Thursday, January 28, 2016

It takes an engineer to manage engineering

I’ve been meaning to write about the managers and Agile software development for a long time. And, apart from a few asides, I haven’t.

Why not?

Well partly because the topic is difficult, or rather large, but mostly I’ve not written it because I’m fearful of the flames that will come down on me.

You see I think managers have a role to play in Agile, but I am acutely aware that many people don’t.

So am I steeling myself, I’d love to come up with a “grand theory of management” but I’ve been trying to do that for years! I think instead I’d start blogging about my thoughts on management, and hopefully a grand unified theory of management will emerge.

Still, I expect many people will not agree with me - there is one of them I can see right now, he’s almost standing in front of me. The funny thing is, I was a professional programmer, I got interested in management as a way of ensuring I didn’t become the type of poor manager I’d worked for.

I took time out of my programming career to study management. What nobody told me was that if you study management programmers are more suspicious of you than ever, non-developer management types will always see you as a programmer (perhaps a jumped up programmer) and programmers who have fallen into management (those with no qualification and probably no time to study the subject) don’t trust you. Add in the fact that the academic community is split over management qualifications and it’s a right mess.

Unfortunately managers and programmer are locked in a decades old existential fight.

Many on the management side of IT dream of a world where programmers can be replaced by a software tool. That isn’t going to happen, all it does it move the point at which the programming happens. If you replace a programmer with a software tool the person who uses the tool is now a programmer - whether you call them a programmer, analyst, consultant or serf.

On the other side programmers dream about replacing managers with “self organizing teams.”

Both sides want victory by proving the other need not exist - at which point they will disappear in a puff of smoke. (Sometimes it seem to be the old worker-capitalist class struggle.)

My logic is this:

  • Management is a skill like any other, like writing Java or like writing test scripts
  • Many people who find themselves managing don’t have the skill and some don’t bother to learn
  • Consequently many “managers” aren’t actually very good at managing
  • While there are a few “natural” managers - like there are natural Java developers(?) - one can learn to be a better manager

The state of management in the IT world is so bad that frequently removing the manager altogether makes things a better than they were.

Oh, and the misuse of the word “manager” doesn’t help.

The thing is…

I’m an ex-programmer, I still consider myself an engineer (another controversy) and I also think management can play a useful role in engineering software development.

It took me 10 years to become a software engineer and I never stopped learning, 34 years later I’m still learning to be a better programmer.

I also hold an MBA degree, it took me a year of hard work to get it.

1 year, not 10 years and certainly not 34 years.

Actually, it has taken three generations to make me an engineer: my farther was an engineer, and my grandfather too. I was going down engine rooms when I was 7 or 8, I’ve watched engines being overhauled. I know what being in dry dock means and I know commercial considerations and engineering considerations are often in conflict, but engineers not people in suits make it work.

Being an engineer and a manager is not a contradiction. I know that because my farther and grandfather were Chief Engineers: they took years to obtain that rank, and when they did they still went down the engine room, they still mucked in sometimes, but they also spent a lot of time “managing” the work in the engine room and on deck.

You see: it takes an engineer to manage engineering.


  • The general quality of management in the IT world is poor
  • Management itself is a skill, one which few take time to learn about
  • Managing software engineering well requires one to understand software engineering: it takes and engineer to manage engineering

Monday, January 25, 2016

The staffing pyramid

When I see development teams I expect to see more programmers than requirements people (BAs, Product Managers, etc.), and I expect to see even fewer management types. Think of it like a staffing pyramid structure:

Programmers (and often testers) should form the largest group, without programmers there is no software, and while in an ideal world there is no need for testers the reality is the absence of testers is usually a sign of problems, though not always, I’m not the only person to have observed high performing development teams where there are no testers but these are the exception.

Although you occasionally here stories of IBM or Microsoft employing more testers than programmers I’ve never seen this situation the nearest I’ve come to it is teams with 1 tester for every 2 programmers. The number of testers to programmers should be a function of the initial quality produced by programmers but it more often than not a function of how seriously management takes testing and the regulatory environment the company operates in.

Anyway, programmers - the people who produce the raw produce, source code, should be the largest group. Testers are a little way behind but together these two groups should form the bulk of the development team. After this I expect to see some requirements people (Business Analysts, Product Managers, Product Owners, Requirements Engineers, what ever titles they go by.) There may be some other people in this mix: customers, business sponsors and so on.

(Conceptually user experience/design people are the same layer as programmers but usually they are there with requirements people. Either way, you don’t expect to see many of them and they certainly shouldn’t outnumber programmers on a team.)

On top of this there are a few management types, whether these be project managers, development managers or some other type of manager is not important. I know some people want to remove all managers, I don’t agree with them but I do agree there shouldn’t be many.

In a healthy team there are lots of doers (programmers, testers, UXD), fewer people feeding these people (requirements) and even fewer people managing everything. Requirements people and managers act as a multiplier to programmers (doers), these guys lay the golden eggs, by organizing them well, and asking them for the right golden eggs the value of the golden eggs should be higher.

By the way, when I talk of people I’m thinking absolute numbers, not “full time equivalents” or even “full time dedicated staff”; the people higher up the pyramid may well be multi-tasking. Whats important here is not the time devoted to a piece of work buy the number of voices who have a say in what happens, the number of people who have a finger in the pie. So part time people, those with dotted lines, those with responsibility and concern but no responsibility, they all count in the pyramid numbers.

And then…

Periodically I meet companies who have an inverted pyramid: this is almost always a bad thing, a really bad thing.

In the extreme there is one programmer at the bottom, no testers, and lots of people who have an interest in what is being created. Lots of people who have views - they have Product Owners AND Product Managers AND Business Analysts AND Subject Matter Experts AND Business Partners AND Requirements Experts, Project Managers AND Development Manages AND (maybe) Team Leads.

These pyramid seems to come from a mentality thats says:

Software development is really expensive, and really slow, and really painful, and so we must absolutely do as little as possible and

Many of these people who have a finger in the pie of “what is built” are part time to the work, they have the right to interfere but no responsibility for what happens. Work takes years to get started and never seems to finish - perhaps the developers are split between projects.

When I see the inverted pyramid I feel these companies are scared of their own shadow. I’m reminded of the old Woody Allen joke about the two old women at a restaurant:

First lady: The food here is so awful

Second lady: Yes, and the portions are so small

To be brutal - and to repeat something I said in Business Patterns: when you are developing software there is only one role which you absolutely must have, programmers. All other roles are optional, or perhaps context specific. (Even if you outsource the actual coding there is still a programer, if there is no code there is no program, with a programmer somewhere it is not software development.)

The programmer is the role which makes the product, they are the ones who lay the golden eggs. If you have no one to lay the golden eggs then it doesn’t matter how well the other people push paper there is no value creation. (For Hitch Hiker Fans: programmers are on the C Ark, everyone else is one the B Ark.)

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Agile adoption by numbers - and some problems

I’ve done a few agile introductions in my time, in fact I’ve started to feel I could almost write a book entitled “agile by numbers”. So yesterday when this question appeared on some LinkedIn group I thought I’d give it a quick go:

“I am working with an organization which wants to explore agile adoption. What are the some of the best ways for start the process. Is it to start with agile training and then help set up with an agile agile coach to take it forward ? Or first do an assessment to understand why they want to adopt agile and than suggest the best approach : if it's scrum, Kanban or XP.”

My answer went something like this:

First, don’t get distracted by researchershing options, don’t worry about Scrum v. Kanban v. XP v. What-Ever. Just get on and do it. (Of course I should have plugged my own book and said “Do Xanpan!”)

  1. Find someone you can trust who knows about this stuff (perhaps I should have said someone like me!)
  2. Get them to give an 1 or 2 hour (max) talk to interest people
  3. Ask the team leads if they would like to volunteer their team or upcoming work, then talk to the people who would be involved, choose/make a small self contained team (i.e. coders, testers, product person) (Note: if you only have one team then you can skip steps 2 and 3 because you are doing to work with this team.)
  4. When you have found your guinea pigs give them a day or two of rehearsal (i.e. a training session where they get to practice what they do)
  5. Start doing weekly iterations immediately: no waiting for “the right time”, start while things are fresh
  6. Arrange for the person who gives the training session to come back each week, then throttle back to less often when the time is right
  7. Engage a technical coach/trainer and after several iterations run some technical training (TDD or BDD, take your pick). Have this person come back for some one-on-one coaching (i.e. pair programming), allow one day per coder plus time with testers if you have them
  8. See what happens, review, keep going, expand

I did notice that a few of the other replies recommended teams start with coaching rather than training. I’ve done it that way, in fact thats how all the early teams did it. I’ll also say that in my experience - and yes, I’m biased, I sell training - giving people some training up front works best. Perhaps thats because the way I do training is to give people a chance to experience working in an Agile setting in the classroom, so perhaps what I’m saying is: all training is not equal.

This little recipe takes you so far. I’ve stopped with the technical stuff. The process side will get you so far but if you don’t do the technical stuff - lots of automated testing! - then you will only go so far.

The other thing I haven’t said here at all is: this recipe is only for the supply side, once the supply side starts to shape up the focus needs to shift to the demand side, those people you call Product Owner, Business Analyst, Product Manager or something like that. Thats where it gets difficult, not because these people are themselves more difficult but because you are now wrestling with the wider organization and changing a bigger mindset.

Another problem that sets in here is that companies can loose the will to change. I’ve worked with a few companies who apply this prescription but they get so much improvement the immediate pain goes away and they loose the motivation to change further.

This prescription can very quickly makes things get better. But if you want the full benefit you need to keep taking the technical medicine and supplement it with demand side medicine too. Those changes take longer to make a improvement, they are a slow burn.

Thursday, January 07, 2016

Not here: From diseconomies to economies of scale

Just a note to say my latest ramblings “From diseconomies to economies of scale” were blasted out to newsletter subscribers yesterday. If you are not on the newsletter list you can read a copy on the Software Strategy website - or better still subscribe to the newsletter and you’ll be among the first to hear.

Right now my writing energies are going into the newsletter, Little Book of Requirements and User Stories and 50 Shades of Scrum, so this blog will be quiet for a little while yet. Sorry.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Dear boy, have you ever tried programming?

I sometimes come across teams who are wrapped up in discussing what they should be building. OK, I suppose this is because I hang out with too many management types. Sometimes there are only a couple of programmer, occasionally one, or maybe they haven’t got that far.

Sometimes I come across pre-teams, people who will form a team to do some work but haven’t started yet. I guess the project folk would call this “pre-project phase” and there is a lot of discussion: “Should we do Agile or Waterfall? Scrum or Kanban?” and “Which outsourcer will we use?” and “If we are agile how will we….”

In short these people are wrapped up in agonising about what might happen.

On these occasions I’m reminded of a story I once heard about the actors Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman. In the story Hoffman, who is a famous method actor, says to Olivier something like:

“Mr Olivier, I am honoured to be working with you, but please tell me how do you learn you character? I mean do you use the method or some other approach? What should I do?”

To which Olivier says:

“My dear boy, … have you tried acting?”

This is what I feel, but usually don’t, to these teams, managers, analysts, whoever:

“Have you actually tried developing and delivering some software?”

Some planning, some forethought, some agonising is good. It helps you think things through. But it quickly becomes a game of diminishing returns. Its the old Eisenhower quote again:

“Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.”

Which is a natural follow on from Helmuth von Moltke’s observation:

“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”

Peter Drucker has a similar, though to my mind better, quote too:

“Plans are only good intentions unless they immediately degenerate into hard work.”

So let me say:

“No plan for software development survives contact with the code. (Double so for legacy code.)”

“No requirements roadmap ever survives contact with the market.”

(According to wikipedia the Olivier-Hoffman exchange happened during the filming of Marathon Man and isn’t exactly true but does contain a grain of truth.)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Book of the Year

I’ve been asked by several people lately - mostly for their own blog posts! - for my book of the year. Well thats easy…

From a professional point of view, that is, if you are asking me as someone who advises software developers and teams, and is well know as an “agile supporter” then my unreserved book of the year is… drum roll…

Scarcity: The True Cost of Not Having Enough by Mullainathan and Shafir

I wrote longer review of the book back in June, “Scarcity, not Slack.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

#NoProjects: videos + Q&A

One of the reasons this blog has been quiet recently is that I’ve been putting my efforts into video: The #NoProjects Video series.

This is now available as 16 short episodes on YouTube based on my popular #NoProjects/Beyond Projects conference presentation. If you have seen the conference presentation you know what to expect although there are some changes. My hope is that by making the presentation available as 16 short (I think the longest episode is 5 minutes) pieces the argument will reach a wider audience.

I have also been directing my efforts at another Beyond Projects endeavour: the Managing without Projects one day workshop which I will be holding in London (Bloomsbury) next month (Friday 15 Jan). I’ve got a few people signed up for this and I know a few more bookings are in the works but the more the merrier so please come too!

Blog readers can get a 10% discount on this workshop with the code BlogDec15 which is good for the next week (until 14 December.)

There are a few questions I’ve been meaning to clarify about #NoProjects / Managing Without Projects and now is as good a time as ever:

Q: Isn’t “No” rather negative?

A: Yes it is, I’ve had a go at changing it but attempts so far haven’t caught the same feel. Perhaps this is because “No” is so definite or because “Beyond” is 4 characters more and 4 characters on Twitter is a big deal.

For a while I preferred the name “Beyond Projects”

Lately I’ve been calling it “Managing without Projects”

But perhaps “Software without Projects” might be better still, that would lend itself to the hashtag #SW2Prjs

Q: Is #NoProjects actually #NoEstimates?

A: No

The hashtags and ideas originate with different people. There are parallels and the ideas might be symbiotic but while I know some #NoEstimates people would like to see #NoProjects as part of the same idea I don’t.

Estimates are a complex area and right now its difficult to have a rational conversation about them - perhaps it was ever so. But, I still see value in “estimates” in some context. Its all a question of “What question are you really asking?” using estimates might help or it might now.

While most of the conversation on “estimates” implies “time estimates” there is another form of estimation: “value estimates”. These don’t get anywhere near enough attention or use. I use them and I help my clients use them but I don’t see them elsewhere very often.

I should expand on this another time.

Q: Does #NoProjects mean #NoManagement, aka “Self managing teams” ?

A: No - I have no argument with management itself. I have an argument with the concept of projects which I think leads to poor management of software development.

I see management as a skills, the same as Java, SQL, Testing or Analysts. Unfortunately very few people actively learn about management or try to master it as a skill in the same way they might Python or Java.

When they do try and learn “management skills” people often start with “project management.” I sometimes thing of “project management” as “management lite.”

As a result an awful lot of “management” of technology (specifically software development) is poor. In such conditions removing management (i.e. self management) can actually improve things.

Again, I should really write an extended piece on this subject.

Q: What about Project Managers?

A: I treat each and every Project Manager as an individual. They can bring valuable skills and experience to a team. Unfortunately many of them don’t and add little. In part this is because they are asked - both by their employer and their professional bodies - to manage using a model that is inappropriate to the software domain.

So I don’t see mass redundancies of project managers, rather I see the good ones being allowed to manage properly using a better model.

Q: Isn’t this a pretty radical position when so many companies revolve around the project model?

A: Yes, my hope is to get people to talk about the issues I raise. Even if companies don’t abandon the project model completely I hope they can get better by finding their own ways to address these issues.

Besides, I’m a consultant and I’m only too happy to talk about these issues myself and give advice. Just call me.

As a consultant few of my clients actively set out to become a NoProjects company and I don’t try and make them so. They and I want them to do better. I find that if I think in a NoProjects way I can understand the client better, and if they still have projects I can then map the ideas across.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

This blog & Whats next? after Agile?

This blog has been noticeably quieter than usual over the last couple of months, and whats more, when I have posted something up its often been of the “this is what I’m doing” type rather than the “here’s something to think about” type post. Well…

In the last few months I’ve been putting my energy into other mediums, hence A little book of requirements and user stories and the managing beyond projects workshop I’ve mentioned before - the dates for the workshop has moved back to January by the way.

The big news this week is that I am serialising my #NoProjects presentation as mini-videos on YouTube. Various conference videos are already online but this is a series of short videos, check out the Managing without Projects playlist. (There are 7 episodes so far, more coming soon.)

I also added a new newsletter earlier this month and I expect this will in future carry material which would have been in this blog otherwise. So if you want the latest, freshest stuff I suggest you subscribe to the newsletter.

And here is the piece that the newsletter carried at the start of this month….

What's next? - after Agile?

As this is the first of my new, occasional, newsletter it seems a great chance to look to the future. So lets ask that question that comes up regularly:

"What comes after Agile?"

Sometimes only asked rhetorically by agilistas to prove they have the inside track on what is really happening!

I had a go at answering it myself a few years ago with a presentation entitled "The future of Agile". To cut a-long-story-short, I thought the next thing would be Lean. Six and a bit years on I think I was right but perhaps not in the way I thought it might be. I saw Lean displacing Agile as the predominant approach to software development, or at least the buzzword. Well it hasn't, Agile is still the buzzword it was.

But Lean has permeated more and more thinking on Agile. If you look at Agile almost every idea can be traced - in some cases literally in other case philosophically to Lean thinking. Anyone who goes a bit deeper into Agile quickly runs across the Lean roots. Over time we've seen more and more Lean ideas adopted under the Agile umbrella.

My own Xanpan book is an example of that: hard core XP agile infused with Lean Kanban thinking.

Talking of Kanban.... six years Kanban was still new, and it seemed for a while that the Kanban community didn't want to be part of the Agile community. They wanted to be seen as Lean. (One supposes they thought Lean was superior, or at least more marketable.) That seems to have changed too, I now hear expressions like "Kanban is an alternative path to Agile." I feel there is a broader understanding that while Kanban is different to Scrum it is not so different that it isn't part of the Agile movement.

(Perhaps the greatest contribution the Kanban insurrection made has been breaking the Scrum hegemony. Scrum is still often used as a common synonym for Agile but it is no longer seen as the only player. Because of Kanban people are more aware of differences.)

Back to my original question.

When people ask "what is next?"I usually to sense there is something else they are not saying, perhaps what they are saying is: "Agile destroyed the waterfall, what is coming along to destroy Agile?" - after all this is the tech industry were new technologies come along regularly. Cynically I sometimes wonder if these people are thinking "Maybe I can ignore Agile and get with the next thing" or even "Agile is a fad, give it a few months and the wheel will turn, we'll be back to waterfall."

Notwithstanding cynicism, it is wrong to think something will come along and disrupt or destroy Agile, the way Agile did Waterfall. Many more innovations build on what has gone before than destroy what has gone before. The question "What comes after Agile?" is better asked "How will Agile evolve to next?"

That is an easier question to answer because the future is here: *Continuous Delivery, Mob Programming and No Projects*. All three build on Agile and takes it to a higher level

Continuous delivery: Teams delivering not just at the end of the iteration but all the way through it. In some cases many times a day or even many times an hour.

Unfortunately for those people who were hoping to leapfrog Agile and get with the next big thing the first step to doing Continuous Delivery is doing Agile well. If your team can't release a product update at least every two weeks then you aren't even at the start of Continuous Delivery.

The path to the continuous delivery thing lies through Agile.

Then there is Agile's cutting edge, the new ideas which will build on Agile and take it further.

On the technical side mob programming and BDD (behaviour driven development) continue to build.

On the process and organization side "#NoEstimates" continues to stir up controversy although I fear it does as much damage as it good.

And of course there is #NoProjects which I am closely associated with.

My thinking on #NoProjects continues to develop and it continues to be a popular conference talk. Now I want to try something different. Next month I intend to run a one day workshop on the subject to help teams explore how they may get away from project thinking. More details and how to book on EventBrite.

Monday, November 16, 2015

A Little Book about Requirements and User Stories

As mentioned a few weeks ago I’m compiling my recent Agile Connection series on User Stories and Requirements into a LeanPub book.

I’ve now released the first couple of chapters, you can get them from LeanPub right now!

I intend to add more chapters over the coming weeks. The bulk of the material will be straight from the Agile Connection series, perhaps with a little more editing. There will also be some off cuts, bits that didn’t make it to Agile Connection series either because they were blew the word limit on another piece, were too short to stand lone, or didn’t quite fit in. There is stuff you can do in a book because it is large and different.

My intention is to up the price a bit as I add chapters. Its really annoying now that the UK (and I think all of Europe) charge VAT on e-books. Seems a bit unfair that printed book don’t attract VAT but ebooks do.

If you have any comments on the book, the content or things you think are missing please let me know.

Monday, November 02, 2015

Managing beyond projects - a workshop #NoProjects

Regular readers will know I’ve been talking about #NoProjects for a couple of years now, why projects don’t make sense has been a reoccurring theme of mine.

Unfortunately, in the space of these blog posts, and in the time available for conference presentations there is not enough time to go into alternatives and how work should be managed. I feel bad about that because there are solutions.

So now I’ve put together a day long workshop to discuss the problems and solutions in more detail.

I’m running this for the first time in January, 15 January to be exact.

More details on the EventBrite booking page - Managing Beyond Projects.

For my readers I’ve set up a 10% discount code, BlogReader, this is good 12 November.

Numbers are limited, I intend to limit it to about 12 people tops. Tickets are in four price bands of tickets and there is a limited number in each band so if you want the cheapest tickets book early.

(This is the first time I’ve arranged an event with paid for tickets myself so its something of an experiment. I’m doing it to maximise feedback. So if you have any feedback, mail me direct!)