Can software engineering woes be solved by focusing on people, not tech? This book summary of “Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams” will help you decide for yourself!
What makes you panic more – a plugged-in iron left on, or leaving your phone at home?
It’s obvious that an iron can cause much more damage, but the idea of having to spend a day without a phone sounds like madness. We are highly dependent on modern technologies – probably more than we think we are. It may seem that technology rules the world today… but is it so?
“Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams” by Tom De Marco and Timothy Lister tells us that software engineering is inherently sociological. The authors insist that problems appearing in the sphere are mostly social, and not technological in nature.
However, company leaders just don’t manage that way – even more, sometimes they treat people as if they were modular components, like software routines or circuits. But people are not machines – they are extremely complex creatures. And once you find a key to fix an issue at the “human” level, the technological part can resolve itself.
Here you can read a short summary of “Peopleware” by DeMarco and Lister:
A tendency to organize human resources into modular pieces has its logical background: usually software team managers are ex-technicians and developers who are used to working in this way. This approach is ineffective and counterproductive. Fortunately, there is an alternative.
Most managers focus on technology as their principal concern, and one of the reasons for it is the High-Tech Illusion – a conviction that dealing with any aspect of new technology equals being in a high-tech business.
However, only those researchers who made breakthroughs can confidently say they are in the high-tech business, while people using new technology components to develop their products are just appliers of their work.
And since these new technologies are applied in teams and projects, it would be fair to say that “appliers” are actually in the human communication business. Logically, the successes and failures are the results of human interactions, whether good or poor.
Of course, it’s much easier to handle the technological side of work than the human one – for example, it’s easier to install a disk drive than to explain why an employee wants to quit. But eventually, it’s the human side that matters.
According to the authors, a serious problem that can be fatal in any development area is the “make the cheeseburger, sell a cheeseburger” mentality – which is an approach to management consisting in standardizing procedures, eliminating experimentation, and treating workers as if they were interchangeable parts of a machine.
This approach, successfully applied in a production environment like fast food business, doesn’t work in the IT sphere: it limits the freedom of thought as people are not allowed to make mistakes. However, workers should be encouraged to do so:
For most thinking workers, making an occasional mistake is a natural and healthy part of their work. But there can be an almost Biblical association between error on the job and sin. This is an attitude we need to take specific pains to change.
Another thing which negatively impacts management, say the authors, is the Spanish Theory of Value – the theory, according to which there is only fixed amount of value on earth, which means it has to be extracted and accumulated (drawn from the Spanish invasion into the New World, where they exploited the indigenous people and extracted huge amount of gold.)
Unfortunately, this approach is still popular among many managers: they treat productivity as extracting more in an hour of work – not achieving, but extracting. This often leads to unpaid overtime.
Making employees work longer and harder, managers make them sacrifice their private lives. Very often this is done through imposing tight deadlines, sometimes arbitrary (after all, the world will not collapse if a project won’t be finished by April, right?)
But no one can work hard continually and with the same intensity: the efficiency will be decreased, and even the most dedicated workaholics will start to feel that they don’t want to let their life pass them by.
To illustrate how this may feel, the authors quote some paragraphs from Billy Joel’s “The Stranger”:
Slow down you crazy child,
And take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while.
It’s all right. You can afford to lose a day or two.
When will you realize . . . Vienna waits for you?
To summarize the problems a manager may encounter, the authors use a metaphor of the Seven Sirens: like the sirens from the ancient epic poem tried to seduce Odysseus with their songs and then kill him, some widely accepted beliefs can prevent a manager from building a healthy corporate culture.
Describing the Seven False Hopes of Software Management, they provide a response that counters each of them:
To create a healthy and work-conductive environment, a good manager would have to eliminate the factors that make this impossible. The causes of lost time are numerous, and they lead to frustration, so managers need to do something about it – as the authors say, “There are a million ways to lose a workday, but not even a single way to get one back.”
Unfortunately, people who control space for a company, especially for a large organization, rarely think about the comfort of people who work there – usually they don’t take into account the ways in which people use their space, the number of hours they work alone and with someone else, often completely disregarding a natural need for peace and quiet.
What they care about is leaving a desk clean for the night, not hanging anything on walls but calendars and so on. This is why the authors call them “furniture police”, emphasizing that they design workplaces like prisons: striving for uniformity and optimizing for containment at minimal cost.
A typical workspace where intellectual workers spend their day is “noisy, interruptive, unprivate, and sterile.” For example, from the viewpoint of the Furniture Police, basement space is really preferable as it creates similar conditions to everyone, this way adding uniformity. However, these workspaces are not functional, and not much work can be done there.
People work better in natural light; moreover, they want their space to be shaped to their own convenience and taste. Doors are as important as windows are: they help control noise and interruptibility. A simple rule is that comfort benefits productivity, but very often this rule is ignored.
Some time before they wrote this book, the authors conducted a public productivity survey which grew into a kind of competition: teams of software implementers competed to complete coding and testing tasks with minimal defects and in minimal time. They called these competitions Coding War Games.
Analyzing the results, they discovered that the following factors had little or no correlation to performance:
These findings may be surprising, but probably not as surprising as the factors that actually affect performance:
Two people from the same organization tend to perform alike. That means the best performers are clustering in some organizations while the worst performers are clustering in others.
The results of this experiment prove that work environment matters a lot, and it’s possible to help your employees work more effectively, simply organizing their space better.
To create an ideal workspace, the authors suggest using the idea of “organic order”, developed by Christopher Alexander, an architect and a philosopher. He describes organic order as an environment that “emerges when there is perfect balance between the needs of the individual parts of the environment, and the needs of the whole.”
According to Alexander, people cannot work effectively in an environment which is too enclosed or too exposed; they feel more comfortable with a wall behind them, and uncomfortable if there is a blank wall closer than 8 feet in front of them. He suggests 253 patterns of successful interior order; the authors add 4 more, aiming at 4 the most failing patterns of modern institutional space:
Finally, organizing space for employees, designers must follow a “non-replicable formula” – like two people cannot be alike, their workplaces cannot be alike either.
Modern management science focuses on the boss as the principal strategist and tactician, and pays little attention to hiring and keeping the right people. Of course, this is a flawed approach: all work is done at the level of the team - and team means workers, not a manager.
Even novice managers know the golden rule: you cannot hire based on appearance. However, it often happens that appearance is one of the key factors in hiring. Why is it so? The authors explain that the reason is our evolutionary mechanisms: we feel uneasy around people who differ from us.
Hiring a person, you hire them on behalf of the whole company, thinking they fit into its culture. If the culture is healthy, it’s not a problem – if most employees are good performers, then if a new one is like them, it only benefits the company. But if not? Then you just lose a chance to hire someone who can be a breath of fresh air.
Uniformity is important to authoritarian regimes; however, a strong desire to impose uniformity tells about unconfidence, say the authors:
The need for uniformity is a sign of insecurity on the part of management. Strong managers don’t care when team members cut their hair or whether they wear ties. Their pride is tied only to their staff’s accomplishments.
This is why “unprofessional” is often viewed as a surprising and threatening behavior. For example, a manager of one company once called pop-corn unprofessional – because the connotations of its smell have nothing to do with work. Long hair on a male head can be called unprofessional for the same reason – because it’s unusual.
Conversely, the term “professional” means something that is not surprising. This way, if you think like everyone else, dress like everyone else, you are considered professional. Of course, this “perverted sense of professionalism”, as the authors call it, has nothing to do with reality: professionalism is about competence and knowledge.
According to the authors, a typical person leaves after two years of work. To hire a new employee, it costs between 4 or 5 months’ salary – because it takes a couple months for a new person to start doing some useful work, and around 5 month to work at a full capacity. This is the obvious side of turnover. There is also a hidden one.
In companies with high turnover, people tend to have a short-term viewpoint – knowing that they will probably leave soon, they do not fully devote themselves to the company. The only way to keep workers is to promote them quickly – which means promoting people with little experience, and this is not a sign of health.
So how can we avoid turnover? First of all, we should remember that people stay when they are expected to stay. To make employees feel that they are valuable, a company should invest in their growth: for example, telling them to go through training and retraining.
The best organizations do not fire people who need retraining, hiring someone who has the necessary skill: they know that retraining builds the mentality of permanence and, consequently, a strong sense of community.
People tend to work more effectively if they work as a cohesive unit: “Once a team begins to jell, the probability of success goes up dramatically.” The reason why this happens is very simple: teams are formed around goals.
Speaking about productive teams, the authors mention ways that inhibit the formation of teams. They call these ways “teamicide”, and provide the following techniques that provoke it:
As opposed to the techniques mentioned above, the authors provide a list of “chemistry-building strategies for a healthy organization” – the elements that have a positive effect on team-building:
What’s in the foreground of most of our prized work memories is team interaction. When a group of people fuse into a meaningful whole, the entire character of the work changes. The challenge of the work is important, but not in and of itself; it is important because it gives us something to focus on together.
Corporate culture is the context in which teams and projects exist. Some cultures are healthy, while others aren’t. So what are the factors that make a corporate culture healthy?
When it comes to meetings, organizations tend to act in two ways, totally opposite to each other: being addicted to them or, as the authors joke, refusing to use the “M” word at all. Naturally, neither of the two is good.
To make meetings an effective instrument, the authors suggest using “meeting hygiene” – a specific attitude that helps extract meaning from these interactions.
First of all, you’d need to differentiate between working and non-working meetings. A working meeting is the one which is called to reach a decision, and it’s supposed to have an agenda relevant to its purpose. They are not finished by the clock – they are finished when the decision is made.
A nonworking meeting ends by the clock since it doesn’t have any particular purpose. This is why the authors call it a ceremony: it’s about FYI, for your information thing. A ceremony is conducted in a ritualistic manner: announcements and interactions between two people, typically a boss and one of the subordinates, while the others are listening.
The “meeting hygiene” consists in eliminating ceremonial meetings, limiting attendance at working meetings (since sometimes these are used as a chance to get visibility and rise in the company hierarchy) focusing on one-on-one conversations instead.
Technologies change, and make software development change the way products are built. However, changes are not easy. And the thing that makes a change process even more difficult is the wrong understanding of the nature of change.
A model of change as it is typically imagined by the majority of people is very simple: old status quo – new status quo (linked with a better idea). As opposed to this naïve model, there is a different one – a Satir change model that involves 4 elements:
You have reached the New Status Quo when what you changed becomes what you do. An interesting characteristic of human emotion is that the more painful the Chaos, the greater the perceived value of the New Status Quo—if you can get there.
We’re used to the thought that work has to be hard - otherwise it’s not work. And if you enjoy it, you shouldn’t be paid for it. However, the authors tell us that this is not necessarily true.
There is something about human nature that makes us the implacable enemies of chaos. Whenever we encounter chaos, we roll up our sleeves and go right to work to replace it with order. But it does not follow from this that we’d be happier if there were no more chaos. On the contrary, we’d be bored to tears.
Even though we try to get rid of chaos by all means, a little of it can breathe some energy into work. There are some techniques how to implement the policy of “reintroduction of small amounts of disorder”, as the authors put it:
Sometimes things that hurt the work environment are silly, and it doesn’t take much to “wake up a giant” – a serious issue can be brought up by a simple incident that would be the last straw. Someday, one of your employees can lose patience and say “This is not acceptable ” – and it will be a point of no return.
The employees of any organization are like the body of this sleeping giant, and when the giant is mad, something has to be done about it - no one will tolerate the situation anymore.
And yes, even one single voice can change everything.
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