Aiming for the Pragmatic Goldilocks Zone

Steamy thermometer

So, where are you on the bruteforce-perfection scale?

Is that a strange question? Maybe. Let’s elaborate.

When we think of skill and productivity, we tend to think of a single axis, ranging from “illiterate moron” to “Einstein++”. The further to the right you are on this axis, the better you are at your craft.

If we were to add another dimension to this, it may contain some “soft” qualities, like personality traits and such. This turns our single-line scale into a coordinate system, with “hard” skills on the x-axis and “soft” skills on the y-axis.

If we imagine this in a hiring scenario, this second axis may range from “completely dysfunctional in social settings” to “already hired based on awesome personality”.

Nothing wrong with that, being compatible with the team is a must in today’s fast-paced world, where deadlines and stress will take its toll on the best of relationships. Professional or otherwise.

But I’m tempted to add yet another axis to this coordinate system, one where we measure the level of professional pragmatism. It may be easiest understood if we jump straight into the following anecdote.

At the far ends

I once worked with two developers. Let’s call them Alice and Bob.

Alice was highly educated and had a keen interest in programming paradigms, procedures and algorithms. Bob, on the other hand had no formal education and not the slightest interest in development minutiae like algorithms or paradigms. Not only had Bob never written a test case in his entire life, he was totally unaware of the existence of version control systems, build tools, refactoring, or other tools and methods that most developers (should) use on a daily basis. What he did have was +25 years of experience in programming, compared to Alice’s measly 2 or 3 years in the profession.

Given the information so far, I would probably pick Alice over Bob if I had to choose a new team mate.

Cookie chart

But there’s more.

Alice was stuck in perfection mode. Her interest for technical detail prevented her from ever shipping a line of code. It was never perfect enough. She could throw away days worth of labor because she just discovered a new paradigm that she had to try. To her, code was a work of art, and what the customer wanted was not just secondary, it was completely uninteresting to her.

Bob on the other hand was constantly delivering. Albeit untested, unreviewed and undesigned deliveries. Bob was developing like a monkey with a mallet, but at least he delivered something, by using brute force.

In this new light, Bob will actually trump Alice. Even though I sometimes spent weeks cleaning up the mess he could leave behind.

Both Alice and Bob would be much better off as developers if they had bothered to move a bit towards the center of the bruteforce-perfection scale. Bed Bugs

In the Zone

Because somewhere on the bruteforce-perfection scale you will find what we are looking for: The Pragmatic Goldilocks Zone™. It is those who place themselves in this zone who are the most pleasant to work with. Team members like to work with them because they keep adding value to the combined effort of the team, managers like them because they produce deliverables, and customers like them because they supply solutions that the customer can benefit from.

Make a move

And sure, it easier to be pragmatic about your work if you are well read in your field, but it is not a given, as we can see in the case of Alice.

Holding their position on the far ends of the scale, Bob wins over Alice. But if they both move just a little bit towards the center, Alice’s knowledge and attention to detail would quickly make her the more attractive choice. Bob would have to put in much more effort to travel an equal distance on the scale, but his lack of basic knowledge will hold him back.


Finding the balance

The tricky thing with the bruteforce-perfectionist scale is that, in contrast to the other scales, you should not always aim for the far end. On the cookie scale for instance, your aim should always be to move towards “more cookies”, and on the bed bugs scale, your goal should always be “no bed bugs at all”.

Some professionals feel guilty when they aren’t 100% perfectionists. This is perhaps more prominent in the world of software development than in many other fields. I’m here to tell you there’s no need for that.

So, how do you know when you’ve hit the sweet spot? Exactly where is this Pragmatic Goldilocks Zone™ and how do you know if you’re in it?

I wish I could tell you, but there’s no clear answer. My best advice is this: Pay attention to your surroundings. How do your colleagues react to your work? Your managers? Your customers? Would their reaction be different if you adjusted your position on the scale, and in which direction would they prefer you to move?

The balance is out there.

(Feature photo: Rusty Clark)

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