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Technical debt takes many forms

23/10/2014

Most people are familiar with “technical debt” in terms of code or architectural problems that slow down development. There are other forms of technical debt, though, that can be overlooked.

Dead Code: There are endless “dead code as debt” scenarios. You have a “live” function that is only used from dead code, hiding the fact that this function is also dead (this situation is cancerous). Every time you grep, you have to wade through code that is dead. Every time someone stumbles across the dead code, they need to figure out if it’s dead or alive. There’s no reason for any of this (especially not “keep it around as reference”). Dead code is a debt, but it’s also easy to pay back. Remove your dead code.

Unused Repos or Branches: Every time a new person starts, they will ponder what code is dead and what is alive. This pondering includes code, issues, and documentation. It is sloppy and unnecessary. Put unused repositories in cold storage. Delete stale branches.

Large Backlog: The larger the backlog, the worse the experience of using it. It’s harder to find, reclassify, and prioritize. Some developers will not even bother. A backlog is not a place for everyone to list anything they think should ever be done. Close stale and low-priority tickets. Close “symptom” tickets that you know won’t be addressed until a system is rewritten. Close everything except 3 months of work (and manage further out work on your roadmap, which should not be in your backlog).

Dirty Wikis/Documentation: Why out of date documentation is harmful should be pretty self-explanatory. Don’t let it get that way (or just delete the documentation). Make documentation someone’s responsibility, or make it part of the “definition of done.”

Every organization has these things. By recognizing them as debt, and thus detrimental to development, it can perhaps simplify any argument about what to do.

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High performance, poor morale, and the Niko-niko calendar

2/10/2014

I was introduced to Niko-niko calendars by Max Webster at Niko Niko. Basically, they are a way of tracking a team’s mood over time. At the end of the day, team members put in a smile/frown/whatever face indicating their mood. You can see when people were happy or sad and coordinate that with other events (what tasks they were working on, what happened at work, etc.).

Initially, I thought this was a pretty useless metric. What good leader or manager wouldn’t always know this information? I can tell if things are going well because I speak to the team regularly as I make changes. But it can be useful to track mood for when things get lost in the cracks or regress. It’s also useful as an outside-facing metric, to show people how their decisions impact the team. The more I thought about it, the more I wished I had known about Niko-niko calendars earlier!

I would only consider Niko-niko effective on an already well-performing and generally happy team. It is a pretty high-level metric, so if people are unhappy for many reasons, I doubt you’ll get much useful data. So, with that, how about some scenarios that I would have used a Niko-niko calendar for, had I known about them?

  • Process tweaks like shortening sprints or requiring more code reviews. People are resistant at first but usually accept it. Is this because they get happier over time? Or because they do not feel empowered to change things back?
  • Changing the branching/integration strategy. At previous jobs we seemed to have a new one every six months. At my current job there are fans and detractors of git flow. Does morale go down or stay the same when integrations happen more often? Is this better or worse depending on the branching/integration strategy?
  • How much do people actually hate planning days, and what can we do to improve them?
  • How painful are releases? People should be happiest, not unhappy, before and after a release!
  • Does a team hate what it’s doing? How much does dumping work on a team impact morale? Do they not believe in the product or are expectations out of whack? What can be done to help the team “own” the project rather than resent it?
  • How does changing team composition cause morale to be affected?

I’m sure there are more, but I thought the idea of using a Niko-niko chart could be interesting. I won’t have a chance to try one out for a while, but will post a followup after I do.


I wrote this draft a couple months ago and finished it recently. Since then I’ve seen a few other apps in a similar space, such as Know Your Company and Know My Team, that focus on tracking morale. I think it’s a good trend. And it’s a reminder that what may appear as a management fad can often have deep, established roots.

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Old towns, and legacy software

25/09/2014

On our road trip from Austin to Portland, we stopped in a handful of towns that were booming in the late 19th century. In particular, Pendleton, Oregon made an impression. They were exhibiting serious effort and success revitalizing the town. Pendleton has a rich and interesting history, but has shrunk (relatively) over the last hundred years. It apparently used to be Oregon’s 4th largest city. There has clearly been a big effort to keep buildings in good condition, create interesting businesses, establish modern dining and arts, and maintain a beautiful and safe river walk. The people who live there seemed to hold a special bond.

Pendleton was quite different from many other towns we saw, which were in decline, derelict, or abandoned.

Pendleton reminded me of my experiences working on legacy software projects. Projects that no one wants to own, that have a successor “coming soon,” or are seen as unimportant; these are depressing to work on. On the other hand, where people have stepped up to really take control of the situation and invest serious passion into a legacy project; special bonds form that are as strong or stronger than can be forged when working on something new.

A town like Pendleton, like a legacy software project, is not going anywhere soon. You can invest in it, make it special, meaningful, and historical. Or you can make it a place for people too old or passive to move from. Towns and legacy software can deteriorate and die. Many have met this fate. Alternatively, they can embrace their legacy and reinvent themselves, with great pride, in the glow of their former selves.

A country of Pendletons is probably not very healthy, but a country with none would lack character and history.

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Keeping talented employees

18/09/2014

I saw a tweet the other day about the eight things that keep talented employees:

I’m normally not a fan of reducing human behavior to a list like this, but it seems pretty complete, and the words resonated.

As a technical leader I am a fan of metrics and dashboards: tests passing, code coverage, static analysis and metrics, velocity, bugs, takt time, and other indicators that you wouldn’t focus on individually, but are very useful collectively.

I wonder if, as a manager, assuming trust is in place, is it worthwhile to go over these things explicitly? To make a “private dashboard” to cover in 1-on-1s, and see where the problems are?

  • If everyone is not feeling challenged, why is that? Is it because the work is boring? If so, why? Is it temporary grunt work that can be augmented with some side projects? Or is the product becoming less exciting to work on?
  • Who doesn’t feel like they’re on a mission? Is it because they are disillusioned, or is the mission bullshit. Are more people disillusioned each month?
  • Which individuals are trending up and down? Is the organization as a whole trending up or down? Which attributes are trending up and down? For all these questions, you must answer “why“!

I’m not sure this is something I will start using immediately, since I am just getting to know my team and I don’t want overly formal process to get in the way of a human connection. But it’s certainly something I would have done at CCP. It’s very convenient for bad managers to rationalize poor ratings, but perhaps some tracking on these eight points can be a start towards providing quantitative evidence of employee satisfaction.

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Japanese vs. Western models of decision making

11/09/2014

I was reading a book about The Toyota Way last year (sorry, can’t remember which) and something that stuck with me was a section on Japanese versus Western decision making*. The diagram was something like this:

japanese-vs-western-decisionmaking

The crux of it is, Japanese companies like Toyota spend more time preparing for a decision, and less time executing. Western companies reach a decision earlier, and then execution has all sorts of problems. It’s also important to note that Japanese companies often reach the “end goal” sooner.

Preparation involves building consensus, but that doesn’t mean it’s all talk. Japanese companies pioneered set based design and prototyping, which allows them to try out a huge number of ideas cheaply. By the time a decision is made, they’ve “thrown out” about 90% of the work they’ve done!** However, once the decision is made the execution goes smoothly.

It is easy to see how Japanese decision making maps to businesses with a clear distinction between preparation/pre-production and execution/production, such as traditional manufacturing. It can be difficult to map to pure product development. Keep a few things in mind.

  • Consensus isn’t just discussion and design. Big-Design-Up-Front is not preparing for execution. BDUF is a woefully incomplete form of execution. Building consensus means actually implementing things in order to rapidly learn.

  • Consensus isn’t a democracy. Toyota has a very hierarchical structure and people have very clear responsibilities. The goal of consensus-based decisions is to make better decisions, not to achieve some Platonic ideal. Difficult decisions are still made, but the role of the executive is to manage the consensus-building process, rather than “just hurry up and making a decision.”

The Japanese model is built in to cross-functional teams. Consensus isn’t achieved by the heads of Engineering and QA signing some agreement in blood. If that agreement ends up not being a good idea- and it almost never is!- you end up with the Western execution experience. On the other hand, cross-functional teams have much more interactivity and iteration going on, and overall execution is much faster.

People will get upset. Take responsibility for your decisions, and acknowledge some people will get upset by them. However by making sure their concerns are thoroughly heard and discussed before execution, you will make sure they don’t keep pulling things off-track.

Anyway, there’s lots of good writing on this topic, and I highly suggest checking some of it out if it interests you. This is just my software development-centric take.


* I’m just calling these the Western and Japanese models of decision making. They are clearly not the way all decisions are reached in the respective countries. In fact these generalizations may not even be true anymore. Whether Japanese or American companies behave this way is irrelevant. The names are just proxies for different types of decision making.

** Obviously the work isn’t thrown out, since they’ve learned so much from it. But if the effort were raw materials, I suspect 90% of it would end up in the trash, depending on how a set is developed and culled.

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Can you quantify trust?

4/09/2014

In a previous article, commenter Robert Kist asked:

How are you going to judge if people trust you – what would your indicators be, if you decide to treat it as a metric?

This is tricky. I don’t think there’s a good answer. Bad managers, who are by definition less trusted, can easily rationalize away any attempt at quantification. One quantifiable measure would be employee turnover. However turnover tends to be ignored in the aggregate, since the sample size is necessarily small. Individual departures are blamed on “incompatibility” or “burnout,” when it is without exception due to mismanagement.

Another potentially useful metric is the employee survey. This is an unequivocal disaster, because there are just endless ways to explain away poor ratings. I’ve heard bad ratings blamed on bad weather!

What about the venerable “360 review”, where your direct reports and peers give feedback? This would require some sort of survey, and we know how that goes.

In the end, bad managers will be able to rationalize away poor trust metrics. Unfortunately they are also universally unable to qualitatively identify a lack of trust. Good managers, on the other hand, intuitively know whether trust is getting better or worse. They should make sure there are many avenues of feedback to inform this intuition, but I’m not sure any are worth quantifying, if they are quantifiable in the first place.

Someone please tell me when I start to become a bad manager, please.

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Hire talented people and get out of their way?

28/08/2014

Whenever I need inspiration for a blog post, I check my LinkedIn feed. I am bound to find a stupid inspirational quote. Today’s is:

In most cases being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way.

This advice (hire smart, don’t micromanage) is so simplistic, it’s hardly worth saying. The profound stupidity is equating this with “being a good boss“.

No, hiring smart people and not micromanaging them is the absolute, bare minimum you should be doing as a boss. Basically, if you call it a day there, you are a worthless, paper pushing, pointed headed body in a seat. If not today, then soon.

What are you doing once you get out of the way? Meetings? And how can you be sure you’re hiring good people, if you’re not closely engaged with the work? Should you offload that to your team? And then what is left to do as a “good boss“, by your definition?

In reality, where being a good boss is incredibly difficult and rare, being a good boss means:

  • Earning trust, and learning to trust others.
  • Improving how decisions are made.
  • Making sure people are learning, challenged, and growing.
  • Mediating business pressures with craftsmanship.
  • Creating a greater context for the work of employees.
  • Fighting fires and doing drudgery without becoming a bottleneck.
  • A thousand other things that don’t make good motivational posters.

You work on these things every day. It’s slow and painful. There’s no secret algorithm or technique. You could take all of these cute little quotes about how to be a good boss, and it’d cover maybe 1% of what actually goes into being a good boss.

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The low status of software engineers

21/08/2014

A couple weeks ago I read an article by Michael Church titled “How the Other Half Works: an Adventure in the Low Status of Software Engineers“. It is the story of Bill, who had two very different experiences interviewing for two different positions at two different companies: one as a software engineer, and one as a VP-level manager. Bill’s experience is as you would expect from the title. The article is well worth reading.

It was difficult to process the article’s conclusions, because my interview experiences have not been like Bill’s. In fact, in some cases it has been the opposite. I once interviewed for a management-level position that I was woefully unqualified for. Once it was clear I wasn’t the person for the job, they changed the day’s schedule to allow some engineers to unnecessarily hammer me with technical questions. Likewise, I recently interviewed for a software engineer position at a healthcare company with a very small programming team, yet was treated extremely respectfully by everyone, including the CEO. Furthermore, I know I am not guilty of holding software engineers in low status, as anyone I have worked with will tell you.

A few days later, after thinking about the article some more, I started to get some flashbacks*.

I wanted to make changes to scrum teams, consolidating several smaller teams into fewer larger teams. I was told “if we do this, it must be secret. We cannot discuss team composition with developers. They just gossip and act like children.

I was discussing systematic problems with management structure with a sympathetic senior manager. I was told “I once put forward a proposal that employees should choose their own managers. I was laughed out of the room.

We were considering two senior developers for a second Technical Director position. I was told “you must leave this to me to handle, we do not want them to know the other is being considered.” Of course they were good friends, and eventually made the decision themselves.

I raised an objection to a workflow a tools team had put together, concerned it put a large and unnecessary burden on content creators. I was told, “if they don’t want to deal with it, they don’t need to work here.

A team griped frequently about their tools, which were both essential and horrific. Management felt they weren’t sufficiently appreciative when any minor fixes were made. Instead of fixing the tools, they and I were told “there will be no more discussion of these issues, except as initiated by management.

Until now, I thought of these events as incredibly stupid decisions made by unqualified and disconnected individuals. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. These are incredibly predictable decisions made by normal individuals who are produced by a totally unsurprising system. Once the engineers are no longer running the show, they are quick to lose social status. Engineers remaining in management will be assimilated, demoted, or their position removed entirely. There’s no way to reverse this, and I think it’s why culture can so quickly spiral from enjoyable to miserable.

Finally, it’s also interesting to think about this in the context of the Silicon Valley “anti poaching” conspiracy which depressed employee salaries. It demonstrates the systematically low status of software engineers better than anything. Management at Apple, Google, Adobe, Intel, and more, saw engineers as mere pawns, while simultaneously acknowledging how vital they were to the success of those companies. What a world!


* If you’ve worked with me before, you can probably guess who some of these nameless individuals are. I have not obfuscated things for the sake of protecting the innocent, because I don’t find these shitty managers innocent.

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A manager’s primary job is to build trust

14/08/2014

While interviewing for my new position at Cozy, I was repeatedly asked what the job of an Engineering Manager is.* By the end of the day, I had decided (for myself, anyway) that the most important job of an Engineering Manager** is building trust.

  • Senior engineers must trust you. They can succeed without you, but you can’t succeed without them. Why does your job exist? It isn’t enough for you to trust them; that’s a prerequisite. If you don’t trust them, that needs to be rectified first. If they do not vehemently trust you, your role is not just worthless, but a net negative.

  • Junior engineers must trust you. They need to have a reason to stick around. They must trust that you are giving them opportunities, and they don’t need to leave to be treated better. They need to trust that they are learning, growing, advancing. Finally, they need to believe that if and when they leave to see what else the world has to offer, they will be welcomed back. If junior engineers do not trust you, they will leave, and take their ideas and passion with them.

  • Design must trust you. They must believe you when you present estimates or assessments from engineers. They must believe that they are getting good information from you, and you aren’t an out of touch middle manager. They must see continuous improvement and engagement from the engineers. They need to trust that you and the engineers are working towards the same goals as they are, with fire and passion. If design does not trust you, you are damaging engineers and company and should just get out of the way.

  • Management must trust you. This is generally an easy one, because if they don’t trust you, they should fix it or remove you.

  • Finally, one that cuts across roles: malcontents and metathinkers must trust you. Many people (especially engineers) just want to avoid politics and are happy to work on on their tasks and not ask questions. As long as you don’t actively screw up, these people will usually trust you. Much more difficult are the critics. They come in all shapes and sizes. It’s not that they need to agree with you, but they do need to trust you. These people often have big ideas and cultural influence. Distrust will drain your organization of talent. As a member of this category, I take this very seriously. When I’ve actively distrusted management, and subsequently left, there’s been a flight of talent afterwards as problems get worse. I’ve written about the importance of the malcontents on this blog before, and as a manager it’s always been a yardstick. If malcontents and metathinkers are leaving, something is going very wrong.

Trust is probably the most important metric for whether you’re doing a good job and your organization is healthy. It is a product of some actions, and a foundation of others. If it’s going up, your organization is getting stronger. If it’s going down, you need to get to work.


* I really enjoy interviews, especially in-person interviews, because it really helps me clarify my beliefs. This can lead to a high bounce-rate, but generally I’m left with culturally compatible companies after that. I consider this a benefit but YMMV.
** Any manager, really.

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“Do you expect too much from people?”

11/08/2014

Last year, a coworker asked me if perhaps I expect too much from other people. I thought about it a moment and said:

No. I do not accept the argument that I’m somehow inherently superior to most others. In fact it is because I know I am not superior that I have high expectations of others.

In the intervening year, I’ve come to see that this belief drives a lot of my management philosophy. In general, I assume the best of people I work with. If someone is not performing, I do not blame them; I blame myself (or whoever their manager is) and systematic problems that they are not in control of (but hopefully ones I am).

Of course people have different innate abilities and experiences. Some people have a high aptitude for certain types of work, and some have chosen a path that may not be a good fit. But the realities of business are that these things can quickly change, and an asset one day can be a liability the next. When a company has grown past a dozen people, I believe its time to start favoring nurture over nature. If someone isn’t performing, it is management’s problem.

This is true of not just employees, but other managers, and it was specifically about two other managers that this question was posed. The times were a-changin’, but these individuals were in roles they were ill suited for. They simply did not have the experience or competence to drive through the changes that needed to happen. It was up to their (our) management to take responsibility, but instead I heard apologies that “maybe they aren’t the best suited” and other meaningless explanations. I didn’t expect them to magically change; I expected management to do their job: get involved and well, manage!

If I expect something, it’s that people can both teach and learn. If the ability of people to grow is not an organization’s chief expectation- if management is not set up to grow employees, or management is not prepared to mature itself- I can’t imagine what they think their long-term prospects are. Perhaps they aren’t expecting much.

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