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development leadership

Unsuccessful Teams

Are you making space?

Game Outcomes

In a previous post, I looked at how to create successful teams, and looked at the Game Outcomes project as a useful formulation.

Some of these points are about avoiding negatives and that’s what I want to focus on here.

The most important indicators for success from the Game Outcomes project are:

  1. Great game development teams have a clear, shared vision of the game design and the development plan and an infectious enthusiasm for that vision.
  2. Great game development teams carefully manage the risks to the design vision and the development plan.
  3. Members of great game development teams buy into the decisions that are made.
  4. Great game development teams avoid crunch (overtime).
  5. Great gamedev teams build an environment where it’s safe to take a risk and stick your neck out to say what needs to be said.
  6. Great gamedev teams do everything they can to minimize turnover and avoid changing the team composition except for growing it when needed. This includes avoiding disruptive re-organizations as much as possible.
  7. Great gamedev teams resolve interpersonal conflicts swiftly and professionally.
  8. Great gamedev teams have a clearly-defined mission statement and/or set of values, which they genuinely buy into and believe in. This matters FAR more than you might think.
  9. Great gamedev teams keep the feedback loop going strong. No one should go too long without receiving feedback on their work.
  10. Great gamedev teams celebrate novel ideas, even if they don’t achieve their intended result. All team members need the freedom to fail, especially creative ones.

Confounding factors

Overtime and crunch

Deadlines are good, to a point. It helps focus. With a clear goal and a timebox it’s much easier to discard sandbags and maintain motivation. Many personal productivity schemes rely on setting yourself deadlines.

When those deadlines are too restrictive however the product will suffer. Teams will work late and produce lower quality work. They will cut corners. If time is fixed then either scope or quality or both need to be cut.

Unplanned or persistent overtime is a critical bug and needs to be prioritized as such. There’s no such thing as completely bug-free, but you should always be aiming for zero.

Mono-cultures and silos

Cross-functional teams make better decisions faster. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way. The consumer of the API should sit in the same room as the producer. Even better, at the same desk, or in the same chair.

It’s not just technology silos that cause problems. If your team is a straight cis able-bodied English-speaking white male silo, or functionally equivalent to one, then it will fail at every interface with someone outside that group. Widening your team doesn’t stop those failures, but if you manage the team properly, the failures are fixed within the team (with the goal of fixing them before the code is written) rather than experienced by consumers.

Diverse teams are also more creative.

Inter-personal conflict

Teams don’t shy away from conflict. Open discussion, even a heated one, clears the air rather than letting micro-vexations and micro-aggressions become the norm and harm the team, one papercut at a time.

Successful teams solve disagreements in the open. People first, then process after, to remind everyone of decisions made.

Punishment driven development

Feedback is great. Tracking progress is useful. But please be sure you are tracking the right thing.

I can’t say this any better than Louise Elliot, who talks about all the ways measuring the wrong thing can seriously affect a team. Video is below, but you can also listen to her talking about Punishment Driven Development on the .Net Rocks podcast, if that’s more your style.

Are you unsuccessful?

What dysfunctions have you seen in your teams now or in the past? How have you fixed them, or how will you?

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development google leadership

Successful teams

Successful teams deliver successful projects. As a lead, how do you build a successful team?

There are many factors to build a successful team, but the foundation of them all is safety. Can problems be discussed openly? Does everyone trust everyone else? And once you have that, the team can build. Build diversity, build towards a common goal, and build something that matters.

Successful Google team

Google defines successful teams according to its research at https://rework.withgoogle.com/blog/five-keys-to-a-successful-google-team/

Psychological safety: Can we take risks on this team without feeling insecure or embarrassed?
Dependability: Can we count on each other to do high quality work on time?
Structure & clarity: Are goals, roles, and execution plans on our team clear?
Meaning of work: Are we working on something that is personally important for each of us?
Impact of work: Do we fundamentally believe that the work we’re doing matters?

I accept, given multiple ongoing accusations against them about defending toxic managers and culture, that Google may not be living these values. However, these are clear statements that are supported by other studies such as The Game Outcomes project.

Penguins at Edinburgh Zoo

So how do we build a team like that?

Number one thing, and the only way I’ve found success, is to empower the team and everyone within it to make changes. Without that ownership, nothing matters.

Once you have that, you as the leader have to own the rest. Delegate where you need to, but own your team’s safety, support, direction, purpose and motivation.

Safety

Are you free to take risks and try something new?

Not everything you do will be a success, so do you celebrate knowledge and learning as a goal? Yes, that cost us time and money, but we learned not to do that again

Are team members supported? When someone mansplains your tech lead, do you correct them, and ensure her voice is heard? When a deaf developer joins the team, do you ask whether they prefer lip reading or sign, and help the team adapt appropriately? Do you recognise colour? Do you use preferred pronouns?

When mistakes are made, do you find someone to blame or do you all accept responsibility to address it? If the production database can be deleted by the graduate on their first day, and there are no backups, that is never their fault.

Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace https://hbr.org/ideacast/2019/01/creating-psychological-safety-in-the-workplace

High Quality

Do you always have an high standard?

Everyone has their code reviewed, especially the lead. Is every line of code, and every process open to review and improvement? Great that you’re agile, but if you really value people over process, write the process down, and follow it. It doesn’t mean no process, it means that process serves the people, not the other way around. It means you change it when it no longer supports the people or the product.

What are your quality standards for code, for user experience, for security, and most importantly for behaviour? How are they enforced? And are they always enforced on time, every time?

Have policies. Do not have a daily fight over tabs vs spaces.

Direction

Ask everyone on your team what the team is building. If you get more than one answer, that’s a bug.

Ask everyone which part everyone else on the team plays towards that. Does that match how they see their role? Are there any gaps in responsibility?

Ask everyone what their priority is and why. Is anyone blocked? Ask them what their next priority is and if they have everything they need to fulfil it. If not, do they know where to get it?

Purpose

Is everyone bringing their whole self to work? Do office politics make them wary? Are they in a marginalized group and they have to bring representation as well as talent, and they are having to do both jobs at once?

At the office, is this the number one thing for them to be doing? Are your developers feeling stuck in support or BA? Are they frustrated that they aren’t allowed to refactor a gnarly piece of code that’s very open to be improved because “it works, don’t touch it”.

Does everyone on the team feel empowered to speak up and to fix things where they interfere with the goal of the team?

Motivation

Ask everyone why the team is building what they’re building, and why their part is important.

How will this change the user’s day? How will it affect the company? What’s the net improvement?

The Game Outcomes formulation

If you don’t like the Google formulation, try the game outcomes one. There’s plenty that applies to non-game projects. There’s a few negatives to avoid, and I’ll revisit them in a later post.

The most important indicators for success from the Game Outcomes project are:

  1. Great game development teams have a clear, shared vision of the game design and the development plan and an infectious enthusiasm for that vision.
  2. Great game development teams carefully manage the risks to the design vision and the development plan.
  3. Members of great game development teams buy into the decisions that are made.
  4. Great game development teams avoid crunch (overtime).
  5. Great gamedev teams build an environment where it’s safe to take a risk and stick your neck out to say what needs to be said.
  6. Great gamedev teams do everything they can to minimize turnover and avoid changing the team composition except for growing it when needed. This includes avoiding disruptive re-organizations as much as possible.
  7. Great gamedev teams resolve interpersonal conflicts swiftly and professionally.
  8. Great gamedev teams have a clearly-defined mission statement and/or set of values, which they genuinely buy into and believe in. This matters FAR more than you might think.
  9. Great gamedev teams keep the feedback loop going strong. No one should go too long without receiving feedback on their work.
  10. Great gamedev teams celebrate novel ideas, even if they don’t achieve their intended result. All team members need the freedom to fail, especially creative ones.

How do you keep your team on the right path?

We all want to work on successful projects, and there’s been a couple of times in my career I’ve been lucky enough to work in a team where everyone is delivering 10x. 10x developers don’t work in isolation, they work on teams where all the above needs are met, and they thrive off each other.

It’s great to have that dream team, but start by thinking about how to make your team reliably successful, and you’ll be doing better than most software teams.

Categories
development leadership

Leadership by example

Are you a manager or a leader?

What behaviour are you modelling for your team? Do you send many emails out of hours? Do you multitask in meetings? Do you project frustration and disagreement with C-suite?

Do your team copy you?

If you send emails that late, an expectation will be set that everyone needs to check, unless you are clear why. Tell them you have to leave a hour early to do the school run every day, so you do your emails after bedtime for everyone to pick up in the morning. Even better, write at night but don’t send until the morning. There are plenty of tools to schedule that for you.

If you’re not focussed on a meeting, how can you expect your team to be. If you don’t need to be there, don’t be. If you trust your team and you won’t add value, step back. If you can change the meeting so it’s not boring, do that. When you’re in the meeting, be present, even if it’s just too watch the body language, and engage with that, use that feedback.

Are your team frustrated by decisions and often blaming others? Is that because you do it too? You’re not going to agree to every decision, but if you were on the room when it was made, or it’s your job to disseminate it, be at peace with the decision. If you can’t live with it, there’s other channels, up to and including leaving, but on your team decisions should be respected. They can be debated, reviewed and changed when circumstances change, but if decisions can’t be respected collectively, you don’t have a team.

Are you being the leading the team in the way you want them to work?

Categories
development

Inclusion is not a zero sum game

Look around your office. How many people look like you? How does that compare to the people you saw on your commute, or in the supermarket? How does that compare to your users? Do you even know?

Are you making space?

How many people are struggling with mental illness? How many have accessibility challenges? How many are white, straight, cis-gender, able bodied men?

Is there a mismatch? And if so, what are you doing to change it? Are your job adverts inclusive and on inclusive sites? (hint: look at the StackOverflow developer survey before posting your job there) Do you have a network outside work that you can tap into to find new candidates?

Are you creating a safe space for everyone? Are company events open to new parents, to non-drinkers, to vegans, to women? Do people have to out themselves to attend a family day, or to avoid travel to a certain customer site? Do you support staff who need to transition? Staff who need quiet spaces? Staff who are fasting, or need non-Christian holidays?

Can your staff find somewhere to learn to sign? Or to write simplified for language learners, for those who have struggled to attain or retain language?

Which three of these questions are the most important to achieve for you this year? And how will you do it?

If you need somewhere to start, have a look at Inclusive 101 from the Microsoft Inclusive Design Toolkit, and ask yourself if that’s you, or pick an episode from the Cause a Scene podcast and listen, especially if it makes you uncomfortable.

Categories
code development

Things I don’t know as of 2018

At the end of last year, Dan Abramov talked about the things he doesn’t know. It’s a useful framework to reflect, and as a privileged, experienced developer, I am comfortable talking about this, in the hope it might help others understand that experienced developers don’t know everything.

I’ll echo what he says about Imposter Syndrome and Dunning-Kruger and how it absolutely sucks to see truly smart developers I know, or that I follow, having to constantly prove their credentials just because they’re not cis, straight, able-bodied white men. If I’m in a position to support you or amplify you, I will try to do so. Your experience is definitely a thing I don’t know, but I can listen.

I covered a few things I know enough to be confident in for my 2018 in Review post. I’ve had to care about DevOps and containers and pipelines because they solved real problems my team was having. I love graphics because trigonometry and fractals are why I got into programming, but I work in the network, looking at architecture, security, interfaces and data. That leaves a big wide world out there, and this doesn’t include the unknown unknowns.

Ruby

I’ve tried to get into it a few times, but it still just looks like old-school Perl to me. Lots of punctuation occasionally interrupted by domain language. This actually sounds like a good idea to me – an almost complete separation of concerns – but I keep finding the learning curve too steep and so I retreat back to Python and C#.

CSS

I’ve been building websites since Mosaic was a browser. I can style things with CSS. It’s not hard to put red text on a green background (you monster), or fix a navigation bar to the top of the screen, but look at the fancy grid layouts, or parallax scrolling effects, or CSS icons, and I couldn’t tell you where to start. I don’t know how to unit test it, so my tools don’t work here. Just as well I work with some very smart CSS developers.

Markdown

I use Markdown a lot. For README, for Architecture Decisions, and for drafting blog posts, but I always need to google how to insert a link, or a table, or an image. And I feel like an idiot each time.

gulp, npm and webpack

I know these are essential tools when I’m building React. I know they turn my code into something the the browser runs. I know how dependency management works (I can bore you about HORN over a drink if you like), but I’ve only ever used these JavaScript tools preconfigured in a template or an existing codebase, so I could not create a JS or TypeScript build pipeline from scratch, or fix a broken one.

I really couldn’t tell you anything intelligent about how those fit into the ecosystem alongside Grunt, Yarn, bower, sass, scss or anything else. So long as I can write a script to install and run them, I’m happy not to have to dig into them. All I care about is if it runs and if the dependencies are secure.

I suspect I’ll need to learn more about these tools this year though.

You don’t need to know everything

You’ll have your resolutions to learn more, whether weekly or yearly. There’s more to learn than you will ever get the time to – that’s why we work in terms. Pick one thing to learn next because it’s important to you, because it’s interesting, because your project requires it, or because thats where the money is. Forget the rest until you’re over the Dunning-Kruger curve and you know enough about that new thing to see all the possible next things to learn.

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development leadership

CodeCraftConf follow-up : notes on growing a team

Whilst I have a few thoughts I’m still processing after the whirlwind of fantastic insights I got from CodeCraftConf, I wanted to capture some of the highlights from some of the answers to my questions on Growing a Team.

Many thanks to everyone who came to the session. Lots of thoughts coming out of the conference.

When is it time to grow your team?

  • You never grow a team, you create a new one.
  • There’s always too much work, you should grow when you have capacity, so you don’t put new starts off

How do you deal with resistance from existing team members?

  • Communicate clearly and address concerns (e.g, time to mentor)
  • Involve team early
  • Do you have a choice who joins?

Is it more important to find a culture fit or build a diverse team?

  • Do candidates know what they’re signing up for?
  • Introvert vs extrovert (see also hiring practice)
  • Interviews should be structured to filter out arseholes – do they have empathy (or have they been taught to suppress it)
  • Every new hire should bring the level up
  • Don’t just hire for technical skill
  • Diversify your interview pool

What is your biggest worry with your current team size, or with growing your current team?

  • Are you doing Health Checks? Survey staff regularly
  • Make sure the bigger team, outside your daily work, understand the culture – it only feeds from top down
  • Fear of churn
  • Loss of culture
  • Try to understand
  • Make the culture explicit

What practices do you use to ensure sustainable growth?

  • Pair a lot, reflect (e.g. retro)
  • face-to-face regularly, even if it’s video
  • Values workshop – does everyone share them?
  • Social convenor to ensure cohesion
  • Slack channel dedicated to positive feedback on living the values
  • Office/company changes should have their own backlog with an open grooming process so priorities are explicit

How long does it take to integrate someone new?

  • Be careful about language
  • Train everyone in personal skills
  • Listen even when you disagree
  • lack of ego
  • Culture changes people
  • What personalities do you want?
Power corrupts
Categories
development leadership

CodeCraftConf 2018 : Successfully Growing A Team

Thanks to everyone who came to my CodeCraftConf session today, and to the organisers for all their hard work. Here’s the questions I asked, and I’ll follow up with my thoughts from the discussion.

Successfully Growing A Team

  1. When is it time to grow your team?
  2. How do you deal with resistance from existing team members?
  3. Is it more important to find a culture fit or build a diverse team?
  4. What is your biggest worry with your current team size, or with growing your current team?
  5. How frequently can you add new people to your team?
  6. How long does it take to integrate someone new?
  7. What practices do you use to ensure sustainable growth?
  8. How do you know when a team is too big?
  9. How do you split a team that’s grown too big?
  10. How do you grow a team when the existing members are already overworked?
  11. How long is your recruitment pipeline in terms of short-term planning (getting people in the door) and long-term planning (having the right team in place for next year or 5 years?
  12. How do you recruit outside your specialty?
Categories
development leadership

Sometimes the greatest challenge of leadership is making your boss understand what you do all day

Everyone loves a maverick. The one who bends the rules, who gets the job done. Who leaves fireworks in his wake (it’s always a man) and doesn’t mind breaking a few chickens to make an omelette. The people who rescue the projects in a tailspin, who shout loud and carry a big stick.

What happens to the projects without fireworks? The sysadmins that don’t have to explain why they got breached? The project managers who don’t have to explain why they went over budget? The developers who aren’t in the office past midnight fixing bugs? The people who aren’t visible because they fix the problems before they become visible?

I grew up watching Formula 1 with my dad, in the era of Senna and Mansell. Senna was fiery, pushed the car to the limits, exciting to watch. Mansell was controlled, steady, hitting the right line, and easing the car in as if it was on rails. Senna looked like the hardest worker, but Mansell broke his run of world championships.

If you’re competent, if you get the job done, then people believe that your job must be easy. It’s not easy to beat a triple world champion. Sometimes you need to anchor your achievements in advance, so people understand the challenge in hindsight, especially if you are marginalized in the workforce such that your achievements are minimised.

The Difficulty Anchor

It’s even harder once you move into any management role, success is due to your team (and be damn proud of that success), but failure falls squarely on your shoulders. If you don’t have a strong sense of your own self worth, it can hollow you out, and leave you with nothing but a thick skin.

Take on extra responsibilities, be the consistency for the team when the powers above you are a maelstrom of confusion and musical chairs. And nothing happens.

Remove obstacles and no-one sees them.

Anchor your team’s success. Quiet, dependable successes make everyone on the team happy : no drama, no overtime. But it can be hard to show the work behind the scenes that makes it look so smooth.

It’s not just a dev problem, a good sys admin is invisible, designers struggle to prove their worth (How to Prove Your Design’s Value – Hack Design
https://hackdesign.org/lessons/57-how-to-prove-your-design-s-value?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=howtoproveyourdesignsvalue ).

Market yourself. I know you hate sales and marketing, you’re happy to leave it to others, but you need to give yourself the confidence to be proud of your achievements and make sure people understand what you did. Share it with your boss and your peers (you’ll need some recognition when it comes to your appraisal). Promoting yourself is not someone else’s job. Practice it. Embrace it. Be proud.

Categories
development

Who do you work with?

In every company, and in larger companies, every department and location, there are key players who make the company work. They might be the boss who sets a clear vision, they might be the admin who goes above and beyond, they might be social butterfly who knows everyone. Whoever they are, they are the ones that keep the team working. And when any of them leaves, the dynamic of the team changes. Not always for the worst, but there is always a period of adjustment.

Sometimes however, several of them leave in quick succession, like canaries at the coalface. Or maybe they just stop doing what makes them effective, new directives from above, too busy on chargeable time, or something else. Suddenly the team starts jarring, and you don’t necessarily know why, because you haven’t seen what they’ve been doing behind the scenes. But if you feel that tide, you’ll know everyones getting their CVs ready, either to jump up or to jump out.

If you don’t know who your canaries are, keep a lookout, because apart from the leadership team, there’s likely a few you haven’t noticed. Who is really pulling the strings? Who goes above and beyond? Who seems to turn up in unexpected places? Who is the person people turn to when things go wrong or they need advice? Don’t go looking for the people who surround themselves in lights, who have a Heart of Gold and want you to know it. Look for those who are looking out for people who are invisible. Who is kind to the cats?

But equally, be wary of the teams where the canaries don’t get a chance to be found because something else gets in the way. The teams heavily populated by graduates, or men, beyond the industry norms. If toxicity is bred into the culture, the fatal warnings are much harder to spot. Toxic culture shields egos and protects the status quo, weeding out dissent even when that dissent is essential for the survival of the team.

Know who you are working with.

Categories
development leadership

Becoming a technical lead: Trust your team

When I first became a technical lead, one of my biggest challenges was giving up control. It wasn’t a matter of not trusting my team technically but I didn’t want to overload them, so I took on all the planning, all the customer interaction, and all the other jobs that I felt had distracted me from the job of writing code.

I was wrong.

I needed to let my team in, because they had ideas that I didn’t, they had capacity whereas I was a bottleneck. I was holding up my team.

But I needed to be sure that coding standards were followed and quality was maintained. You know who else cares about that? My team. I made it their responsibility to ensure that the code met standards, and pushed out code reviews. I put internal documents at the same level as code. Anyone can edit, but everyone can review, or veto.

I asked for honest feedback in retrospectives, and implemented changes, so they could trust that I was looking out for them, and I set them goals to improve, alongside the feature work : “can we release twice a week?” (challenge – automate the pain points); “can we halve the bugs found in testing” (challenge – better unit tests)

And the more I trusted them, with support, and understanding their limits, the better they performed. I’ve also worked with managers who don’t trust their teams. Those teams don’t work so well.

If you don’t trust your team, they’re not your team. They’re just people who work beside you. What are you doing today to foster trust?