Sometimes it’s okay to interrupt a programmer

I try really hard to avoid interrupting people. Golden rule: if I don’t want interruptions I shouldn’t impose them on other, right? Not entirely so.

Having teammates around, and interrupting them, has saved my butt. I’ve avoided tons of unnecessary work and solving the wrong problems, and that’s just the last week!

Communicating with others is a messy, lossy affair. We send messages, emails, bug reports with tons of partial context and implicit assumption. Not (always) because we lack empathy or want to bury ideas in unstated assumptions, but because we’re in a hurry, multitasking, or stressed out.

When you interrupt a co-worker you can turn five minutes of messages back and forth to thirty seconds of “Did you mean this?” “Yeah I meant that!” “Cool.”

When you interrupt a co-worker you can ask “this made sense but you also mentioned this which didn’t entirely make sense” and they can say “oh yes because here’s the needle in the haystack” and now you can skip straight to working with the needle instead of sifting through the haystack that was your own assumptions wrongly contextualized.

If your coworker is smart, they are keeping track of why people interrupt them. Later they’ll try to make it easier for you to not interrupt them, e.g. write documentation or automate a task. Maybe they want you to interrupt them so that whenever someone wonders “why haven’t we automated this?” they can talk to you about how it’s important to have a human hand on it rather than let failed automation go unnoticed.

There are plenty of reasons not to interrupt someone. I know the struggle. I do my best to respect when people put their head down to concentrate and get stuff done. I always spend a few minutes rereading communications or spelunking the code, logs, or whatever context I have before interrupting someone. It’d be rude to interrupt before I even started trying. But, there’s a moment when the cost and benefit of interrupting someone so I can get something done faster swings towards mutual benefit. That’s when I interrupt them.

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