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:
They don’t dress very well
They play Team Fortress II at lunch
They talk techie all the time
They cling to each other at the Christmas party
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?
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 infrastructure. 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.
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.
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.
The team should be transparent amongst themselves and to all outside stakeholders. No secrets, no dark places.
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
They should be continuously forthcoming about risks, scope, timing and any issues that affect the product or release
They should be taking advantage of productivity tools and methodologies to ensure a rapid turnaround
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!
A 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.
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:
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’
There is a dangerous breakdown in Transparency and Communication
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.
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.
As Technology Professionals, we have an obligation…
It’s pretty common for software projects to fail. According to the Standish Group’s 2009 CHAOS report, only 32% of software projects succeeded over the past year. Not exactly a banner year to be sure; but even in a good year, it’s rare to hit more than 40% success. Whatever the reasons and wherever the fault may lie, these are disturbing numbers that I think we, as technology professionals, need to take ownership of and do our part to correct. (For a little background reading, have a look at this excellent IEEE paper about software failures).
It’s easy for a member of a software project team – especially developers – to up and bail out of a ‘disaster’ project situation and simply move on to another project. There are plenty of opportunities out there for skilled technical people, so it doesn’t take much to just throw your hands up in the air and abandon the disaster for a more appealing career move. It’s equally easy to ride-out the disaster and just show-up for work, and tune out the world around you.
The thinking, of course, is that it’s someone else’s fault, someone else’s problem and someone else’s financial catastrophe to sort out. After all, you’re just a small player in a big machine. It was probably a lack of requirements, poor leadership, lack of focus, too many changes, management issues, etc etc. that caused the failure, right? So, why should you take on any responsibility?
The trouble with that type of thinking is, Those People left to pick up the pieces of a software failure are left with a bitterly sour taste about the risk associated with investing in software. They have to stand in front of investors, customers, regulatory bodies and other stakeholders to explain the multi-million dollar failure. And you know what? They are not happy with the 32% success rate in software projects. It’s both expensive and it looks bad on their career.
And with all these software failures on the books, Theymay decide that, when faced with the prospect of investing in software products & projects – and technology in general – it is far too risky and their money is better invested elsewhere. We really need to improve things.
So, without descending into a blame and fault discussion, let’s be honest about the burden of responsibility of software project success and failure. While it’s true that the causes are rooted in many influences and situations in an organization, my goal in this discussion is to zero in on what we, as technology professionals, HAVE TO DO to avoid and repair the ongoing brutal legacy of software project failures.
On the positive side, I truly believe that we’re getting better at building software. This is echoed in historical CHAOS reports from the Standish group, but it’s also something that’s evident in the many improvements and maturity in the world of software development: better tools, improved standards, and the emergence and more widespread adoption of Agile and accompanied development processes that reduce risk.
Part of the challenge is that there really aren’t any established standards in this industry. Adopting standards is optional. There are obviously scores of strategies to improve quality and the ability to reliably hit release targets, but it’s typically at the discretion of the development team and mostly overlooked … which is largely why we’re at a 32% success rate.
So, to start with: whether you’re a manager, developer, product owner or business person, here’s a bare-minimum list of what your software development team should be doing to improve your ability to build and ship quality software:
Each of these simple process improvements vastly reduce risk and increase the chances for success. These examples are only a scratching of the types of methodology/process upgrading that teams should be adopting, but I believe if ‘most’ teams were to do only those things, the number would dramatically move from less than 40% to well over 50% success. Still not great – and I’ll address some more deep reaching improvement concepts in upcoming discussions – but if more teams and technology professionals were to adopt a sense of ownership in improving the global perspective of software project reliability, we can avoid a most certain backlash in the availability of technology investment dollars.