Objectives of a Software Project Manager

In the friendly banter after a routine management meeting, a colleague asked me.

If I was to become a software project manager, what advice would you give me?

For context, the lady leads her own team successfully and has the requisite project management educational background. So obviously she did not care for a run through on the latest PMP manual.

I thought a while about this and distilled what I think are the most important objectives for a SPM.

  1. Get it done faster
  2. Make commitments you can keep
  3. Make progress visible

Get it done faster

I am a otarian, in one of our Saturday fellowships, the speaker made a comment which has stuck with me for 3 years now.

I am a slave of time

After the session, I tracked him down to understand what he meant by this cryptic statement. He mentioned to me, of everything else in our physical universe, time is the only thing we have absolutely no leverage on. Given enough resources almost anything else can be changed, but time waits for no man.

In the world of software, this is especially true. Engineers are usually one of the highest paid resources in a business. If you happen to be accountable for their time, you must take this responsibility seriously.

Even more importantly, the features being released to the business are time sensitive.

Bill Gross, in one of the most popular ted talks in the business category makes the case, timing is the most important factor in the success of a startup

For a business which is going concern, you can be sure what you are building is relevant only now, take too long and whatever you deliver may just as well be garbage.

Figure out what too long means for your business.

Make commitments you can keep

Why is Uber so successful?

Some may argue its the comfort, the quality of the cars, or even a great rating system. I posit its because they are reliable.

When you call for an Uber, you never have to worry wether one will be available, or that it will be where you are within 15 minutes (upper limit) or that you will get home safely. Yes, you may at times pay more but your ride will be there.

If you may even allow me the audacity to claim, reliability is the most important factor for career success.

There is a characteristic of a good number of people I find very annoying. You have a discussion which yields some action points, perhaps you note yours down. Looking into their eyes, you can see a lazy glaze, you feel a premonition, in time an excuse is coming. Will it be they forgot the task? Maybe they were too busy? Who knows.

Don’t let fancy degrees fool you. Business is not a high iq sport, the ability to deliver consistently is more valuable than brilliant but sporadic outputs.

As a SPM, you are now in charge of more than just your own output, you are now going to be held accountable for commitments made by the entire team.

Be reliable.

Make progress visible

The most important objective of any manager is to illicit top performance for the team they serve.

This is doubly true for development where the work output quality is not self evident.

To understand why its so important to show progress, let’s take a moment to think about what motivates your team. Before they were the rockstar engineers you now know and love. Your team mates were struggling noobies. Now learning programming is a painful experience. For most part nothing makes sense, the errors are cryptic and the machine does what it darn well pleases. Wins are few and far spread, before it all clicks.

Yet this feeling of progress, the joy of competence is worth it.

In the work environment suddenly everything is tipped around, the work is rarely technically challenging, most apps are glorified database abstraction layers after all. Business requirements are however ambiguous and constantly changing, the hierarchy passes on dictates without pause to explain why it matters. This is a different kind of jungle, how is one to know they are getting better?

This is where the SPM comes in, build your team a racetrack. Absorb all the uncertainty and spit out a challenge, one the engineers will know for sure when it’s accomplished, be able to access their current position relative to it and understand how well they actually did.

From your fellow business managers, expect some skepticism, after all, the head of commerce brought in 10% more sales this quarter, what did you bring?

Good progress indicators help you demonstrate what you are doing and why it’s essential.

Make progress measurable.

In your opinion, what are the three most important objectives of a Software Project Manager? Talk to me in the comment section below, my Linked in chenchajacob  or my twitter @jchex

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Why have a deployment pipeline

 

When I was starting out on my software development path, I landed on a handy little trick.

On the root of the project, I would put in a new file deployment.md.

On this file, I would write out all the steps I took to deploy the code. This includes even code to ssh

ssh app@172.65.45.32

Use password: secret

This system worked quite well. After all, I was a lone wolf and everything I deployed needed to work on only one server.

Of course, nowadays the systems we write are not as trivial:

  • They require coordination across teams
  • Security is a key concern
  • Downtime is unacceptable
  • Different services run on different servers

With this new conditions, I have learnt to embrace a new concept, automated deployment pipelines.

In this entry, we shall be looking at the benefits to be experienced in deploying the new system.

Feedback to all teams involved

In deployment just as in development, you will come across errors, bugs as it were. You may think this is a problem, I don’t think it is, such is the nature of the world. The problem would be not knowing what is going wrong.

Automation helps in the sense the bug happens every single time, not just when the sloppy developer is pushing their code. This makes it far easier to diagnose and thus permanently fix the issue.

Furthermore, each team formally or otherwise has the DevOps expert. But what happens if the person gets sick and the system goes down?

A proper pipeline is a crystallization of this professionals knowhow, it can be used even in their absence. Even better, other devs can explore what he did to add to their own knowledge.

Less documentation

Documentation is a whole lot of fun, isn’t it?

Without a deployment pipeline, there must be documentation guiding the rest of the team on:

  • The steps to deploy
  • How they will know they have been successful
  • The various error states and how to recover

Even if you are able to successfully do this, the work quickly decays and there is no obvious way of seeing this happen.

A CD pipeline is in tune with your code. The moment it breaks, the code can’t go into production. This means:

  • The deployment pipeline will always be up to date
  • The steps are self-documenting

Basically unit tests on steroids.

Free up time

To carry out a successful deployment. The developer needs to have a working knowledge of :

  • Unix commands
  • Servers
  • Proxies and load balancing
  • Networking
  • Etc

Beyond trivial websites, the work is not child’s play.

Yet after the first time, it is very repetitive. Which creates the dilemma for you, hiring expensive staff to work on rote stuff and bad for the professional who gets to basically bang their head on the keyboard every day.

A deployment pipeline frees up the devs to work on high value creative work. You will notice this in the form of higher engagement from them.

Easy to verify

Suppose the work was outsourced, the consultants then give you a working system together with the source code.

What happens if for some reason it went down and you need to restart it?

Sure, you can always call them back in and trust somehow the developer who worked on it is still employed with them and has retained a working knowledge of your system.

Quite the gamble my friend.

Alternatively, they could show you during the demo which button to push to bring the whole system right back up!

In conclusion, automated deployment will make your life much easier. With the rising popularity of containerization and development of great orchestration tools like Kubernetes, you really have no excuse to still be doing manual deployments.

How do you deploy software in your own organization? Talk to me in the comment section below, my Linked in chenchajacob  or my twitter @jchex

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What NOT to do when someone pisses you off in a meeting

Kiss up and kick down is one of the more common phenomena in corporate environments. It makes sense, after all, bosses are able to offer rewards subordinates can’t.

So when you become a manager, you may be surprised to find there exists an entirely different paradigm, kiss down and kick up!

I have had bosses who I have taken to be some kind of demigod. They handled almost everything with grace and poise. To this leaders, I may have at times been aggressive to the point of being disrespectful.

Too commonly lesser managers have reacted in ways which made the situation worse. In this entry, will be discussing some of the things to avoid.

Ridicule the individual who has pissed you off

The need to revenge is deeply embedded within us. The story of Cain and Abel, a story of betrayal and revenge is literally one of the first stories in the bible.

Thus when we feel attacked, we will immediately feel a rush of emotion pushing us to give ’em all we got.

It doesn’t help our homegrown culture of “Mchongwano” has trained us on the art of snark.

Why it doesn’t work

Your reports know more about you than you do about them. If you think about it, there is nothing strange here, as their manager, you hold a dispropriate amount of control on events in their life. Companies depend on managers for reviews which then inform bonuses or even state of employment. To understand your boss is a survival strategy.

This means what you say may be taken personally affecting the person’s view of themselves. Even worse, you close yourself off to future feedback from the person and anyone else who may have been watching.

What to do instead

No one owns your emotional state. If you are angry, no one made you angry, you made yourself angry. Events in the world just are.

As Ryan holiday put it:

The perceiving eye is weak, he wrote; the observing eye is strong. Musashi understood that the observing eye sees simply what is there. The perceiving eye sees more than what is there. The observing eye sees events, clear of distractions, exaggerations, and misperceptions. The perceiving eye sees “insurmountable obstacles” or “major setbacks” or even just “issues.” It brings its own issues to the fight. The former is helpful, the latter is not.

Instead of reacting to whatever the person has said, be curious, try to understand why they said it.

If you are overwhelmed by emotion, take a break, go get a glass of water. Follow up with the offending individual later. This break will help you formulate a more useful response.

Chastise the whole team

Back when I was in primary school, one of our teachers called the entire class into the staff room. This was not a common occurrence. Neither was the big cane she was holding or the space created between the desks.

As it turns out, the class had performed very poorly, it seemed the best performing student had about 10/30. So she decided the best way to remedy it would be to administer the balance of marks to 30 as cane strokes.

This was not a good experience, it did not help later it was discovered she was using the wrong marking scheme.

While as a manager you hopefully don’t resort to physical abuse, verbally abusing the entire team is just as bad.

Why it doesn’t work

As humans, we naturally lean towards our groups for direction. Especially when feeling confused or afraid. When you attack the entire group, you characterize yourself as the enemy.

If you have ever participated in some kind of civil action, you must have experienced how fear of authority vanished under group fever.

Even if the team does not dramatically rise up against you, you will take hits in productivity. For knowledge workers, which all developers are, you need their commitment to your goal.

What to do instead

Take time off to reflect. Was the vision not clear? Was the team not empowered to act on it? Was there a major blocker which I was not aware of?

Call in a retrospective. This is not the time to blame anyone, you need to see what is going on as objectively as possible. Solicit feedback on how you can better define the objectives.

Finally, learn from your mistakes and move on.

Take over and make all the decisions

Winslow Taylor defined scientific management as knowing exactly what you want men to do and then see that they do it in the best and cheapest way.

Unfortunately, software developers and really all knowledge workers don’t take on too well to this paradigm.

If you feel you are dealing with a particularly idiotic individual or even worse team, the temptation may be to simply make all the hard decisions and give direct orders.

Why this doesn’t work

Modern products and companies that make them are complex. So much so that no individual human could ever fully understand the workings of a modern product, say a vehicle.

As Walter Powell put it:

There are a number of jobs that are based, in large measure, on either intellectual capital or craft-based skills, both of which have been honed through years of education, training and experience. Many of these kinds of knowledge-intensive activities, such as cultural production, scientific research, design work, mathematical analysis, computer programming or software development, and some professional services, require little in the way of costly peripheral resources. They are based on knowhow and detailed knowledge of the abilities of others who possess similar or complementary skills. Knowhow typically involves a kind of tacit knowledge that is difficult to codify

No matter how smart you are, the people working on the product will always have more details than you. This is not even a bad thing. It means your team can scale.

What to do instead

Embrace the power of the team, you see if everyone is working towards the same goal, they will make the continuous improvement on various aspects of the product making it better in ways you did not anticipate.

What you need then is come up with some kind of process with incentives which nudge the team towards good decisions.

How do you handle being kicked? Talk to me in the comment section below, my Linked in chenchajacob  or my twitter @jchex

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