Achieving 10x

Crossed paths with an old but still relevant conversation thread on Slashdot asking “What practices impede developers’ productivity?” The conversation is in response to an excellent post by Steve McConnell addressing productivity variations among software developers and teams and the origin of “10x” – that is, the observation noted in the wild of “10-fold differences in productivity and quality between different programmers with the same levels of experience and also between different teams working within the same industries.”

The Slashdot conversation has two main themes, one focuses fundamentally on communication: “good” meetings, “bad” meetings, the time of day meetings are held, status reports by email – good, status reports by email – bad, interruptions for status reports, perceptions of productivity among non-technical coworkers and managers, unclear development goals, unclear development assignments, unclear deliverables, too much documentation, to little documentation, poor requirements.

A second theme in the conversation is reflected in what systems dynamics calls “shifting the burden”: individuals or departments that do not need to shoulder the financial burden of holding repetitively unproductive meetings involving developers, arrogant developers who believe they are beholding to none, the failure to run high quality meetings, code fast and leave thorough testing for QA, reliance on tools to track and enhance productivity (and then blaming them when they fail), and, again, poor requirements.

These are all legitimate problems. And considered as a whole, they defy strategic interventions to resolve. The better resolutions are more tactical in nature and rely on the quality of leadership experience in the management ranks. How good are they at 1) assessing the various levels of skill among their developers and 2) combining those skills to achieve a particular outcome? There is a strong tendency, particularly among managers with little or no development experience, to consider developers as a single complete package. That is, every developer should be able to write new code, maintain existing code (theirs and others), debug any code, test, and document. And as a consequence, developers should be interchangeable.

This is rarely the case. I can recall an instance where a developer, I’ll call him Dan, was transferred into a group for which I was the technical lead. The principle product for this group had reached maturity and as a consequence was beginning to become the dumping ground for developers who were not performing well on projects requiring new code solutions. Dan was one of these. He could barely write new code that ran consistently and reliably on his own development box. But what I discovered is that he had a tenacity and technical acuity for debugging existing code.

Dan excelled at this and thrived when this became the sole area of his involvement in the project. His confidence and respect among his peers grew as he developed a reputation for being able to ferret out particularly nasty bugs. Then management moved him back into code development where he began to slide backward. I don’t know what happened to him after that.

Most developers I’ve known have had the experience of working with a 10x developer, someone with a level of technical expertise and productivity that is undeniable, a complete package. I certainly have. I’ve also had the pleasure of managing several. Yet how many 10x specialists have gone underutilized because management was unable to correctly assess their skills and assign them tasks that match their skills?

Most of the communication issues and shifting the burden behaviors identified in the Slashdot conversation are symptomatic of management’s unrealistic expectations of relative skill levels among developers and their inability to assess and leverage the skills that exist within their teams.


Image by alan9187 from Pixabay

Cargo Cults in Management

 

I first read about cargo cults in Richard Feynman’s book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.”

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call cargo cult science. In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas–he’s the controller–and they wait for the airplanes to land. They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land. (p. 310-311)

I was a newly minted biochemist and Feynman’s unique perspective had a significant impact on my critical thinking skills. It established a “cargo cult” sensor in my brain. As my career developed and branched out into other areas of interest, the ubiquity of cargo cult thinking became apparent.

In the work place, “cargo cult” thinking may not necessarily be a bad thing. As a tool, it can be used as an “as if” frame for working out the solution to complex problems or gaining insight into black boxes. By assembling all the known and visible elements and arranging them to match the form as best as possible its easier to see what’s missing.

If an executive’s minions are behaving in a way that reflects his or her approach to management, is that a good thing? Here is where business leaders get into trouble. Are the executive’s minions imitating or implementing?

Less common, executives attempt to adopt practices that are successful at the knowledge worker level. About a decade ago I had worked to implement an Agile software development process with a small and highly capable development team. It was a daunting task: completely re-architect and develop a poorly coded application while supporting the old application. (In 30 years, this was the first and only time I recommended a complete redesign and rewrite of a major application.) Of course, we started each morning with a “daily scrum” meeting – sometimes called a “daily stand-up” – before the team set off to immerse themselves in code. These are very quick (15 minutes or less) meetings where everyone literally stands up for the duration of the meeting. The idea is that by standing, attendees are less likely to drone on about trivial matters or issues that do not require the entire team’s input. Complicated issues are quickly identified and scheduled for more detailed meetings, if necessary.

Six months into the project it was very clear our approach was working and insofar as the coding effort was concerned, we would be successful. The senior executive to this effort seemed impressed and decided to switch to a “stand-up” meeting format for the executive team meetings. They were “stand-up” meetings in name only. Rather than a once a week meeting that virtually always extended way beyond the originally scheduled 60 minutes, I now had to attend daily meetings that went on for 45-60 minutes during which nobody stood.

There were other issues with implementing the executive team scrum meetings. The senior executive did a poor job of modeling the behavior he sought and there was very little control over the clock. Developers are smart people and they notice things like this even though they are not directly participating. Among those being managed, it does little to inspire confidence in the management staff.

Nonetheless, I like the idea of applying Agile methodologies to management meetings. After action reports, as used by the military, would also help. There is also a place for storyboards and retrospectives. But implementing these and other elements would require a significant learning effort on the part of the management team. Not because the methods are difficult to understand, but because the MBA mindset of many management teams would have to loosen up a bit for the requisite unlearning to become possible.

Rethinking the idea of “management” in the context of Agile principles and practices blends quite nicely with many of the things I’ve learned around the idea of “Management as a Service.”

References

Feynman, R. P. (1985). “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a curious character. New York, NY: Bantam Books.


Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay