When doing more means having done less

While no one likes working with negative productivity, sometimes we will find ourselves  not contributing in a constructive manner but detracting to the overall productivity.  This can/will be discouraging.  Becoming sour at oneself or any others in the team in whom one recognizes as a negative contributor is just adding to the madness, however.  I feel the best way to get over it is to take a closer look at what happened, to prevent recurrence, as much as possible.

What is negative work?

The idea of negative work is not readily acceptable.  Someone can deliver zero productivity by ‘not working’ at all.  How does negative work happen?

Let’s go through an example.  An awful team-member that once worked with me.  The person made roughly 3 significant changes to the work process and output over his 7-month time there.  The result first:  first 2 changes simply did not improve any part of team-work and broke other processes and capabilities.  The 3rd change was to revert everything back, explicitly.

So adding a couple, then subtracting to revert the previous 2 may look like it’s zero productivity.   The point is that that multiple people had to also follow his mistakes until it was resolved.  Don’t take me wrong – the person was not of ‘junior’ caliber.  I would not be fair to expect net-positive productivity from the get-go, especially for a person who needs mentoring and leadership.  Experience was there, as well as the ability to explain his work – the person also had the title ‘senior’.  Others not only had to track down why something wasn’t going as planned, but had to figure out whether the issues they were seeing were the result of their work or someone else’s.  Since it’s not often that the person with the mistaken sense of correctness is up to fixing whatever is supposedly done wrong, the whole team had to discuss fixing the issue. The team had to collectively determine that none of the 2 changes were worth fixing and that the team was better off reverting those changes.

Across the entire team, the result was that a lot of hours were wasted.  The one member did zero net-work and also reduced others’ productivity.  Again, I’m not saying this is a special case or that it is inconceivable.

The other kinds…

There are also many workers who can make changes that work, but end up with a large amount of confusion or lack of clarity – that others have to spend a larger amount of time trying to understand how & why those changes are necessary.  To be sure, understanding why a change is needed and how the changed process or item leads to improvement is not always necessary – and often outside scope of many mid-to-entry level workers.  And for those whose work-scope includes such an understanding, it can be time-consuming, regardless of the quality of work.  But the degree of difficulty in understanding something does matter.

Yet another sort of productivity killer is sticking to workflows that are eating up time.  I once worked at a different company where we were trying to decide on using a new way to integrate multiple developer’s work-product.  The reason:  the method we were using was taking hours of whole-team discussion, when only subsets of the team were needed for many of the integration sessions.  This was before modern integration practices (such as continuous integration, devOps, etc.) proliferated, so we did this twice a week.  Most of the team were convinced using the new method would have brought it down to under an hour.  It did not go well.  It took the team 6 months to put the new method in place, because one influential team-member didn’t want to change the existing process and was able to veto major changes.

3 hours x 2 times a week x 6 months x 4 weeks a month = 144 hours

1 hour x 2 times a week x 6 months x 4 weeks a month = 48 hours

Essentially, 96 hours were wasted.  But that is just for each member of the team.  Multiplying 96 for each member of the team would show even more egregious waste of time that could have been spent on other items.  (one excellent reason why things like BPR – business process re-engineering – is a clear need in some situations)

Negative work –> Low Morale

Most people work to feel a sense of accomplishment, aside from making their ends meet. They want to feel like their time was spent on something worthwhile. That means delivering results that bring value to the business. Wasted time prevents that.

Most of us also want to work with talented people.  Working with someone who is a burden on the team is an emotional drain.  Not only does that one person act as an obstacle to achieving success for a given item, the influence of such a person can also make us feel we bring less value as a team.

The job market is one way to solve this problem: find another job.  This is obviously an undesired outcome for a company.  When one team-member leaves, there is bound to be an emotional instability in the rest of the team.  

Entrance of the negative worker

How do such people get hired, when it is apparent that the cost of a negative worker is so high?  An interview process sorely in need of improvement can be blamed for this.  But succumbing to the temptation to lower standards or considering attitude less important than aptitude is most likely the less talked about part.  

Sometimes a lot of work needs to be done very quickly.  If there are not enough human resources in the company to accomplish that goal, then more need to be hired – either in-house or external contractual.  If the job market is strong for workers, it will take longer to make a good hire – and this is when the temptation to lower hiring standards is strong.  When there is a lot of work, some management start hiring in panic-mode.  They think having more bodies in the project can only contribute to more work getting done.

While such a mentality may have been valid in the traditional/manual manufacturing era, it is now far from the truth.  The informational and technological capability of this era ensures that quality matters more than quantity, when it comes to productivity.  10 positive, well-communicating contributors may actually bring more value to the workplace than 100 of the mix.  

Desperate hiring will not solve the problem of tight timelines in projects.  There is a good chance that it will make it worse.  Negative workers will not only slow the team down, but they can cause your great producers to leave the company or team.  Sadly, the project will now be even further behind schedule.

The flip side – a manager

From management perspective, a way to get a sense of productivity is to measure the decrease in administrative workload.  More often than not, if management tasks take less effort to carry out, with same or more level in project results, that means someone (or something) is helping to do more by allowing the management to do less.  One common mistake is to recognise ‘not having to know’ as a way to  determine whether productivity is increasing.

Management is often related to delegating work.  In a Forbes article about increasing productivity through delegation there is even  a mention of a book, “Work Less, Do More:  The 14-day Productivity Makeover”.  Single 14-day period is by no means a guaranteed time to overhaul any environment, but a basic goal is required.  A good starting point is to understand how to delegate.

Delegating work is not a ‘you know what to do, so I do not need to’ approach.  Rather, it is closer to a ‘set it and forget it’ approach.  One needs to:

  • Choose the tasks to delegate
  • Pick the person to delegate to
  • Give clear assignments and expectations
  • Set a date and ways to follow progress
  • Delegate responsibility and authority, not just the task

A couple key factors in a management style that fosters team-building are:

  • Trusting those who you delegate work to
  • Giving credit publicly

People who micro-manage a team into decreased productivity are doing so, because they mistakenly believe that close scrutiny is same thing as attention to detail.  This failure to appreciate a team-member’s capability (potential or proven) is bi-directional, coming from lack of trust and fear of not getting credit for work done.

Now…

I recommend identifying characteristics in yourself first, that match the negative worker qualities.  Try to reduce the occurrence of exhibiting them.  Then determine how those efforts are paying off, all without involving anyone else.  When you are confident about a set of practices, or others commend you, that may be the right time to share the journey.

I would try to take the holistic approach – contemplate as both a delegator and the delegated.  Clarity in communication is always key, while committed responsibility is the path to walk.

I am interested in feedback and other ways of approach – for obvious reasons.

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Difficulty of proper Code-Review

Here’s another point in software development culture, that is hard to get settled into an organization.  To be fair, it’d be more accurate to say that instead of a culture being wrong, that it’s just different – between people and of course, organizations.

Culture is shared and similar thoughts and actions in a community.  A person may be part of a community and be knowledgeable about the goals and traits of that community – yet have immense difficulty to follow along.  Simply put, changing an individual’s habits can be achieved through personal agenda and strength of desire, but community culture is much more difficulty to affect changes unto.

Unsurprisingly, it’s hard to follow even a commonly known development culture.  And the one I bring up today is the culture of ‘peer review’ of code.

Arguably, code-review is one of the most important culture in a development environment, but it’s hard to find it done well in many organizations.  Many know and agree to its importance, but most try-and-stop and repeat many times.

Why the difficulty in doing reviews?

The most common response to that question is:  no time.  Understandable reality – teams have a tough time to even to implement features.  To many, it is statistically true that doing code-reviews appropriately saves total time to implement as well as cost, but it also sounds like a pipe-dream – realizable only in an alternate universe.

Some companies enforce code-reviews, but it can also be executed to fulfill a process, instead of serving the real purpose – resulting in bad memories.  A few bad runs, and the review process does not become culture but is either stopped or is kept as an ineffective action item.

In my opinion, the culture of code-review is not trivial enough to simply quit because it is tough.

There are many reasons for reviewing.  Discerning errors in code, as well as shared knowledge and mutual education are just the first ones that pop into my head.  Review has organization-level purpose of improving quality, but knowledge and info is shared through the process, as well as know-how and insights – leading to mutual growth of developers.  The knowledge community can be enhanced through reviews.  In fact, I would even argue that without code-reviews, the core capabilities of developers will be tough to improve.

automate…almost everything

DevOps, Data-collection, Data-Delivery, Analytics, BI, Compliance.

These are fine goals, which our company and every OpBrand in the group are trying to achieve.

We have IBM managing our IaaS, mostly. However, our business projects and their management is not. Going to work on changing that, for 2016 – H2.

Hopefully that helps in automating parts of project-management with our infra and compliance management, via integration. If there is an existing solution approach, I’m ears.

Suggesting a near-real-time data collection and delivery from multiple sources is currently under way – bubbling it up the group for buy-in and budget.

Analytics and BI is after that – R modeling and predictive analysis is the goal – not just for software development, but the rest of the business.

the curse of ASAP

People sometimes ask me what the number one thing I wished did not happen in the tech development industry.  It may be different some days, but often it is:

Due yesterday, needed it yesterday & variations

I have nothing against working hard or working fast.  In fact, I have no doubt that is one of the primary drivers working for the software or tech industry.  The capability to achieve same or similar amount of work in a shorter time is competition won.  The manufacturing industry has showcased how this is true, for several decades.  The Lean Process and many offshoots also guide us in how to try to replicate such success in the newer industry of virtual products & services.

Interestingly, the very application of such need-driver of “faster” and “deliver ASAP” seemingly can become a toxic element in the companies that try to harness the Agile and Lean processes – manifested as technical debt in common techie view.  The prototype is built quickly, but the final delivered product takes much more and the quality suffers AND the maintenance and support effort needed becomes unexpectedly large – which leads to terminating the product support.  Sometimes it can get as bad as leading to an organization’s demise.

Why and how does ASAP-culture become problematic in the software industry?  The cause can be summarized into three points:

First, software is complex.  Apologies to other industries that may object, but software engineering has become a most complex information industry field.  Someone shouts ‘just start coding already’ and ​the prototype is started – and the architecture becomes a blurred mess of lines and the actual implementation is delayed as a result.  One alternative of taking the time to create necessary documents and diagrams would be ideal, but if it’s followed true to its literal dogma, too many projects will not finish within 10 years.  Optimal balance between the two is the most difficult to achieve.

Second, software engineering, at its epitome, is near art-form.  Architecture in software is so much like creating an art-piece, that hurrying it along or pulling an over-nighter does not guarantee faster arrival or a better result.  Not being given enough resources to deliver a near-optimal architecture and embarking on implementation often entails 100 or even 1000 times the resources to make modifications after a certain iterations – maybe even releases.

Third, software is like a living thing.  There are several concepts brought in from building architectures and many are very similar.  But the difference is that a building’s foundation or structural pillars does not change much for a century, while software architecture becomes more emergent after its release into the wild, being improved and re-worked as needs arise.  General ball-park estimate is commonly at 4 times the amount of resources are needed to maintain a piece of software system than the amount to develop, after its release.  But if the architecture is not flexible or modular enough, it may end up costing upwards of 10 times that (i.e. 40 times the amount taken to implement the original released version) – and still have difficulty keeping up maintenance or upgrades.

Then is it better to be thorough and develop slowly?  Never.

Most global, commercially-successful softwares are not slow, monolithic solutions that have really long update cycles.  The foremost utility of software development is to deliver market-ready software faster – or as is the curse and driver of need availability ASAP.  Any factor that slows that goal, regardless of methodology, regulations, limitations or process can and should be scrutinized for validity.

In other words, the ASAP need or impact-driven culture to delivery of software is what actually slows down the implementation and eventual delivery of software, and the culture is what also induces other technical debt not apparent at release-time.  Some technical debts that are by-products of such culture are:

  1. Lack or absence of project knowledge, insights and data sharing and collaborative strive to be at a state of tranparency to be at the same page, regarding such.
  2. Difficult-to-scale, incomplete architecture(s)
  3. Dependent on very few, key developer resource
  4. Numerous copies of duplicated code
  5. Lack of work-life balance and inability to increase capability individually and as a resource-pool
  6. Ever-increasing cost of maintenance

This sort of result can occur, regardless of development methodology or tools employed.  SRS (software requirements specification) format of technical spec or using TDD to front-load automated tests as technical specification of features are both ways to develop software faster, by clearing away what is not a well-defined set of features and definitions of the ultimate desired need from the product.  Documentation, code-review, process of development, etc. are all ways to help reduce learning curve on knowledge sharing – so doing away with those steps in hopes of getting the product delivery earlier is essentially impractical (and borderline mis-understanding of how to increase effectiveness of available development resources).

Of course, in order for such tactics to be effective in delivering software fast, a well-seasoned architect is needed, but the software development culture supported by the company, not just the project team, needs to be at a good, acceptable level of maturity.

Very few, if any, people would argue that the bricks must be stacked prior to actually designing the building.  Foundation work and design of the architecture must first be agreed upon, to build a building as quickly as possible, without a heap of modifications and other related troubles, later in the building process.  By the same token, software needs a some firmness with flexibility and modularity afforded in the architecture agreed upon by stakeholders, to respond to changes in the desired features and build-outs – not to mention facilitating collaborative effort expenditures to ultimately reduce both time and cost of development.

In fact, most developers would agree that limits on time creates many serious issues for arriving at such architecture(s).  Even so, there is a distinct culprit factor for accelerating the onset of the culture to work in terms of “ASAP”:  it’s the business management and the clients/end-users.

To most project management, short-term result is de-factor standard for survival.  Owner-stakeholder of a project has a bit longer window on producing results, but many management have a 2 to 3-year contracts (if not less).  Extension or conversion of contract into different terms can become horridly difficult if visible results are not shown in those times.  Essentially, management that focuses on 6-month to a year’s results prioritizes marketing and top-line sales – it falls on others to think about architecture or maintenance costs.

If a company has a firm stakeholder role of a CTO, the CEO might not be able to demand that architectural flexibility or scalability be sacrificed for short-term impacts – but most situations do not have this safety-net for due-diligence.

The client attitude can also be problematic.  Most end-users demand a faster turn-around on their feature-demands from a regional or in-house development teams, while expectations of a fix on a global-scale product usually hovers at around 6-months, and thankfully, at that.  They know from previous experience that the global enterprise solution provider that they’ve worked with before does not release a fix any sooner than that.

The clients sometimes actually demand that the developer resources work on-location at the client premises.  Instead of properly organizing specifications and getting used to developing software collaboratively via modern communication channels, clients often want to have the developers available on-demand and develop as need arises, to prototype as-fast-as-possible.​

The business is used to the culture of impact-drive, client-flavored solution being the highest priority in external parties providing software solutions that are customized.  Such experience is often times a barrier to scaling the software solution.  The business may have achieved number-1 rating in limited regional scope with such approach, but they often face significant challenges scaling the same solution globally, or to global coverage needed for a client.

Having seen such smaller-scale solutions fail, when delivered as a result of an ineffective, ineffective culture-environment in the solution provider, one must wonder how different the expectation of an issue turnaround might be, by a client used to dealing with robust, global enterprise solutions.  Not all, but many would be surprised when there is a response that indicated that a bug will be fixed in a day or two.  This would be especially true, if for a critical system – possibly leading to a decrease in confidence-level about the solution provider.

Many smaller-scale development software companies fight through lack of clarity to promise a better fitting solution to the client – and the end-result is an overall shortage of capacity in real terms.  The actual software developers end up having to pay for such lack of resources.  Developers must quit being able to balance work-life times and end up burning the mid-night oil over longer periods of time, prior to the promised delivery date.  There is no doubt the developer talent has no room to grow, in such a situation.​

Culture change being difficult is simple-hard fact.  It cannot be successful unless the client, the management and the developers all ascribe to the same change in the culture – and foster near-sameness in expectations in the process, as well as deliverable and timelines.  It’s simply impractical to expect to change the world, as a single developer.  But the first step is by communicating the need to change.  Change must also be facilitated by starting with realization about the need to change.  Someone must make the sacrifice of being the first one to change and convincing others to follow suit.

But if one developer is the only one that employs the vision of the changed culture and other associates and stakeholders do not embrace the culture change, the expectation would not have changed.  Therefore, it’s clearly the highest priority for the business to realize how important architectural engineering is – and the first step can be to enhance the capability of the architectural stakeholders for the projects.  The business must do its utmost to balance first-to-market impact-driver and the development/maintenance driver – so instead of just fast, properly-but-fast must be the solution perspective.​

Foundational tools and frameworks, methodology and process need to be balanced.  It also helps to look at maturing various other development lifecycle cultures and work-flows as a way to fix the effects of being short-termed fulfillment culture.  There is no way except to start at least at a single point in the project deliverable.​

It can also become a question about chicken-or-egg-first – but just recognizing that development culture maturity​ is actually an important, high-priority issue is in itself the right first step.  Culture is not documentation or mandate – but something that must be lived-through experiences and learning from those with prior experience in changing the culture can significantly reduce the time vested in trial-and-error.  It’s a way to improve continually, not just arriving at a path to stop progressing.

Waterfall or Agile or otherwise, that’s why it’s a method/ology, as opposed to a solid piece of scripts that are followed in developing software, for the modern world.

Objective Confusion

A few days back, there was a discussion about enhancing our flagship product, and this blurted out of me:

“we should be a company that rolls along, even when each of us are not here”

A CMMI level-1 company we are, and this is a good goal.

Nonetheless, in order to make it politically correct, the company puts it this way:

“we need documentation to follow along, when you are sick or otherwise unavailable”

So the confusion can start there – because communication with a colleague usually happens in opposite ways, with such a goal.

In a casual setting, like lunch, it would be like:

“you are a huge part of our company and strategy, so it’d be great if you become a veteran at the company”

Then in a work discussion:

“work to enable anyone else to carry out your function”

Then the colleague is left with two opposing objectives, in separate contexts:

– so the company will not work without me
– so the company will roll along without me

Depending on the situation one is in, this will manifest differently.

This is where another perspective comes in. That no matter what the operation is, we are enablers, not just operators. We can also have this objective:

– so the company can innovate better/faster with me

Considering the opposite:

– so the company will be slow without me

Would simply be unacceptable to the company, but in some situations, that may be the case.

Re-organization

Nobody wants to hear the news that his/her superior or manager is quitting, except those who’re waiting in line for that exact position.

As our team was in starting on the next phase of our newest product, the first part of the news trickled in:

Entire global technology landscape will be overhauled, and some of infrastructure staff in IT will be absorbed into IBM.

This kinda news delivery is at best haphazard. First it used the words ‘entire’ and ‘overhaul’ in the same breath. It also only mentioned ‘some’ staff, in just the ‘infra’ team.

The management never had a situation like this, in all of the company’s history of several decades. The atmosphere in the software development team quickly turned to be utterly unproductive, within the next couple months, while the tech staff waited for additional clarification on how the news will manifest. In hind sight, the mood would have been better if more details were shared, in those early stages.

But with sweeping changes do not come details that most hope for. Instead come the high-level statements courting the keywords ‘efficiency’ and ‘opportunities of improvement’ – and it sure did not quelch the workers’ thirst for knowledge. Neither survival or direction seemed clear, to some.

Of course, some of voiced concerns over the “transformation” to line management, but no details followed.

So I began hearing cries of fear and foul, from everywhere, with rumors of people moving on, before the s**t hits the fan.

Luckily, the tech market was in high demand for the tech-stacks we were using, as well as the solution approach. All that we had to think was, “when should I make the choice, and on which offer?” But it’s usually not like this.

Then the management called for a team-wide meeting, and we expected good news – or at least direction or clarity. We were not so lucky in this respect.

Our manager, the director of the team, was announcing his resignation – although stipulating he will stay until the current project is finished.

Very disheartening news. The guy who had hired all of us was quitting, after announcements of a re-organization of the entire tech side of the company. Questions about why met answers that were both rather short and simple, again without much details.  For example, when I asked why he was quitting, when we were actually successful with the latest product launches, his answer was that he wanted to do something different, not in this company’s current industry.  He was the leader, the protector and the facilitator of the whole team, and he was letting it all go now.

Recruiting professionals’ emails in personal inboxes were more enticing now.  Some of them even mentioned stock (options or immediate) vesting rates, on top of higher base-salary and benefits package.  Few even had coverage on likes of techcrunch, as well as news of widely-known techs joining their company.

so who’s the new guy?

We now have several. To start off, Director of Dept. replacement, who is in a bit of water figuring stuff out these days. It’s been less than a month, and I feel for him. Not easy to roll in and ingest so much information.

Our replacement for a senior dev, who went onto a start-up in finance-technology, is actually more of a front-end focused web developer for now.

We should be getting new laptops. I got a title change, but work is to be the same for a while.

storms in the brain + data + web