Monday, July 11, 2011

Experience and Learning

In the past few months I've heard a couple of stories about (in effect) the disadvantages of experience when it comes to innovation and productivity. A Story on WBUR on July 5, 2011
discussed how venture capitalists tend to favor young entrepreneurs, as having never learned the wrong things in business they don't know what's possible or impossible.  In one quote a VC said:
One thing I love about these people is they don’t know what they don’t know. They don’t fear failure. They don’t mind risk...

A March 6, 2011 story on NPR on the pros and cons of raising the retirement age made reference to to an article in Foreign Policy which asserted that younger workers have advantages in the workforce since they learned more recent technology in school.

While new skills and new perspectives can add a lot to a team, is the best way to get these skills to simply hire people who know only what they learned in school? Is anyone you know who is a successful, productive, software developer only working with skills and perspectives that they had when they graduated school? I suspect that the answer is "no." And do people who are new to a field fall often fall into avoidable traps because they don't have the experience to know that the traps were lurking?

In any field it's important to be continually learning. I've worked with recent grads who seems to now be aware of important, new technical subjects, and with people with 30+ years of experience who were the people I learned many new things from.

The important thing in both of these cases isn't "new-ness or experience" but an ability to keep an open mind, learn, and "embrace change" (to borrow an expression from an agile software development method).

In the book The Cat Who Walks through Walls, the subject of the title could walk through walls because she was too young to know that she could not. While having this mindset is useful, there are ways to achieve it without being inexperienced or ignorant.

As the WBUR story concluded: "In this day and age, forget about age. All you need to start is a fresh idea."

To be a successful agile team you need a mix of perspectives and experiences and a willingness to learn from each other.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Happiness and Agility

Agile development practices at their core, have a common theme of making better use of the time spent developing software. This starts at the project level and continues down to the developer day-to-day-activities. Consider an agile iteration. The team starts the iteration with a clear sense of the priorities for the sprint, and pretty good understanding of the project scope.  Having estimated and committed to getting the work done,  the team also has a sense that the goal is attainable. The team members then collaborate to get the work done as a team.

While we can see how this might make for an efficient delivery process, consider how agile practices relate to enjoyment and morale on the team. In the paper If Money Doesn't Make You Happy, Consider Time,  Jennifer Aaker,  Melanie Rudd, and Cassie Mogilner discuss five principles for spending time in a  happiness-maximizing way. Some of these seem like a bit of as stretch, but there is a lot to be said about the relationship between a workplace using agile practices agile, and the teams being effective and happy. Consider how the 5 principles could map to agile practices:
  • Spend your time with the right people. If you on a collaborative, self organizing team,  committed to reaching a common goal, it's hard to argue that you are with the wrong people.
  • Spend your time on the right activities. The authors of the paper also use the phrase maximizing the value of the present moment.  If you've done your planning right, you have a good sense of what you are working on both for the sprint and each day. If your team is working on a project with an involved product owner, then you know that you are working on something useful.
  • Enjoy the experience without spending the time. The premise here is that one can feel pleasure by thinking of a good result. Activities ranging from planning, to test driven development to retrospectives seem to fit here.
  • Expand your time. This principle is about having control over your time. Since the team is self organizing and decides how to get work done, you should have a fair amount of control over what you are working on and when.
Using an agile process can't guarantee happiness, or even that you team does all of these things. You can have a poorly defined product backlog, a less than collaborative team environment, or a micromanaging product owner or manage, for example.

But agile is more  than just a product planning process that increases predictability It can also increase productivity and (as Brian Marick said during an Agile 2008 Keynote) Joy.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Specialization, Generalization, and Effectiveness in Software Teams: Clinical Metaphors

I was thinking about the relative value to a team of a developer with specific skills (say UI development) versus adding someone who was more of an end-to-end developer. Two stories about medical practice that provided some insight into the question.

I recently read Better, Atul Gawande's book about improvement in medical professions. In this book he relates a story of a clinic in rural India that is poorly staffed and funded, and where doctors manage to successfully perform procedures that are outside the realm of their training. They are able to practice these skills effectively and saved lives.

A story on This American Life, discussed a doctor  in Kermit, Texas who practices in areas beyond his stated training, with poor results. In the end nurses who worked with the doctor filed complaints against him for mistreating patients. This doctor worked alone, and collected information from questionable sources, and ignored the availability of better qualified resource near by.

In both situations doctors practiced beyond their training, yet in one case this improved care, in the other it degraded care.  Two of the key differences seemed to be that the doctors in India frequently met to discuss each other's cases and learn from each other, and  the doctors in india worked beyond their area of specialization in order to keep the clinic functioning and performing useful work. There was no way to wait for a specialist to do the work, and still keep the patient alive.  Gawande credits the camaraderie of the group in India as well as their daily discussions of their cases, their decisions, and why they made those decisions, for their ability to improve their range of practice.

Even though the dynamics in software teams differ from those in a hospital, there are lessons from these stories that software teams can apply to better develop teams of generalizing specialists, and more effective agile developers:

  • An ethic of continual learning, both from outside resources and each other can help a team of generalizing specialists to be effective; Having the ability to work across a stack isn't as important as a willingness and ability to learn how to fill gaps in knowledge.
  • The flow of the project is  important  to consider when deciding who should work on a task, consider the overall flow of the project. If the specialist is available, there you may as well have the "expert" work on the task (after the team agrees on an approach ). But if waiting for the specialist would delay the project, and there are other people on the team who don't have a full backlog of work, consider having someone else work on it. The specialist can provide advice, and perhaps improve on the work later. But you will have functional software sooner.
  • It's important to take time to review and discuss decisions as a cross-functional team to understand what you did, and what you can do better next time.
So it seems like it's best add to a person to a team who has a skill that the team might be weak in, but who enjoy working on the whole application when the team thinks it makes sense. Self-organizing, cross-functional teams are a central part of agile practice, and the combination is important. Just having cross functional people doesn't work; they need to work as part of a team working towards a common goal.

Site Reliability Engineering; The Book and The Practices

Site Reliability Engineering It’s difficult to walk into a software development organization without hearing about the discipline of Site ...