Sitting down with Rob Graham (Director of Product Engineering), Rob walks us through his life with computers and IT before taking a closer look at the Pomodoro time management technique; its pros and cons as well as some alternatives some of our developers recommend!
Let Me Introduce Myself.
As ubiquitous as software is today, Rob writes, building it truly remains an art. At gravity9, we have developed a few techniques to make that process easier for our clients. One technique came to mind, which had an interesting response from our company: The Pomodoro Technique.
My dealings with the computer started off many moons ago as an impressionable youth in the depths of Canadian winter:
During Christmas break in third grade, my household welcomed a new addition: the mighty IBM Aptiva PC. Yes, IBM once made computers, and they felt military grade, big and expensive. I could count its hard disk storage — in gigabytes, no less — on one finger: one gigabyte! That kind of storage could make NASA blush, wishing they could have even half of it for their 1960’s moon rocket. And here it was in my kitchen, helping me draw printable refrigerator artwork on Microsoft Paint.
I would soon learn that Aptiva spoke many elegant languages, and for me to get the most out of our friendship, I had to learn how to speak to her. The following years were spent deciphering the secret languages of the machine, eventually rewarding me with the creation of a basic HTML webpage. And yes, it was stitched together from code published from even better websites than my own!
Many are surprised to learn that I started my professional career as a software developer. My variables were crisp; intuitive. My classes? Immutable. My documentation? Immaculate. However, computation was evolving. As quickly as Aptiva’s lessons became outdated, new paradigms took hold to build software even better.
As the years went on, the spotlight was placed on agile software development. Best practices were published, and manifestos written. And eventually I would stumble upon a concept I accidentally employed in my Aptiva days: the Pomodoro technique.
The Pomodoro Technique.
Like all things Italian, Pomodoro is elegant. The idea is to use a tomato-shaped kitchen cooking timer to spend uninterrupted focus on a software task, usually 25-minutes at a time. Intersperse short breaks in between successive focus periods, and you have a theoretical recipe for productivity.
In my Aptiva days, what I did not mention was that my internet access was controlled by 30-minute bursts of free dial-up internet sessions. This was a perfect storm of a unique billing process, a heap of AOL internet trial CDs, and underwhelming Canadian telecom infrastructure. During my jerry-rigged online session, the 30-minute mark would abruptly terminate my internet session, and so too would my quest for that perfect HTML snippet. I would then activate the next AOL access code for my next 30-minute online surf, and so on. I quickly learned to make the most of my half-hour bursts when connected.
Pomodoro in the modern world achieves a similar type of focus, but without the threat of a severed internet connection. These days, digital timers and dedicated phone apps replace the physical Pomodoro kitchen timer (though some still swear by it).
But it hasn’t maintained the same fanfare – or at least – no one was admitting to it. Why?
I asked my team at gravity9 about whether they use the technique, and after cornering a few colleagues in a creative line of questioning, some eventually admitted they had indeed tried it. A few Pomodoro apps were tested, but many fell out of practice.
So why the lost love on Pomodoro?
For one, developer inertia loomed large. The “zone” that developers strive for takes time to reach, and can yield lots of positive output, but is easily lost. Such productivity periods often do not fit within 25-minute intervals. Losing that momentum means building it back up, which is difficult in our distracted world. If you have the inertia, it actually takes less energy to keep going than starting after a short break.
In a different scenario, a task could be nearly complete, but the tomato timer rings. Arbitrarily abiding by the Pomodoro compromises these undertakings and leaves tasks incomplete.
Online critics posit that the stress to produce something meaningful in a collapsing time window sucks away creative process, reducing quality. This was my experience every time I had to write an essay for a school exam and appears to be the case for some teammates at gravity9 as well. The ticking of multiple simultaneous timers is a torture I wish on nobody.
So, instead of a strict Pomodoro diet, many at gravity9 seem to reach a happy medium using supplementary apps to track eyesight, or tools to block access to distracting apps until the job is done.
One that came to mind was Toggl tracker. Some even pointed to system configurations that can temporarily suppress distractions on the screen like Focus Mode. Or for some, using ambient sounds like Rainy Mood worked wonders.
For me, I decided to remove most application notifications so that instant messages and emails are checked on my schedule. It’s not Pomodoro, but it’s close. And it was clear that not many used Pomodoro in all its restricted glory! Imagine that.
The future will surely highlight new techniques for productivity, but it is always interesting to take a step back and explore how a diverse culture at gravity9 achieve the same thing: building great software!
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