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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- I still write software myself most days. It’s not theory.
- 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:
- 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.
- 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.
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.
If you’re a fan here, or if you’ve had more concrete experiences of working on Agile software teams, you probably have a good sense of how well the Agile values and practices can really work.
Problem: Not everybody sees that. Especially (perhaps) your boss or project sponsor.
A couple of weeks ago, a question turned up on the BaseCamp site we use to coordinate one of my projects. One programmer asked what we thought of a certain calculation he was setting up on the database. It had to do with accumulating “rating” points of an item in a tree-shaped threaded discussion.
So this week I’m seeing on the KanBan:
- #101: “I want to be able to comment on a comment.”
- #102: “I want to be able to post a question in response to a comment.”
- #103: “I want to be able to post a comment or a question.”
- #104: “I want to be able to post an answer to a question.”
- #105: “I want to be able to comment on the conversation as a whole.”
This is oversimplified and (only very slightly) dramatized, but you see the overlap and the potential for confusion. These story cards are blocking a ton of other work that needs to be done in the next couple of weeks. And they’ve been claimed by different developers!
A note on process…
…as well as a reminder of today’s Weekly Scrum meeting. I’m notifying everyone (including executives and non-technical managers) because you’re all invited to join today’s meeting as chickens, and because you might be interested in the process summary. If this stuff bores you, sorry about that. [And something about how to turn off the notifications.]
First off, the Scrum will start at 5pm. If other “pigs” will be in the office I will join you, so let me know. But we will also be on Skype (where I’m MarkWSchumann). Other pigs are: [names elided]
If you care to join the Scrum as a chicken (i.e., involved but not committed), that’s fine–let me know and we’ll include you.
End of announcement. Beginning of process talk.
For those newly tuning in or just standing by, the Scrum meeting is really really simple. Everyone in turn answers Three Questions:
- What did you get done since the last Scrum meeting?
- What do you plan to do before the next Scrum meeting?
- What obstacles do you have?
I’m gonna say something here.
The answers to these questions are often a variation on “I screwed up, and this is how I screwed up, and this is how it’s affecting my team.” Let me be clear about one thing: The process doesn’t work if you can’t be totally honest. Okay, two things: People aren’t gonna be totally honest next week if you make them regret this week’s honesty.
So if Alice admits she caused a blockage because she bit off more than she could chew, no fair scolding her about the same exact thing on Monday. She already spilled her guts. Don’t make her do it again. (She’ll wonder why she bothered to suffer that experience the first time if it didn’t count.) And if Bob tells you he botched some code and has to do it all over again, appreciate the fact that he said so. Don’t make it all dramatic. Just help him fix it and move on.
And the Scrum should go really quickly–maybe about three minutes per pig I guess. And zero minutes per chicken, because chickens don’t get to talk in Scrum meetings. If an obstacle can’t be resolved instantly, we take it out of the meeting to talk about later.
This is not really a Scrum shop.
That’s been implicit all along, but now I’m actually saying it.
Scrum has burndown charts and a different kind of backlog system and an explicit kind of connection to management, among other things. We don’t need those. I think.
We’re more of a Kanban shop that has Scrum-like meetings. Which a lot of teams do.
I’m gonna draw everyone’s attention to the online Kanban system we have at AgileZen: [url elided] If you don’t have access to this, you should. I don’t care if you’re technically on the dev team or not–there is really one team here, and in a face-to-face workplace the Kanban would be an actual physical board placed where everyone can see it.
If you want to know why the heck stuff isn’t getting done, this would be the first place to look. That’s the transparency thing.
Very briefly, each “card” is supposed to move from the (sometimes hidden) Backlog column at way left, through the various columns, and into the (sometimes hidden) Archive column at way right. Cards edged in green are Ready to be pulled to the right. Cards edged in red are Blocked and need help.
I encourage everyone on the dev team to watch for Blocked cards throughout the board. You can often help with one that’s not currently in your own primary area of work.
Nondisclosure agreements don’t usually come with an expiration date, but this story is so old nobody will care. Still, names have been changed to protect… oh… me.
I was doing this Clipper-on-Unix project (yes!) in 1996. It was a really big deal. The idea was to migrate a rather large vertical application from FoxPro on SCO Xenix (doesn’t that make you smile already?) to FlagShip on Linux. We would add a few major features, mainly interfaces to credit cards and some application-specific hardware. We had a few months to do it, and I was the only Clipper guy. (And by the way, can I just say that FlagShip itself was all kinds of awesome?)
I wrote about this phenomenon in a different context about a week ago, but it’s come up again. Twice is a coincidence, three times is a pattern, right?
I was talking to a client the other day about a thousand things, in the space of half an hour. There were a few things that stung badly, but one of them was to the effect that I wasn’t managing the developers very well.
Regular fans are surely aware of my “funny and accurate” (says Steve Belovich) paper on the eight reasons “Why Your Software Project Sucks.” I kept it to eight because you have to stop somewhere, and also because I have this nifty photo of myself with a “Magic 8-Ball” to go with it.
But today I’m re-encountering an issue not on my original list of eight. It’s the one where you can’t possibly fulfill expectations because the client is not your client.