Notifications and Work


Call me old-fashioned.

Before I started writing software I worked a variety of jobs. I bagged groceries, received calls at an answering service, stocked shelves at an electronics retailer, did data entry at a tool coating company, and took phone orders for office supplies, to name a few.

Each of these jobs had two things in common: if you were late it was notable, and when you were at work, you worked. Being habitually late and taking personal calls at all hours of the day was looked down upon, and could lead to termination. If you wanted to take a call, you’d likely have to wait to do it on your break.

The jobs I held prior to writing software helped build my work ethic: I strive to always be early, and I come to work to work.

I have noticed in the past few years that this work ethic is not shared by many of my peers.

Since not long after I began writing software full-time, I have done it in the form of pair programming. Many people deride pair programming as purely a way to keep them off of Facebook and Reddit; a form of policing. While pairing does tend towards allowing for fewer distractions, that is only a side-effect, and it is not guaranteed.

I began pair programming because I wanted to become a better developer, and pairing with people who were more experienced than me would enable that. The fact that it allowed for fewer distractions was a benefit to me. As our society becomes more and more connected, and with the prevalence of smartphones and smartwatches, distractions have become more commonplace while pairing than in the past. The reason? Notifications.

While it is unlikely to find someone using Facebook on their computer while pairing, it is quite likely to find them receiving notifications from Facebook on their phone or watch, and even responding to them.

Receiving and responding to notifications is non-work, something that should wait for a break. When I pair with someone who receives and responds to notifications all day, my desire to pair with them is greatly reduced: in allowing notifications while pairing they have shown me that they feel their notifications are more important than the work we are doing together.

Pairing well requires a lot of conversation for both members of the pair to maintain a similar level of understanding. I have found myself talking about a problem or proposing a solution while my pair receives a notification, and then responds to it. While they respond to the notification I am effectively talking to myself, and then have to repeat myself when they finish. Sometimes people try to hide the fact that they are responding to a notification, which just makes it worse. Their attention is still elsewhere, but it is less obvious to me, which means I spend more time talking to myself.

I am not sure what to do about this sad state of affairs other than to continue bringing it up when I notice the person I am pairing with feels their notifications are more important than work.

I would prefer a workplace where everyone has the same respect for the work that I do, where muting your phone’s notifications was the norm. That continues to be my dream.