Sunday, November 20, 2011

Public Utilities

There has been some attention drawn to the recent state of some very popular Internet companies. On one hand, there is a talk about a new technology bubble on grounds of immense evaluation of some of these companies versus their actual ability to turn profits. On the other hand there seems to be recognition how fundamental these enterprises have become to the fabric of the Internet, and how people interact.

We have companies like Twitter, Yelp, Angies List, Facebook, Groupon, Salesforce and the list just goes on. With perhaps the exception of Facebook, these companies have not found a revenue model that is able to turn profits. Some of these companies have grown immensely, to meet the requirements to become intrinsic part of the Internet. But, what ever growth in income they get is consumed by their growth of work force, required to fuel the increasing demand for these services. The yield ratio is very close to 1 to 1, no matter what size the company.

To turn a profit, these companies would have to hire far fewer people, and in fact, not service the public at large. In other words, some of these companies make sense as a $10 million per year companies, but not as $100 million or something like that. The money is just not there to support profits.

Yet, these companies hire and support thousands of workers. They are being funded by venture capitalists in hopes that a business model is found that can turn a profit. But for right now, the evaluations of these companies is solely based on their mere volume of people they are servicing. Customers seem to indicate value, perhaps not now, but some day.

Perhaps, at least for now, you can call these companies public utilities. They are non-profits, funded by a sustainable model, and the growth is often funded by private money, and they service the public at large. They have become an intrinsic part of the fabric of the Internet. Apart from their basic services they often provide a value added interfaces that allow other enterprises to utilize their data in ways that they perhaps did not anticipate. These companies, perhaps, are something you can't control or buy in the traditional sense; you would fail to turn profit for your investment with high probability. In fact, you'd likely lose all value of your acquisition if you tried to change any part of their business with a profit motive in mind. Yahoo tried this with so many ways, and always failed - hence they are in the rut that they are in now. You see, the fortunes of these enterprises rests only on the approval of their users - one wrong move and you are done. Profit motives stink to high heaven with their loyal following.

These companies provide jobs. The jobs pay rather well. These people and companies pay taxes, and the government, hopefully, builds infrastructure to support the structures that make these kinds of services possible. There's probably not that much public money involved in creation of these companies but if the environment is set right, public money does support all this after all. It's a really good feedback loop to have and there are many benefits. The investors and Wall Street types may frown upon this on the long run, but capitalism should not support "finance" or "stock holders", but rather the society and public at large. Profit motives are only sustainable as long as that money goes to investments.

It is interesting that the Internet actually sustains models like these and keeps a kind of a honor system in place. People vote with their attention and time for all kinds of services that they deem useful. The bad ones die away. Tie some kind of "rip-off" mentality to your service and you will die a quick death.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Puzzling Hiring Problems

Developer Categories

So, you can't find a decent software developer to join your team? It should not be a surprise. Good developers are rare birds; very intelligent, introverts, detail minded, problem solvers, independent. I don't want to put people in a slot, but this is how developers often are. There just aren't that many sufficiently "brain damaged" people around who like to torture themselves with menial and time consuming problems that take deep concentration. You know, the kind of book worm stuff that people hate when they go to school etc.

You often see a a category of applicants who claim to know programming, but they don't. They usually fail even rudimentary tests that you put in front of them. They  are just fishing around, thinking that they can just grab a job and do a bit of good ole hacking on the side. These people don't really want to be software developers on the long run, even for the money. This group of people are a waste of time for anyone who wants to hire a software developer. They won't get much done, and what they get done, sucks.

We have software developers who tend to be careerists. They go to work and write software to get a pay check. They might be introverts and have some of the characteristics of good software developers, but they are only marginally committed. Nothing bad there. Most people you hire are probably like this. They get things done, but it's just not going to be anything more than average. They also mostly expect the work to be handed to them with full requirements and instructions what to develop.

And then there is the group, who is above the average. They care what they do, and they want to write software. They want to learn and they are motivated. These people are good hires, because they also get things done, and over time, they can do things that careerists just won't ever do.

The problem with the last group is that the ones that really have honed their skills are just not out in the open for the grabs, unless you are lucky. You simply rarely see them.

Engineer vs. Designer

Perhaps you have then hired someone suitable enough. They might be talented, and eager to do the job. They produce results and get things done, at times. But something just does not really jive. This seems to be true too; some developers enjoy the theoretical aspects of the profession, and some just like to slap things together quickly.

Either extreme does not work well. You don't want the architecture astronauts, or the cut and paste hackers, but you do want something in the middle range. This is because theory matters when it is put to good practical use.

You sometimes see people get stuck designing all kinds of lofty ideas that are not really relevant to the problem anymore from the practical perspective. It can be fun to think about, but it's a disaster waiting to happen in real life. It can take different forms; mindless use of tools that do not solve the practical and real problem (because in theory it could work), stuffing layers to software that only add to complexity (because it's what the best practices are). This is the designer trap that people sometimes get into.

Opposite can happen. Software is getting done fast, and quickly, but it is all in the name of getting it out the door in what ever way. It's bad software, hacky, copy pasted, sloppy, not well thought out, without any decent structure. Sure, it can work but only in small scale. Bigger software, critical software, and long term maintenance of software are those key areas where this kind of "getting it done" approach will create a disaster. It's perhaps what happens more often than over-architecting because things are being done and there is the feel of great progress. Managers especially love these kinds of people who turn around on a dime and "get things done".

To a significant degree these two kinds problems emerge from lack of experience. People are just good enough to produce results but the wisdom, intuition or true skill is not there to reign in the bad behaviors. Experienced people are simply far more balanced and know how to manage the outcomes.

Introverts and Extroverts

Some people are more social than others. Some people are more detail oriented than others. Some can solve problems better than others, and different kinds of problems. Some people are glib, some are not. What do you really want to emphasize in a developer?

There is the argument that now that we are doing all this Agile stuff that developers need to be really social and engaging, eagerly embracing the business, while at the same time you want them to produce brilliant, well thought out software that comes out like clock work, and never misses a deadline. Well, easier said than done.

I mentioned that most good software developers are really introverts. It's still true, in my opinion. It does not mean they are not social enough, but they are not the ones with the gift of the gab and "social engineers". They mostly focus on solving "non-people" problems that are eternally boring to the vast majority of people. These people stay focused on the technical aspects of getting things done, formulating complex things and making it real in terms of good software. It requires lots of concentration, free from unnecessary interruptions.This regardless of all the buzz about agile pairing etc. I don't think it always works; have never seen it work for real, in fact.

I think you want some kind of mix here as well, slanted towards the introvert types. If you want a good reliable software developer, you need that quieter type who gets things done with good workable design skills, who can still interact successfully with business and product owners when required. The onus for successful interaction is often put on the developer, but I think this is wrong - why not require equal attention and skills from business/product people when interacting with developers, to be able to understand enough what the developer is saying. IT functions are now so central to businesses that having business people who do not understand their IT operations is really a bad thing.

There are places for extroverts as well, in the agile realm of things. A good Scrum Master is often someone who's an extrovert, but they necessarily do not or should not lead software development from the trenches. Their focus tends to drift away from what is required to produce good software in practical terms. These kinds of people tend to jump around from one thing to another, relishing the opportunities to get things done quickly and moving on. Software development might interest them, but not in the sense that is required to become good at it.

The bottom line - don't expect developers to be socially gifted, while at the same time being great at building good software. It just does not work that way. We do not elect, nor often see politicians who are introverts, so why put unrealistic expectations on software developers? Brain, and the way it works matters when it comes to different kinds of jobs.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

The Estimation Game

Recently, there has been various articles and blog posts about project or work estimation and whether it is worth doing.

What are the reasons for doing estimation?
  • Know the size of work.
  • Know the cost of work.
  • Know the staffing.
  • Know when you are done.
What can you estimate?
  • Known requirements/features.
  • Changing/unclear/missing Requirements.
  • Knowledge of the Domain.
  • Skill of staff.
  • Changing Staff.
  • Feedback/communication.
The reason for doing anything is to get reasonable value in return. The value that you expect typically is predictability. No cost overruns, work completed on time, and completed with the features as expected in working condition.

This sounds simple enough but it really depends. The problem really comes in with the size of the work.

Bigger projects have so much variability and unknowns that even the best attempts to estimate work up front will likely fail. It is hard to know what in fact will happen and the outcomes depend on the flexibility of the overall plan and the attitude of the team and the stake holders. The real problem here is that estimates become an unchangeable plan, and then they also become time commitments. When you fix these two things you have nowhere to go when surprises occur and new work is invariably discovered. On the other hand, if you are flexible, large swaths of the project plan might change on the way and budgets and time lines might actually have less relevance in the overall process. Also, the human component is so dominant in long running projects that it is very hard to guess what the output of the team is, especially if the team keeps changing along the way.

Smaller and often unrelated work items can be estimated quite easily and there are far fewer surprises. However, this kind of workflow often has so much flexibility that the work plans keep changing from week to week. Many of the items that are estimated will never be worked on and new items are inserted to the work flow. It might be that there is a lot of churn and time spent on estimates but at the same time it is quite well known how soon work is completed when it is started anyway. If you put a work item on top of the priority queue you can expect it to be done within the iteration, as will many other items reasonably close to the top of the list. Further down in the list the item is, less you really care about it, and the stake holders might never really care about it at all after couple of iterations.

So, where is the value? I think the only real value is the ability use living estimates as a decision making tool.

In the long running projects, you only care what the estimate is NOW. It could be different from what it was a month ago, and it will be different in a month from now. You will gain experience what the team can do over time. That will give projections for cost and completion times. With good enough management of priorities and the value of the feature set it is possible to approach something attainable. Also, there must be openness to react and change the plan. Staffing changes will provide additional challenges but on the long run it is possible to gauge how the project is doing over how the team is doing in the project.

There might not be so much value at all doing estimates for variable short term work where experience will quickly tell what the 'event horizon' is because you only really care about the immediate results anyway.

This is still somewhat simplistic analysis because it does not fully appricient the complexities of understanding work, producing right results, dealing with feedback and inspection. Building the right thing is still the most important goal and measuring that is very esoteric and based on things that are hard to measure. Many teams can call things done and can appear to make progress but what exactly are they producing and how? Sometimes you see those high profile failures that leaves you puzzled - obviously it was considered done, and all the rest, but it just did not work. Obviously the estimates were wrong, even when budget goals or time lines were met.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

What is Product Design?

As a programmer, how do you answer that question? What is Product Design? Not oddly enough, people have a wide variety of opinions what really is product design. Ask a product manager and they think they are designing, ask UI designers and they think they are designing, ask a programmer and you get the same answer.

I came across these two posts about the topic:

One is asserting that web designers that draw pretty pictures are really not doing the full round trip in web design. The other, which is a response, argues that programmers who do not do CSS and graphical design are not designing the whole thing either.

Both would be right, but the argument is just pointing to a dysfunction in typical design roles. There are so many aspects to design that people can't often do them all. However, if you are looking for some kind of ultimate solution, you want a virtuoso who can do it all. At the same time, it is probably not too much to ask  that people actually cross different disciplines. Often, that is better than mastery of programming alone, for example.

It is fine if a web designer draws images. It's a bit like making a rough sketch before the actual work starts, just get some idea about the web site. However, I would argue that there is still a big gap between that and actual design that is sufficient. Mastery of HTML and CSS should be required from web designers. And more than that, a real understanding of functionality and usability. This is the kind of middle ground that is very important but it is left in the no mans land, and that's a big gap in deed.

Programmers should know about HTML and CSS. Programmers can be a great asset in organizing and helping design here. Programmers are usually very particular about the aesthetics of organization, rules, practices. Programmers should know about usability, and how software translates to user experience. This is not important only because it makes user's life easier but it also affects how software is designed, and therefore it makes programmer's life easier.

There is a nice symbiotic relationship that can be created here where web designers, functional designers, and programmers can cross disciplines and interact in a positive way. It is easier said than done, of course. I have long argued that web designers should be integrated to the programming teams as full fledged members. In agile terminology, it is all matter of definition of "done". How can you really separate web design from programming, when all of that is in the cross roads that makes software great, or not?

Monday, July 4, 2011

Agile Golden Hammer

Now that the Agile movement is well past the early adoption phase, in mainstream, people have started to complain that Agile does not work and the research seems to show that Agile adoption often fails on many facets. While it is true that Agile is not always the solution, it is also a fact that people do not GET Agile.

Just get some basics right. It is not rocket science.

  • Agile practices work when we are in creative work environments, often requiring individual skill , knowledge and creativity. There are no repeatable and simple steps to complete work.
  • Create space and autonomy for people who are doing this demanding creative work. This kind of work requires a lot of concentration, and time. Avoid interruptions.
  • Focus on learning. What ever makes learning faster, getting feedback faster, getting to the next level faster - do it. Usually this means small increments of work, learning from it, improving, and doing it again. Experiment, get to the solution, and then do it right. Hack when you start, but finish solid.
  • Get the teams right. Cross functional does not mean a group of developers. It means designers, testers, developers, business people, sales, all in one package, in one unit. If you can't get most (if not all) of your work done from end to end with the people in your team, you are limiting yourself. Not always possible, but strive for it.
What not to do:
  • Start with Scrum, and do Scrum one year after. Scrum is a starting point, not what you should end up with. Dogma kills.
  • Expect Scrum etc. to solve your problems. People solve problems, people improve. Scrum remains the same, no matter how hard you try . If Scrum does not seem to work - don't use it. Instead, find what does work.
  • Expect people to just jump in and get it. Sorry, I don't believe this is even possible, unless you are in a very coherent and cocooned environment with like-minded people.  Most people don't care about Agile, Scrum or any gold plated buzz word. Just go and do something - don't try to sell Agile.