Monday, December 22, 2008

Book Review - Peopleware

Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister is a book about your companies most important asset its people. It specifically focuses on people who work in software development but many of the principals apply to any employee. The book is broken up into six parts, five from the first edition and a new section added for the second edition.

The overriding theme of the book is that the technology business is more about people and less about the technology. An interesting notion for those of us who really love technology. However, it is ultimately the people who make the technology work. Therefore, the majority of the effort should be spent keeping the people happy and productive. As with many of the books I have read this year, there are way too many suggestions in this book to be implemented, in fact the authors acknowledge this in chapter 26.

It doesn’t take great presence to see that one of these measures is all your likely to pull off successfully. If you try more, you will just diffuse your efforts. The rumpus you’ll raise will be more confusing than constructive, and your colleagues and those above you in the corporate hierarchy are likely to write you off as a whiner. One changes is plenty. Even a single substantive change to the sociology of your organization will be a mammoth accomplishment.

I wanted to point out a few of my favorite parts from each section of the book. I have listed the sections below as a reference.

  • Part I: Managing the human resource
  • Part II: The office environment
  • Part III: The right people
  • Part IV: Growing productive teams
  • Part V: It’s supposed to be fun
  • Part VI: Son of Peopleware

My favorite chapter in part one is chapter two “Make a Cheeseburger, Sell a Cheeseburger” with the basic point being software development is not a production process. Production lines are efficient because they perform the same operations the same way every time and break the tasks down into small manageable pieces. Software development is not about grinding out code the same way every time, it is a creative endeavor. Perspective is also a big topic in part one, chapter three3 “Vienna waits for you” discusses work / life balance. It doesn’t hurt that they use quotes from a Billy Joel song to emphasize their point.

Part two discusses the work environment and unfortunately this is something we all have very little influence over. Noise and privacy seem to be a recurring theme throughout the chapters in this part. With a highly technical field like software development interruptions are a major productivity reducer. When someone is focused on what they are doing they are the most efficient. By interrupting them while in this “zone” it takes several minutes to get back into the “zone”. The chapters discuss reducing interruptions through the use of space, offices, turning off telephones and e-mail among many others.

Part three discusses hiring of good people. Again software development is more about who is doing the work than how the work is getting done. Managing involves getting the right people in the jobs the best coaches recruit the best players why should our industry be any different. There is so much good information in this section it is difficult to pick a few examples. However, two points that really stood out for me were that retention is very important. Many people overlook the cost and lost productivity of turnover. Second is the idea of self healing or the reduction of Methodologies. The more structured a system the less able it is to deal with changes or the ability to handle special cases. Read chapter seventeen for “the rest of the story” (with all due respect to Paul Harvey).

Part four discusses building teams and can be summed up with one word; synergy. Great teams do more together than another group of individuals. Chapter nineteen discusses IBM’s Black Team which was a team of testers who “jelled” into a highly productive team within IBM. The Black Team’s mission was to test and break software being developed at IBM. They took on their own character, taking pride in being the “bad guys” within the company. Although this section points out what is good about great (jelled) teams and gives an example (the Black Team) the authors admit they don’t know exactly how to build one. However, they do have an entire chapter on how not to create a great team called “Teamacide”. Avoiding the seven techniques in this chapter give you a greater chance of creating your great team. Several other examples and suggestions for creating these teams are also presented, so it is not all doom and gloom.

Part five debunks the notion that “work is supposed to be onerous”. Chapter twenty-four “Chaos and Order” provides some methods for finding new and challenging things to work on. Software developers are problem solvers by nature so what happens if we run out of problems to solve? Another interesting point is that sometimes you have to let some employees be “free electrons” people who have no strict job function or description, think “chief software architect”. These people are free to find their own ways to benefit the organization.

Part six is an entirely new section for the second edition which consists of eight chapters. It includes some new thoughts on “Teamacide” and on competition. I have always thought that competition between teams can be a bad thing. If people feel threatened by their peers being better or knowing more than they do it results in poor productivity. I have been in many situations where something couldn’t get done because Susan is out of the office and she is the only one who can do that. Coaching and mentoring is vital to keeping a company running and for great teams to develop, competition can greatly reduce this mentoring.

Some other topics in part six include investing in people, employees are “Human Capital”. People hate change so you must work to make change happen. Although not all change is good, see the chapter twenty-nine “Process Improvement Programs”. Chapter thirty-three “The Ultimate Management Sin Is…” provides some great insight and statistical evidence. I won’t spoil the surprise but a hint can be found in The Mythical Man Month. The final chapter was very fitting, in my opinion, it wraps it up with a story with a “what’s it all for” message. Ultimately we work to build things and what is more rewarding than building a community and seeing people grow and develop within your organization.

As you can probably tell from my long posting on this book I enjoyed it immensely. I would recommend this book to anyone who manages software developers or software developers who are looking for ways to improve their productivity. It may be as simple as getting out of those cubicles or by getting onto a team you can “jell” with.

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