Sources of uncertainty in a software project

Years ago, I discovered the power of process. Through the work of David Allen and his GTD Process by following a simple process I no longer dropped balls in my work.

When I started managing people and projects, I figured if there is a process for managing my life, surely, there must be one for managing teams. As it turns out, there was, scrum is an incredibly powerful technique for enabling teams to self-organize and deliver value.

On this path, I have come to realize the process is not enough. In fact, it seems the question “What is our process” is not as valuable as asking “How are we managing our risk”.

It seems no matter how much you stick to the process, the universe has an unlimited number of curve balls all lined up for you.

In this entry, we will be looking at some of the more common sources of uncertainty in software projects.

System requirements

Time and material model of software development is still dominant. I don’t even blame the industry, after all, once you get high enough in the organization, features against a budget is a first good approximation of the ROI of your dev teams.

The only problem with this view is it ignores the aspect of time.

You see, the more the time, the more the events which imply the business has evolved at a rate dictated by its market and innovation pace. It follows previously valid and useful requirements are no longer aligned with what the business needs.

I have come to find, in real businesses, there are no well-poised problems. What you will have to learn to deal with messes.

How will you cast these problematic situations to problems your dev team can solve?

Available engineers

The advent of coding schools has really helped alleviate the general problem of lack of developers. Unfortunately, they have not done much for the population of senior developers.

It’s very different to build a toy problem that calculates tax to be paid vs building a full-on accounting module taking into account all the nuances of the Kenyan tax code.

Even if you are able to solve the problem of getting experienced engineers in, you now face the secondary problem of ensuring they understand your business.

I have been in two-hour brainstorming sessions to understand how to map common directions parlance to how our business thinks about locations. How do you onboard this knowledge to a new engineer?

What would you do if your longest serving engineer receives an offer from Google?

Organizational politics

Your first true brush with power will be in an organizational setting.

As long as you had sane parents and teachers, probably the worst that could happen to you would be a good spanking, nothing to fret about.

Your boss, on the other hand, has the ability to infringe some major pain in your life.

In this kind of setting power can be used to trump reality with disastrous effects.

HiPPO (highest paid person’s opinion) means the organization may never achieve alignment. How can you build a software product when different stakeholders in the same organization demand mutually exclusive features?

How do you handle uncertainty in your own organization? Talk to me in the comment section below or on my twitter @jchex

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How to mess up an already messed up schedule

In the recent past, I have found myself where no project manager wants to be. A deadline is fast coming and despite commitments from the developers, unless Jeff Dean joins the team you are screwed.

I will admit, on the way here I made a lot of mistakes, the most important being I failed to bound my uncertainty. You see when we started missing key milestones, I knew for sure we would not make the release date. The problem is I didn’t know how much we were to miss it, would it be a day? a month? a year?

In such situations, panic is practically inevitable. It’s only the most sophisticated companies that don’t jump into the code and fix model at the expense of a solid development practice.

In this entry, I will be sharing some of what I learnt and what we did to get to where we were.

Add more staff

If takes 5 painters 8 days to paint a house, how long would it take 10 painters to paint the same house?

You must have come across such a question in your high school math. How well do you think it plays out in the real world?

Suppose the contractor painting the house is in a tight market, after the first 5 expert painters, it became much harder to recruit new painters so the remaining 5 are either novice or intermediate, how does the math work out then?

What if the house must be painted sequentially?

What am alluding to is the ideal situation never plays out in the real world. These models gloss over a reality known to all managers, people are fundamentally unequal, diversely endowed in mental capacity, agreeableness and stick-to-it-ive-ness.

Further, new members are generally not as productive, no matter their technical knowledge, they are lacking in domain knowledge which is arguably more important.

In short, when its crunch time, you are better off sticking with your existing team.

Cancel continued education

Let us think for a second about the painters from the last section. If you are the owner of the house and you know there is a tornado coming your way, would now be the best time to be painting?

When faced with a crisis, the immediate reaction is to shut down all optimistic activities. What is the point of learning if you will never get to use the knowledge?

In this case, continued education will act as our proxy for all long-term capacity building activities which have no immediate tangible benefits.

The problem with this approach is you never really fix the fundamental problem. For example, when we noted a certain technology was not working out, the solution was to double down on what we already knew, this solved the problem then but later the same problem manifested but now in a different form, new features suddenly had an exponentially longer delivery time.

Even in the most dreary of times, you can not afford to ignore the education of your developers. It’s one of the key factors which when there encourage motivation and when not there drain it.

Extend the work day

There is something visceral about seeing people in the office doing the work. Just like the number of painters problem, the number of hours per painter is a variation of the same kind of thinking.

Here is what David Allen has to say on the topic:

 How much does it take to have a good idea?  Zero.  You don’t need time.  You need room in your head

I don’t believe any developer can code continuously for more than 6 hours. Add in breaks and you have a hard limit on a 9 hour work day. Anything more and you literally have zombies in the office, let them go home.

Software development is a creative exercise time does not matter as much as clarity of direction and mental space to think through ideas. This arises naturally when the developers have had a chance to rejuvenate themselves and spent time with their families.

Further, an insidious outcome of this move is people find a way to compensate. Suddenly people are sick more often or even just spend more time goofing around.

In conclusion, when things go wrong, don’t panic, orient yourself to the new reality come up with a revised plan and stick to the process.

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Managing constructive disagreement

I am a big fan of constructive disagreement as you may have noted from a previous entry Working with sceptics to new practices.

To understand why you need to see how we usually consume information. For example, if you come across the statement:

Alcohol boils at 82C

What is the chance that you will stop whatever you are doing and confirm this fact?

Now imagine if you were in the middle of an argument with someone about which temperature to set your distiller, they say 78C you say 82C. Now, what is the chance you will actually take the time to research on this piece of data?

You see, arguments help us kick in our reasoning, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber in their paper Why do humans reason? Arguments for an argumentative theory state:

Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation.

Now obviously being in the middle of a disagreement is no fun, in this entry, we will be looking at what I think are some good practices to manage profitable disagreements.

What is the history of the team

Every team has a history. Sometimes you find yourself in a situation where some members of the team have nothing but vile for their colleagues. You can usually tell by the thinly veiled contempt remarks being thrown around.

In this kind of situation, no argument is worth even pursuing, your focus at this point in time should be in fixing the broken relationship.

It is no use trying to establish who is right, simply focus on forgiveness and the need to cooperate before anything meaningful can be done.

Keep calm

People generally have two natural conflict management strategies. One camp can be described as conflict seekers the other as avoiders.

The seekers have no qualms about speaking out their minds while avoiders will seek to preserve the relationship.

Personally, I am an avoider, I prefer it when everything is going smoothly and see no need for an argument for arguments sake. Yet I understand always avoiding conflict is the route to becoming a doormat.

It is imperative you understand your own disposition as well as your team members’. In this way, you can manage unproductive behaviors when they rear their ugly heads.

From seekers you can expect:

  • Public ridicule or insult of the other party
  • Shouting over the other decisions
  • Strong arming

From the avoiders you can expect:

  • Storming out of the meeting
  • Agreement without commitment (worse than disagreement)
  • Disengagement

Furthermore, don’t let yourself get lost to anger. Yes, it usually gets everyone in tow but at the cost of psychological safety.

Have some ground rules

You can not manage disagreement by fiat. Even if you get everyone to agree with you, what you now have is compliance not commitment. Even worse, you can find yourself dealing with a full blown mutiny.

Most developers are already sticklers for doing things right. Thus when there is a point to be made, avoid mystique about where you are coming from.

Focus on the process of arriving at decisions rather than the decisions. There is a reason rule of the law works better than the wisest of kings

Some sensible ground rules would be:

  • Don’t interrupt a speaker
  • Don’t use the phone or laptop as the other person is speaking
  • Always respect meeting times

Maintain participation

A disengaged individual literally sucks the energy out of the group. It is simply more effective to have the person not in the room at all.

I find one of the greatest joys in this world is intellectual communion with peers on matters of substance. I believe as long as you keep the conversation meaningful, there will be participation.

With that said, some people just don’t do well in big groups. In particular, you may end up with a situation where only the ideas from extroverts are brought to the fore and argued out.

To bring in the more silent introverts, you may need a different form of participation, say by having people either split up into small groups of two or three to discuss or write out their opinion on a piece of paper and send it to the front.

How do you deal with disagreement within your own teams? Talk to me in the comment section below or on my twitter @jchex

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