A quest for software excellence...

Seek to Establish a Corporate Culture of Honesty

In April of this year, an executive of another company told me in a telephone conversation, "Everybody lies. You just have to get used to it."

I was stunned by the statement and have given it a lot of thought since then. It reminded me of a scene from Babylon 5 that went something like this:

Garibaldi: Everybody lies.
Edgars: That's a very sad view of the universe, Mr. Garibaldi.
Garibaldi: Yeah, well, it's the only one I got. And it works for me.
Edgars: The truth will be revealed in a couple of days. How many people can say that?
Garibaldi: I don't know. But I think the last guy got thirty pieces of silver for the same job.

Dishonesty in this technological age has even produced its own vocabulary, specifically the verb "to blag." The third definition of "blag" in the Urban Dictionary:

To convince another person that all the stuff you just made up is in fact true and worthy. Example: "Caught in a tight spot, Harry blagged his way through the conversation and somehow got the job."

I do not wish to accept the dim view that everybody lies. And I certainly do not wish to get used to it, in any way shape or form. And yet there is growing evidence both anecdotally in my own professional career and globally that the enterprise often creates a dishonest culture. Author Brian Amble in Management Issues filed a piece in 2005 entitled Corporate Culture Encourages Lying. The author mentions "blagging" and makes these three very interesting points:

"The rot starts at the top, revealing a surprisingly ambivalent attitude amongst...bosses towards the honesty – or otherwise - of their staff."

"The vast majority of company directors and senior managers believe it is wrong for their employees to lie to them. But almost half are comfortable with those same employees telling untruths on their behalf to their customers – with female bosses even more tolerant of this sort of behavior than their male colleagues."

"[Microsoft] encourages decision-making [using a] technology-based process that creates permanent digital records and maintains the integrity of the information on which those decisions are based."

In my experience blagging is most especially prevalent in the world of software development where management clings to the notion, and consultants sell the latest process magic to reaffirm the assumption, that building software is like building a house, sufficiently predictable and repeatable so as to accurately establish a firm budget, timeline and resource commitment before ground is broken. Software artisans then find themselves in the very uncomfortable position of feeling pressured to lie to their patron bosses who clearly do not wish to know that building software is often as much an unpredictable art as it is in any way a predictable science.

Software craftsmen who boldly stand their ground and declare, "I don't know how long it will take to build that," are more often attacked and labeled malcontent and misfit, shunned by managers who insist that they can bend reality to their will while they ignore what their experts have told them. And lower management who know better are caught in the ultimate catch 22. They may believe their lead developers or software architects when they say, "we cannot deliver all these features on that date," but they cannot report that fact to their own managers or customers, so they choose to lie in order to protect and even advance their own career knowing that if the implementation team fails, they may avoid accountability by throwing the developers under the bus, asserting the implementation team is incompetent and ought to be replaced.

Given the impossible circumstances in which software craftsmen find themselves, they often resort to lying to themselves and their bosses asserting that they can produce some piece of software, despite the general lack of specific requirements and understanding of the problem domain or the target users, within the time budget and resource constraints imposed by management. And then in order to avoid being exposed as just another blagger, the software artisan (or collectively the team) works impossible hours, makes imprudent quality compromises and desperately seeks for external circumstances which can be blamed for delays. Knowing that such responsibility diverting opportunities always arise, the software artisan begins to accept and even embrace the culture of lies produced by her circumstances until she does not even recognize the truth.

I know that this scenario is not universal. There are organizations who take great steps, incorporating technology and constant vigilance, to avoid the traps of dishonesty. These organizations are led by honest people who genuinely listen to their people and avoid the trap of boxing their software craftsmen into a set of assumptions that are untenable at best and downright foolish at worst. Dr. Rhonne Sanderson said it best in an article by Marcia A. Reed-Woodard entitled Don't lie to me: dishonesty can ruin professional and personal relationships:

"Although lying provides an easy out in the short-term, it comes with serious repercussions," says Dr Rhonne Sanderson, a Dallas--Fort Worth area licensed psychotherapist. He maintains that the fallout from lying can hurt others, ruin relationships, as well as rob the liar of integrity, credibility, confidence, and self-esteem. "Lying only exacerbates the real problem."

If we let honesty govern our dealings with our fellow man, we will all be the better for it. We do not need to sacrifice civility for honesty, nor should we mistake an honest disagreement for disrespect or insubordination, for when we do, we encourage others to be dishonest through their silence.

We can boldly speak the truth and expect others to do so. We can hold ourselves and others to account. We need not settle for the notion that everybody lies. And we certainly do not need to get used to it. We can and ought to do and be better.

Fear Corrupts Process and Assures Failure

A certain angel investor chose three companies in which to invest a relatively large sum. In the first, he invested $10 million. In the second, he invested $5 million. And in the third, he invested $1 million. A year later, the first had doubled in value because it had boldly used the capital to execute on its business plan. The second company had also doubled in size because they had taken the investment and worked very hard to grow their business. The third company had run into some problems and was afraid of losing their capital, so they did nothing and had nothing to show for it. The angel investor liquidated his interest in the third company and those people are now looking for work.

Yes, I’ve borrowed the plot for that story from someone much wiser than me. But it applies in today’s world of technology and software development as much as it applies to the context for which it was originally told. Fear paralyzes us into inaction or into making unwise choices which almost always result in the corruption of otherwise sound business processes and just as often leads to complete and utter failure.

One of the greatest fears in software development that corrupts process and assures failure is the fear to tell the client or customer no. In the world of software development, especially in internal enterprise software development, the fear of saying no can be so paralyzing that we often place impossible burdens on teams already pushed to their limits. The fear of saying no can lead us to short circuit our process, skip critical steps and gloss over real analysis and careful design. The fear of saying no can lead to general discord when a team member objects and the manager angrily brushes her off, dismissing her concerns as irrelevant or inconsequential. This fear leads to chaos and assured failure. Failure to deliver on time. Failure to communicate and manage realistic client expectations. Failure to establish credibility and confidence with the client and the organization. Failure to keep and foster a well organized, happy and productive team.

So how can one overcome this fear? You just jump. How does the diver overcome his fear of heights to jump from a platform so high the first time? He just jumps. How does a skydiver overcome her fear of falling to her death from an airplane? She just leaps or is pushed. And then training and preparation take over and fear is overcome. You may never completely overcome the fear of saying no. But if you jump, take a leap of faith, just do it, you’ll find that you have not died and that you will have an easier time doing it the next time.

When we overcome our fear and take a leap of faith, we can accomplish great things. Let us work like the first two companies in our story and succeed.

Software Architecture: Use Cases, Not Frameworks

I enjoy continually learning from Robert Martin (Uncle Bob). Sometimes I disagree with him but usually only until I’ve thoroughly processed what he is trying to teach me. In his latest missive on 8thlight.com, Uncle Bob writes a stunningly cogent brief called Screaming Architecture in which he makes a critical point: software architecture is all about the use cases of a system and NOT the framework.

“Architectures are not (or should not) be about frameworks. Architectures should not be supplied by frameworks. Frameworks are tools to be used, not architectures to be conformed to. If your architecture is based on frameworks, then it cannot be based on your use cases.”

Focus on the use cases and perhaps even group them into logical hierarchies with tidy “40,000 foot level” epochs that describe the thing you are building. Is it a customer relationship management system? The first thing we should notice in an architecture, whether document or code, is that this is a CRM system. Presentation, delivery, storage and communication frameworks are all secondary, just plumbing, not the architecture.

“A good software architecture allows decisions about frameworks, databases, web-servers, and other environmental issues and tools, to be deferred and delayed.”

I’m not completely at this point in my journey toward architectural perfection but I recognize the need to strive for this idea of producing architectures that are designed to solve the problems of the users first rather than designed fit within the strictures of a framework while addressing the use cases after the fact.

I recommend you read the full article. Take Uncle Bob’s advice, as I intend to do, and focus more strongly on architecture for your use cases on your next project. Use frameworks carefully and work to keep your business code independent of your frameworks and thus imminently more testable. And don’t forget your tests.

How to Earn Respect as a Leader in the Workplace

I’ve recently been interested in the subject of respect and the question of whether respect is given or earned. My conclusion is that respect is given most often when it is earned and certainly most easily when that is so. In contemplating and researching this subject, I ran across a post by Bret Simmons that I liked very much called 10 Ways to Earn Respect as a Leader in the Workplace.

I recommend you read the full article but I’ll share a few of my favorites here along with some personal thoughts about each one.

Get to know your co-workers and their families.
This is the author’s first point and I think most important one. It is very hard to give respect to someone who has no empathy and does not appear to be genuinely interested in you and your personal circumstances. A little bit of real care can earn a lot of respect.

Communicate clearly and regularly.
If one does not hear from or speak with his manager on a regular basis, it is impossible for the first point to occur. And if a person is left in the dark with respect to what is happening within the organization, an atmosphere of fear and a feeling of neglect can result in poor attitudes and even overt disrespect.

Make generous use of self-deprecating humor.
When I work with someone who refrains from making deprecating remarks about others but has the self confidence to take a jab at himself from time to time in order to put others at ease, I’m more likely to feel comfortable working with that person and will certainly have more respect for him.

Admit when you screw up.
Nothing can destroy the respect you have earned more rapidly than dodging responsibility for your own mistakes. Nothing can more irreversibly damage your own reputation more powerfully than when you throw a subordinate or coworker under the bus rather than owning up and facing the music. At the same time, the opposite is true. If I have a boss who takes responsibility for mistakes made and asks the team for their support as she takes corrective action, I will have just that much more respect for that person.

Stand behind your staff during times of difficulty.
When mistakes are made by subordinates or coworkers, stand by them. Don’t abandon them in an attempt to save yourself. Chances are you will all survive but you will have lost their respect forever. The author writes, “If you can’t stand behind one of your team members, then you don’t belong in management and you’re certainly not a leader.”

“Come What May, And Love It” (and Learn to Laugh)

I remember listening to this wise counsel three years ago from Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin Of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Today my mother reminded me of it and I enjoyed reading it again. If you have ever faced tough times or felt like you were on the losing end of a game, in sport, in work, in life, I hope this article will pick you up.

I would like to highlight one of the points Elder Wirthlin makes, perhaps my favorite:

Learn to laugh – When things go wrong, we can choose to be angry or sad or depressed, but if we choose to laugh, we can get through the present difficulty and more easily find a solution.

“The next time you’re tempted to groan, you might try to laugh instead. It will extend your life and make the lives of all those around you more enjoyable.”

When the stresses of work or a commute or a family crisis threaten to bring you down, laugh. It truly is the best medicine!

Keystrokes – Don’t Waste Them

I spend perhaps six hours a day, five days a week, fifty weeks a year hitting the keys. At my slow average typing speed of 30 words per minute (I can type faster but I’m not constantly hitting the keys, so I’m guessing here) and assuming I spend thirty years of my life doing this, my total keystrokes (assuming an average of 6 keystrokes per word) will be:

60 minutes * 6 hours * 5 days * 50 weeks * 30 years * 30 words * 6 keystrokes = 16,200,000 keystrokes

Percentage of my work output firing off an ill conceived email providing advice to someone who does not care or want the advice and will certainly not waste time reading the missive: 0.01%

Today I wasted 0.01% of my available productivity.

I’ve already consumed nearly 50% of my available keystrokes, so I’m posting this to remind myself to conserve my energy and use what remains of my personal utility more wisely.

Important note to self. Do not waste time writing perfectly good advice and sending it to someone who could not care less about your opinion. Instead, read a good book. Write a new blog post. Refactor some old code. Or just watch the leaves in the trees dance in the wind. This would be a more valuable use of that time. Time that cannot ever be recaptured.

Be a Software Development Mentor

I like many aspects of my job but one stands out above all others: helping other developers. Nothing gives me as much satisfaction as hooking up the mental chains and pulling a fellow developer out of the code mud in which she or he is stuck.

I grew up on a small farm where there was never any lack for work to do, much of which was tedious and boring. But it was always exciting to get a call from a neighbor asking us to come pull them out of the mud or jump start a car or rescue an animal from some odd predicament. It never took much time, but the simple gratitude of the person helped was the best compensation I’d ever known as a child.

Now my tractor is my brain and my software tools and the chains are made of thousands of hours of experience forging one experience into another and storing these up, mostly for my own work, but also for those enjoyable moments when I take a call from a colleague who is just stuck and needs a little guidance.

My tractor and chain is not better than anyone else’s really. But sometimes I’m in the right place at the right time to help another developer and this aspect of my job is my favorite. Spinning up a GotoMeeting session and helping another developer find and solve a problem may sound dull and boring to some, but it gives me a boost.

Sometimes my colleagues are reluctant to call. (I work remotely.) Perhaps this is because they don’t want to waste my time or because they feel the need to solve the problem on their own. That’s okay. It’s good to solve problems on your own but I do appreciate the opportunity to help when I can.

And that is one of the main reasons I get up in the morning and make the 30 second commute to my basement office. Today, I might get to hook up the chains to the tractor and pull a friend or a neighbor out of the mud.

Hook up your chains to your tractor and become a software development mentor.

Small and Simple: The Keys to Enterprise Software Success

Someone once said, “By small and simple things are great things brought to pass.” The context was certainly not enterprise software development but I have come to believe that these words are profound in this context as well.

Every enterprise, medium and large, is challenged with complexity. Their systems and businesses are complex. Their politics and personnel and departments are complex. Their business models and markets and product lines are complex.

And their software is complex. But why?

Because we make it complex. We accept the notion that one application must accomplish all the wants and wishes of the management for whom we work, either because we are afraid to say, “This is a bad idea,” or because we are arrogant enough to think we’re up to the challenge. So we create large teams and build complex, confusing and unmanageable software that eventually fulfills those wants and wishes, sometimes years later—that is, if the project is not cancelled because the same management team loses patience and/or budget to see it through.

Some companies have made a very large business from selling such very large and complex software. They sell it for a very large “enterprise class” price to a business who wants all those nice shiny features but doesn’t want to take the risk of building it for themselves. And then they buy the very large enterprise software system and find that they must spend the next six to twenty months configuring and customizing the software or changing their own business processes and rules to fit the strictures of the software they have purchased.

The most successful enterprise projects I’ve worked on have all shared certain qualities. These projects have produced workable, usable and nearly trouble-free service all because they shared these qualities. The are:

  • A small team consisting of:
    • A senior lead developer or architect
    • Two mid-senior level developers
    • A project manager (part time)
    • And a strong product owner (part time)
  • A short but intense requirements gathering and design period with earnest customer involvement.
  • Regular interaction with product owner with a demo of the software every week.
  • Strong communication and coordination by the project manager, assuring the team and the customer understands all aspects of project status and progress.

The challenge in the enterprise is to find the will and means to take the more successful approach of “small and simple.”

You may say, “Well, that’s all fine and good in some perfect world, but we have real, hard and complex problems to solve with our software.” And that may be true. Software, no matter how good, cannot remove the complexity from the enterprise. But there is, in my opinion, no reason that software should add to it.

The real genius of any enterprise software architect, if she has any genius at all, is to find a way to break down complex business processes and systems into singular application parts that can be built by small, agile teams like I’ve described, and where necessary, to carefully define and control the service and API boundaries between them.

Must a single web application provide every user with every function and feature they might need? No. But we often try for that nirvana and we often fail or take so long to deliver that delivery does not feel like success.

Must a single database contain all the data that the enterprise will need to perform a certain business function or fulfill a specific book of business? No. But we often work toward that goal, ending up with a database that is so complex and so flawed that we cannot hope to maintain or understand it without continuous and never ending vigilance.

When your project complexity grows, your team grows, your communication challenges grow and your requirements become unwieldy and unknowable. When you take on the complex all in one with an army, you cannot sufficiently focus your energy and your strength and collectively you will accomplish less and less with each addition to your team until your project is awash is cost and time overruns, the entire team collectively marching to delivery or cancellation. And in the end either outcome, delivery or cancellation, feels the same.

By small and simple things, great enterprise software can be brought to pass. Sooner rather than later. Delivering solid, workable, maintainable, supportable solutions. Put one small thing together with another, win the war on complexity and provide real value to your management team. Do this again and again and you’ll have a team that will never want another job because they will have become all too familiar with real success.