Category Archives: Know how to Spot a Struggling Development Team

Posts related to helping those inside and outside the technology department recognize a project or team that’s in trouble.

The Top 5 Rookie Mistakes in Software – #4 The Team

How do I know if my Development Team is any good?


Good Question.
Actually, it’s a critical thing: the importance of The Team can’t be understated. It’s one of the single biggest factors influencing the success of your software.
Those who aren’t seasoned with a) how to hire a good development team and b) know what to expect from them, will likely be faced with a frustrating time. Without more to go on, they’ll use something like the following as their criteria:
  1. They don’t dress very well
  2. They play Team Fortress II at lunch
  3. They talk techie all the time
  4. They cling to each other at the Christmas party
  5. They babble like idiots when a girl walks into the room
If all these are true, they MUST know what they’re doing.

Leaving it to chance is a pretty common mistake.
I had a funny-but-tragic experience working with a guy who’d been given the responsibility to integrate a recent acquisition his company had made (he was the VP of something). He was a super-smart guy, but not that experienced in the world of software. He figured out pretty quickly that to accomplish the IT side of this integration, all he needed to have built was a Map.  A web-based map that a user could log into and find out key land ownership information by zooming around and clicking on land parcels.  Really, that easy.  But he needed it quickly – this was key.  So, rather than taking his requirement to the IT (dev) department, who were notorious for having all kinds of barriers and rules and taking forever to turn something around, he instead gobbled up a couple developers who happened to be kicking around after some acquisition or other. Two guys who fit his profile: they were programmers and at that moment had a fairly aimless list of things to do.
They’ll do, he thought.  A developer’s a developer, right?

time

So he gave them his map vision, and to his amazement, they had something up and running within days.  Days! This was gold!  He couldn’t wait to give his status update to senior management.
Flip to the developer’s perspective now: they wanted to secure their jobs.  So to get some quick sizzle to the VP, all they did was download an evaluation copy of ArcGIS Server and ran a tutorial with some sample data and sample shapefiles.  They loaded the server part, clicked next->next->next on all the various wizards; and splammo, things were pretty much up and running.  They couldn’t wait to show him their status update: they’d basically got the nuts & bolts of his Map working.  He, of course, was over the moon.

I’m going to skip a few details and flash forward a bit…
A year later, my VP friend still didn’t have his map. A simple map to enable users to click on a land parcel and get a quick report.  What!? Why would that be so hard?   I had lunch with him around that point and, the poor guy, he couldn’t contain his frustration, “All I want is a MAP!” he echoed over and over while pumping the air with his fists.
Those two developers? They were re-distributed into the marketplace, and a few new ones had been brought on to take their place. There’s now a full team working this project.

So what happened there?

Self-Organization and The Product Team

Well, lots of things happened. I could tear into this problem – unfortunately, a pretty common problem – from a variety of angles, but I’ll summarize it this way: the developers didn’t organize themselves into a product team.  They didn’t take technical ownership of the situation and instead reverted into being day-to-day programmers, just coding whatever the VP asked for.  And ya, HE was totally at fault too for completely misunderstanding the magnitude of the effort required, and for dismissing the need for proper development splat 2infrastructure. However, in this world we live in, there is an obligation for the technology professionals to self-organize and assume a higher level of responsibility. In their case, they completely failed to effectively communicate, and act on, of the true scope of his simple Map.  They just performed tasks and went home at 5:00.  No Team. No Product.

This type of thing happens all the time.  All. The. Time.  Complete disconnect in communication and understanding between technical and non-technical people:
  • Person needing dev help clutches onto a programmer and asks for stuff
  • Programmer goes “Sure”
  • Person is pacified
  • Programmer is thinking, “Task”, but Person is thinking, “Commercial Product”
  • Ok, person is really thinking more like, “Product that makes serious money or makes me a star.”  Programmer is thinking, “Maybe I can finally use some Windows Workflow for this.”
  • Disaster. Everyone is sacked
The best designs and successful software products emerge from high-functioning teams.  The developers themselves don’t necessarily have to be superstars, of course.  As in most anything, even a group of strong players can fail badly if they don’t work as a team.  Similarly, a team of average programmers who communicate well and build trust & respect and a team atmosphere, are more likely to succeed than a group of aces who fail to interact as a team.

The point I’m trying to make is; to determine if your dev team is any good, I’d worry less about whether the individuals are champion programmers, but more about how they organize as a team.  This goes for small teams, large teams, small companies and big companies.  It’s really all about the team and the fact that they recognize that they’re not simply completing tasks, but building a commercial software product that has a customer at the other end of it. There’s no question you do have to have good people who know what they’re doing and know how to get software to market, but it’s the team that builds great software.  To that point, the aim in this article is to present some ideas on how to evaluate a software product dev team.  So, the discipline of ‘Hiring Good People’ is not really the topic being addressed – that is an art and a science, and a different conversation.

What to Expect From The Team

Still not sure how to tell if your dev shop is any good?  Below is a handy list of 6 quick tips to help you figure that out.

As an outsider looking in, you might struggle to know what they’re supposed to be doing on a day-to-day, week-by-week basis.  Don’t just cross your fingers and hope for the best – you’re better off knowing what should be happening.Emergence

I’d encourage you to have a look at an earlier posting on Software Failure that contains key recommendations for processes your team should be engaged in.  The following points – which are aimed more at someone overseeing a dev group – will provide a quick indication of whether or not a development team is working effectively.

  1. The software should always be working as an integrated product. You should be able to see continuous measureable progress in the product. It should move forward every day and every week.  You shouldn’t have to go to a developer’s machine to look at software in progress.  In other words, they should be ‘releasing’ it on a daily or weekly basis.
  2. The team should be transparent amongst themselves and to all outside stakeholders. No secrets, no dark places.
  3. The team should be measuring their own progress.  They should metric themselves by estimating on sprint tasks then, after the sprint is complete, reflecting on what was accomplished. Each team member should present/describe what they’re going to do, and then explain what they’ve done
  4. They should be continuously forthcoming about risks, scope, timing and any issues that affect the product or release
  5. They should be taking advantage of productivity tools and methodologies to ensure a rapid turnaround
  6. They should have an obvious desire to innovate

Let me know if you have any questions about any of these.

This isn’t a one-sided relationship – Obviously the team has many expectations from outside stakeholders as well. That is coming in another posting on rookie mistakes.  Stay Tuned!

Chris Ronak

Nothing to see here, move along

NerdPassionsA few months ago I had lunch with a friend who wanted to pick my brain about some frustrations she was having with her company’s software development department.  Her company produces specialized machinery for something (actually, I forget what they do), but they also build and sell software products.  In her role, she leads up a marketing team in charge of commercialization, PR and marketing of their software.

She started the lunch in a quite civil mood – the food was great, the restaurant was awesome – but once she started talking about their software guys, she got a bit edgy.  “I don’t know what they’re doing.” She said, clearly agitated.  “We’re supposed to release this new version in 3 weeks, and I’ve never even seen it.  I don’t know what new features are actually going into it, and they won’t tell me.”

“Every Time I go to meet with them to get more information, they treat me like I’m an intruder – like I’m some annoying idiot from Marketing invading their turf.  All I get is hand-waving and the big brush-off: ‘Nothing to see here pretty lady…’ blah blah blah.”

“I don’t get it.  How am I supposed to do my job? We’re supposed to go live in 3 weeks and they won’t even show me!”

My immediate reactions while she was telling me this story were a bit like this:  I wanted to go strangle that software team.   It was clear that they were badly organized, lacked leadership, they’ll no doubt miss their release target, it will ship with a reduced set of features, and the quality will be poor.  I got especially annoyed when she went on to tell me that they were “Agile”.  Her comment was, “I know you do Agile too, but I don’t think it works.”  That was the clincher.

strangle

Agile is all about transparency, it’s about delivering continuous working software, it’s about inviting all stakeholders in to participate in the development of a product.  Like anything, there are a lot of pretenders out there using a popular concept to hide their own inability.

So, if you were in my shoes, in that situation, sitting across from her, what would you say she should do?

Should she escalate the issue to higher-ups?

Should she continue to badger them till she got answers?

Maybe she should just know-her place.   Bow down to the divine miracle-makers in software.  Wait patiently until they’ve completed the magic-of-software-development before asking more tedious marketing questions.

What would you say? (see poll below)

Ultimately, there are so many things wrong with this situation; I struggle to know where to begin.  So, I’ll make a quick list of the obvious problems that this represents before diving into any detail:

  1. There’s a clear misaligned idea of product ‘ownership’.  While the product should be owned by the business as a whole, the development team appears to view their role as somehow ‘more entitled’
  2. There is a dangerous breakdown in Transparency and Communication
  3. The software team doesn’t know how to ‘ship’ software

A misaligned idea of product ‘ownership’

Clearly many software teams are compelled to believe that what they do – their role in their organization – is to ‘write software’.  Which, in some respects, has some functional truth to it; but the greater truth to what technology professionals do is, “Build Market-Driven Products”.

So, okay, maybe that statement makes you want to roll your eyes to the sky … but at the end of the day, we all work for a company that is in the business of doing business.  Making money.  Whether you’re building commercial or internal software, your company is investing in your time because they believe that it will help them make money.  It’s pretty rare that someone will pay you to play with technology.  The fact is, they’re paying you to do whatever you can to produce a product that has the maximum market potential and ROI so that they can make money.

The long and short of all that is: the technology team doesn’t ‘own’ the product and they have no right to throw up barriers around that product when other stakeholders with equal ownership need to participate in the product’s success.  The product is owned by the business, and the software group’s contribution to that should be a business-driven contribution. NOT a technology-driven contribution.

A Breakdown in Transparency

Software developers have a strong desire to hide in a dark corner and fidget away at their work – their creation – for as long as they can get away with.  The goal is to reappear, unveil the masterpiece with a “Ta Da!” and crowds will applaud the genius, the angels will sing and he will have saved the day.

This is likely the most dangerous thing in the world of software.nothing to see here

Ensuring that your team is fully transparent from all aspects of communication, visibility and availability of working product is absolutely fundamental to a successful software project. If you’re getting pushed off with the “Move along, nothing to see here…” attitude from the dev shop, it’s a clear sign that things are not well in that department.

Learn to ShipSoftware

I just had a chat with my friend, and as it turns out, 4 months later, they still haven’t shipped that release.  And it’s still not clear to her, or anyone else outside the technology department, what will be released or when.

Writing the code is only one aspect of creating a commercial product that you deliver to happy customers (internal or commercial).  The act of shipping that software product is craft that requires practice, experience and a lot of planning.  It’s tricky to ship.  No question.  So, to manage the risk and pitfalls that exist around getting your product to market, best practices tell us to ship all the time.  Ship your software as often as you can. Even if it’s only to internal stakeholders – your BA, Product Manager, trusted clients, etc.  Ship.

If you are on the outside looking in; and your dev group can’t prove that they can ship the software asset you’re investing in long before the release date – this is another sign that things are not well in that department.

Chris Ronak