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.