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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Are you still agile?

 

Some of the most basic principles in productivity are ignored on the basis of it being too stiff. For example, the advise you should put everything you want to do on the calendar is usually met with some form of trepidation, after all, who wants to live their life in a straight jacket!

Yet, there is a certain freeing dimension to it, you now can be sure what you want to do actually has some scheduled time to it. This effect however only kicks in if you also realize you own your calendar, you can switch things around if you wish, subject of course to other work constraints.

Agile practices offer you a similar kind of freedom. In fact it does you one better, you can even change the structure of some of its most prominent variant, scrum, to whatever best fits your organization!

But then, when does agile stop becoming agile?

In this entry, I will be exploring some of the core characteristics of agile which I believe if you are not doing, you need to call your practice something other than agile.

Is there a timebox?

Scrum depends on timeboxes.

I believe a timebox is so important, it’s not even just a scrum or even agile principle, it is a life principle!

A timebox does to your life what a budget does to your finances. Without a budget, your money will likely disappear to the first expenses which happen to occur. A budget helps you be mindful of other important expenses which may not be as immediate but are as important.

In a previous entry, I discuss why and how to timebox.

If you ever find your team working endlessly with nothing to show for it, you are probably violating these principles.

Are features working?

Life happens, sometimes you are just not able to deliver on everything you said you would.

I used to work with a developer whose goto statement was:

This is just about done

It seemed all features were 90% done and nothing was ever 100% done. Thankfully, he has since moved past this stage and now provides fully functioning features useful to our end users.

If you find yourself in a similar state and still continue as if nothing has happened, then you are living in some form of denial.

As humans, we are good at recognizing when something is done or not done. The various shades of incompleteness bring nothing but confusion to the team.

It is tempting to mark a task/feature as complete if it does look nearly complete, but as our product manager likes to remind me:

If you tick of this feature, you are being dishonest with yourself, it needs to first reviewed, integrated and documented

Is the backlog prioritized by business value?

After being with Twiga for a couple of months, I was getting quite confident in my knowledge of the product.

In fact, I was quite sure I knew more about the product than say the agents its meant to serve who only use it as opposed to us who build it.

Such hubris never takes you to a good place.

I was relieved of this disillusion from a field trip where I observed one of the agents use a trick to quickly add a new delivery, a functionality not officially provided.

At this moment, I came to realize the end users of a product have access to a certain view of the product not available to myself or anyone else in the development team. Just because you wrote it does not mean you have hands-on experience using it.

This incident taught me not only an important lesson in humility but also, your backlog should not reflect your priority, it should be an expression of what your end users care the most about.

Are there estimates?

A common pushback when asking for an estimate from the developer team is we have no idea how long this will take.

I don’t think this is ever true.

Let’s take an example of my trip to work this morning. Will it take exactly one hour from my gate to the office?

Probably not.

Does saying it will not take one hour of any use? Does that mean it will take 2? Maybe 12 hours? Of course, I know from experience this is also not true.

In fact, I can say with confidence, over the last 30 days, it has taken me between 30 mins to 1.5 hours to get to the office. With this information, I can guesstimate with 90% probability if I leave the house at 7 am, I will arrive at between 7:30 and 8:30 am.

The numbers above may not be pinpoint accurate but they sure as hell do communicate a lot more than I will not reach at 8 am.

Furthermore, if I now actively start tracking my estimate vs actual values and reflecting on possible causes of variance. I generally get better at my estimation.

The questions above are not meant to be comprehensive, but I have come to find by constantly asking them. We are able to evaluate if we are still on the right path in our process.

How do you know you are still agile? Talk to me in the comment section below or on my twitter @jchex

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