Why I Would Work for Eric Sink

As I sit here nursing a head plagued with a migraine, I read with great interest Eric Sink’s latest in my RSS reader about his experiences learning Scrum, a paper submitted for the proceedings of Agile 2011. Here’s my favorite part:

“I have come to think of our daily standup as being similar to a security guard at a bank. Most security guards stand around for their entire career without ever firing their weapon. It's probably a boring job. But the consistent presence of that security guard probably prevents some big problems from ever happening. Our daily standup is the same way.  Nothing exciting ever really happens. But we can confidently assume that many big problems have been avoided because we regularly take the time to get synced up.

“The culture of Scrum teams seems to be built on working together in shared spaces. In contrast, our company has always placed a high value on each person having a private office.

“We are aware that there are tradeoffs here. A private office gives each person a quiet place to work, but it also creates the opportunity for people to get isolated. So even as we provide private offices, we create ways to drag people out of them, including soda in the kitchen, lunch together on Wednesdays, a pool table, and a video game room.”

For this I would consider relocation to Illinois. And I always tell recruiters I’m not interested in relocating.

The Two Keys to Programming Productivity

Occasionally other developers with whom I work will comment on my productivity. For example a couple of weeks ago, after working hard one day and delivering an urgently needed service to the team the next morning, one developer said in standup, "You're an animal. You wrote that in one day and it would have taken me two weeks to do that." I’m a little embarrassed by such comments and have often thought about what makes me or any programmer productive, so today I enjoyed reading parts of Neal Ford's book The Productive Programmer and wanted to share some thoughts on programmer productivity.

I loved the forward by David Bock of CodeSherpas. He writes, "The individual productivity of programmers varies widely in our industry. What most of us might be able to get done in a week, some are able to get done in a day. Why is that? The short answer concerns mastery of the tools developers have at their disposal. The long answer is about the real awareness of the tools' capabilities and mastery of the thought process for using them. The truth lies somewhere between a methodology and a philosophy, and that is what Neal captures in this book."

Ford suggests there are four productivity principles for programmers.

  1. Acceleration: speeding things up. Keyboard shortcuts, searching and navigation.
  2. Focus: eliminating distractions and clutter, both physical and mental.
  3. Automation: getting your computer to do more. Put your computer to work.
  4. Canonicality: doing things once in one place. Also known as DRY or Don't Repeat Yourself.

These are all good and important. For me the most important item in Ford's list is number two: focus. And I would add one more: conditioning. Focus and conditioning are the two most important keys to successfully improving your programming productivity.

Programming Productivity Key #1 – Focus

Start by eliminating mental and physical distractions. Remove the clutter from your mind and your desk, but most importantly, eliminate the distractions caused by environmental disruption. Find or create a quiet place where you can focus on the task at hand, where you can put your entire mental energy into what you are doing. Distractions are a HUGE productivity destroyer.

Cubicles are of the Devil. They may be great for a sales team or reporters who thrive on eavesdropping, but chit chat does not get code written. Cubicles foster incomplete and sporadic communication that becomes a crutch for broken requirements and shoddy analysis resulting in an unsearchable and unsellable body of knowledge persisted only in the fragile collective of a distributed and disconnected human neural network that often cannot survive the loss of one or two key nodes.

Ford suggests instituting "quiet time" where, for example, there are no meetings or email or talk during two two-hour periods each day. He claims to have tried this in one of the consulting offices where he worked and the organization found that they got more done in those four hours than was getting done in the entire day before implementing the "quiet time." This is not surprising to me at all. Ford writes, "It is tragic that office environments so hamper productivity that employees have to game the system to get work done."

While I have the luxury of working from a home office at the moment, I have worked in a number of cubicle environments in the past and probably will in the future. The most common technique I see other developers using to create their own "quiet time" is the use of a very expensive pair of noise canceling headphones piping in whatever tunes or white noise that developer finds most conductive to focusing on the task at hand. Do whatever you have to do to achieve focus.
 

Programming Productivity Key #2 – Conditioning

To play at the top of your game, you have to condition. You have to practice. You have to study. You have to prepare your body but most importantly your mind to execute. And you have to condition your attitude. You have to be excited to write code. You have to get a thrill out of making it work and work well. You have to condition your mind to expect excellence and then work to achieve that.

In conditioning, there are mechanics you must learn. Spend time studying and using your IDE's keyboard shortcuts. Regularly study and practice using the base class libraries of your platform so you don't end up wasting time writing code that a solid community or well heeled development team has already written and tested heavily for you.

More importantly, spend time reading about and learning new techniques and technologies from open source projects to gather at least a passing understanding of the problem they solve and how you might use them even if you choose not to do so. Pay attention to the patterns, the naming and organizational patterns, the logical patterns and the problem solving patterns that you find in these projects. Even if you do not use them, you will be storing up mental muscle memory that will serve you well when you need a way to solve a new problem in your own projects.

Most importantly, learn from your own work. Repeat your successes, taking patterns from your past and improving on them. Avoid your failures, being honest with yourself about what did not work in your last project and finding ways to avoid or even invert the mistakes of the past, turning them into strong successes.

Conditioning is not about solving a problem for a specific project in which you're working now. It's about preparing your mind to be at its most productive when faced with programming problems you've never seen before. It's about creating mental muscle memory that will kick into overdrive as you solve the problems you have already faced, the code spilling out of your brain through your fingers and into the keyboard.

Conclusion
No matter how fast or slow you are as a programmer, you can improve. If you improve your focus and put your body and mind through regular conditioning, you will improve. And as you improve, you'll get noticed. And as you get noticed, you'll get rewarded.

Visual Studio LightSwitch 2011 May Bridge the Gap

Microsoft announced recently that Visual Studio LightSwitch 2011 will be released on July 26. I’ve been watching the development of this product with keen interest for the last year or so. I’m looking forward to evaluating it more in-depth soon.

Building common line-of-business (LOB) applications in today’s enterprise development stacks can be too complex and too costly for today’s tight budgets. For this reason alone there are “literally millions” (exaggeration license: 02389-872.159-034) of LOB applications being created by non-programmer Office users. These “applications” most often get pushed around in Excel via Exchange. Many live in a hastily created Access database and shared clumsily and un-securely on a workgroup file server.

Still others are somewhat more sophisticated and are hosted on products such as QuickBase from Intuit. This latter category resolves many of the problems inherent in the emailed Excel spreadsheet and the Access fileshare such as security, reliability, common user interface, ease of use, etc. There are many more specialized web-based SaaS offerings that solve specific business problems. One notable vendor who led the way in this area is 37 signals.

But these solutions are not always enough to meet the needs of the business. There is a gap between these “entry-level” (ELOB) applications and what I will call primary line-of-business (PLOB) applications. The PLOB is a custom developed, sophisticated enterprise application with complex business rules, sometimes even more complex user interfaces, and far more complex data and integration requirements, upon which the business relies for its core service offering or mission critical systems.

Somewhere between ELOB and PLOB there has to be a middle ground. Let’s call it the mid-line-of-business (MLOB) application (FLA creator license: FOLK-LANG-MAKE-UPPR-WXYZ). There are plenty of “app generator” and scaffolding tools that claim to live in the MLOB space. I’ve never been too impressed with them. They always seem to lose their way in convention, diverging from business requirements too greatly to meet business needs.

So I am hopeful that LightSwitch will fill the MLOB gap. We’ll see. Time will tell. In any case, it should at least be fun to find out.

Winning Teams Have Winning Coaches

How many games will an NFL team win if the coaching staff and the owners remain in the locker room during practices and games, coming out only at half time and between quarters to ask the team members what they can do to win the game?

ESPN’s Worst NFL teams of all time include:

#1. 1976 Buccaneers (0-14)
It was their season debut. They were shut out five times and averaged fewer than nine points per game. Defensive lineman Pat Toomay said, “The coach stopped talking to us after the third game. During the week, he wanted nothing to do with us.”

… (You can read more on the page linked above. I’ve included snippets here of the two that I felt illustrated my point.) …

#9. 2001 Carolina Panthers (1-15)
”The energy has been sucked out of our organization and our fan base,” said owner Jerry Richardson, after firing head coach George Seifert at the end of the year.

Great players cannot win consistently without great coaches. The same is true of software development teams, or any other type of team for that matter. If the coaches remain in the locker room, the team, being paid professionals, will still play, and they might even score, and with ideal conditions, they might even deliver a win or two, but a losing season can be guaranteed when the coaches and owners can’t be bothered to be a part of the game.

On the other hand, we have great examples such as Vince Lombardi who went to work for the Packers and turned a 1-10-1 in 1958 team into one of the greatest teams in the game and with five NFL championships before he left nine seasons later. He was in the game. He was a motivational leader. He was a great coach.

Or how about Tom Landry and his goofy hat who coached the Cowboys for 28 years and had a 20 year winning season streak. He was a great coach.

This list of winning coaches is long. Only the losing players on a losing team remember their losing coaches beyond the losing season. Winning coaches are remembered and revered long after they’ve left the field.

And how many games do you think those winning coaches missed?

Who was your greatest coach? And why? I want to hear from you.

Windows 8 Preview Elevates Touch and HTML 5 and JavaScript

In a press release from Redmond today, we get a little preview of what is to come with Windows 8 and it is HTML 5 and JavaScript.

I have mixed emotions about all of this. Some may say that it’s like putting lipstick on a pig, but in fact I don’t think Windows 7 is a pig at all. It beats any other desktop OS, bar none, and no, I don’t want to hear it from the Mac crowd (see my previous post). For me, it feels like putting an enhanced Windows Phone 7 wrapper on the desktop OS. This is great news for the upcoming Windows 8 tablet user and market. For me, for now, it feels like my phone UI is getting in the way of my desktop UI. I’ll probably get used to it later, but for now it just feels strange.

In any case, the press release and the little demo video seems to answer three primary and critical questions. Here are my first impressions and a few key frames from the video to tease you into watching it.

What is a Windows 8 App?
Based on this press release and quick demo, we can assume that a “Windows 8 App” is a touch enabled HTML 5 and JavaScript application running locally on the IE 10 engine. This seems to directly integrate IE technology into the OS. I wonder if Eric Holder will care. I assume that if I can still make another browser my default, we’ll all be safe from the clutches of the U.S. Justice Department.

start
The touch enabled Start Desktop

What is Windows 8?
Aside from assumed improvements in the kernel, driver infrastructure, etc., we learn from this demo that the primary target UI is the touch interface with cool split thumb-friendly touch keypads for all platforms. Of course support for the 20th century input devices formerly known as the keyboard and mouse continues to be available. Behind the new touch enabled "Start screen" with smart app tiles, the old "Start button and menu" and desktop interface can be found underneath the covers. So you can have your touch-cake and eat your mouse and keyboard driven app-cake too. Smart.

start2
Dragging the next desktop pane into view. Note the distinctly non-Windows 8 Word icon.

What Should a Developer Know About Windows 8?
In addition to your bag of tricks you currently maintain, you'll need to add HTML 5 and JavaScript if you don't already have them. And if you are not already learning HTML 5 and getting past the 'alert' statement/method in JavaScript, you are standing on the dock and the boat is hoisting anchor. Get with it. Buy some books. Watch some tutorials. And start writing your own "Hello Touch World" Windows 8 App now.

tweetsheet
Tweet in your Windows 8 App while balancing the budget in your mundane Excel spreadsheet.

It will be fun to watch this latest incarnation absorb some of the best of its competitive predecessors. It will be more fun to read about their indignation. It will be less fun if Microsoft prematurely releases and we have a Vista-like PR disaster regardless of the basic goodness due to a few unpolished bits. Either way, I’m heading back to my HTML 5 and JavaScript study group.

The Gaping Hole in Mac User’s Sense of Self

HaHa! HaHa! HaHa! HaHa! HaHa! Ha!

macmac

To the Mac community, all I can say is, will you now please SHUT UP about your “secure” OS.

Welcome to the real world of being a target and having to take measures to protect yourself. Now that you have realized your security was never security but obscurity, perhaps we can all have an adult conversation about battling the bad guys together instead of us having to listen to you crow about your false sense of superiority.

The 4 Keys to Effective Management

Effective management is simply pushing the right buttons and pulling the right levers at the right time. This requires sufficient information, analytic thought, rational decision, and consequential action. Asking questions and thoughtful contemplation are not enough. If you cannot make decisions and act upon them, you are a researcher; you are not a manager.

  1. Sufficient Information
     
  2. Analytic Thought
     
  3. Rational Decision
     
  4. Consequential Action

Every healthy human being manages something. You wake up hungry (information) and you think about bacon (thought) and you decide to limit yourself to two pieces (rational decision) and you throw three pieces in the pan (consequential action) just in case one of them burns even though you know you’ll eat it anyway. Okay, we’re not all perfect managers. Actually, I’ve never met one, so I’m not sure there is such a thing. Excuse me while I take a break to finish that third piece of bacon…