Monday, 8 July 2013

Empowerment - Helping Your Teams to Succeed

I had a bit of a disagreement recently when it came to what a particular product team should be "called". Whilst this might seem a bit small in the grand scheme of things, I think that the importance of a team having its own identity should not be underestimated.

It boils down to a simple level of trust and true empowerment of a team. Allowing the team to decide what their identity will be is the first step. In some cases - actually allowing teams to choose themselves is an even more powerful and effective way of instigating such a change, as explained here.

It takes a lot more than the above to create an awesome working environment, but we all have to start somewhere, and the above is a great way to get started. Below are just a few examples of some other ways to improve your working environment and get the most out of your product teams.

  • Set the goal, let the team come up with how they will achieve it.
  • Trust your teams to self manage and organise, they want to succeed just as much as you do.
  • Provide time for your teams to learn. Google have a 20 percent rule where employees can work on their own special projects. That's 1 day per week - think of the positive impact on morale.
  • Avoid micro-management at all costs. An empowered employee/team does not need to be told what to do every 5 minutes.
  • Allow the team to fail, failure is the quickest way anyone can learn, as long as you take the time to learn from your mistakes.
  • Have clear priorities. We all know that things change quickly, but if you never see a project through to completion - how can you expect your teams to be enthused about doing it?
  • Leave the old "I must have everything" mentality in the past where it belongs. If 20% of the work delivers 80% of the value, why do the rest?
  • Don't adopt an approach that dictates that just because you can buy something off the shelf you should. This type of approach, whilst on the surface will give the teams more time to focus on things where they can be innovative, it in fact stifles the innovation as it adds constraints to what the teams can actually do.

The benefits of this kind of working environment are quite simply astounding. By showing this level of trust and empowerment, the teams will be more bought in to what they are doing, be proud and enthusiastic about their work. Innovation will flourish, and your company as a whole will benefit. A happy and positive environment for your development teams will not only be good for the people working directly in or with those teams, but actually for the business as a whole. This becomes more and more obvious as technology plays an every increasing role within business. In a world where being innovative can be the difference between your company remaining competitive or failing, this is the best opportunity you have to ensure you succeed. It is not an easy task as all of the above requires a shift in mindset from the entire business, but if you want survive, you don't really have a choice.

So, in conclusion, and to complete the circle - whilst having a disagreement over the naming of a product team on the face of it appears to be a very small thing - the level of impact it could potentially have on the product team and business as a whole was profound. Never underestimate the power of the finer details.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Organisational Structure: Product Teams

There are two ways of running your organisation. The more common of the two is to do some form of project-based planning. In this model, the management of the company defines the roadmap – they come up with a prioritised set of projects and allocates time and people to them. For example, they may decide that a team will spend two months on some new search functionality. The team will likely not change, but the project and domain typically changes frequently. If you were to look at this roadmap, you would see different projects typically with rows per team and projects “assigned” to them.

Due to the nature of software engineering, it is rare that a week goes by without this roadmap changing significantly. New business opportunities come along, priorities change, and the plans have to change accordingly. Alternatively a project will take longer than anticipated so all subsequently planned work has to get pushed back.

These roadmaps are usually filled with an abundance of assumptions, and are typically created without any solid information or knowledge of what needs to be done or how much it will cost. This often results in the plan never being truly realised. This can be a massive source of frustration for businesses and development teams alike. These assumptions are often made from people outside of the teams and are done in a very dictatorial way, which can quite easily and effectively quash both innovation and collaboration.

The alternative to the above is to move across to a product team based organisation. This is the way forward, and an option that companies are increasingly turning to in order to try and improve how they develop their products.

In this model, the focus is instead around which areas of the business the company wants to invest in. This removes the focus on projects and instead allows each product team to be able to focus on what is best for it. It is important that the product teams are given space and freedom in order to innovate and collaborate effectively. This means that the business should present a problem to the relevant team, and allow them to come up with the solution.

The teams should be cross functional, composed of members who are capable of carrying out any and all of the tasks that may arise. Over time they will develop a deep understanding of the domain of their product, meaning that the longer they are kept together on the same product, the more efficient they will be become. Tie this in with the concept of continual improvement and you have a recipe for success.

Making It Work

There are a number of key points that I would advise you to follow if you truly want to make the move to product focussed development teams a success.
  • Do not prescribe a solution to a product team, give them the problem you are trying to solve and work with them to come up with the best solution
  • Resist the urge to be dictatorial and tell people what to do. This quashes innovation and collaboration
  • Allow the product managers to be fully accountable and responsible for what happens in their product. Give them steer in order to ensure they are working towards the overall company objectives, but allow them to decide how they will get there
  • Give everyone an equal voice – collaboration is key to success
  • Limit the amount of people involved in making decisions. The more people involved, the more painful and difficult the process of agreeing a way forward
  • Agree on a scorecard for giving backlog items, which will effectively highlight which work will give the biggest ROI
  • Do not follow ‘Agile’ like a religion. Every company is different, and whilst the core message will be the same for everyone, the best way to implement this will vary

Monday, 29 April 2013

The Mobile Age

With the whole world moving into the mobile age and more and more devices connected to the internet, it seems a very logical step that companies want to increase their "mobile presence". To me, this brings about a whole raft of questions and challenges around development. With this being a fairly new area, and with such a range of devices available - the biggest questions is where do you start?

The two big players in the market today are Apple and Android. If all else fails, you need to have something to offer these two or you may as well not try. Then you have to ask yourself if you should invest in the BlackBerry and/or Windows Phone markets - hopefully a decision that will be answered through the use of stats. Smartphones are still the device to target first, with it being blatantly obvious that far more people have these than tablets.

Then comes the question of approach. Do you develop native apps? Do you use a platform, such as Titanium, Xamarin, KonyOne... The list is endless.

I am of the opinion that developing native apps is the way forward (at the moment at least), getting full access to all of a devices capabilities in order to deliver the best user experience possible. I expect given time this may change, and as the single platform development space evolves, there may well be a shift across.

I make no claims to knowing all there is to know when it comes to these things, but it is an area in which I have a great deal of interest. I would love to hear your ideas and opinions on how to tackle the challenges of mobile, your suggestions on technology approach, and if possible learn from your experiences. Feel free to message me directly or drop a comment below.


Friday, 22 March 2013

Perception - How Do We Change It

Last year I posted an article around the power of perception and how this can have such an influence on the way people will interact and treat you in the work place. I have since spoken to a lot of people who read the article and seen the many different ways in which it can affect them.

Perception can work in many ways, and it is unfortunately true that first impressions tend to stick. From the person that wears a suit to try and appear more important in his new job, to the guy who joined as a junior 4 years ago and always had fun. It's something that in most company's will stick with you. Once someone has this perception of you, it is quite a challenge to get it changed.

I wanted to start a discussion around ways in which we can try to change the way in which people judge people. I don't believe that people should be judged on anything other than what they do. Not what they wear, who they know, or might have done 3 years ago. As people work they learn, and they progress as people. I believe it is this inherent problem with perception that leads to a lot of people leaving the companies that they work for. The perceptions they gain during their early days stick with them, and for many the easiest way to change the situation is to go somewhere new so that new people can get a new impression and therefore perception of you.

This is a challenge that all companies face, as it is down to the culture of the business and how they reward their staff, recognising their achievements and acknowledging their progress that has the biggest influence over this.

So what are the other options to try and change someones perception of you? What have you done in the past? Did it work? What didn't work? I would love to hear some feedback on this one.

Thursday, 21 February 2013

Agile, it's a funny old word.

It seems to be a common theme in the development world today about being "agile". With recruiters reporting that this "skill" is fast approaching the point where it will take over from "HTML" on developers CV's, the word "agile" is now losing its value. The meaning behind it is being lost to the realms of the buzzword, and as a result it is becoming harder to find the people who truly understand what we mean when we say it.

So what do we really mean by "agile"? This is a question that tends to be asked in interviews, and is greeted by a whole array answers. What we want to hear about is a passion to deliver value faster, incrementally, and collaboratively with the business. We want to hear about minimal marketable features, breaking down work into small chunks and regular releases. We want work to flow through the team via a pull methodology rather than it being pushed into the pipe.

The bottom line of it all is that 'agile' is just a word. It is all about the way you work and how you go about doing things on a day to day basis. To me, a lot of what 'agile' preaches is just common sense. It doesn't need to be badged up as some kind of buzzword, or worshiped as some kind of religion.

Its not just IT, but the whole business that needs to adopt these working practices in order for them to work. It requires a change in mind set, to put trust in the development teams and how they work. Despite common views, developers are just as committed to delivering value as anyone else in the business. They need the support and environment in order to do this the best way possible.

I have often seen departments suffer from "us and them" syndrome. This cannot be the case if you truly want to be a value driven business. These walls need to be knocked down and everyone needs to wake up and smell the coffee and realise that everyone is in this together. Once you reach this point, and everyone starts to work together - that is when you can really start to deliver. End to end delivery teams, responsible for taking an idea from inception to delivery. Quick and responsive feedback loops between the people doing the code and the people driving the ideas. Collaboration and taking everyone's views and inputs to a solution in to consideration in order to get the best possible result. This is the world I want to live in.

The bottom line, ladies and gentlemen, is that we should not get hung up on words or the latest craze - but we should strive to continually improve and take the best common sense approach when developing software.

Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Operational Excellence vs Technical Perfection

In the modern world of software development, where focus on quality is just as (if not more) important as quantity, it is becoming increasingly important and difficult to find the correct balance between the two.

As companies begin to work in a more 'agile' and lean fashion, adopting techniques such as TDD and pairing, the type of person that they tend to chase in terms of recruitment is also changing. Developers with good skills and experience in TDD and XP are in very high demand as a result of this. The danger here is that a lot of developers with this skill set are very opinionated and have very strong feelings with regards to how software should be written. It is difficult to keep some of the more purist of mind happy, as they want to do everything in a perfect way. The majority of what they say is correct, but it is not always practical to put it into effect. These people have great ideas, and want to have a positive impact on day to day work - this is something we should actively encourage and not stifle. Not getting their ideas into reality can often lead to them feeling under utilised or under valued.

This leads us to the challenge of living in the real world. Given an infinite amount of time these developers would work towards the perfect solution. This is what I would call a development utopia. It is a myth, a world that developers can only dream of, where everything is tested, readable, etc. In reality there will always be better code, and no matter who has written something or how it has been written, the likelihood is that there will always be ways to improve and refactor the code by the next person to see it. The outcome here is that tasks can take a very long time to complete - meaning a much slower time to market for delivering value.

The business stakeholders want to release as many features to the customers as possible. The business value utopia would be quite the opposite of the developer one, with a total disregard for quality of code or the future and only a short sighted what can we get now mentality. They don't necessarily care how we do something, but that we get it done and delivered.

When working in a commercial environment, the overall aim of the team should be to deliver value. However we should all be clever enough to learn from our mistakes that we should not sacrifice the future in order to get more now. This is where we need to work more collaboratively with the business in order to find some kind of balanced middle ground. Yes, we should invest in our software to ensure that we can still make changes in the future, but do we really need to engineer the perfect solution every time? By the same measure, the business need to accept that we can not just churn out tickets constantly if we want to ensure future development capability.

There will always be times where quality needs to be sacrificed in the short term in order to deliver critical business functionality or issues, and as developers we need to be flexible to any such demands. The counter side to this is that the business should not abuse this way of working and should have a very strict way in which to identify any such work. Additionally, the business should be bought in to the way in which technical debt works - and give development teams time to tidy up after themselves should the above ever occur. I have seen first hand where team's will react in a negative manner when such an event happens. Rather than reacting in this way we should be positive about doing our best to help the company as a whole - if we want the business to allow us to work how want to, we also need to be receptive to their needs.

The bottom line is that we are all at work to deliver things that the business wants. Delivering the perfect solution but taking 2 years to do so does not represent value. Delivering 100 things in a week but leaving the code base in an unworkable state going forward might get some immediate gains but would ultimately cripple the business in the future. This is why we need to find the balance between operational excellence and technical perfection.