Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare

Waterfall vs Agile?

Sounds a bit daft to even be having the debate, surely by now there is no one left that still thinks waterfall is the better choice for delivery of complex software projects, unfortunately that is very far from the truth, there seem to be many that still prefer waterfall and recently I even heard it talked of in terms of the good old days.  So I delved a little deeper.

In this instance the source was a statement by someone who’s opinion was given weight. The comment was:

I could deliver ‘project x’ using waterfall if you gave me dedicated resources and we could lock ourselves away for 6-months.  

In waterfall the costs of planning are high, the costs of analysis is high, and the cost of change is very high. But by it’s nature waterfall has a clear scope(vision).   The result is that everyone is clear on the priority, the project is protected, no change and no disruption, the scope doesn’t change. Because everyone understands the cost of interruption.

In Agile the upfront cost of planning is low, the upfront cost of analysis is low and the cost of change is relatively low. The result in some cases is that ‘unnecessary’ direction change can be frequent, the project is unprotected because it can adjust, disruption can be frequent, and so the scope regularly changes for sometimes trivial reasons or low priority distractions.

In short we are not comparing apples with apples.  We are comparing focused vision-led waterfall, with an unfocused ad-hoc agile.

In the example above the team had a fairly vague goal to deliver ‘x’ but also support ‘project y’ and deliver small increments of ‘project z’, ‘project w’ and maybe even an update to ‘project v’ too. And that plan was likely to change next week when something else came along. Because of this ‘project x’ was taking far longer than anticipated. so this notion that delivery using waterfall would be quicker has arisen.

But, the problem for me is that it was not the ‘waterfall’ part of the plan that would ensure success, it was the dedicated resources and clear vision that were the crucial aspects.  Give me a clear vision and those same dedicated resources and I can be pretty sure that I would deliver what the customer wants, sooner, cheaper and more reliably using Scrum than someone else could using waterfall.

Agile is the victim of it’s own agility, it is like the free gift no one values.  Because there is less pain in changing direction in agile projects, and because the team can adjust and adapt, that doesn’t make it free and it doesn’t mean it isn’t disruptive.

Agile enables you to have flexibility in planning, it allows deferring decisions, it allows planning only small amounts, and allows changes in direction and content.  But just because you can do these things doesn’t mean you always should.

A single vision with dedicated resources is a powerful combination, Agile is a powerful tool, but as they say with great power comes great responsibility.

Agile enables you to vary the scope of your vision, to respond to change, it is not a licence to operate without a vision.

As the Japanese proverb goes:

Vision without action is a daydream.  Action without vision is a nightmare.

Advertisements

Who is interviewing who?

How I’d like to do it.

My advice would be to concentrate first and foremost on creating a place where people would want to work, then marketing your organisation to the candidate, they should really want to work for your company, that way you start with a better candidate pool, immediately giving you a better chance of finding the best employees.

Then – even if it feels impersonal, a series of consistent structured tests (IQ and Psychometric) and then formal structured interview questions where the results and responses are noted and then referred onto an independent panel for a decision on hiring. Forget the gut-feel, forget the technical questions, forget hostile interview techniques, they really don’t work. Throughout all this ensure the candidates are treated well and made to feel important.

Sounds like hard work, it sounds like it undermines the hiring manager, it sounds incredibly time-consuming and bureaucratic, perhaps even expensive. But if your goal is to consistently hire good quality candidates it is going to be hard work and you will have to accept that there are some things that cannot be effectively and consistently assessed in an interview situation.

My final thought is that if you have got your hiring right, it is very likely that the most capable, most experienced and most reliable person for a role is the one currently in it. Don’t lose them.  Look after good employees they are your company’s most valuable asset.  Treat them well and do whatever it takes to keep them.

recruitment tips

And next time you are in an interview situation, ask yourself who is interviewing who?

Typical interview styles

The interview itself.

What I have observed is that interviewing is generally composed of one or more of a very small number of techniques:

  1.  Free-form, gut-feel unstructured or semi-structured chat and questions between candidate and hiring manager.

  2.  More formal pre-defined questions structured and consistently asked to all candidates.

  3.  Some variety of standardised test, essentially IQ based.

  4.  Questions posed by a technical expert with a desire to highlight his superiority rather than assess your capability.

  5.  A technical test or series of technical questions intended to be pragmatic and fair.

  6.  Aggressive panel questioning

  7.  Psychometric testing: verbal/numeric/diagrammatic reasoning or personality tests.

  8.  Presentation by interviewer on why the candidate should work for you.

There are studies and statistics that rank the effectiveness of the different techniques for selecting good candidates, I won’t pour them out here – I am not an expert and I’d just embarrass myself. But in my experience 1 is the most common, often combined with 4 or 5. But logic states that 4 is a waste of time and puts off candidates, and studies show that 1 and 5 are actually very, very poor indicators of ability and capability for the role and do not result in long-term success.

So what works? 

2, 3 and 7 are by far a better method of assessing candidates, followed by an independent panel-decision based on the documented evidence taken from the interviews – the interviewer should not be allowed to make the decision independently as they display bias (subconscious or otherwise).

But 2, 3 and 7 are hard, it requires yet more work on what is already a tough and time-consuming process, so very rarely gets done.

The reciprocal nature of an interview (8) is so often overlooked, if you want the best people and you want to get the best out of them, then not only do you need to decide if they are right for you, you need to convince them that your business/team is right for them. You should be putting as much effort in to impressing candidates as they put into impressing you. You are competing for them in a buoyant market.

recruitment2

Doing it right.

As an interviewer, my best experience has been for a company that did a combination of 2, 3, 7 and 5. We put a lot of effort into interviewing, but the majority of people still failed the combination of tests, especially the technical test. The test felt ‘easy’ to us and some candidates did well, but the results didn’t match the apparent skills of candidates, in hindsight I think it confused the process. The problem is that technical tests are not effective at assessing ability during an interview, there are simply so many other factors at play.

Relying on structured questions, IQ tests and psychometric tests may feel clinical and impersonal, but very likely the best way to find the right candidate. But ego plays a role and when hiring for a team, we are only human and so many hiring managers want to rely on their own instinct, even if evidence demonstrates this is unreliable, so it is hardly a surprise that many hiring managers favour their instinct over a structured process.

What makes a good interview?

My experience of recruitment is largely anecdotal, I am not a professional interviewer or HR expert. My limited experience of interviewing has been as a candidate, a hiring manager, or sometimes even as a subject expert. I’d estimate that over my career my experience is approximately 8:1 in favour of being an interviewer over being an interviewee, but I have been on both sides of the table often enough to know how it feels from either perspective. 

Over the last 5 or so years the amount of effort I have put into recruitment has been considerable, especially considering it is not really meant to be a significant part of my role. I’d estimate that I have hired an average of one person ever 2 months or so.   I even like to think I am pretty good at it,  although as you will see I am probably mistaken in that opinion.

What is striking though is how much time this takes, very anecdotally I’d estimate that depending on the quality of the CVs that I receive, on average only 5% will make it through the screening and interviewing to getting an offer(probably less). But the 95% that get rejected still consume a lot of time, and of the 5% selected we don’t always get it right, and I’m pretty sure quite a few good candidates get missed. The process is far from ideal.

recruitment

But what makes for a good interview?

As a candidate I have had interviews lasting less than 15 minutes (where I was offered) and interviews spanning 3 days, for a graduate recruitment programme, and just about everything in between. I have had good experiences and bad.

Some, in fact most interviewers seem to forget that the candidate is also interviewing them, and that the candidate is deciding if they want to work with you in the same way you are assessing them – it is not a one way decision by any stretch. Such is the lack of understanding and sheer arrogance of some that I have been asked extremely obscure technical questions that provide no clear value, I have been challenged(insulted) to gauge my response, I have had panel of interviewers quick-firing questions and had interviewers who were clearly reading my CV for the first time during the interview.  Why would any good candidate have any desire to work for you after an interview like that?

I haven’t kept accurate records, and I appreciate this is anecdotal but I’d estimate I have turned down close to three job offers for every one I have accepted over my career. Now I am well aware that I am fortunate to have in-demand skills at a time when the market is booming, I have also had a lot of rejection.  Similarly, as a hiring manager I’ve had too many candidates turn down offers, or more frustrating get a better offer before we could complete the hiring process.

The hiring process is so expensive and so important I am surprised at how often it is treated in a cavalier manner.   Why oh why would you be so arrogant to treat candidates with anything less than the respect you would expect them to show you?

What is the Minimum Viable Product?

A question came up this week following a discussion on story writing that I think bears further discussion.

What really is the Minimum Viable Product? 

To explain my thoughts I will use the building of a Skyscraper as an analogy.

The project vision is to build the UK’s tallest building. To achieve that it must be over 1000ft tall and 88 floors.

What is the MVP?  There are many possible answers to this, but the first two responses that spring to mind are:

1                 My MVP is over 1000ft tall and 88 floors, without that it simply fails to meet my vision.

But let’s say I underestimated the costs and after 65 floors I run out of money, I have been agile and each of the floors was a complete deliverable, the building is perfectly functional at 65 floors, in fact it was probably functional at 1 floor.   So surely at any point it was an MVP?

construction

2                 My absolute worst case scenario MVP a single floor

This is where things get confusing.    No serious customer would consider a 1 floor building with massive land costs and hugely expensive foundations ‘Viable’  the project would never be signed off.  As such this is not viable.  However, I’d still suggest aiming for the ability to deliver in phases, e.g. a delivery after each floor.

In this situation I’d say an MVP is the minimum that a customer would accept. And that is a conversation, would he agree to a MVP of 88 floors but a first phase goal of 20 floors, with the ability to expand later? As you can imagine the MVP is likely to change according to the circumstances. Our goal is to delight the customer but our plan is to build the product in such a way that if at any point he is satisfied or better yet delighted, we can ‘deliver’ immediately.

skyline

My point – hopefully not lost in the mix is that an MVP is about thinking about the minimum that a customer would find useful – usually this is closely related to the original vision. In the case of this building – what if the last 10 floors were empty unfinished shells? or similarly we leave the project in a state where it is valuable as is and the Vision can be achieved in a future project  – The building still will meet the vision and those floors could be finished later?

Having an MVP in mind is useful, it may help with some decisions, but every project is different and MVP will likely evolve with the project. A good Product Owner or BA will be able to work out what is the true MVP and why. The PO can focus on the customers evolving needs so that the customer gets the best ROI at each stage, but most of all they will be aware of what would be the solution that would delight the customer.

An MVP is a tool like any other, in most cases it is a fall back position, not the goal.

Live to work, not work to live.

It is often said that happiness is about finding balance in your life, sometimes this means making time for the different aspects of your life, work, hobbies, family and so on, but what if balance is achieved by taking pleasure in all these endeavours? Not simply making time for each but making sure each is fulfilling in its own way.

Too many people seem to suggest that they dislike work, or that it is a chore to be endured for the pay cheque. I find this an odd perspective. Why would you spend 40 hours a week, every week, doing something you endure? Chances are you spend more time at work than anything else. 

I am very lucky, I have a job I love, although I also love my bed and find getting out of bed on a morning difficult sometimes. But once I am up I am itching to get to work, I have ideas and plans and normally can’t wait to get started, at the end of the day there is usually more I want to achieve and it is only self-discipline that makes me come home at the end of the day, I set myself a time box on my working day to avoid taking on too much or allowing work to take over, I try hard to only rarely exceed it, this is a personal choice and I’m aware is not common but works for me and is something I encourage in teams I coach. 

I have covered this before but being clear on what you can achieve in a working week is vital. To quote Dickens.

“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and six pence, result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” Charles Dickens.

My philosophy is similar – if your workload can be achieved in the time available the result is happiness, if your workload exceeds the time available the result is stress and unhappiness.

If you work extra hours to get the extra work done, the result is that next week the work will grow more and then more, until at some point you will collapse or be forced to set a limit, so set the limit now where you are able to do so objectively.
When it comes to job satisfaction it is fair to say that my job is not saving the world, I am not doing something overtly exciting or grandly creative, the teams I work with are about streamlining business processes to increase automation, reduce errors and reduce staff to save the government money, as a 7 year old I was hardly saying “when I grow up I want to save the government money”. But nevertheless I love my job, I work with some really nice people and we are working hard to do a good job. I take pleasure from achieving goals, and especially seeing teams and individuals develop, I take particular pride when my advice or coaching bears fruit.

Life is shaped by experience and I have found that no matter what the work there can be pleasure in it. In the past, I have been a debt collector, I owned and ran a small retail bookshop, But I have spent most of my career in software development, some interesting projects some much less so, but it has been only rare occasions that I haven’t enjoyed work. My first post-university job was with Bell Labs working on GSM, the established guys got to work on the roll-out of GPRS, but the new guys got the ‘dull job’ we had to fix bugs on an old C++ Unix system, but it wasn’t dull at all, we had a largely absent boss so we mostly organised ourselves, every bug was a puzzle, a challenge and a learning experience (I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious because it really was enjoyable) we had a small team that were great fun, we would lunch together most days, we had a pretty poor softball team that played in a league and lost most of the time, and we often socialised together, because work isn’t just about the work it is about the people. 

My worst experience was also at Bell Labs, the team had an ambitious boss, he wanted a juicy high profile project and so he turned down anything that didn’t fit this requirement and so the team went through an idle period where we quite literally had nothing to do, it was sole destroying, we would come to work for our required hours but there was nothing to do, we read, and looking for training, we talked and we played silly office games, we formed a league for Ball-in-the-box a game where we threw a mini American football the length of an office to bounce into a photocopy paper box, after many hours playing we became quite adept. But what we were not allowed to do was work on something, we had to be ready for the next plum project.  Thankfully a senior manager saw what was going on, and transferred the team to UMTS (3G) this was a lifesaver the morale was getting pretty low.  I find it odd that my worst experience was where I was paid to do nothing but chat have fun and play games, for me at least I get pleasure from being busy and doing something I see as productive and valuable. 

Perhaps the most influential aspect in anyone’s life is their parents, I was a “vicar’s kid” or “son of a preacher man” etc etc, my father was a minister of religion and I was the 3rd of 4 children, the only boy, as a result I have developed a pretty strong rebellious streak, but what surprises me looking back is how much my father’s work has influenced me, as the leader of a church he was an archetypal servant leader, a church is a voluntary organisation, the minister is employed only with the support of the church and he has very little power, his job is to lead and to serve. It is extremely challenging and often unrewarding. 

So now like him I am the servant leader, only in business, I see myself as having two roles one to serve the team and one to lead them to achieve, and what I have learned is that it is important to create an environment where your team can enjoy work, this is a paradox for many as the assumption seems to be that if you are having fun you are not being productive, my experience is the opposite – not being productive is no fun at all.  

Make work an enjoyable place to be and people will work harder, make them feel invested in the organisation and they will work harder still, create a team spirit and collective sense of purpose and they will amaze you.

Trust is often lacking and this is a real sticking point for many managers and businesses, but my opinion and experience is that the normal situation is that people have an inherent desire to work hard and achieve and give the opportunity they will, what often prevents this are people or processes that restrict or control, managing should be about setting goals and guidelines, creating a framework to achieve not a culture of control.

My number one piece of advice for a ‘task’ manager is to give a team a clear goal and stand back, you will be amazed. 

Your only three jobs as a leader are to remind the team of the goal, to remove any obstacle in their way and most importantly  to Trust them. 
As an aside for business leaders I’d also suggest if you want to build and retain an effective happy and productive workforce, to indulge them (sensibly) make them feel valued, give them the best tools – generally whatever they ask for, the cost is likely a fraction of their salary and tiny compared to recruiting and training a replacement if they are lured away, give perks – for example issue everyone an iPad and a pluralsite subscription, this costs very little(and is tax deductible) in comparison to an average salary (far less than 1%) but I’d bet your team would feel valued and would broadcast what a great employer you are, and chances are they might even do some training too. Provide coffee and snacks, encourage social activities, make time for the team, if people feel it is a great place to work recruitment becomes easier and they WILL work harder. And lastly pay more, especially to those that have proven themselves, being generous early saves a fortune later, if you are not paying your best people well above average it is inviting them to leave.

To be the best, hire the best… for you.

I have recently been reflecting on the impact of our choices when hiring new staff. Over the last few years hiring has been a major activity for me, and so I am particularly interested in what the impact of these hiring decisions has on the team and the organisation.

I have a number of experiences that I feel are relevant and two particular opinions I have recently heard that I would like to discuss.

The first was from a blog post: http://zachholman.com/posts/0x-engineers/   in this the author is critical of everyone chasing after the type ‘A’ engineer, it makes an interesting read and refers to a popular belief that the good software engineers are worth 10x as much as the ‘average’ engineer.  I don’t intend to get into the basis or accuracy of the claims, but I am satisfied that it is a generally well accepted opinion that there is a significant difference in ability, and value of output between those deemed average and the top end of the scale, I have heard figures ranging from 10x as valuable to 1000x as valuable from quite well respected authors.

But ultimately the author compares software engineers to restaurants and concludes that most of the time he would be content with an average restaurant as we can’t always all eat in the best restaurants.  This is the point where I try hard not to be dismissive. The analogy is suggesting that most of us are content with ‘Good’ food and don’t need ‘Great food’ but the reality is that we are not only comparing quality, we are comparing relative quantity AND quantity, if we use his 10x value estimate then what we are comparing is a 1/10th of a ‘Good’ meal to a whole ‘Great meal’  We’d need to eat (and pay for) 10 ‘Good’ meals to get the same quantity/quality (value) of food.

He does have some good points about a good team being better than a star player and I’ll come back to that but I for one am not content with a tenth of a meal.

By contrast I looked at Work Rules! by Laszlo Bock (SVP People Operations at Google)

Lessons from WORK RULES! include:

* Take away managers’ power over employees
* Only hire people who are smarter than you are, no matter how long it takes to find them
* Pay unfairly (it’s more fair!)
* Default to open: be transparent, and welcome feedback
* If you’re comfortable with the amount of freedom you’ve given your employees, you haven’t gone far enough

Laszlo advocates hiring only the best, by hiring the best you get the best output, you certainly have to pay more but you don’t have to pay 10x the salary to get a 10x software engineer, it makes financial and practical sense, a small team of high achievers must be amazing and they clearly are for Google. But…

Here is where the real word kicks in.  Most of us don’t work for Google or Apple, we will not attract the best of the best, most organisations are unable to employ an entire team of 10x engineers, many of us are lucky to hire a few high achievers, when location, salary, benefits, and image are factored in, we can be selective and choose the best of what is available to us, but a good engineer is hard to find.

So I am saying that I don’t want a team where the primary qualification is a pulse, and I am highly unlikely to be able to hire (and retain) an organisation full of 10x engineers.  My world is the grey area somewhere between.

This brings me to what has been an inevitable consequence of the real world – a mixed team.  I didn’t like the restaurant analogy so I will go with cars.

cars

Lets say I have a team of five developers, as a very general rule a team will travel at the pace of the slowest member, and whilst you may be able to improve the speed of the slowest a little, the high performers are stuck at the slowest speed and may well be getting bored and frustrated.  It is no good one or two members zooming-off, knowledge doesn’t get shared resentment grows and very quickly you are at a standstill with a dysfunctional team. An effective team moves at one pace – the pace of the team, and as the original blogger wrote, a team that works well together can actually be far more effective than a single star player.

And this is where things get more messy, as either a Scrum Master or a Department Manager the goal is the long-term development of the team, I value all the team and I’d like to see everyone have the opportunity to develop and get better, a single star-player held back is bad, I don’t want to see that, but equally I am aware that an effective team can be amazing, and then again a dysfunctional team is a disaster. I want to grow and build a team that are greater than the sum of their parts not a group of individuals moving at the pace of the slowest.

So I find myself both agreeing and disagreeing with Laszlo, yes I want a group of the best engineers, but that isn’t going to happen, I don’t live in silicon valley and I don’t have that budget, and even if I did then I’d still prefer a great team of engineers. I believe that a team working well together can achieve far more and far better software than even ’10x’ individuals.

I aim to get that by hiring for the team. I will still aim to hire a team where they are smarter than me if I can but my primary goal is to find someone good that will enhance the existing team, that means I value the ability to communicate over their technical depth, I value their willingness to learn and to question over their certainty of their own knowledge, I value a desire to give customers what they want over a desire for a perfectly engineered solution. I suppose I am saying I value the team over individuals – even star players.

But I have a dark side too, anyone that is holding the team back needs to go, whether they are disruptive or not pulling their weight or simply because they don’t mix well with the others. I think we should be aggressive in hiring the best people for the team but equally aggressive in removing obstacles whatever form they take even if it means changing the make-up of the team.

I don’t want to close before addressing the other items on Laszlo’s list.  I want to voice my agreement over the other points,

* Take away managers’ power over employees

It really makes no sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do, we hire smart people because they know more than us in their area of expertise – Let them use it!

* Only hire people who are smarter than you are, no matter how long it takes to find them

I agree with the caveat mentioned above, we don’t all have that luxury and for the most part it depends heavily on the next point.

* Pay unfairly (it’s more fair!)

Double what you are willing to pay and be selective. But don’t stop there! Retention is as important as recruitment, don’t lose someone good by being stingy, if you discover you have hired a star, give them a pay raise immediately, I can guarantee that when they go it will be for only 5%-10% more than you currently pay – don’t let that happen and offering to ‘match’ after they have one foot out of the door is far far too late. Let them know you value them now and make it hard for a competitor to lure them away.  Don’t worry if it upsets other people, if they know that reward is based on ability and performance they will respect it even if they don’t like it.

* Default to open: be transparent, and welcome feedback

I am a huge believer in transparency in development, so many projects fail because problems were hidden ignored or deferred or where customers were excluded until it was too late and too costly to change. Be honest and open and learn to see that finding a problem early is a good thing, even if you’d prefer not to hear it.

 * If you’re comfortable with the amount of freedom you’ve given your employees, you haven’t gone far enough

This goes with the first point but let the team lead the way, they likely do know best, and make work a place they want to be, if a team of engineers is happy and enthusiastic you will see an amazing improvement. And trust them.

Trust the team

I shall add that as my own piece of advice for success with software development.  Trust the team, trust their judgement, trust their opinions, trust their concerns and trust that they will do the right thing. In my experience a good team will reward that trust ten-fold.

In my opinion if you cannot Trust your development team it is a failure of management as you have hired the wrong people.