Thursday, September 11, 2014

The Tipping Point

"You can push that car just a little too far any Sunday afternoon. And if you break your neck in some damnfool wreck, they forget about you soon." --Charlie Daniels, "Stroker Ace"

I generally prefer to work at small to midsize companies. The reasoning is fairly simple, too. I like flexibility. Not a complete lack of defined policies, mind you. Policies are important. They give companies a road map for, if not efficiency, then at least predictable inefficiency. But smaller companies tend to have the flexibility to know when you need to stray off the beaten path. Large companies do not. And there's a certain logic behind that. The more you do, the more you rely on that predictability. Policies have saved my neck a time or two. Being able to say "I can't start this effort because our policies have not been followed" has forced projects to refine requirements and has gone a long way to prevent train wrecks. But there's a flip side, too.

At larger companies, it's harder to change policies that either no longer fit, or need refinement from the original draft in order to produce the intended result. There's also more risk in proposing new policies, I think. There generally tend to be more people that need convincing, which tends to mean more people that don't want to "Change what has been working for us". It often comes to a point where it's easier to just live with the inefficiency than try to change it. Or worse, at least in some ways, ignore policy and try not to get caught.

Okay. So far, I haven't told anyone something they don't know. This is one of the factors that need to be weighed when deciding whether or not to accept an offer or to leave a company. It's, hopefully, one of the factors you investigate when interviewing a company. As an aside, please note that I didn't say "interviewing with a company." You're as much deciding whether or not to offer them your services as they are offering you a position. Never forget, you're a contractor.

The point is, while working for smaller companies, I've noticed a reoccurring phenomenon, which I've started calling The Tipping Point. As smaller companies grow, they start to take on more work and start to do more. At this point, I have observed two results.

If the company does not at least have some policies guiding their work, the company tends to collapse. There comes a time when it's simply too late to gain control of source code, whether because nothing is in source control or there's no structure. When it's simply too late to implement good project policies because stakeholders aren't interested in becoming properly involved in projects and that disinterest is too entrenched to change. When projects are dangerous to deploy because no one knows what anyone else is doing. At this point, while the company may struggle on, it's no longer possible to fix the problems, and the only smart move is to leave.

The second result I've observed usually happens when there are a modicum of policies in place, and is usually hastened by bringing in An Expert. Perhaps a new CIO, perhaps a contractor. The buildup, again in my observations, tends to start slowly. No deploying projects without communicating with other groups. Nothing terrible there. Common sense, in fact. Issues, bugs, and defects need to be logged. Again- why would you not? And we need to get a sense of how much we're spending on projects, so we need people to log time spend on projects. Not my favorite activity, but I can't deny the importance.

But then things grow. Communicating deployments becomes getting signoff from other groups before deploying. The bug tracking system becomes a full-on change management system designed to integrate with every step of any process. Except yours, inevitably. Rather than turning in time tracking spreadsheets, either a web app gets build, or you're to use a built-in feature of the change management system.

Finally, comes the tipping point. I wish I could say this is an exaggeration, but in one case, I was entering time into an application that had a database lookup for projects, yet my projects never seemed to show up. I also had to email the same to my manager. The time tracker was in half hour increments, but my manager wanted 15-minute increments. Every change, even to dev environments, needed to be entered into five different systems (again- not exaggerating) and cleared in a bi-weekly Change Control Board meeting.

And all this doesn't even take into account well-documented problems when you mix in an Expert Scrum Consultant. I think I've made my opinions on the subject pretty clear, but it's pointless to deny what often happens when Scrum policies get blindly applied. And that's the problem- policies getting blindly applied. The "Monkey See Monkey Do" style of "Best Practices".

It's a rare gem when you find an organization with the self-discipline to recognize a policy that needs refining or simply removed. Or temporarily ignored on a non-precedential basis. A good set of policies are a balancing act. Too many and you get buried under their weight. Too few and you get buried under your own weight. That's The Tipping Point.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Dear Recruiters


Start with what is right rather than what is acceptable." --Franz Kafka

An open letter to recruiters. Mainly recruiters for software developers, but I suspect much of these are reasonable requests for all sectors.
  1. Please stop saying "Leading provider of". Sure- you want to give the idea that your client is A Major Player. Fine. All good. But using rehashed buzzwords doesn't convey that idea. The phrase is like the paintings in a hotel room. If you even notice them, they have no real meaning. Instead, tell me why your client leads their industry. What have they accomplished? How do they lead? Is it through use of new technology? New innovations? Say something meaningful. Something that will have an impact.
  2. Please stop telling me how many years your client has been in business. This may be useful information for clients, but potential employees aren't looking to retain their services. They're looking for a culture that fits. Generally, the amount of time a company has been in existence is irrelevant. Instead, talk about the culture. Not everyone wants to wear a suit and tie and interact with a rigid corporate structure. But not everyone wants to work in shorts and sandals, sitting on a bean bag, and walking into a Director's office for casual conversation. Laying this out will help find candidates that are a good fit for the company.
  3. Proofread your communications. Twice. When I see "I think you'd be a good fit for [Job Description]", I delete the email. Same with blatant misspellings. Anymore, any text entry application comes with an automatic spell checker.
  4. Read the resume. The most recent position is where your candidate has moved in his career and it's reasonable to think that that the position on purpose. If your contact is in a leadership, planning, or strategy position, it's probably a waste of time to offer direct development work. Your contact has moved on to something else and it's fair to assume that, barring unemployment, moving back isn't likely to happen.
  5. Be specific. "Maintaining large applications" or "Excellent communication skills" doesn't tell me anything. Again, these are hotel room paintings. What I want is a good snapshot of my day-to-day activities. Does "Sr. Application Developer" mean "Application Developer with a lot of experience"? Does it mean "Responsible for the work of a development team"? If I don't know, I'm less likely to take a chance. And that's exactly what you're looking for. Someone who will take a chance on your job offering being better than the current one.
  6. This is likely somewhat out of your control, but stop with the "X years of experience". While I realize that your client is telling you that, under the misapprehension that years of experience is an accurate measure of anything, you shouldn't have to tell that to candidates. If you can't tell from the resume how many years of experience the candidate has in the necessary technologies, then the resume has been badly written.
  7. Same with this "Degree needed" or "Degree or relevant experience needed" silliness. Aside from this not being any measure of anything important, it's pointless to include in a communication to a specific candidate. If your candidate doesn't have the necessary degree, don't bother. Likewise with "Degree or relevant experience". If your candidate doesn't have either, they clearly aren't a good fit.
So, what's the bottom line here? Much like the fact that a good candidate needs to stand out in order to be seen as a good candidate, recruiters need to stand out in order to be seen as a good recruiter. You can't afford to be a carbon copy of everyone else. You can't just be hotel room art, and you can't hand over a vague description with ubiquitous buzzwords and expect to spark any interest. Instead, you need to capture the candidate's attention. You do this through clear and concise communication of what your client is looking for. You do this by standing out.

A thought to keep in mind. All the advice recruiters give to job seekers about how they present themselves through resumes and interviews? That should apply to your communications with candidates. Especially your first contact.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Agile Isn't Dead


"Best practices are useful reference points, but they must come with a warning label : The more you rely on external intelligence, the less you will value an internal idea." ― Gyan Nagpal, Talent Economics: The Fine Line Between Winning and Losing the Global War for Talent

Agile isn't dead. It's not even on life support. However, to extend an analogy that everyone in the world should stop using, it does have a couple of CAT scan anomalies it should get checked out.. I've read a few tech opinion pieces to the contrary lately, so I thought I'd throw my hat in the ring.

+Hayim Makabee wrote an excellent piece on the subject, but one that I feel missed the mark somewhat. Jim Bird wrote on a finer grained level on the subject, and if you take them together an interesting picture starts to emerge. Starting with Jim Bird's piece, he lists several "Agile" practices that aren't needed. Skipping by a few points on which I disagree, his overall point is sound. Not all common practices are necessary. Hayim Makabee takes this a step further, rightly pointing out how "Agile" or "Scrum" consultants "over-simplify the software development process and underestimate the real complexity of building software systems". And I'm not really arguing that this "one size fits all" approach is a problem. I believe that the problem's source hasn't quite come out yet.

In short, the problem is IT decision makers. Not Agile, which is just a set of principles. Not Agile consultants, who are just selling a service people have asked for. And while we can discuss the moral culpability of someone "just selling a service", the fact of the matter is that people are buying the service. And those people are IT decision makers in pursuit of a concept that has made me cringe for some time now. Best Practices. "Best practices" are like the Dark Side of the Force. Quick, simple, seductive, and once you walk down it's path, forever will it dominate your destiny. "Best Practice" is shorthand for "What everyone else is doing", and while it's the sort of thing one ought to take into account, I've seen enterprise after enterprise implement iron-clad procedures based solely on "Best Practices", or rather "Just do what the neighbors across the street are doing". And before too long, you have Citogenesis, that curious phenomena where people think something is correct because people think something is correct.

Agile is a set of principles, and as far as principles go, they're pretty darn good. Agile isn't dead because these principles are still the best way to create software. But it really needs that dark spot checked out.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Life is Agile


"It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters" --Epictetus

I'd like to pose a question to any parents reading this. When your child was born did you plan out every detail of your child's life? Did you attempt to account for every problem and develop a contingency plan before even leaving the hospital?  Do you parent in a vacuum, having no contact with other parents?

Similar question to those of you with active careers, be it in the job market or at home. Yes- being an at-home parent is a career. Did you plan out every step of your career before you began working? Do you work without interaction with others in your career? Did you plan for every problem to the most minute detail?

Of course not. To approach such a major endeavor in life is more like planning to fail. And this is why Agile is the only way to successfully complete a software development project of any consequential size. Because it mimics human behavior and human capabilities. At it's core, the Agile methodology is an admission that you can only do so much to plan for the future. It's a system built on the foundation of communication with others. It does not merely recommend regular and effective communication, it states that failing to do so will cause overall failure. It is built around doing what you need to now, while keeping an eye on the future. Similar to how you eat an elephant (one bite at a time), so do we manage our lives. Why should we assume that managing a development project should run so completely contrary to our fundamental behavior?

The converse is also true. It's been a very long time since I've had to defend Agile vs. Waterfall/BDUF. The reason appears very straightforward- the proof is in the doing. Agile has proven itself. It's not theoretically better, it simply is.

How, then, can we extrapolate this to our lives? Should you find yourself working at a company where you have no future, what do you do? Do you scrap the idea of working at your best capacity while you look for another job? Agile says differently in that a development team has the discipline to finish a development sprint, i.e. the work in front of them.

If you want something in your career, do you just keep working and hoping it happens? One of the foundations of Agile is communication. Do we keep grinding and hope, or do we approach others for advice? And then do we approach management and clearly communicate what we want?

Life is Agile is life. The lessons we learn from each can be applied to the other.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Healthcare.gov failures in leadership

"Good management consists in showing average people how to do the work of superior people." --John D. Rockefeller

"Good management is the art of making problems so interesting and their solutions so constructive that everyone wants to get to work and deal with them." --Paul Hawken

Yep. I'm back at this well. Partially because it's a great way to boost hits (I don't use ads, but I do have an ego) but mostly because I've been there. Not in a project this size, but I've lived the nightmare. Maybe someone that can affect this boondoggle
reads this and listens. Likely not. I have an ego, but I'm a pretty small fish. More important to me is that the developers and IT staff affected by projects like this understand the failings so that they know when to update their resume.

This one is coming from a New York Times article titled Inside the Race to Rescue a Health Care Site, and Obama. And again, whether Ms. Stolberg and Mr. Shear realize it, they paint a picture familiar to many IT veterans.

Failures of Testing

I've written about the technical failures of the development teams but what has been written in this article serves to underscore something all development teams know, but fewer do. Testing. From the article:
"To do that, they would have to take charge of a project that, they would come to discover, had never been fully tested and was flailing in part because of the Medicare agency’s decision not to hire a "systems integrator" that could coordinate its complex parts." 
"The website had barely been tested before it went live, so a large number of software and hardware defects had not been uncovered." 
"'There’s so much wrong, you just don’t know what’s broken until you get a lot more of it fixed,' Mark Bertolini, the chief executive of Aetna, said on CNBC."
Regression testing. Unit testing. User Acceptance testing. I can't think of a better way to talk about the dangers of not budgeting time to properly test your project.
"In Herndon, as engineers tried to come to grips with repeated crashes, a host of problems were becoming apparent: inadequate capacity in its data center and sloppy computer code, partly the result of rushed work amid the rapidly changing specifications issued by the government."
Code reviews and proper architecture concern would have prevented the "sloppy code" issue. The rest of this segueways nicely into my major point, thought.

Failure to understand a software development project

Clearly, project management didn't know how to manage a large-scale project. I've said before that the evidence could not be clearer that this project was managed Waterfall-style. And while the far-preferable Agile development style can also struggle with changing requirements, the iterative workflow, combined with constant checkpoints with the business stakeholders allows for better options for dealing with the fact of life that is spec change. Here are a few examples from my playbook:

"No, we will not change specifications in mid-sprint. If you want this change, submit it to the Icebox and give it a priority. We will then do the design and estimation work and add it to a future sprint."

"No. This is a two week sprint. We will not finish early. We will not rush. We have a planned amount of work that will take two weeks to deliver properly."

"No, we will not add to this sprint. The sprint covers an amount of work that can be accurately delivered in two weeks."

"No, we will not include this work into a sprint until there is proper user acceptance criteria attached. The delivered code will then conform to the acceptance criteria listed. No more, no less. I'm here to help you write good acceptance criteria."

Enforcing this kind of project discipline is crucial. It should be well-communicated up front. Everyone should know what an iceberg is. And once the expectation is set, that expectation is enforced. But even with that, the problem runs far deeper. Some quotes from the article really chilled me:
"Out of that tense Oval Office meeting grew a frantic effort aimed at rescuing not only the insurance portal and Mr. Obama’s credibility, but also the Democratic philosophy that an activist government can solve big, complex social problems." 
"'We’re about to make some history,' she (Ms. Sebelius,) said.
"...reveals an insular White House that did not initially appreciate the magnitude of its self-inflicted wounds"
As any regular readers know, my overall philosophy comes from Marcus Aurelius:
“This, what is it in itself, and by itself, according to its proper constitution? What is the substance of it? What is the matter, or proper use? What is the form, or efficient cause? What is it for in this world, and how long will it abide? Thus must thou examine all things that present themselves unto thee.”  
By itself and in its proper constitution, Healthcare.gov is a website that allows people to purchase health insurance. It is not a justification of a political philosophy. It's not about making history. Those are incidental. You cannot make good decisions if you don't understand the context for those decisions. You can't make good decisions about a development project if you see it as anything other than a software development project. And don't think for a second that minimizes its importance somehow. Most developers I know care a good deal more for their code than they do your politics. But if management mistakenly sees a project as some kind of ideological movement or as setting their legacy then they aren't making project management decisions.

Management culture

Finally, what may be the worst failing of the management of this project. It's culture. The standards management sets for its operations. The only place I've ever heard of management leading so poorly is in Dilbert. For example:
"For weeks, aides to Ms. Sebelius had expressed frustration with Mr. McDonough, mocking his “countdown calendar,” which they viewed as an example of micromanagement."
Mocking other stakeholders. Ignoring, for a moment, the notion of expecting professionals to not act like spoiled children, why was this behavior considered acceptable? Management sets the standard for how people act. A good manager understands this. A good manager sets an expectation of professionalism. Complaining is one thing. Open mocking should be the sort of thing people are embarrassed to do, or even to listen to.
"Contractors responsible for different parts of the portal barely talked to one another, hoping to avoid blame."
There's enough written about how a management culture of blame creates a toxic environment. Problems aren't addressed. People pass the buck rather than address problems. The concern is to not be left holding the bag, rather than making sure work is done well. Fear does not create quality. And clearly, this is not known here.
 "Mr. Obama, meanwhile, was under assault. After years of telling Americans, “If you like your insurance plan, you can keep it,” he was being accused of lying. On the night of Oct. 28, Ms. Jarrett, one of Mr. Obama’s closest confidantes and a guardian of his personal credibility, took to Twitter to defend him — and to shift the blame. 
“FACT,” she wrote. “Nothing in #Obamacare forces people out of their health plans. No change is required unless insurance companies change existing plans.”
The tweet touched a nerve; it was not the first time the Obama White House had used the insurance industry as a scapegoat. Ms. Ignagni’s (chief executive of America’s Health Insurance Plans,) members were furious. “Here it comes — we knew it would happen,” one executive recalled thinking."
 The Obama administration built support for the ACA by building hostility to the insurance industry, with whom they must now work. So, in essence, the Obama Administration has taken every opportunity to publicly condemn the insurance industry and is now relying on that same industry to launch not only it's centerpiece website, but the validation of their political philosophy. A management team that does not treat their vendors with respect will find themselves very lonely once they need their vendors. UnitedHealth and CIGNA have already "mostly shied away from the online marketplace" (From the article). To assume this has nothing to do with the administration's clear contempt for their vendors is folly.

I have a difficult time summing up my shock at the sheer number of leadership failures involved here. Not just in knowing how to run a software development project- clearly Medicare and the Dept. of Health and Human Services considered this a "Fire and Forget" project and that they were absolved of all responsibility to be involved once the project started. More disturbing, though, is the culture that management allows. Childish behavior and finger-pointing should not be acceptable. And that attitude starts from the top.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Dedication and Vision

"If you do not have an absolutely clear vision of something, where you can follow the light to the end of the tunnel, then it doesn't matter whether you're bold or cowardly, or whether you're stupid or intelligent. Doesn't get you anywhere." --Werner Herzog

Short article today.

Ran across something that really made me think about software development projects. Three developers in San Francisco built an alternative to Healthcare.gov in two weeks.

Two weeks.

Now, you can't purchase- just search and compare rates and plans. But again. Two weeks.

No complicated procurement process. No contractors. Certainly less than hundreds of millions of dollars. Just three dedicated guys with a clear vision.

A G+ friend of mine +Chaka Hamilton took this a step further:
I bet if the gov offered a darpa style challenge, they'd have a working website in half the time, and cost. They obviously have learned nothing from open source / crowd source community.
 Indeed. What if they had.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A New Perspective

"I believe everyone should have a broad picture of how the universe operates and our place in it. It is a basic human desire. And it also puts our worries in perspective." --Stephen Hawking 

"Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth." --Marcus Aurelius 

This  article falls more heavily under the "Musings" title of my blog. I'm less making a point than I am thinking out loud. As always, feedback and insights are always welcome.

My job responsibilities are changing. I phrase it like that because I doubt my actual title will change, merely the meaning of that title. I rarely handle project level work anymore. Rather, I'm more involved with enterprise level architecture decisions. I haven't implemented a design pattern in quite awhile. I find myself, instead, setting the standard of what patterns are best to use or avoid in certain situations. Or what frameworks we will be using or whether we will use an off the shelf solution or build our own. In other words, my implementation decisions are becoming less important than my opinions and experience with those decisions. I find this a very new perspective and more than anything else, I find myself more and more writing about new perspectives on old ideas.

For instance, take our current investigation into unit tests. The discussion started with "What mock object framework should we use?" We quickly boiled down to "Which framework will be unduly burdensome to the development staff?" This actually eliminated a couple of frameworks at the beginning. But when we settled on two that are, more or less, of equal use the conversation quickly changed to unit test standards. I have a few strong opinions on the matter. I believe that unit tests should cast a wide loop so that behavior consistency can be assured. If that means mocking Internal methods to assure their consistency, then so be it. If that means only using strict mock objects, despite their fragility, then so be it. In fact, I like fragile unit tests. If the behavior of the class changes then the tests should break. I realize that my opinions are not shared by the community at large, and I'm okay with that. I'm always open to debate, but I approach things somewhat differently than normal. I think I've made that clear. Now, of our enterprise level architects, one disagrees with me and the other is still weighing arguments and that's great. That kind of conversation is a new perspective for me.

So what's this new perspective and what does it give me? Because I'm no longer considering patterns and practices for a given set of circumstances, but rather to be followed in the enterprise, I have to more seriously consider the pros and cons of those patterns and practices. I find that thinking of effects of standards on the enterprise at large makes me think differently about the effects of my design decisions at the project level. Not just "Does this work here" but "Would this work in other, similar, situations and if not, why not?" If the answer to the second question is "No", then should I reconsider my decisions at the project level. Note that I'm not offering concrete conclusions here. I'm expanding my perspective and thus expanding the pool of questions I ask myself before making a decision.

Maybe that's my point here, although I expect I'll be getting comments about my approach to unit tests. That's fine, too. The day I stop listening to others is the day I stop being useful.