What it means to be a leader in a software team

In my career in technology, I have had the chance to serve in several leadership roles, latest being Twiga foods. My first time, I assumed leadership, or as the organization referred to it, management involved defining what was good for the organization, breaking that up to tasks then delegating the tasks to individual developers.

Over time, I have come to realize this model of leadership is seriously flawed, not in the least because developers are very smart people, smarter than I am.

Even more important, by monopolizing the work of visioning, I simultaneously lost out on great ideas from others and demotivated them at the same time!

In this entry, we will be looking at what I see is the role of the leader in a software team.

Custodian of priority

All teams face a bombardment of new information every single day. In this blizzard, its very easy to get lost and like the proverbial hyena get split in half!

Your job is to make sense of this incoming mess of requests, messages and bug reports and in the light of your team goals, give them meaning.

Not all tasks are the same, by giving them context, the team can then decide which tasks will give them the greatest return on their time and energy investment.

This also means you guide them in reviewing old commitments to see if they still make sense.

Trawl for new useful information

Nassim Taleb in his classic book The black swan introduced the concept of the unknown unknowns.

A black swan is an event, positive or negative, that is deemed improbable yet causes massive consequences.

In software, this translates to unplanned work. As mentioned in How you pay for technical debt

Like matter and antimatter, in the presence of unplanned work, all planned work ignites with incandescent fury, incinerating everything around it

As the leader, you need to be constantly monitoring your environment for signs of this black swans. It may come in the form of changing business environment for your clients or even unresolved disputes in choices to be made.

Either way, bring them up to the team for discussion and resolution.

Ensure personal growth

Maybe I have been more lucky than others. All engineers I have worked with have been naturally curious autodidacts. Yet for those new in the field, they may have no idea what they need to know or the experiences they need to have to mature into senior roles.

Your work as a leader then is to appreciate raw talent and provide support for growth.

Peter Senge establishes Personal Mastery as one of the core disciplines. He defines it as:

Personal mastery is the discipline of continually clarifying and deepening our personal vision, of focusing our energies, of developing patience, and of seeing reality objectively.

This is very important to understand and practice yourself while encouraging it for others as well.

You see, the higher the skill level of those around you, the more peace of mind you experience. When you are knee deep in a project this is not the time to start wondering if your colleague will drop the ball.

Provide feedback to the team

All successful systems are so because they have someway of getting and acting on feedback from their environment.

This means even as the team is working on the next iteration, you must be mindful of how the last release is being used. What do the users think of it?

Even here, you must be careful the team does not develop a culture of aloofness and insensitivity to the message coming from the rest of the business.

Through this entire entry, you may have noted the leadership I talk about does not need any official designation to execute, yet it will provide a lot of value to your team.

How have you provided leadership to your team today? Talk to me in the comment section below or on my twitter @jchex


Why we do internal demos mid sprint


At Twiga, we have regular demos of features in progress, most times way before the feature is expected to be finished. Now, these events are not for the weak, a fair number of times the flow being demonstrated simply tanks with a 500 error or worse.

Even if it doesn’t and you go through the happy case, everyone else in the team digs into what you have presented looking for edge cases, bugs and any other opportunities for improvement.

It is not a Kumbaya event yet I feel these sessions have helped us improve our products while cutting down on development time.

In this entry, we will be looking at why you may want to hold such critical sessions within your own teams.

Change is hard when the product is deemed complete

Typically, at the end of the sprint, what is delivered is a coded, tested and usable piece of software. Let’s use a simple project to illustrate this effect.

Imagine if you set out to clean your house, you decided you will fully clean out each room before moving to the next one. However, it’s your wife who gets to judge if the room is truly clean. After you have finished cleaning up the study and your brain is flooded with dopamine, would this be the opportune time for her to come point out all the spots you missed?

Will you be able to continue cleaning out say the kitchen while at the same time working on the spots missed in the study?

In this case, just like in software, it’s much better to have spots pointed out while you are in action rather than when you are done.

Mistakes don’t compound

Early on in one of our time-sensitive projects, we decided to switch the language used from Java to Go. Our senior team was working on this project so this switch was not anticipated to be much of a problem.

By the first demo, we noticed things were going horribly wrong, whilst the team was learning, our existing Java libraries did not play as well as anticipated with Go.

Given the sensitivity to the deadline, we decided to revert back to Java and implement a less time-sensitive project on Go.

If we didn’t have this chance to reevaluate our decisions, we probably would have missed the deadline and worse, so much work would have been done on Go we would have no other option but to commit finishing the feature using it.

Decisions are more inclusive

Over the course of development, developers make hundreds if not thousands of decisions. This is ok, after all, that is why we hire people smarter than us. The challenge is by the end of the sprint, the decision is embedded so deep in the product, it’s hard to know there was a decision made at all.

An example would be the choice of which cache provider to use, typically this decision will be made by the developer. It is possible that someone else in another team has experience with the same service and knows it doesn’t work as well with our architecture in certain use cases.

By getting this feedback early on, course-correction is possible and everyone learns something.

In conclusion, these sessions should be safe spaces. As much as possible avoid involving the client or senior management who demand perfection. To understand why. Take a tour of a garage and see what a vehicle looks while it’s being painted. Unless you are in the profession yourself, all you will see is ugliness, only other developers will be able to capture the vision being presented and provide useful feedback.

Do you hold internal demos in your own organization?  Talk to me in the comment section below or on my twitter @jchex


How managers cripple their best team members


If you have been in the development community long enough, you must have come across the concept of a 10X developer. This is a mythical programmer that can do ten times the work of another normal programmer in the same amount of time and with higher quality.

I say mythical because, in my opinion, only teams can perform at that level. Yet, there is no denying men and women of special ability do exist. Furthermore, they are the stuff upon which great teams are built.

Will and Ariel Durant put it as

If we knew our fellow men thoroughly we could select thirty per cent of them whose combined ability would equal that of all the rest.

Or to use one of our own heroes, Steve Jobs

A players hire A players, B players hire C players

With this factors in play, once every while, a star team forms that performs superbly well. This team is almost certainly composed of very capable individuals. Unfortunately, the teams tend not to be stable because once formed, other forces conspire to break them apart.

In this entry, we will be looking at how you can be unwittingly killing off your greatest asset, your team.

Assigning a team member to multiple teams

This is by far the most common practice I have seen. To be honest, I have done it to my team members as well.

The benefits are visible and alluring. To name a few:

  1. Some resources are very expensive and need to be shared. For example, a specialist in machine learning who we pay say 500k would not make economic sense to be housed only in a single team
  2. Knowledge of the expert gets to be shared across the entire organization
  3. They just get sh*t done!

Unfortunately, the costs are not visible.

The strange thing about the most capable people is they have the hardest time saying no. Deep within them is the craftsman integrity, if something is required of them, they will get it done. Over time they get more overworked as they shoulder the heavy burden imposed by their own competence. Being humans, some other members will loaf off tipping the dynamic into an even worse state. Eventually, you end up losing this overworked resource to another organization.

Shifting a team member across multiple functions

This kind of rotation is important for new team members who need to understand how the business works. It’s also very useful for those who need a change of role. With that said, moving employees haphazardly across the organization means they never have the gestation period necessary to properly settle into one team.

You see, we are social animals, whenever a new animal joins our pack, they immediately become the object of interest. We ask ourselves questions such as:

  1. Will they conform to how we work?
  2. What is their working style and will it affect us?
  3. How does their presence change the power dynamics?

Eventually, the team does accept the member and hopefully, they become productive.

Fail to allow for this time and you have an individual who feels they constantly have to combat the social challenges of being the newcomer instead of producing what you pay them to.

Not providing proper communication tools for remote members

I am a big fan of flexible and remote working arrangements. With that said, I still believe a team should meet often.

As referenced in problem with big teams

Peer pressure is far more effective than the concept of a boss and much more powerful

If the team members can not see each other, how will they get the time to develop the necessary social bonds for interdependence to take over?

A rule of thumb would be:

If any one team member can not make it to the physical meeting, the meeting should be conducted as if the entire team is remote

This means stop being stingy. Invest heavily in communication equipment. The payoff will definitely be worth it.

What do you do to protect team members? Talk to me in the comment section below or on my twitter @jchex