Ownership

One of my favorite Twitter accounts in the software industry is Esther Derby’s. I’m constantly nodding along. This one got me thinking about the concept of “ownership” on software teams.

Esther tweet

It’s a common refrain from software project managers that they want developers to take ownership of the features they build, as in, accept accountability for what they’ve built and its quality—to care about it.

As someone whose career responsibilities have occasionally involved diving into another team’s codebase to figure out what went wrong, I’m guilty of thinking to myself, “How could these devs have shipped this crap? Don’t they care about the quality of their work?

Later on, I get a glimpse into the management of the team, and witness how the developers are pressured constantly to deliver more features, forget the bugs, and “commit” to delivering requirements they had no hand in writing and no say in the timetable for delivery.

It is damn near impossible to get developers to really take ownership of their code when all the circumstances of the project are implying: “Shit it and ship it!

Development teams must have veto power over scope and estimates, which I’m sure scares a large contingent of managers out there, but without that there is no hope for “ownership.”

Software Development Methodologies as Collective Fictions

The failure of methodologies to accurately model reality is a common source of cynicism amongst boots-on-the-ground developers. I can recall many conversations with teammates where we’d end a meeting and then chuckle in hushed tones with each other about how “wrong” we were doing Scrum and how clueless our managers were.

In his article My 20-Year Experience of Software Development Methodologies, Ian Miell makes the point that methodologies are necessary as “collective fictions”—a thought I personally find comforting.

As an industry, we tend to look back on Waterfall as hilariously naive and antiquated, but to Ian…

…the waterfall process was a ‘collective fiction’ that gave us enough stability and coherence to collaborate, get something out of the door, and get paid.

He goes on to discuss his experience with Rapid Application Development at a startup:

We were small enough not to need a collective fiction we had to name. Relationships and facts could be kept in our heads, and if you needed help, you literally called out to the room.

We got slightly bigger, and customers started asking us what our software methodology was. We guessed it wasn’t acceptable to say ‘we just write the code’.

Turns out there was this thing called ‘Rapid Application Development’ that emphasized prototyping. We told customers we did RAD, and they seemed happy, as it was A Thing. It sounded to me like ‘hacking’, but to be honest I’m not sure anyone among us really properly understood it or read up on it.
As a collective fiction it worked, because it kept customers off our backs while we wrote the software.

Ian then experienced Agile, with all its foibles:

The few that really had read up on it seemed incapable of actually dealing with the very real pressures we faced when delivering software to non-sprint-friendly customers, timescales, and blockers. So we carried on delivering software with our specs, and some sprinkling of agile terminology. Meetings were called ‘scrums’ now, but otherwise it felt very similar to what went on before.
As a collective fiction it worked, because it kept customers and project managers off our backs while we wrote the software.

As someone who’s been making software professionally for over a decade now (not as long as Ian!), I have arrived at much the same conclusion, that software development methodologies have value regardless of their literal reality. Organizing principles and shared terminology alone are worth adopting something...anything.

Sure.

Accepting the inevitability of these collective fictions is like taking a weight off of one’s shoulders. It just saves so much angst.

Bosses like to give politically-correct names to things that their people are already doing, and that’s fine. The software industry’s current fixation on Agile concepts is a reflection of the way that a distributed workforce would inevitably do things. Ian explains:

If software methodologies didn’t exist we’d have to invent them, because how else would we work together effectively? You need these fictions in order to function at scale. It’s no coincidence that the Agile paradigm has such a quasi-religious hold over a workforce that is immensely fluid and mobile.

We’ll always be working under some “methodology” and that’s okay. Just keep making good software, and don’t worry about what people are calling it.

Inclusive Culture, Minimum Culture

Our startup has a very progressive culture…as long as you’re white, childless, in your twenties, politically liberal, and love craft beer, hackathons, and indie rock.

Dress codes are so lame.

My own personal experience working for a big, boring, multi-national company matches what Rich Armstrong recounts in his great article on Hacker Noon about inclusive company cultures:

As I said, to this day, my team at J.D. Edwards was the most diverse I’ve ever worked on. My first boss was an African immigrant, second boss was a forty-something mom. Our team measured high on nearly every dimension of diversity — gender, race, religion, age, parental status, national origin, sexual orientation, disability status, veteran status.

Rich goes on to talk about how that experience contrasted with his subsequent experience with the monoculture of a hip startup:

When our office culture is focused on business rather than socializing, we reduce the number of ways in which we all have to be the same. When we do that, we allow diversity to flourish. If your culture expects people to work long hours or hang out off-hours, the strain on the people who are different, in whatever way, is increased, and your ability to retain a diverse work force is reduced.

He then discusses his experience at a startup, Fog Creek Software, that managed to retain the inclusive culture of his big company experience:

...the culture was mostly about the business of software, how you build it, how you sell it, how you support it. If you were excited about that, you automatically belonged. You didn’t need to stay late, or drink alcohol, or play Rock Band, or play board games, or not have kids to pick up, or go to church, or not go to church, or do anything except show up 9-to-5 and care a lot about good software.

…the lesson I’m taking for myself going forward is this: if you want to build an inclusive culture, build a minimum culture. Build it around professionalism, boundaries, and work-life balance. Make sure your senior staff walks the walk, and spreads the word.

I found this last bit so poignant, as it’s really sort of counterintuitive—perhaps the reason why so many tech companies fail at trying to bolt on “inclusiveness” to a monoculture after the fact.

For a company that really wants to have a diverse pool of employees, you have to back off the idea that they’re all going to be best buddies, and don’t insist that their personal identities are enmeshed with a corporate culture.

Job Ad Red Flags: Calling All Ninjas!

I’m not sure this really needs to be said, but these words in a job posting are an instant buzzkill:

  • Ninja
  • Rockstar
  • Jam sessions
  • etc.

Basically, if the ad sounds like it was composed out of words that immature young men would think are cool, you lost me.

These may be controversial, but I’m also wary of mentioning things like “hackathons” and “kegerators”. Hey, I love working as a software developer, and I love beer, but it seems kind of weird to think I want to hang around the office after hours. (In fact, let’s kill the office altogether—I’ll take the savings in my paycheck, please.)

Ninja

Don’t Trap Your Clients in the Bikeshed

As software developers, one of the best things we can do for our clients (internal or external) is to restrain from bombarding them with questions about trivial and easy-to-change aspects of their requirements.

When I find myself in doubt about how some aspect of the software I’m developing should work, I try to identify if the requirement is “bikesheddable” before stopping my progress to reach out to the client.

So...white?

For example, the client has a requirement for a feature like “when an administrator grants access to a new user, the user should be notified by email.” I’ve seen developers (typically more junior) block their progress on a feature like this until the client gets back to them with a definitive answer on what title to use for the email.

I define a question about the requirements of software to be bikesheddable if it is…

  1. Trivial
  2. Likely to generate back-and-forth and delays
  3. Easy to change later

If it’s bikesheddable, pick a sane default and continue on with the feature. When the client sees the feature deployed, they are of course most likely not even going to notice the choice you made for the aforementioned bikesheddable thing, but if it happens to matter, by way of #3 above, you can easily change it later.

Get the broad strokes right in v1, and the fine details in v2 and beyond.

Job Ad Red Flags: Fad Obsession

This red flag may be considered a subcategory of the previous red flag I wrote about in my post highlighting technical minutiae.

Remember when everyone was talking about how jQuery was unmanageable without a framework like Backbone.js? And then three seconds later it was embarrassing to be using Backbone.js, and startups would talk sheepishly about using it and how they should really rewrite using Angular? And then three seconds after that, they were embarrassed to be using antiquated technology like Angular, and how they couldn’t wait to start their rewrite using React?

microservices

As Dan McKinley put it in his classic post, Choose Boring Technology (2015):

Let's say every company gets about three innovation tokens. You can spend these however you want, but the supply is fixed for a long while.

If you choose to write your website in NodeJS, you just spent one of your innovation tokens. If you choose to use MongoDB, you just spent one of your innovation tokens. If you choose to use service discovery tech that's existed for a year or less, you just spent one of your innovation tokens.

Adding technology to your company comes with a cost. …if we’re already using Ruby, adding Python to the mix doesn't feel sensible because the resulting complexity would outweigh Python's marginal utility. But somehow when we're talking about Python and Scala or MySQL and Redis people lose their minds, discard all constraints, and start raving about using the best tool for the job.

The problem with "best tool for the job" thinking is that it takes a myopic view of the words "best" and "job." Your job is keeping the company in business, god damn it. And the "best" tool is the one that occupies the "least worst" position for as many of your problems as possible.

When I read a job ad where the focus is on an intricately presented list of the most bleeding edge languages, frameworks, databases, text editors, chat tools, and the like, I have to wonder what other trivial things they’re spending an inordinate amount of cycles on instead of delivering software to their customers. 

Job Ad Red Flags: Technical Minutiae

Ever see one of those developer job postings that reads like the hiring manager sent out a mass email to every developer in the company just saying something like, “Please send me a list of every technology you’ve ever used at this company,” and then combined every list together to form the ad?

Looking for an experienced software engineer.

Qualifications:

.NET 2.0, .NET 3.5, .NET 4.0, Visual Studio 2005 Professional, Visual Studio 2008 Premium, Visual Studio 2015 Enterprise, ASP.NET 1.0, ASP.NET 2.0, jQuery 1.7, jQuery 2.2.4, PowerShell 1.0, …

And then give no details about the work environment, philosophy, or any sort of non-technical human consideration?

I completely understand if your company builds all of its software on Microsoft technologies, that you probably aren’t looking for Java developers. Or if you want to avoid hearing from Ruby on Rails developers when your project is embedded C. Mentioning the general constellation of technologies that you need someone to work with is a good idea for everyone involved.

laptop with stickers

But focusing your outreach effort to potential hires on a laundry list of technical minutiae shows a lack of understanding about what’s important. The hardest problems to solve in most software organizations are not technical problems but human problems. Talk mostly to the human being you’d be hiring and the other human beings they’d be working with.

Below is a great example of hiring for a technical role in which the writer takes a human tone first. In this case the company Stripe is hiring for a Web Developer role:

We’re looking for someone with:

  • 3+ years of experience as a web developer
  • Experience building public facing websites that work elegantly across commonly used browsers
  • An extreme attention to detail and deep empathy with design
  • An interest in helping startups
  • Advanced knowledge of modern HTML and CSS

Perks of working on this team include:

  • This is a new and very small team with lots of opportunity to help shape the future
  • Working closely with Stripe’s world class design and marketing teams
  • High impact role as we spin up our customer acquisition machine
  • An opportunity to focus on fit, finish, and polish of frontend output

The only specific technologies mentioned here are HTML and CSS, which, of course, any person developing for the Web would need to know.

The copy is mostly written to a human being who likes building high-quality websites, rather than a list of the technical details by which Stripe has implemented their website. (Check out Stripe’s careers section for more great stuff like this.)

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my career as a software developer, it’s that technology is almost certainly the least important aspect of software development. Hire a human being, not a list of technologies.