, it can fail in so, so many ways. 

Like overpromising. Perhaps if Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos had someone appointed as the Devil’s Advocate at an early stage, she wouldn’t have gone down the fraudulent path trying to keep up with the hype.

On a smaller, single programmer-level scale, it also applies nicely to scrutinizing new features and design choices. Programmers tend to fall in love with their own ideas, which might even work brilliantly for them, but (sadly) we need to accommodate for the needs and abilities of the general population as well. People that aren’t as tech-savvy or quick with their fingers, as someone who spent their entire professional life writing, fixing, dismantling, analyzing, and using computer programs. We need someone with gravitas and working knowledge of the outside world to tell us when we’re wrong.

The Emotional Support

My son Joseph is 4-months old and, frankly, not very good at reporting bugs or finding graphical resources. However, he’s quite awesome in getting me this stress relief time I badly need. A great listener too - I can talk to him about just anything and he never complains, always being so remarkably understanding. Also quite useful with debugging, while being a nice upgrade from a rubber duck.

The Manager

If you are working for a company, you probably already have a PM assigned to you - either by your employer or by the customer - sometimes by both. However, remember what I said about sticking to a routine? Since now it likely involves doing stuff AFK, you likely could use some help in managing it. Someone to remind you that all that coding with the kids is nice and all, but that chair won’t fix itself and the schedule clearly shows that 2 PM is a “help around the house” hour. You already know who’s going to be your manager, don’t you? 🙂

Conclusion

I realize that all this is easier said than done. The frustration levels are high, remote education is failing even harder than regular comprehensive education and I can’t even imagine the combined effect on the proverbial teenager. So yeah, there is “some” downside.

The upside is you. Your attitude is what makes all the difference. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. I know, it might be an overkill to use the words of Gandhi in a tongue-in-cheek programming article, but for me, it rings the bell pretty strong. So, maybe, perhaps give it a try? After all, what do you have to lose?


Photo credits (in order of appearance):

  1. NeONBRAND
  2. Kelly Sikkema 
  3. Prashant Sharma
  4. Andi Graf
  5. Slash Film
  6. Alex Marinkovic 
  7. Author's private collection
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