Tag Archives: management

Why Software Development Estimation is Hard: Sea Lions, and Coastal Paths

Among the many valid responses to the Quora question of why software development task estimations are often off by a factor of 2–3, Michael Wolfe, CEO of Pipewise, describes exactly why this is without once mentioning ‘software’ or ‘project’.

Instead, Wolfe eloquently provides undoubtedly the best analogy I’ve ever heard for explaining the difficulty in providing estimates for software projects: a couple of friends planning a coastal hike from San Francisco to Los Angeles and starting their journey.

Their friends are waiting in LA, phone calls have already been made pushing the date back…

Man, this is slow going! Sand, water, stairs, creeks, angry sea lions! We are walking at most 2 miles per hour, half as fast as we wanted. We can either start walking 20 hours per day, or we can push our friends out another week. OK, let’s split the difference: we’ll walk 12 hours per day and push our friends out til the following weekend. We call them and delay dinner until the following Sunday. They are a little peeved but say OK, we’ll see you then. […]

We get up the next morning, bandage up our feet and get going. We turn a corner. Shit! What’s this?

Goddamn map doesn’t show this shit!. We have to walk 3 miles inland, around some fenced-off, federally-protected land, get lost twice, then make it back to the coast around noon. Most of the day gone for one mile of progress. OK, we are *not* calling our friends to push back again. We walk until midnight to try to catch up and get back on schedule.

Of course, this isn’t exactly a new analogy: it’s applying the ideas behind Benoît Mandelbrot’s paper, How Long Is the Coast of Britain?, published back in 1967, to software estimation. Still, it works perfectly.

If you like Wolfe’s writing style and want to read more, he runs a blog called Dear Founder.

Update: And of course, there’s always O.P.C.

Random Promotions Beat the Peter Principle

The Peter Principle states that “in a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence” (discussed previously). This principle is typically observed when promotions are rewarded based on an employee’s ability in their current position and provided there is sufficient difference between the two positions.

In such circumstances, is there a simple way to ‘beat’ the Peter Principle? According to the research that won the 2010 Ig Nobel Prize for Management, yes: promote at random to prevent the principle from coming true (pdf, also: arXiv, doi).

We obtained the counterintuitive result that the best strategies for improving, or at least for not diminishing,the efficiency of an organization […] are those of promoting an agent at random or of randomly alternating the promotion of the best and the worst members.

The authors of the study have created a simulation so that you can see the random promotion strategy in action, and it’s worth remembering that this counterintuitive and (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek approach is just one of the possible solutions to the problem described by the Peter Principle.

Reading up on this, I also came across the rather elegant Generalised Peter Principle, originating from observations regarding hardware at nuclear power plants:

Anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails. […] There is much temptation to use what has worked before, even when it may exceed its effective scope.

Scheduling and Non-Hierarchical Management

These two essays have been doing the rounds of late, and for good reason:

Paul Graham’s comparison between the schedules of Managers and the schedules of Makers (creatives). The gist? A manager’s day is divided into hour-long blocks of time, makers work in much longer, relatively unconstrained and non-discrete units of time. The problem is in making these two work together.

When you use [the manager’s schedule], it’s merely a practical problem to meet with someone. Find an open slot in your schedule, book them, and you’re done. […]

When you’re operating on the maker’s schedule, meetings are a disaster. A single meeting can blow a whole afternoon, by breaking it into two pieces each too small to do anything hard in. Plus you have to remember to go to the meeting. That’s no problem for someone on the manager’s schedule. There’s always something coming on the next hour; the only question is what. But when someone on the maker’s schedule has a meeting, they have to think about it.

With the philosophy that a manager is more servant than dictator, Aaron Swartz offers tips for non-hierarchical management (via Kottke). This is specifically for startups, he suggests, where the tradition ‘org chart’ is flipped upside down, but these tips seem sound no matter what the organisation:

  • Management is a (serious) job
    • Stay organised
  • Know your team
    • Hire people smarter than you
    • Be careful when hiring friends
    • Set boundaries
  • Go over the goals together
    • Build a community
  • Assign responsibility
    • Vary responsibilities
    • Delegate responsibly
  • Clear obstacles
    • Prioritize
    • Fight procrastination
  • Give feedback
    • Don’t micromanage
  • Don’t make decisions (unless you really have to)
  • Fire ineffective people
  • Give away the credit
  • Few people are cut out for this

On Good and Bad Managers

Charisma, confidence and being vocal are key to being perceived as a leader, Time suggests after summarising some research on what makes people persuasive leaders.

Social psychologists know that one way to be viewed as a leader in any group is simply to act like one. Speak up, speak well and offer lots of ideas, and before long, people will begin doing what you say. This works well when leaders know what they’re talking about, but what if they don’t? If someone acts like a boss but thinks like a boob, is that still enough to stay on top?

The short answer is Yes, so “watch them closely and make sure they know what they’re doing and where they’re going”.

Reading about how we can be perceived as great managers simply by altering our external behaviour (rather than altering our internal behaviour or world view) reminded me of this piece, discussing reasons managers become great (via Kottke). Reasons included:

  • Enjoy helping people grow.
  • Love creating positive environments.
  • Care deeply about the success and well being of their team.
  • Succession mentality.
  • Practice of the golden rule: the ethic of reciprocity.
  • Self aware, including weaknesses.

The above was written as a compliment to Scott Berkum’s other list, reasons managers become assholes:

  • A boss they admired was an asshole.
  • They are insecure in their role.
  • They prefer intimidation to leadership.
  • Their life sucks.
  • They lose their way.
  • Promotion chasing.
  • Their management chain is toxic.
  • The Peter Principle.
  • They’re not assholes, they’re just insensitive or oblivious.
  • Madly in love with themselves.
  • They always were assholes.

Deconstructing Managers

Today and tomorrow I’ll be posting a few links I’ve saved on managing: on being a manager, dealing with managers, and how to be a better one.

To begin, a six-part series from Rands in Repose—Deconstructing Managers.

There Is Evil, Your Manager’s Job

I trust that, like me, you’re an optimist and you believe that everyone in your company is busily working on whatever they do. I also believe the fact that you don’t understand what they do automatically biases you. You believe that because you understand your job intimately, it is more important than anyone else’s.

In your head, you are king. It’s clear what you do; it’s clear what is expected of you. There is no person who rules you better than yourself because you know exactly what you’re about. Anyone outside of your head is a mystery because they are not you.

Give Him Something to Say, Where Does Your Manager Come From?

Your manager is your face to the rest of the organization. Right this second, someone you don’t know is saying something great about you because you took five minutes to pitch your boss on your work. Your manager did that. You gave him something to say.

Transforming Glaring Deficiencies, How Are They Compensating For Their Blind Spots?

Each manager, good or bad, is going to have a glaring deficiency. […] The question is, does he recognize they have a blind spot? […]

A manager’s job is to take what skills they have, the ones that got them promoted, and figure out how to make them scale. They do this by building a team that accentuates their strengths and, more importantly, reinforces where they are weak.

How Much Action Per Decision?, How Does Your Manager Talk To You?

Yes, you want to figure out how not be a bottleneck in your organization and, yes, you want to figure out how to scale, but you also want to continue to get your hands dirty. […]

Pure delegators are slowly becoming irrelevant to their organization. The folks who work for pure delegators don’t rely on him for their work because they know they can’t depend on him for action.

Incessantly Demonstrating Your Hunger

The organization’s view of your manager is their view of you.

They Might Be Evil, What Happens When They Lose Their Shit?

Your manager is not a manager until they’ve participated in a layoff. […] He hasn’t truly represented the company until he actively participates in the constructive deconstruction of an organization. There is no more pure a panic than a layoff and you want to see who your manager will become because it’s often the first time he sees the organization is bigger than the people.

The above quotes are relevant to many more areas of life than managers and managing a workplace.