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The Joys of High Visibility Micro Goals

September 8th, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

I like to create games.

Games that motivate.  Games that create focus, pressure, supreme concentration.  Done right they can be a fantastic hack for programmer productivity.

A few weeks ago I set out to build a working prototype of the DealNation members zone in a single day.  To make it interesting, I let everyone in on the game.   At 9:45am I setup my day as a collection of mini-milestones in building the system from start to finish, each with a target completion time, and put the progress chart + time line on the office whiteboard for all to see.

I had declared my fate for the day, and effectively given my word to “this is what will get done with every passing hour today”.  Folks were curious to get that kind of high-resolution look into how I work, and I promised they could view the work in progress as I pushed each mini-milestone to our dev server.

To make it more real and pressing, I openly advertised my progress throughout the day.  When a milestone was completed I would rise from my desk, write the actual completion time on the whiteboard, and settle back into my trance-like concentration at the computer once again.  No chit-chat, I was on a mission and everyone knew it.  Green marker meant I was on time, red meant I was behind.

At the end of the day, this is what everyone in my office got to see:

Yep, I gave it a zany, over-the-top name. Whatever, it's my game.

There are a lot of payoffs to this structure.  First, this day was a ton of fun for me.  It was like being in the zone of pure productive concentration for a hour, 7 times over.  I had zero problem blocking out distraction, and the mini-race to the next milestone keyed me in with renewed focus each time (it’s WAY fun to write the next actual time on the board, and striving to use the green marker keeps it interesting).

The final show off was the grand prize.  My team was delighted to see all that got accomplished in just one day, and I think their sense of appreciation was heightened by being vicariously in on the process along the way. This is about as close I know to the experience of performing for an audience as a programmer, and it creates a certain buzz which theatrical and musical performers will understand.


This is Programmer for Hire, a series of essays and explorations on the art of being a great programmer doing on-demand custom software development.

  1. April 19th, 2012 at 14:30 | #1

    Yeah, I like the small milestones too, really helps get you on track.

    One question – you mentioned previously working solo. Are you in a co-working space, or on client premises here?

  2. John
    April 19th, 2012 at 15:37 | #2

    @Alastair McDermott
    This was when I was rockin’ in-house as the CTO of DealNation.

  1. December 6th, 2011 at 08:45 | #1