Category Archives: Management

Offshoring and Knowledge Depletion

I have recently watched a very interesting presentation by Gunter Dueck (former CTO of IBM in Germany), where he talks about the future of work. When looking at how many consulting organizations structure their business, you can see a trend that seemingly high-level parts, usually the interaction with the customer and where business domain knowledge is required, stay in your own country. And those aspects that can, allegedly, be performed by less qualified people are moved to countries with lower salaries.

This may seem attractive from a cost-management point of view for a while. And it certainly works right now – to the extent possible. Because the organizations still have people locally who had been “allowed” to start with relatively simple coding tasks and grow into the more complex areas of the business. But what if those folks retire or leave? How do you get people to the level of qualification that allows them to understand the customer’s business on the one hand, and at the same time be able to have an intelligent conversation with the offshore folks who do the coding? Because for the latter you must have done coding yourself extensively.

Trying to Help

Quite recently I came across a number of texts (e.g. “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?“), which suggest that trying to be helpful to others is not only altruistic, but also helps the giving person. This is certainly true for me, so let me tell you my story.

My employer is running a number of internal mailing lists that cover all our products and are used by folks to discuss all sorts of (mainly technical) stuff. I have been subscribed to many of those lists for close to ten years now and they helped me to learn an awful lot about our products and their real-world application.

Most of this information cannot be found in official documentation or training, simply because it is relevant only in a very specific context. What I realized, though, is that it is exactly this context-specificity, which helped me understand the products better. Because if you discuss, along with your own use-case, the border conditions, you develop a “feeling” how the software works internally. And this, in turn, allows you to analyze totally new use-cases.

So on average I spend about 30-60 minutes per day on those mailing lists (you typically get 150-200 mails per day in total). Some of them I just scan through rather quickly. But others I follow much more closely. And of course after some time I had identified various folks that stood out in terms of amount and quality of their contributions. Many of them I have never met personally in all those years because they live on another continent. But still we have a relationship.

After some time, when I had learned enough from following the lists as well as my actual work with some of the tools, I started answering questions myself. Soon enough people knew my areas of expertise and also added my personal email address next to the mailing lists when sending their questions, to make sure I would take a look.

So apart from my ego, how did helping others on the mailing lists help me? The obvious thing is that I am known to be an expert on various topics (e.g. ALM, performance, HA) for our products. But more importantly, when I have a question, people are willing to spend time and return the favor. Because, on the other hand, we all know the lone wolf character who only asks, but never helps others. And guess how many replies they usually get …

The same approach also works on public mailing lists, by the way. In the mid-1990s I had basically the same experience in the Novell NetWare group of the German FidoNet (basically a proprietary version of UseNet). I was a university student then and also had my own small company. Following the group was critical to building up my NetWare expertise, which I then used to charge a nice (at the time) hourly rate.

In conclusion I cannot overestimate the role that helping others played on my professional success. Plus, it feels really good :-).

Too Qualified to Code

There is an “interesting” perception of software development in that quite a few people think it is an activity suitable for graduates but not highly qualified professionals. I am in violent disagreement with this. But since it is a widespread belief, just dismissing it as dumb does not help very much. So how does it come that so many people, who have a somewhat limited knowledge about the subject, make such a judgement and act according to it?

From a psychological point of view there seems to be a mechanism in place that either makes those people believe that they actually understand the subject enough to make an informed decision. Or they do not see it as important enough to invest more time in the whole process and just go for the easy way. Or something in the middle? I will look at some thoughts I have had on the topic over the last couple of years and hope they make sense to you.

If you look at how most companies handle careers, you will soon realize that many talk about career paths for managers and professionals. And they are usually eager to say that both are valued equally in their organization. Well, I have yet to see a place where this statements, typically coming from HR, survives the reality check. If the entire organization is run such that managers from day one experience that the “techies” (sometimes lovingly referred to as code monkeys) are just there to serve management without questioning its wisdom, guess what happens.

Most professionals will simply do as they are told and not start a discussion why something is possibly not as easy or brilliant as it looks from the business side. Managers, and that is absolutely the techies’ fault, will then start to believe that they know enough about technology to decide on details. And the next time, when they do so and the techie just nods and goes away to deliver, they expect a good result. If the result is not so good though, because many details were not taken into account, it is indeed the techie’s fault to not have brought them up. And, voila, there you have the vicious circle.

I must say that I have been fortunate enough so far and not run into that situation. But that not only requires experience and the “standing” in the organization, it also depends on your financial independence. I live in Germany and we have laws against my employer just firing me, because I am not obedient enough but quite a nuisance instead. So in that respect I am just lucky. But your standing with management is something you can and should control. If you are too quiet and never give them a chance to learn how thoughtful and interested in the company’s progress you are, how should they know?

What has worked nicely for me is not trying to be someone else but find opportunities where I was on my home turf and still talk about something they were interested in. And in a nutshell the message I got across was: I understand and want to support what you need to achieve; and for the technical details you can rely on my experience and let me decide on the nitty-gritty stuff, which you are not interested in anyway.

And with this you are not talking about coding any more but supporting the business. Yes, actually performing this support means coding. But once people see that they are much better off with you doing this, rather than someone less experienced, they will happily accept it.

So how can you proof that your experience is relevant to the business? By keeping your promises and deliver on time, quality and budget. Because you have gone through the learning curve and know all the potential pitfalls that can happen for a given task. Having them taken care of upfront and not let surprise anyone, you keep things under control. Just a few weeks ago one of my projects went live and my counterpart from the business side was thrilled that there was only one bug discovered, and fixed immediately, so far.

Fixing things quickly and effectively is, by the way, one of the most powerful tools in your arsenal. Nobody expects a bug-free software, especially if it is custom development. But what people want, and rightly so, is that you can fix things fast. So invest time and have a system in place that allows you to ship fixes in no time and without interrupting normal operations. If you need to tell the business that a two-hour downtime is required for you to bring a fix into production, you are really not worth your salary.

That’s it for now. I know that I barley scratched the surface of a very diverse topic. But everything needs to start somewhere …

Size of Development Teams

What is a good size for a development team? Of course there is no truly universal answer to this question. Software projects are just too diverse. But still my gut feeling as well as several articles I read on the subject, tell me that in many cases two to five people is probably a good initial estimate.

Obviously this excludes things above a certain size, like operating or ERP systems in their entirety. But change the focus to a module of the aforementioned and all of a sudden the team with five people is not so ridiculously small any more. So, like in many other cases, it all comes down to scope.

My general line of thinking is this: When something is too big for five people, it comes with an inherent complexity that will increase the likelihood of failure considerably. Of course, you can throw more resources at the problem. But you will get all the by-products of that. Think about communication overhead between developers, additional management layers, and the increased risk of low-performers among all the people that are poring in.

Interestingly, you can also approach things from the opposite direction: I was once told a story about a CEO who reduced the size of a development team to get things done better. At the time I thought this was a ridiculous approach. But I have long changed my mind since then and wholeheartedly agree. It is a bit like the inverse of what is described in “The Mythical Man-Month“, where Frederick P. Brooks, Jr. describes the naive idea that adding developers will shorten the time needed to accomplish a certain goal.

So in my view the goal should absolutely be to to have development teams no larger than five people. If the overall project is too big for this, you need to slice it into parts that can be delivered by small-enough teams. This will also help to enforce clean interfaces/contracts between the various parts.

All of the above assumes that we are talking about people with considerable experience (5+ years) in the relevant area. Given that the average experience of software developers is about five years, it will often be challenging to staff such a team. (And five years average is for their entire career, not the relevant subject area.) But dealing with this, is the topic for a different post.

Architects Should Code

There is a widespread notion, that developers at some point in their career evolve into something “better”, called architect. This term has the connotation of mastery on the subject, which I think is ok. What is not ok for me, is that in many cases there is the expectation that an architect’s time is too valuable for something as mundane as coding. Instead architects should develop the overall architecture of the solution.

Ok, so what is the architecture? Most people believe that some documentation (often a mixture of prose and high-level pictures) is the architecture. I would argue that this not the architecture but a more or less accurate abstraction from it. When enough work has gone into things, it may may even become the to-be architecture (but certainly not the as-is one). However, outside of regulated industries I have never seen a document that was thorough enough. A friend of mine used to work on embedded systems for car breaks where lives are at stake; and he told me some interesting stories about the testing and documentation efforts these guys take.

In my view the architecture is, by definition, in the code itself. Everything else is, I repeat myself, something that has some relationship with it. So how can an architect not be coding? You could argue that instead of doing the work him- or herself, mentoring and guiding less experienced developers is a good use of the architect’s time. For me that works fine up to a certain level of complexity. But if we talk about an STP (straight-through processing) solution, is that really something you want to give to a mid-level developer? (It would probably be an ideal piece of work for pair-programming, though.)

I do certainly not want to demean people who call themselves architects. It is a not-so-common capability to look at an IT landscape and see the big picture. Instead many people will be lost in the details. So we definitely need this this perspective! But it is a different kind of architecture, the so-called Enterprise Architecture (EA). I know folks who started as (really good) developers and are now very successful at Enterprise Architecture.

So, in closing, my core point is that the architecture of a solution and its code are basically two sides of the same coin. Everybody involved on the technical level should understand both aspects. And if the level of detail varies, depending on the official role, that is probably ok.

“Decisions should be made at the lowest possible level”

When watching this video about The Origins of Hewlett-Packard, one of the statements that really struck me (at time code 16:25) was “Decisions should be made at the lowest possible level”.

I have had the privilege to work for Hewlett-Packard as my first job after graduating from university. It was a turbulent time then in 2001, when the dot-com hype was just “exploding”. But it was also a period, when many colleagues were still around, who had been with the company for a very long time. So the HP way was still alive and kicking, at least in my personal environment. Sadly though, ever since, my personal opinion has been that the company is in a downward spiral. It was certainly not a good sign, when under Carly Fiorina as CEO the founders’ names were officially removed from the company name and the latter reduced to their initials. I have left HP in 2005 but still feel connected. Therefore it really hurts to see what has happened to the company. And I always look back at those early years of my career with a lot of fondness!

But I should come back to the subject of this post. Having read, experienced, executed, and thought quite a bit about management, I really do think this is one of the (!!!) core aspects: Where should decisions happen? And especially in today’s times, when everybody is talking about “the quick eating the big”, it should be a no-brainer that the right level for decisions is one of the most critical components for success in business. Why is it then that we still see so many organizations where mid- to high-level executives lead with a micro-management style?

One fundamental question here is how people act in their professional environment. Do they try to avoid mistakes? Or do they work to achieve a common goal? I daresay the former behavior breeds micro-management as a strategy to mitigate risk. Of course, the result is local optimization, at best. But overall the organization will fall back in the market, perhaps live from its past for a while, and eventually disappear.

My hypothesis is that trust, or lack thereof, is the major driving force behind this. And it is usually the top management that sets the example here. The good thing, though, is that they can also change it. In his famous book “Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders” L. David Marquet does this on a nuclear submarine. And if it works for what is probably one of the most dangerous working environments on earth, it works everywhere. (The book is a must-read in my opinion for everybody who has only the slightest interest in things like management, corporate culture etc.)

I do expect that we will see many traditional organizations moving away gradually from a pure top-down management style. Partly because of market pressure for agility, and partly because employees simply demand it. So we have interesting times ahead of us!

Choosing a Technology

I recently started a new hobby project (it is still in stealth mode, so no details yet) and went through the exercise to really carefully think about what technology to use for it. On a very high level the requirements are fairly standard: Web UI, persistence layer, API focus, cross-platform, cloud-ready, continuous delivery, test automation, logging, user and role management, and all the other things.

Initially I was wondering about the programming language, but quickly settled for Java. I have reasonable experience with other languages, but Java is definitely where most of my knowledge lies these days. So much for the easy part, because the next question proved to be “slightly” more difficult to answer.

Looking at my requirements it was obvious that developing everything from the ground up would be nonsense. The world does not need yet another persistence framework and I would not see any tangible result for years to come, thus loosing interest to soon. So I started looking around and first went to Spring. There is a plethora of tutorials out there and they show impressive results really quickly. Java EE was not really on my screen then, probably because I still hear some former colleagues complain about J2EE 1.4 in the back of my mind. More importantly, though, my concern was more with agility (Spring) over standards (JEE). My perception with too many Java standards is that they never outgrow infancy, simply because they lack adoption in the real world. On the other hand Spring was created to solve real-world problems in the first place.

But then, when answering a colleague’s question about something totally different, I made the following statement:

I tend to avoid convenience layers, unless I am 100% certain that they can cope with all future requirements.

All to often I have seen that some first quick results were paid for later, when the framework proved not to be flexible enough (I call this the 4GL trap). So this cautioned myself and I more or less went back to the drawing board: What are the driving questions for technology selection?

  • Requirements: At the beginning of any non-trivial software project the requirements are never understood in detail. So unless your project falls into a specific category, for which there is proven standard set of technology, you must keep your options open.
  • Future proof: This is a bit like crystal ball gazing, but you can limit the risks. The chances are bigger that a tier-3 Apache project dies than an established (!) Java standard to disappear. And of course this means that any somewhat new and fancy piece must undergo extreme scrutiny before selecting it; and you better have a migration strategy, just in case.
  • Body of knowledge: Sooner or later you will need help, because the documentation (you had checked what is available, right?) does not cover it. Having a wealth of information available, typically by means of your favorite search engine, will make all the difference. Of course proper commercial support from a vendor is also critical for non-hobby projects.
  • Environment: Related to the last aspect is how the “landscape” surrounding your project looks like. This entails technology but even more importantly the organization which has evolved around that technology. The synergies from staying with what is established will often outweigh the benefits that something new might have when looked at in isolation.

On a strategic level these are the critical questions in my opinion. Yes, there are quite a few others, but they are more concerned with specifics.

Leadership Lesson from a Nuclear Submarine

The video linked below is a quick summary of how the captain of a US Navy nuclear submarine turned his crew into the best evaluated ever. It is a remarkable story and reiterates in a very comprehensive and compact way what I have experienced myself many times (on the giving as well as the receiving end).

I was made aware of this video by a post from Torsten Bittlingmaier. Thorsten, thanks a lot!