RAMPS – Ways To Affect Mastery

Part [part not set] of 15 in the series RAMPS

RAMPS: Affecting mastery, the sense an individual has that she is growing in a way she values, means first jiggling our ideas about efficiency & relevance in work, then jumping in to the opportunities that jiggling will reveal.

We talked about the widespread pernicious conceptual cluster we call "finish-line efficiency": the idea that software development is basically a race, w/a start, a well-marked track, and a precise finish line some distance away. Overturning this is central to engaging mastery.

I’m always chary of simple mappings from software development to the physical domain. But if it resembles anything like "getting from here to there", the thing it most resembles is an exploratory expedition across an unknown continent.

In a simple race, we tune to be running machines: perfect stride, optimal pathing, minimal awareness. Don’t move laterally or in reverse. Don’t find shortcuts. The target stays still. Fuel up before & after. We follow the path, we don’t create it.

That’s not software.

To activate the Mastery part of the motivational spectrum, we have to let go of this "it’s a simple race" idea, which can be hard. But once we do, the opportunities open right up, and it all becomes rather obvious. So, too, do the tremendous rewards of activating it.

Finish-line efficiency blinds us because it limits our value proposition. If the target requires activities X and Y, finish-line efficiency says we only get value by having "best at X" doing X, "best at Y" doing Y, and "nobody at all" doing anything other than X and Y.

The tricks: 1) Understand your path as an expanding opportunistic cone-shaped tree. 2) Doubt your certainty that X and Y are the only activities you need. 3) Accept that well-motivated is as important as highly-knowledgable. 4) Enjoy yourself and your team enjoying pathfinding.

Okay, as before, let’s talk about the individual maker, the maker team, and the host organization for the maker team(s).

Also as before, take these ideas as kindling, and start your own damned fire: you can improve and adapt and alter and experiment with these, and you can use them to trigger your own ideas. But your folks have to do this, I can’t give it to you whole from a distance.

First, at the host org level. Here, as so often, your role is as creator and supporter of opportunity.


Remember those 90-minute Monday afternoon sessions from the Rhythm advice? We allocated a quarter of them to outsiders talking about stuff they make and how they do it. Allocate another quarter to insiders doing the same thing: talking about what they make and how they do it.

Remember to forget about relevance to the target. (See what I did there?) We want making. We don’t care what is being made, or how it’s being made. We care that someone is excited enough about what they do to want to share it.

Throw another quarter of that time specifically to things we do think are relevant. Get your own folks or others to curate short presentations and q&a or even labs. All voluntary attendance, all remotable. All encouraged.


Or try this: spend at least 10% of the work-week for a 100% of your people, on learning any damned thing they want to learn, with only two provisos: a) can’t directly affect this week’s goals, b) must ultimately be presented in one of those sessions.


Encourage your people to find courses they want that are delivered online, either canned or live, in small chunks distributed over time. Fund them. Hell, if your people want to do it, help them create such content.

Companies routinely neglect this possibility. Instead, they arrange onsite multi-day classes at very expensive rates, and typically force at least half the attendees to also do their day jobs while they take them.

The internet is very very much your friend here. There are thousands of teachers willing to teach detailed custom online material at a fraction of the cost of traditional classroom settings.

What if we drop down to the level of the maker team? Here, our attention is mostly to how we distribute and value the work done by our makers.


Pull & swarm, where the whole team pulls one story at a time and tangles with it en masse, is a terrific route to getting your mastery-driven people functioning at a high level.

By engaging all of us on the same problem at the same time — even if some are soloing, some are pairing, and some are mobbing — we simultaneously multiply our learning opportunities and dramatically reduce the risk of people of reaching too far over their heads for the growth.

In a typical p&s, we create learning opportunities in 1) collaboration, 2) story-splitting, 3) mentoring, 4) code design, 5) stepwise thinking, 6) new languages & libraries, and that list could go on for quite a while.


Abandon individual tracking. Give it up. It suppresses motivation of all stripes, including especially mastery, it produces lousy data for making decisions, it keeps people from mentoring, it’s just awful.

I’m not even going to expand on this now. Just do it. Quit it. Stop.

No! STOP it.


Hammer on story size. When the guess — call a spade a spade — for a p&s story crosses the two day line, get squinty-eyed. If it crosses the four day line, start over on splitting. You don’t have it, yet.

Story size directly affects mastery because it increases risk. More risk means more fear. More fear means less courage to do something you don’t already know how to do.


Re-orient towards a strong pro-mentoring stance. Find mentors. Grow mentors. Use mentors as mentors. Value the mentoring skill & taste like gold. Because it is. People who like to mentor and are good at it aren’t just money in the bank, they’re passive income streams.

Cautionary notes deserving a separate muse: mentoring isn’t "knowing more". desire to mentor isn’t universal. ability to mentor isn’t universal, either, but it is growable when the desire and encouragement are present. Mentor-mentors exist, and when you find one, hold on tight.

Hell. As soon as I say this I want to go on and on. There’s no space for it today. But I will say this, all three of the previous team-level suggestions are enabling here. They all are themselves mentoring-friendly. Start there, and we’ll swing at mentoring in more depth soon.

Okay, now we come to the individual maker, and how she can explore and capitalize on her own mastery band in the motivational spectrum.


Look for the nervous fluttery half-smile. When you’re engaging your own mastery fully, you think you can pull this off, but you’re not sure you can pull it off, and you really want to pull it off.

If you pay attention to yourself, you’ll see it. When you do? Go there.


Think in terms of swimming just a little bit deeper than you are now. The challenge is good, but if it’s too much to grab at once, you’ll just hurt yourself, not just locally, but possibly for a long time.


Back when we talked about rhythm, one thing I proposed was that you go wander off and pair or mob with someone else when you need a reset. That can also be a good way to ease your way into a new learning domain.


Open your mind to the nearly infinite possibilities for growth you have. A great many of them are already there at work, many more than most people see when they first get started thinking about this.

Even if it’s just code, there are plenty of opportunities. A new language. A new library. Go front-end if you’re back, or back-end if you’re front. Finally learn what a right-handed join is, or an event stream.

But don’t stop at code, either.

Think "better". Better coder, sure. Better talker. Teacher. Designer. Tester. Story-splitter. Collaborator. Writer. Meeting facilitator. Mentor. Scout. Backfiller.

Being a professional software developer is way more than being a code-monkey.

Any of those are viable vectors for you to grow along. Every single one of them is potentially valuable to you, your team, and your host org.

So let’s wrap this, yeah? Mastery is one band in a motivational spectrum, and some folks value it quite highly. When I want to adjust it, I re-frame away from finish-line efficiency, and when its impediments are removed, the opportunities become nearly endless.

I’ve been an okay but unproductive writer in my life. Now I’m a bit better at it I hope, & I routinely produce 3-6k words a week, right here. Doing this feeds my mastery drive.

It’s Thursday. I hope you’re finding something to be better at and getting better at it!

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