Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Review: Peopleware

The book, Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, comes highly recommended by Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood over at the Stack Overflow Podcast.  It is probably most famous for its repudiation of the idea that cubicles make a better work environment for programmers than offices.  There is a lot more to this book than just an attack on cube farms, though.  The book dates from another era of the technology industry.  It was first written in1987 with an update in 1999.  Most of the content ages very well though.  It carries a lot of sage advice that managers today would be smart to read.  Alas, the book appears to be out of print at present.  Check your local library.  That’s where I got mine from.

The book begins with a discussion of people and shipping quality software.  Among the insights are that you can’t squeeze more than a certain amount of work out of people.  If one demands a lot of overtime, people will slow down, do more of their own things on your time, and otherwise use up the time that was supposed to be gained.  The authors make the argument that quality, if allowed to be driven by the team, will be higher than if driven from above.  Peoples’ innate sense of quality is probably higher than the user demands.  Based on these statements, the authors refute the notion that the only way to get work done is to set tight deadlines.  The idea that work grows to fill an allocated space is—they say—false.  I’m not sure I fully agree.  Work does expand to fit the allocated space.  The solution is not, however, to set insane deadlines to squeeze out the work.  Instead, the solution is to set a rational deadline and keep track of progress via frequent checkpoints (ala scrum).

My favorite section is that one which talks about people.  The authors assert that great people are born, not grown.  That’s not quite true.  They are born with innate talents and then grown to greatness.  The key point though is that those born without the right abilities will never be great.  You can’t teach everyone to be a great programmer.  Sorry.  Because of this, and the difficulty in getting rid of someone once hired, it is important to set a high hiring bar.  It is better to hire and then retain the right people than to hire the average person and try to grow them into above average performers.  It’s also important to retain stars.  Invest in them. 

Beyond individuals, teams are important.  The authors spend some time talking about what makes great teams work.  Unfortunately, they don’t give a formula for creating one.  No one seems to know how to do this.  Maybe some day we’ll figure it out, but for now the consensus seems to be that they just happen.  Managers may not be able to create a well jelled team, but they can certainly prevent one from happening.  The authors calls this “teamicide” and give several examples of behavior that causes it:

  • Defensive management – Managers must trust their teams.  Attempts to succeed despite their failure only poisons the environment.
  • Bureaucracy – Paperwork and policies that are arbitrary and disrupt the work flow.  If management is more interested in paperwork than results, the team notices.
  • Physical separation – People interact better when they sit near each other.
  • Fragmentation of time – Give people only one top priority at a time. 
  • Quality-reduced Product – Management cannot demand a shoddy product or the team will stop performing.
  • Phony deadlines – Deadlines should be real (and realistic).  Fake ones to force out more work just cause people to check out.
  • Clique control – Let people group up.  It’s called a team.

There’s a lot more in this book.  If you can find a copy, get it and read it.  There’s a lot here for every technology manager.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Spotting the "Uncoachables"

Interesting article from Harvard talking about how to spot people who can't be coached.  The author gives 4 symptoms to look for, but they basically boil down to one.  Does the person want to change?  If someone isn't interested in changing because they don't sense a problem, are burned out, or think everyone else is to blame, no amount of coaching will get them on the right track.  The author advocates walking away from these people.  That may be an easy option for a consultant, but it usually isn't for a manger.  Sometimes you can fire the person or encourage them to move on, but this isn't always possible.  Sometimes it isn't even desireable.  The uncoachable person may have high value in another aspect of their personality.  What then? 

The only viable approach when someone doesn't perceive a reason to change is to modify their attitude.  You have a reason you want them to change.  Get them to recognize it.  Note, however, that their worldview is not necessarily yours.  What motivates them may not be what motivates you.  If someone is overly sure of themselves, telling them their actions offend other people probably won't help.  They won't care.  However, telling them their actions put in jeopardy a promotion or their project or their ability to make an impact may.  Determine what their motivating factors are and couch your discussions in terms of those values.  Then, once you have convinced them there is a reason to change, work on the change.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Review: The Effective Executive

I read The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker because it was highly recommend on the Manager Tools podcast.  Despite what its name may imply, it isn’t written to company executives.  Instead, Drucker defines an executive as anyone with decision making ability.  This certainly includes all managers within a modern technology company and most of the frontline staff as well.  Drucker outlines 4 major areas of concentration for becoming more effective.

The first is your time.  Here the advice boils down to measuring where you spend it.  Time is the one thing everyone has in the same quantity and you can’t get any more of it.  If you want to make effective use of your time, know where you spend it.

Once you know where you spend your time, how do you decide where to apply it?  The next piece of advice involves making a contribution.  Determine where you can most make a unique contribution to the organization and spend your time there.  Ask yourself, “What can I contribute?”  For the rest, try to delegate to others.  Set the bar high and determine what active contribution the position should be making.

Next up is building on your strengths.  This is very similar to Now, Discover Your Strengths.  Drucker advocates hiring and rewarding people for their strengths, not their weaknesses.  I think he dismisses weaknesses a bit too cavalierly.  A significant weakness can overwhelm someone’s strengths.  It can make others view them negatively which can create a negative feedback loop.  However, his advice to focus hiring on strengths instead of a lack of weakness is on point.  People will accomplish a lot more in their area of strength than in a place where they are merely not weak.

Finally, Drucker talks about making effective decisions.  Toward this end he recommends concentrating on only one thing.  Have one focused initiative at a time.  Clearly define what the “boundary conditions” are.  By this he means understanding the specifications the decision must satisfy.  Build action into the decision.  A decision without action has no impact.  Measure the effectiveness of the decision.  This ensures not only that the decision was right, but that it stays right.  He also dedicates a whole chapter to making decisions not between right and wrong but between two courses of action neither of which is clearly right or wrong.  His advice here is essentially, argue both sides.  Don’t make the mistake of jumping on an early decision.  Instead, thoroughly vet each of the alternatives.

Overall I found this a good book.  Perhaps not as good as the hype, but useful.  I found myself doubting the reviews during the first part of the book.  The advice seemed solid, but obvious.  The second part which discussed decision making, however, was much more useful.  I truly enjoy the last three chapters.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

E-mail Is Not A Good Motivator

Another conversation I find myself having over and over is telling people that e-mail isn’t a sufficient mechanism for communication.  I already discussed how e-mail isn’t a good medium for handling disputes.  It also is not a great motivator.  In today’s world where people get hundreds of messages a day, it is too easy to ignore.  Receiving an e-mail saying “Please get this done” sometimes doesn’t work.  This is especially true if there is no inherent power in the sender.  A manager’s mails less likely ignored, but those from a peer often are.  People are busy.  It’s going to take more than just 1/100th of their inbox (much less in some cases) to prompt action.

Too many times I’ve experienced aa conversation that goes something like this:

Manager:  “Why weren’t the widget’s waxed by 5:00 for the presentation?”

Report:  “I asked <other person> to do it.  I sent mail several times.”

Report seems convinced that they are absolved of responsibility because they asked.  In e-mail.  More than once.  Isn’t that enough?  What more should Manager expect?

If it is truly important that something gets done by <other person>, mail just doesn’t cut it.  As I said, it is too easy to ignore.  A different tactic is necessary.  One that expresses the importance by the level to which Report is willing to go to get it accomplished.  “Escalation?” thinks Report.  Maybe telling <other person>’s boss about it?  No.  Not yet at least.  Escalation ruins relationships and should be used only as a last resort.

The solution is as simple as it is old.  In today’s world, it is also more unique than it should be.  Try an analog approach.  Pick up the phone and call.  Walk down the hall and stop by <other person>’s office.  It takes some effort, but it will likely garner the hoped for results.  Amazingly enough, most people react differently to human contact than they do to an impersonal e-mail.  Personal contact creates some level of relationship.  It tells the person you care enough to expend the energy.  This might communicate that you care about them as a person or it might merely tell them that you care about the work.  Either way, they are more motivated to get the job done.  Two more benefits are that a personal visit is a lot harder to ignore than an e-mail and you know the message was received.

This effect works equally well with reports as it does with peers.  If something is truly important, say it in person as well as e-mail.