5 Psychology Lessons for the Successful Developer

5 Psychology Lessons for the Successful Developer

21 February 2024

I didn't expect that.

He slammed his face into open palm hands and groaned: 'Oh God, what is it NOW?!?'

I was about to ask this dev lead for help with some tricky code for the second time that morning.

It was the worst refusal of assistance I have ever experienced.

I turned around and solved the problem by myself.

It took me three gruelling hours and was a formidable task.

But I did it! 😅

Lesson 1: Be Friendly

Don't be a jerk.

I didn't want to come across like that dev lead to anybody. Ever.

Maybe this person had a bad day. Sure, but that kind of behaviour is still unacceptable.

We all have bad days. Yet, as best as we can manage, we're better off not venting on our coworkers.

It's OK to say you're under tight deadline pressure and cannot offer help right now.

However, say it nicely.

People don't take jerk-ish behaviour lightly. They remember.

And you never know; maybe you'll need their support one day. If you've been friendly, you'll likely get it—if not, not.

I spent much of my career as a freelancer. You want to be friendly, humble and non-threatening since you often depend on others showing you 'how we do things around here'.

Naturally, people are more inclined to help a kind, humble, and positive person.

Lesson 2: Help Others

Unless you're working on a P1, I recommend that you assist others when they ask for your help.

Helping does not necessarily mean sitting with them for 3 hours diagnosing an intermittent bug—although it might.

It can be as simple as pointing them toward someone who knows more about that part of the system. The trick is to do it nicely and not appear dismissive.

Or let them know that right now is not a good time, but you'll have some time this afternoon.

If Bob has interrupted you 5 times already, you should encourage him to stick with the problem a bit longer before coming to you for help. However, most of the time, it won't even come to that. Many people innately understand when they have outlived their welcome.

Lesson 3: First Give, Then Receive

People remember how you've acted towards them. Our current interactions are affected by prior ones.

To maximise the effectiveness of your interaction with others, be prepared to give before you receive:

  • Help others before you need their help
  • Talk to a new team member before they talk to you
  • Make their life a little easier, and they will do the same for you.

You'll find giving before receiving meaningful and pleasurable. As you get older, giving presents becomes more fun than receiving them.

Giving before receiving also makes sense from a purely practical point of view.


Because of Reciprocity Bias.

The Reciprocity Bias is a deeply ingrained human urge to want to return received favours. You assisted a colleague when they needed help, and now they feel subtly compelled to return the favour. It's powerful stuff[1].

Pro Tip: If you go for coffee or a light lunch to negotiate your pay or a business deal, be the one who pays for the bill. Why? Because the other party will subconsciously feel indebted to you. They might not push their negotiation position as hard as they intended, and you might, for example, walk away with $2,000 in extra pay. Not bad for the price of a coffee and sandwich, right?

Lesson 4: Be Humble

Not in interviews; here someone actually wants to hear all the great things you've accomplished—although you don't want to put it on too thick.

But at any other time, a dose of humility is advisable. That's true, even if you have done amazing things and risen to exalted heights.

Your colleagues don't want to be bombarded with tales of your achievements. People despise braggards. If you've done something extraordinary, people will know. Rubbing people's faces in your glorious accomplishments undermines the relevance of their own—obviously lesser 😀—triumphs.

Furthermore, it smacks of desperation to feel the need to remind others of your past glories. Fakers must reaffirm their high status; real achievers know they are good.

My advice? By and large, let others shine. You're better off understating your reputation than pushing it. People will already be aware you've soloed Mt. Everest or architected your company's software systems.

Lesson 5: Be Reliable

I've kept the best for last.

When asked about what behaviour traits would most damage a personal reputation and torpedo professional success, the late Charlie Munger had being unreliable at the top of his list.

He urged that this one lousy habit "will more than counterbalance all your virtues, however great. If you like being distrusted and excluded from the best human contribution and company, this prescription is for you."

If reliability is crucial, how do we achieve it?

Simple (but not easy): When you say you will do something, you do it—by the agreed time and to the expected standard.

Don't accept the task if you don't think you can reasonably achieve it. Negotiate on terms until it's doable.

Once you have agreed to it, do whatever you must to make it happen. If it means pulling 14-hour days for a week or an all-nighter, then so be it.

You're bound to succeed in life if you can accept the responsibility that comes with being reliable.


Over a long career, I made painful and costly mistakes and learned the hard way how to behave for optimal outcomes.

Here's a quick recap of the 5 lessons:

  • Lesson 1: Be Friendly. Don't be a jerk.
  • Lesson 2: Help Others. And they will help you.
  • Lesson 3: First Give, Then Receive. And you will receive more.
  • Lesson 4: Be Humble. There's no need to brag.
  • Lesson 5: Be Reliable. This is a must for success.

None of this is rocket science. It's pretty obvious stuff. Essentially, treat others how you would want them to treat you.


[1] I recommend reading Robert Cialdini's Influence.


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