Rules for nothing

Why do we have standards that assume people are trying to get away with doing less work, crappy work, and that they prefer to be selfish about it? These work rules are brute-force solutions to a problem that doesn’t really exist.

One blog entry from last year, “Look. This SOPA/PIPA Thing,” started out as an offhand blurb on my Facebook status. I think I spent two whole minutes writing it, which can be pretty effective when you know exactly what you want to say:

Rather than doing their own damn work chasing down copyright violators, they want to keep everyone off sites that *might* be used for unauthorized copying.

My favorite comment came from my old Grinnell College homie, Laura Allender Ferguson, who said simply: “Go Agile.” She was responding to my side-whine about the ever-changing requirements that we always get from software development clients.

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That's what my game is

My idol Naomi Dunford suggested that my fans and readers might not be clear on what I do and why it might matter to them. This makes me sad, because I want to be known for more than throwing rhetorical bombs on Twitter.

Don’t get me wrong, that guy deserved the slam on Twitter, seriously, but slamming isn’t my game. It’s not my whole game anyway.

So let me go answer some of Naomi’s questions here. Go ahead and fire back in the comments.

Q. What’s your game? What do you do?

A. Short answer: I take software projects that suck and make them not suck.

Real answer: Look, life is really hard. I’ve been working on one thing and the next, in about fifty organizations over the last fifteen years, and the same freakin’ things come up over and over again:

  • Everyone’s tired.
  • Everyone’s afraid for their job.
  • Everyone’s wasting time spinning wheels on stuff that doesn’t work.
  • Every software project is running late and pissing off the boss.
  • Every boss feels betrayed.
  • Every developer feels oppressed.
  • Software projects suck.

And I’m going huh. That shouldn’t be happening. I mean, this is ostensibly a “first world” country with tons of resources and lots of educated people who can do stuff. Software itself is complicated, but it shouldn’t be as hard as everyone is making it. Very often, we really do know how to make it better but for any of a thousand reasons doing the right thing seems to be beyond us.

And that’s my calling. It’s really quite simple. I take the things that are already actually known about making software projects go well and apply them to real life, so regular people can solve problems, live better, and maintain a certain level of sanity at work.

Q. Why do you do it? Do you love it, or do you just have one of those creepy knacks?

A. That’s a weird question, Naomi.

I happen to love having knacks for certain things. Is that creepy?

Also, I am in it for the love and the hugs. It’s so cool when I can help decrease the project suck factor so much they’re sad to see me go.

Q. Who are your customers? What kind of people would need or want what you offer?

A. If you manage, pay for, specify, benefit from, or try to oversee a software development project, and it sucks, we should totally talk.

Things that make you much more likely to benefit from working with me:

  • sense of adventure
  • willingness to be surprised
  • reasonable level of vulnerability

Things that make it very unlikely that you will benefit from working with me:

  • rather be comfortable than successful
  • like to be in control
  • quick to make up your mind about things
  • quite certain it’s not you

Not to go all New-Agey on you here, but Making Software Projects Not Suck is rarely just a matter of plugging away at code. I’ve had a few of those, but most of the time the problems are way deeper than that. Sometimes the things that Make Your Project Suck are the exact same things you love about the project: drama! action! involvement! Then you have to choose: would you rather have the drama or the success? Because having both is not an option.

I’ve even dealt with projects that, when you cut through the crap, are supposed to suck. Like one in which the lead developer was under the impression his job would end when the project did. Or one in which the project manager seriously couldn’t figure out how to live without the angst and panic. And there was the time–I’m not real sure about this one–but there was this kind of indentured-programmer setup and the boss kind of liked it that way. It was power.

So number one, the thing that totally stands out as the most important distinction, is that you have to want your project to not suck and you have to be willing to change. Okay, that’s actually two things.

Does that sound like therapy?

I guess it does. I’ve got people you can work with if what you want is real head-shrinking. That’s not my bag.

What is my bag is showing you the truth. Things like:

  • control isn’t progress
  • action isn’t accomplishment
  • progress isn’t a deliverable

If you’re up for that kind of challenge, let’s do it. If that scares you, then we should definitely do it. Buck up.

Q. What’s your marketing USP? Why should I buy from you instead of the other losers?

A. Losers? There are no losers in this.

But here are a few things that make my services unique:

  1. I help you get started using Agile practices (and feeling the Agile principles) at the tactical level. You can try one thing at a time–such as starting with pair programming–without having to commit to some big revolutionary cultural shift. It’s fine to experiment first.
  2. I’m attracted to, and effective with, the high-stress projects that make people crazy. I tone down the hype and make it easy to keep working  instead of panicking. I’m anti-drama.
  3. Unlike a lot of shops that offer “Agile coaching,” you can see my terms and fees up front, like here and here. I just think it would be weird to hide things like that in the sales cycle when so much of what I do is make your practices transparent. I’m asking you to open your shop and your mind. The least I can do is be upfront about my side of the exchange.
  4. I still write software myself most days. It’s not theory.
  5. There is homemade Indian food on Fridays, even though some purists object to the hot reddish-orange cast of my special aloogobi recipe. (It’s traditionally a yellow curry, and mild.)

Q. What’s next for you? What’s the big plan?

A. So glad you asked! I’m doing two things to make Project Desuckification more accessible even when I’m not.

The first thing

The first thing is that I’m documenting my processes a lot more diligently than I used to.

For example: before, I’d ask a few dozen questions before doing anything else with a new client. Now I write down a few dozen questions before asking. In a very recent meeting, I planned the whole interview, then diverged from the plan to follow some tangents, then got back to the plan so I could finish (almost) all of the questions.

That accomplished two things:

  1. I remembered to ask about some less-immediately obvious things that would have flown out of my head in the give and take of the conversation.
  2. I have a handy list as a jumping-off point for the next such initial meeting.

I’ll refine and augment the list in using it a few more times on successive projects. Before long it will be easy to turn that set of questions into a checklist, an article, a NOTACON presentation, or maybe even a Prfessor course.

So it goes with the other artifacts of Desucking: the emails that explain pair programming, my notes from debriefings, a particularly amusing burndown chart, bits of open source code. They’re resources for the next gig, but they’re also inputs for the next consolidated offering. Their specificity is what makes them so valuable; their universality is what makes them so useful.

At this point you’re probably wondering how I get away with ripping off all this stuff from clients who pay me to keep things private. I don’t do that! In fact, depending on the assignment, I ask them to join in my famous “Disclosure Agreement.” It protects their proprietary and confidential information, but makes clear that I can talk, blog, and publish everything else about the project. It’s like compost for desucking: useless where it came from, but invaluable for the next cycle.

The other thing

The other thing is simple timeline planning. Sure, I’m thrilled to death to help when your project already sucks. That’s my Thing. But unfortunately, projects reach the ultimate sucking point at unpredictable times, and there’s only one of me. They tend to pile up, and I have to turn someone down, and then their project still sucks.

So now I’m developing ways to make your project not suck before it even starts to suck. They’re principles and techniques that work at any time, are easy to implement, don’t require a lot of overhead, and make everyone more productive with less hassle.

That way I can plan ahead a little, and the potential clients can relax if I’m not right on the spot when things start to sink.

Most importantly and immediately, I’m developing some resources to help your team learn pair programming relatively quickly and get the most benefit from it. So far I’ve found that pairing is a very low-cost and simple way to get started with the Agile concept.

My research question: The managers who resist pair programming the most are the ones who just can’t wrap their heads around Agility. True or false?


There it is. That’s my game. Wanna play? It’s easy (and free) to start. Just dive into the comments, and if my way intrigues you, take a nice swim in the “Contrarian Guide to Making Software Projects Not Suck,” even though it’s an opt-in link. Because the weekly emails are even more fun than what’s on the blog.

What to ask first

Sometimes you can’t make the project not suck right away. You need to do a pre-unsucking project to figure out the actual unsucking.

Oh my. Here’s a Project That Sucks. It sucks so much I seriously don’t (yet) know how to make it not suck. How crazy is that?

Good thing I that Making It Not Suck isn’t the immediate task. My job now is Figuring Out How It Might Potentially Be Made To Not Suck. In other words, it’s a pre-desucking evaluation. The deliverables: one report with a recommended technical process, and one report with business recommendations.

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Pair programming sucks. That's okay.

The only thing worse than pair programming is NOT pair programming.

Pair programming is fundamentaly as simple as it sounds, but in practice it has many layers.

You know, one way to look at Agile is to observe that it’s simply an attitude that recognizes that software is done by real people who have complicated personalities. Tasks don’t get done just because they’re next up on the Gantt chart, they get done because a human person has his or her head together enough to think clearly and figure them out.

That’s the nature of creative work. Thus, you’ll often find that production doesn’t equal resources multiplied by time on task. If you care about your project, cultivate the conditions that help yourself and others do their best work. And pairing, done well, helps bring about such conditions.

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Why pair programming is kind of cool

Pair programming is easy to get started with and carries a low risk of failure. Try it because it works, but also because you’ll like it.

If pair programming feels threatening at first, you’re normal. Two developers, one keyboard… yuck. If you’re like me, you want your own space, and you get a kind of rhythm going with mid-compile checking email and stuff. Taking that away during pair programming time sounds like it would be incredibly awkward.

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