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Book Review: Peopleware

The book Peopleware:Productive Projects and Teams (2nd edition) by Tom Demarco and Timothy Lister should be required reading for anyone in charge of or working with software projects. So much of it is such good sense, and yet so much of it will make you shake your head and say “why are we still doing it like this?” If you feel like you are not being able to do work between 9-5, read this book.

Two of the major concepts in the book are teams “jelling” and programmer “flow”.

A team “jelling” or coming together is so important and yet nearly impossible to plan for. Demarco and Lister mention that you can create a scenario for a team to jel, but it all depends on the people involved in whether or not the team comes together. There are however elements that can be “teamicide” or kill a team (defensive management, bureaucracy, physical separation, fragmentation of time, quality reduction of the product, phony deadlines, and clique control).

Some recommendations are to group people together. Groups usually go quiet at the same time, you want them to interact and trust each other. If they are not sitting together, they are more likely they will interact with people on other projects and become friends with them instead of the people on their team. Trust your people. Get the right people and turn them loose, hiring the right people is the most important thing. Develop a feeling of permanence, train people to go through the ranks, make it a place people are expected to stay, not just passing through.The authors use the imagery of a team like a choir (or visualize an orchestra), with everyone playing their part in a complex symphony of sound and harmony, which differs from the traditional example of a team like a sports team, which often only focuses on the star players. The book also talks about having “free electrons”, people whose judgement and work ethic make the decisions they make better than those mangaging them. Which again comes down to trusting your team. If you are a bad manager (and aware of your shortcomings), the best thing you can do is hire the best people you can find and get out of their way, and try and avoid changing too much.

You want your team to work together, to not compete against each other and to be happy and productive… how that happens is always complex, because it depends on the individuals in your team, but making it work is your job as a leader.

The other element programmer “flow” and how work is like sleep, it is best done in long periods of silence with minimal interruptions. Try to minimize interrupting people, programmers (and all workers) need quiet time to think and concentrate. Even with music or white noise the programmer is not using their full mental capacity, which, while they are able to perform some logical function, still might not be able to perform or think as creatively. The book also focuses on noise, how lots of people packed into cubicles make a lot of noise (the smaller the space, the more noise they make) and that a PA system is almost insulting to the occupants in disrupting the masses in order to find one person.

The book talks a bit about the Capability Maturity Model (CMM) and how so many companies are in the lowest levels (often with no sign of improvement).

Another part of the book that struck a cord with me is the huge cost of turnover. Even if the chair stays warm with a new body coming in, they are less then useless the first day, and take other peoples time to get up to speed. If they are lucky it will be less than 2 years before they replaced a senior person, but there is still no guarantee they will “jell with the team, be as reliable as the previous person, or will even stay long enough to get up to speed that the previous employer was able to manage. The cost can be enormous for replacing people, if it takes six months to get up to speed an be productive coming into a project that has seven months left, you have paid someone seven months worth of pay for one month of good work. A quote from the book suggests it can be even higher than that: “One of our clients, a builder of network protocol analyzers and packet sniffers, estimates that it takes more than two years to bring a new worker up to speed (pg 207).”

The book also has the idea that there is a “slumbering giant” in a corporation, against sillyness, sharing the load of responsibility against problems and focusing on the never ending battle of how to improve the workplace. Hopefully he awakens soon.

“The ultimate management sin is wasting people’s time (pg 215).”

Great book, get it for your loved (or not so loved) managers for Christmas 😛
Michael Hubbard
https://michaelhubbard.ca

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