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Book Review: Death March: The Complete Software Developer’s Guide to Surviving ‘Mission Impossible’ Projects

A great book by Edward Yourdon, Death March: The Complete Software Developer’s Guide to Surviving ‘Mission Impossible’ Projects. Being part of a crunch turned to death march projects, this book speaks volumes on the subject and is a worthwhile read (hopefully before you start on a project). For a death march project to occur, one or more project parameters exceed the norm by more than, 50%, time or resources needed that are not available results in a death march. Yourdon continues with the disturbing news that “Death projects are the norm, not the exception”, even with the data that “the average project is likely to be 6 to 12 months behind schedule and 50 to 100 percent over budget.”

How do death marches occur? The book describes a number of possible catalysts: company political reasons, naive promises made by marketing, senior executives or naive project managers, naive optimisim of youth (build any system over the weekend), “marine corps” mentality (no sleep necessary for “real programmers”), intense competetion, startup mentality, or unexpected crises. Yourdon stresses the political aspect as the most likely candidate of a death march. The politics can boder on the completely irrational: “Hysterial optimism, which is when everyone in the organization desperately wants to believe that a complex project, which has never been attempted before, but which has been realistically estimated to require three years of effort, can somehow be finished in nine months” (pg 10).

Why do people participate? High risk, high reward, naivete or optimism of youth, buzz of working closely together, Mt. Everest syndrome, alternative is unemployment, or revenge. The results are sacrifice personal health, mental health and personal relationships. I also talked about some of this in my post: http://gameprogrammertechnicalartist.blogspot.com/2011/01/why-do-people-crunch.html

If management expects time and budget to be padded they are expecting the estimation of schedules to be some “negotiating game”, but is also likely to be some degree of naivete and lack of understanding of what really goes on. The owner of a death march is often a much higher-level manager than would be normal for the software project, usually with a long hierarchy of shareholders, stakeholders, project managers and customers in between and around. A long hierarchy often gets distorted on the way down to the project manager, where (on the way down) additional elements are tacked on to the message, bloating the project scope and timeline, with additional requirements, constraints and processes.

The major cause of death march projects is politics, often related to the negotiating games. Management always wants the enormous luxury of a promise of what something will cost, how long it will take and not have to worry about these factors, and also gives them a scapegoat for blame if the promise is broken. Senior management needs to share the burden of uncertainty and allow for changes at all levels, not bringing in someone for an on the spot estimate and building their entire project around something that has not been careful worked through. Always defer instant estimates, and always give +- estimates like 3 to 6 months, or 6 months +-50%

The book talks about four different categories for death marches:

High moral & High chance of success = Mission Impossible (a lot of hard work, but exciting)
Low moral & High chance of success = Ugly (marine corp mentality, whips cracking).
High moral & Low chance of success = Kamikaze (try and go out with one last hurrah)
Low moral & Low chance of success = Suicide (no alternative)

The interesting thing is that these values are all relative to the individual programmer. Some programmers may feel they are on a Suicide project, while others feel like the same project is a Mission Impossible one. People’s commitment changes over time, almost always in a worse way.

Work has to be mutually beneficial, and if the threat of being fired or bypassed for a raise or promotion are common, then the strongest bargaining chip you have is displaying that you are ready to walk away from the relationship, if the results aren’t mutually acceptable. Two specific issues that also have a significant impact on motivation, and which are usually under the manager’s direct control: rewards and overtime. Bonuses are tricky and can backfire, at a startup with part of stock option available they may be a good modivation (like tens of thousands, or millions of dollars), support for the whole family, taxi service, grocery service, and helping to provide medical attention to the whole family. This costs money, but usually a very small amount. Give extended vacation (they will need it) not just a few days but extended period of time. Consider a paid sabbatical (6 months to just work on whatever they want it to be), and loaning project equipment.

The main focus of the dealing with death marches is “triage”, where each task is separated into “must-do,” “should-do,” and “could-do” categories. After all the tasks have been separated, all work is done on the must-dos, then the should-dos and then the could-dos (if there is time). The idea behind this is if “80-20” rule holds true, the project team might be able to deliver 80 percent of the “benefit” of the system by implementing 20 percent of the requirements (if they implement the right 20 percent). Stephen Covey puts it in First Things First [I], “the main thing is to make sure that the main thing is the main thing.”

Yourdon offers some other project manager tips as well.

– Project leaders should put in as many hours as possible to lead by example.
– Target 60-80 hours a week, but know your limits, everyone reaches a point of diminishing returns.
– Need to be trueful with the team, disillusioning to find out crucial information later.
– Make sure people are compatible.
– Show work in increments, but avoid prototypes which only perpetuate an illusion of completed work.
– Modifications to baseline requirements should be made public for all to see.
– Don’t introduce new processes to a death march project.

At some point the death march is likely to reach an “ugly crisis” where it is shown that the project will not be completed on time, and the project manager is fired and replaced with a new project manager who is supposed to “get it out on time”. The work-in-progress created by the project team before the “ugly crisis” occurs usually ends with the sad result of being thrown away: “The real reason why all of this partially-completed work ends up being wasted inventory is that no one will ever have time to come back to it. Assuming that the project team members (now under the control of a new manager, whom they may or may not respect) is able to deliver the “bare minimum” of critical functionality, they’re usually so exhausted that half of them quit. And the users are so disgusted with the project that they never bother asking for the rest of the unfinished functionality; or conversely, they’re so satisfied with the minimal functionality that they never bother asking for the rest of the system”.

Even though everyone understands the issues intellectually, the political battles surrounding death march projects makes it almost impossible to reach a consensus on a reasonable triage. It’s only when the “ugly crisis” occurs that the various parties finally agree on something that they should have agreed upon when the project began.

Try to focus on what works, not the process or methodology, or buracracy. Not to say not to have a process, since that can be a significant process, but be reflective of what works and what doesn’t. Minimize number of tools needed, like a mountain climber, just bring the essentials.

Finally, Yourdon recommends quitting or leaving if it is a viable option, learning something new for less pay will make you a happier person. If any of these succeed, what is to say that they won’t try it again? Some companies need to fail to see what they are capable of, hopefully it doesn’t ruin the company. It is important to not measure the success of a project by the number of divorces, broken relationships and ulcers.

I have been part of a few death marches, and while a few can be bearable for a little while, in the long run you will almost always regret it. Avoid these types of projects if at all possible, everyone needs balance in their lives. If you find yourself on this type of project, the most important thing to remember is this: Life > Job

Best of luck,
Michael Hubbard
https://michaelhubbard.ca

P.S. Or if you prefer Life > Work (Life is greater than Work, for my non-programming friends), I should make it a t-shirt 😛

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