Ruthlessly Helpful

Stephen Ritchie's offerings of ruthlessly helpful .NET practices.

Crossderry Interview

Earlier in the month, Crossderry interviewed me about my book Pro .NET Best Practices. Below is the entire four-part interview. Reprinted with the permission of @crossderry.

Project Mgmt and Software Dev Best Practice

Q: Your book’s title notwithstanding, you’re keen to move people away from the term “best practices.” What is wrong with “best practices”?

A: My technical reviewer, Paul Apostolescu, asked me the same question. Paul often prompted me to really think things through.

I routinely avoid superlatives, like “best”, when dealing with programmers, engineers, and other left-brain dominant people. Far too often, a word like that becomes a huge diversion with heated discussions centering on the topic of what is the singularly best practice. It’s like that old saying, the enemy of the good is the best. Too much time is wasted searching for the best practice when there is clearly a better practice right in front of you.

A “ruthlessly helpful” practice is my pragmatist’s way of saying, let’s pick a new or different practice today because we know it pays dividends. Over time, iteratively and incrementally, that incumbent practice can be replaced by a better practice, until then the team and organization reaps the rewards.

As for the title of book, I originally named it “Ruthlessly Helpful .NET”. The book became part of an Apress professional series, and the title “Pro .NET Best Practices” fits in with a prospective reader and booksellers’ expectations for books in that series.

Why PM Matters to Developers

Here we focus on why he spent so much time on PM-relevant topics:

Q: One of the pleasant surprises in the book was the early attention you paid to strategy, value, scope, deliverables and other project management touchstones. Why so much PM?

A: I find that adopting a new and different practice — in the hope that it’ll be ruthlessly helpful one — is an initiative, kinda like a micro-project. This can happen at so many levels … an individual developer, a technical leader, the project manager, the organization.

For the PM and for the organization, they’re usually aware that adopting a set of better practices is a project to be managed. For the individual or group, that awareness is often missing and the PM fundamentals are not applied to the task. I felt that my book needed to bring in the relevant first-principles of project management to raise some awareness and guide readers toward the concepts that make these initiatives more successful.

Ruthlessly Helpful Project Management

We turn to the project manager’s role:

Q: Can you give an example or three of how project managers can be “ruthlessly helpful” to their development teams?

A: Here are a few:

1) Insist that programmers, engineers and other technical folks go to the whiteboard. Have them draw out and diagram their thinking. ”‘Can you draw it up for everyone to see?” Force them to share their mental image and understanding. You will find that others were making bad assumptions and inferences. Never assume that your development team is on the same page without literally forcing them to be on the same page.

2) Verify that every member of our development team is 100% confident that their component or module works as they’ve intended it to work. I call this: “Never trust an engineer who hesitates to cross his own bridge.” Many developer’s are building bridges they never intend to cross. I worked on fixed-asset accounting software, but I was never an accountant. The ruthlessly helpful PM asks the developer to demonstrate their work by asking things like “… let me see it in action, give it a quick spin, show me how you’re doing on this feature …”. These are all friendly ways to ask a developer to show you that they’re willing to cross their own bridge.

3) Don’t be surprised to find that your technical people are holding back on you. They’re waiting until there are no defects in their work. Perfectionists wish that their blind spots, omissions, and hidden weakness didn’t exist. Here’s the dilemma; they have no means to find the defects that are hidden to them. The cure they pick for this dilemma is to keep stalling until they can add every imaginable new feature and uncover any defect. The ruthlessly helpful PM knows how to find effective ways to provide the developers with dispassionate, timely, and non-judgmental feedback so they can achieve the desired results.

Common Obstacles PMs Introduce

This question — about problems project managers impose on their projects — wraps up my interview with Stephen Ritchie.

Q: What are common obstacles that project managers introduce into projects?

A: Haste. I like to say, “schedule pressure is the enemy of good design.” During project retrospectives, all too often, I find the primary technical design driver was haste. Not maintainability, not extensibility, not correctness, not performance … haste. This common obstacle is a silent killer. It is the Sword of Damocles that … when push comes to shove … drives so many important design objectives underground or out the window.

Ironically, the haste is driven by an imagined or arbitrary deadline. I like to remind project managers and developers that for quick and dirty solutions … the dirty remains long after the quick is forgotten. At critical moments, haste is important. But haste is an obstacle when it manifests itself as technical debt, incurred carelessly and having no useful purpose.

Other obstacles include compartmentalization, isolation, competitiveness, and demotivation. Here’s the thing. Most project managers need to get their team members to bring creativity, persistence, imagination, dedication, and collaboration to their projects if the project is going to be successful. These are the very things team members *voluntarily* bring to the project.

Look around the project; anything that doesn’t help and motivate individuals to interact effectively is an obstacle. Project managers must avoid introducing these obstacles and focus on clearing them.

[HT @crossderry Thank you for the interview and permission to reprint it on my blog.]

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