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.