Coaching: What I Actually Do

I spoze today is as good a day as any for me to start talking about what coaching is, about what I do and how and why.

Tho I have these conversations in private, I have put off doing it here. I think it’s a mix of factors. Two amusing ones: i’m not very sure I have words for it. And i’m not sure I want to argue about it. 🙂 I am a software development coach. What I do is travel around and hang out with software teams as they work to create and ship programs. Companies pay me to do this. I have been doing it for nearly 20 years.

My clients pay me, and they value my practice and results, but they don’t often really understand what I do or how I do it. Some do, for sure, but by no means all or even most. This bothered me for a long time, though it doesn’t anymore, and that’s worth looking at more closely, I think.

The disconnect happens in lots of little ways and a few pretty big ones.

The first big disconnect is just the mission. Ostensibly, i’m usually hired by folks who want to "make my team agile". They usually mean something like "make my team abide by this particular agile-umbrella system".

I don’t really do that. On the one hand, I can’t: orgs make themselves, I don’t make them. On the other hand, I would not do that even if I could: I know of no such system, in agile or outside of it, that produces consistently high results.

  • (aside: I think of myself as a pretty corrupt person, but I surprise me at times, when I draw little lines like these and abide by them. I think "system installation" in the agile world is at a pretty fundamental level, not good for the world.)

What I can and often do accomplish for these clients is to incite changes that make their teams demonstrably more valuable to the client.

The second big confusion is of course in "how I do it". The ordinary expectation is that I will do this by, in essence, walking in and telling people what to do. And again, I don’t really do that. Again, I can’t do that, because that is not an effective way to incite change for the better. Again, I won’t do that, because that’s perilously close to exactly the opposite of how I think we should live and work together.

Now, at first blush, it’s hardly surprising that people pay me for work when they don’t understand what that work is.

I don’t know what my doctor, my plumber, my mechanic, my arborist, my … Well, we don’t have time to list all that. I don’t know what they do, either, I just pay them cuz things are better when they’re done.

And we could just stop there: "that’s just how it is". It did bother me tho, and for a long time. I wanted my customers to understand the what and how and why.

Coaches uniformly come from a place of ferocious energy about the insights they gathered in their pre-coaching existence. You just don’t get into coaching at all if you think you have no insights or you think that what you’ve learned shouldn’t be shared.

Newer coaches, especially, are consumed with this notion. They are certain that if everyone just understood their ideas, everything would get better. So they focus their energy heavily on a sort of information-transfer-centric set of skills and behaviors.

We old fuckers are rather more sanguine about this. 🙂 there’s lots of room here for us to talk about what I sell and how I sell it. And that’s certainly a tremendously important conversation. I just don’t want to have it right now, because reasons.

I want to talk instead about what I actually do. To approach that, i’ve in mind telling you my local mission/goal/vision/focus, and telling you the many different styles of activity that go with that.

This is my local focus at work: I create or exploit small openings through which individuals, including sometimes myself, can take small steps towards becoming more like who they wish they were.

Eh? Wait, what? Yeah. That’s what I do. It’s how I think about what I do, it’s how I post-mortem it. It is the framing of the puzzle I set out to solve when i’m working as a coach.

If that statement leaves you a little jarred, well, join the club. I’ve made it from time to time in a variety of forums public and private, and met with a nearly complete lack of response. 🙂 the thing is, I can’t let it go.

I’ve tried on dozens of coaching clothes over the years. I started with the one true religion of XP, me a leading acolyte and evangelist. I absorbed each of the new twists in the agile saga, investing in some, rejecting others.

All those suits failed me, one way or another. The only answer i’ve ever been able to hold to the entire time is the one I just gave. Maybe it’ll last me for the rest of my life, idunno. But it includes in it every good thing i’ve ever done for a client. So i’m sticking to it.

You may think it strange that it doesn’t mention agile or geekery or even computers.

But don’t be silly. I am a geek. I work with geeks. I work in the geek trade. I work with teams and companies that are geek centric. Of course agile and computers and geekery are all mixed in all the time.

It is precisely my point that geekery is inherently sociotechnical. It is neither entirely social nor entirely technical. It’s both. And it’s not sometimes the one and sometimes the other, not for the most part. They nearly always co-present.

The hidden trick? It’s in that phrase "more like who they wish they were". For shorthand, let’s call that "better".

People want to be "better". Their "better" includes technique, for sure, and it includes a whole lot more besides. People want to be smarter, stronger, wiser, kinder. They want to code better, to talk better, to listen better. They want to produce better.

And as a coach, what I do is help them take the next tiny step towards their "better", (almost) regardless of which of the infinite number of dimensions they want to step along.

So. That’s it for the moment. I want very much to talk about roles and styles and activities, and I promise I will do that soon. But I had to start here, with that local mission, because it frames the problems I spend my professional life solving.

I am a professional software development coach. I create or exploit openings through which individuals in the geek trades, including myself, can take tiny steps to become closer to who and how they wish they were.

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