Friday, December 31, 2010

Look to the code before blaming your new global resources.

I hear it all the time, "Our offshore team members are having a heck of time meeting our project goals for time and quality". But are you to quick to blame the new people when it's old code that is actually at fault?

Consider the following little history:

An application I had inherited used EHCache to reduce load on Database by storing application defaults. It was optimized to preload all Caches at Server startup time. As a result the code has always been a little slow to start up, what with 62 separate objects, each configured as its own independent cache loader.

The real pain began once the company added new global resources to the project, the offshore team members were consistently missing deadlines, and quality, well ... it left us 'underwhelmed'. I'm embarrassed to say this state of affairs lasted 6 months. Until one day - adopting some agile team practices, I chanced upon the real root of the problem.

Turns out this DB chatty load process could take up to ONE HOUR to load all 62 caches for the offshore team! Suffice it to say, it's probably unreasonable to expect a highly productive developer when the developer can hope at best to confirm only 4-5 changes per day...

New Lessons to Live By?

* Make time with sit with new team members as they integrate with your code, new eyes will reveal old problems!
* Demos don't lie, I'm sure the offshore team had mentioned "things ran slow", too bad we had accepted "slow" in the US side.
* Test network latency early and often, it is a hurdle you can't just throw hardware at!
* Code needs unit-tests. Unit tests would have forced us to design for DB independence, improving both US and offshore productivity for incremental changes to the 'legacy code'

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Developer Speak for Project Managers - Translating the Percent Done

As a developer, I've tried a variety of ways to convert my innate sense of 'doneness' into a percentage for the weekly status report: Wild Ass Guess, percent hours spent vs time estimated, re-estimating time to completion. In the end, I've decided that once the project is in development, time or percent estimates are ultimately useless. or as I read recently "Nobody will remember when a project started or finished, but they'll be reminded of every mistake you made, daily for the life of the product"

In my experience developers, by and large, do try to be truthful in their estimates. The problem is code is a human endeavor, there will be misses, there will be changes, there will be unforeseen problems. If you're a PM measured on success of the project outcome (rather than success at project process), what you need is a handy way to covert standard developer status speak into an objective measure of progress.

Developer Speak: "I'm 90-95% done with that feature"
Translation: "What's done is done, I'm not touching this code until QA finds a bug. That missing 5% is my notifying the PM that I expect them to find something, they always find something. I may also have taken a few shortcuts that will slow down development next cycle."

How to respond: Ask for a demo, today. Developers, by and large, take pride in their work, having them demo a job well done is not only a useful check, it's a chance to show interest and appreciation for all that hard work. If the demo fails to meet your expectations, isn't it better you know right now, and not weeks down the line?

Developer Speak: "I'm 75 - 85% done with that feature"
Translation: "I'm confident that the code I have works, for everything I know about. I'm putting this on the shelf to see if I missed anything."

How to respond: This as a request for help, assign someone for informal demo and code review. Ask to be informed of findings, and a revised estimate to complete the feature. This is where developers feel most uncertain, there's always more than one way to solve a problem, and they've still got some open questions if they're on the right one. A peer review can quickly help to clarify the options and may help them to save time by dropping attempts to over-engineer a solution.

Developer Speak: "I'm 25% - 35% done with that feature"
Translation: "I think I understand how this is going to work, and my first attempts at code compile"

How to respond: Ward off problems early. Ask for a test case review. The project crippling problems start here, and lack of a test plan or an inadequate test plan is your surest, best warning sign a developer is out of their depth and will benefit from guidance and support from the senior team members.

What gets measured gets done. You can reward your team for generating numbers that give a temporary false sense of success, or you can reward your team for producing quality code that meets business needs. It's all in how what you choose to hear.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Get A Clue From The Clueless

"Why is my <manager>|<project>|<pointy-haired boss> so clueless"?

If you had a dime for every time you found yourself asking this question, would you have retired by now? It's the catch 22 for a developer, you have tons of code to write and test, but also tons of interruptions and meetings to talk about when you'll be able to finish your work. Worse yet, they're so out of touch with technology, they offer no help if you do run into a real problem, am I right? Completely Clueless, proof positive of the Peter Principal in action.

Or are we developers missing something, blinded by our brilliant technical skills?

Early in my career my father gave this advice: "Don't dismiss anybody. They have their job for some reason, be it a skill, knowledge they hold, or a personality trait. Find out what it is they know that you don't and learn from it."

If we take a step back and apply a little logic, that clueless manager is likely higher in the food chain than you, which means that at some point they've had to impress somebody to get promoted. They get to keep that job only so long as they continue to fulfill the business's needs. These facts would contradict our original hypothesis, perhaps those clueless managers aren't so clueless after all?

The reality is a manager has to be aware of and answer to the business reality. It's never just a matter of "will it work?" but "when will it work and at what cost?". No matter how good an idea seems on paper, ultimately it's got to look good in a project plan to be worth money from a project sponsor. Businesses survive because of Profitable Success.

So a challenge to you if you are struggling with a clueless manager. For the next few months, but aside your assumptions about what your boss needs to hear and instead open up and really listen to what they are asking for. For example you can start with the following exercises:

1) Switch from a pull to a push status model. If you don't know already, ask your boss what day of the week they report the project status up the chain. Then prepare your status report to them a day earlier and send it (put the reminder in your calendar!). Be ready to clarify anything they have questions on.

I've found that after a few weeks as my boss learned to trust my report, more importantly I learned how to phrase things to get my boss's attention when needed, those annoying interruptions to explain current project state dropped off to almost nothing.

2) Use your boss's words back at them: If your boss talks in percentages report percentages, If your boss likes hours talk in hours. Whatever your internal project clock is, figure out a formula to convert to their measure and stick to it consistently.

My company requires percentages. My boss likes hours. I only trust completed test cases. My solution was a spreadsheet that tracked hours worked then subtracted that from hours estimated, generating a total hours remaining and percentage complete. If my test cases success % matched these raw numbers, I knew project was on track. When my test case % started slipping, I adjusted the raw numbers down and more importantly, communicated how I would catch up with the plan. Turns out my boss is not a complete ogre, and offered up solutions other than overtime to get things back on track. (It helps that she's being measured on keeping week to week consistency. who knew?)

3) Temper your innate optimism and supreme confidence in your god-like technical skills. Leave room for a little self-doubt. Chances are your manager has seen all kinds of ways that projects fail: technical, political, financial. Chances are also that your manager is where they are because they've survived those various disasters, and earned the credit for saving what they can. Ask your boss for war stories. Turns out while technology moves forward, the fundamental problems facing software development haven't. Your boss has likely moved through all kinds of fads, vaporware, and religions. Likely, they've survived by paying attention to some eternal truths, and not limited their career to the buzzword of the day.