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In defence of meetings

May 27, 2019

It’s highly likely that I don’t know you, the reader.

But, if I were a betting man (I sometimes am, don’t lend me any money) I’d say:

You probably don’t enjoy meetings.

For the rest of this article I’m going to assume that you’re involved in creating software and you don’t exhibit any inherent hate against other human beings (my strong belief is that talking to humans is more important than talking to machines).

Meetings, what’s wrong with them?

There are few things that are so universally hated by developers as meetings are. It’s actually quite remarkable, we cannot agree whether we should use tabs or spaces (my attempt at a compromise to use 2 spaces AND a tab was promptly ignored) but when it comes to meetings the verdict is simple: I don’t wanna.

After a couple of years in the field I’ve noticed a distinction between gatherings and business meetings. You probably refer to both of them as meetings. Allow me to explain.

Gatherings

This is what developers hate. In the year 300AD someone set a meeting slot every Wednesday at 3pm and because of that - your team gathers in a room.

You are not there because you want to, you’re there because your calendar told you to come to the conference room (or dial in remotely). No one runs the meeting, there’s no agenda, you spend the first 10 minutes dealing with audio/video issues, half of the team is checking slack and nothing gets done.

This is not a business meeting, this is a house party but with no music and/or booze and 100% less fun. And yes, it’s highly likely that you’re wasting your time.

Instead of that mess, you (and your team) should strive to have something I’m going to refer to as:

Business meetings

Where things get DONE.

You cannot build a good product without common understanding and deep knowledge of what you’re building and why. It’s not enough that you understand what is the scope of a feature X - in order to be a better software engineer you need to know: What problem does this feature solve? Can we solve this problem in another way? Do we want to solve this problem in the first place?

This is where a well-run business meeting is really helpful. The one after which you say:

I’m glad I joined that one. I’ve learned a lot and our plan for the next sprint is much more clear to me now.

What is the difference between a business meeting and a gathering?

  • There’s an agenda, emailed to everyone days in advance. Preferably with a desired outcome of the meeting.

  • It’s clear who’s running the meeting.

  • People are awake, focused. Laptops are closed, phones remain in their pockets.

  • It’s obvious whether it’s a decision meeting or a debate meeting. This is highly important - your team members need to know whether they need to make a decision about the new architecture change at the end of this meeting or they are meant to discuss the idea and come to conclusions later.

  • Someone is writing down action points/notes. It would be absolutely fantastic if that person would be informed about that expectation before the meeting starts.

  • If there’s any audio/video connection involved - the room is prepared well in advance. If you’re running the meeting, get to the room 5-10 minutes earlier. Make sure that the TV works, audio is on, microphone is not laying in the corner of the room. Do not make 20 people wait while you’re fumbling with an HDMI cable.

  • Don’t organise meetings that could be an email instead. Let me repeat that.

  • Do not organise meetings that could be an email instead.

  • And most importantly, respect others’ time. Do not keep 15 minute meeting artificially running for an hour because your pizza arrives at 1pm and you really don’t have anything useful to do in between.

An unspoken truth

All in all, as a developer - meetings are a part of your job. This doesn’t mean that you have to endure X hours daily in a conference room. Meetings can be useful and it’s up to you, whether you’re an organiser or an attendee, to make it so.

I feel that a large chunk of why meetings have such a bad rep is because of the fact that folks don’t treat the time spend in a conference room or on a call as work. It’s a break from real work, but here’s the thing:

No matter how hard the organiser is trying to make the meeting productive, if other attendees won’t cooperate, it’s not going to be a practical use of company’s time. And vice-versa, if you want to be an active attendee but no one is running the meeting, your attempts will bounce off the wall. I strongly believe it’s better to leave a meeting if you no longer feel relevant instead of staying in the room just in case.

Time is the most valuable resource on this planet [citation needed]. You may earn more money in the future (I’m keeping my fingers crossed!), have more resources, team members (who are not a resource, do not refer to people as resources, seriously) and anything other you might need - an hour wasted is an hour gone. You will never get to re-experience those 15 minutes of @tlakomy trying to establish a ZOOM connection on a muted TV.

Respect your peers, respect yourself and don’t waste their time.

Less gatherings, more business meetings - someone kinda smart