Thoughts on “Managing” Software Development

I’ve written in the past on management and managers and you can find some of those thoughts here however I want to share some additional thoughts.  These thoughts are basically my answer to the question of: what does a Software Delivery/Development/Engineering manager do?

(Even if you’re one of those who believe managers are not needed in knowledge work, I’ll crave your indulgence to read on).

(I do believe that Software Development/Engineering Manager are better role names than Software Delivery Manager but I digress).

It is dangerous to define the job duties of a role without taking into consideration the guiding philosophies of an organization.  For example, let’s just look at the concept of the manager. The definition of management (and hence managers) in an organization that adopts the principles of Frederick Taylor will be markedly different from that of an organization that adopts the principles of Edward Deming.  In other words, roles are not defined in the abstract.  The organizational philosophy ultimately defines the role.

I belong to the school of Deming when it comes to management, and as a result, my definition and description of a software delivery manager is going to be based on Deming’s view on management and managers.  I posit that real Agile and/or Lean organizations take a similar stance.

A software delivery manager is a “manager of software delivery” and if we decompose the role into its component parts we have manager and software delivery.

Douglas McGregor basically describes the Taylorist manager as person who works with the assumption that:

…workers have an inherent dislike of work and hence needs to be directed, controlled and threatened with punishment in order get them to work hard to achieve company objectives  

The Taylorist manager is all about control and external direction ergo this manager focuses on defining how the work should be done by the individuals on the team and then measuring individuals to ensure they are meeting pre-determined targets the manager defined.  This manager leaves little room for individuals and teams to self-direct as these managers need to do all the planning and provide all direction.

So how does Deming describe as the role of the manager?  According to Deming (excuse the gender-specific tone), a manager:

  1. Understands how the work of the group fits with the aims of the company. He teaches his people to understand how the work of the group supports these aims.
  2. Works with preceding stages and following stages
  3. Tries to create joy in work for everybody
  4. Is a coach and counsel, not a judge
  5. Uses figures to help understand his people
  6. Works to improve the system that he and his people work in
  7. Creates trusts
  8. Does not expect perfection
  9. Listens and learns
  10. Enables workers to do their jobs

Deming is not alone in his thinking.  Other management thought leaders such as McGregor, Drucker, Ackoff, and Senge all share the same thoughts.

If I were to summarize, I would say that the role of the Agile (and some would say modern) manager is to:

Create an environment where people and teams can do their best work for themselves and the organization in a manner that is both rewarding and fulfilling

The modern manager realizes that s/he is dependent on their team to be successful.  The team is also dependent on the manager.  In a nutshell, the team and the manager are interdependent.  The manager and the team share in the responsibility of developing and delivering software.

(If you work for an organization that says they are Agile and but exhibit Tayloristic management tactics, I hope for your sake that the organization is in the early stages of Agile cultural adaption.  If they aren’t, you’ve been warned).

So we’ve defined manager but how about software delivery? Software delivery is simply the aim of the system that the manager and their team(s) belong to. This system has the goal of delivering software that addresses the needs of stakeholders.

What then are the duties of the software delivery manager?  Here are a few that immediately come to mind:

  • Provide clarity to team members and teams on organizational objectives and what achieving them entails
  • Define operating constraints and boundaries for teams in which they operate
  • Provide teams with the appropriate authority, resources, information and accountability
  • Provide career guidance and coaching to individual team members and teams
  • Staff teams appropriately within budgetary constraints.  Manage their budget responsibility
  • Partner and network with other managers in the organization in addressing organizational impediments
  • Provide feedback to the teams on the software that is being developed.  Engage in product “inspect and adapt” sessions.

What else would you add to this list?

While we’re talking about software delivery teams, I need to remind us that in Lean and Agile organizations, the work is done by cross-functional teams.  The implication of this is that software delivery teams will often be composed of individuals from more than one functional group in the organization.  A software engineering delivery manager will often need to team up with managers from other functional groups in the organization e.g. infrastructure manager and together they will provide the team the support it needs.

It’s also important to remember that Agile teams (regardless of the framework of choice), as a part of being cross-functional, have a role on the team responsible for championing the product (or something similar to a product).  This role, often referred to as the Product Owner, and not the software delivery manager, decides what the team should focus on.

So there you have it.  These are my thoughts on the Software Delivery/Development/Engineer Manager.  I anticipate that some readers will disagree with me.  Please share your thoughts in the comments.  But as you disagree with me, take a moment to explore why it is that you disagree with me.  In fact, I would implore that you examine the underlying philosophy and mental models that inform your definition. Where do they come from?  Do you know?  Are they based upon Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management, Deming’s principles or something else?  

Our actions reveal our beliefs.

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Timeboxing Is Still Valuable (at least I think so).

In a previous post, I shared a couple of quick thoughts on the need for high-performing teams to have goals.  In this post, I want to focus on the touchy subject that has become timeboxing. It’s become cool for Agilists (including thought leaders) to wax negative on the technique.  The popularity of the Kanban Method – an approach that does not use time boxes (at least explicitly) – has contributed to the unpopularity of timeboxes (and approaches that use timeboxes).  In fact, it is now common to hear teams that still use time boxes as part of their development process described as not being progressive, stuck in the past or not modern.

Let me start off with an assertion.  If you work in a context where time is bounded in some form or fashion, then you are working within a timebox.  For example, if there is some work that needs to be completed by a certain date, we have a timebox.

If you happen to work in an environment where “whenever it gets done, is when it gets done” then this post may not be for you because time isn’t a constraint in your environment.  Time is unbounded.  Then again, you may still get some value from using timeboxes in such environments so feel free to read on.

Not Just An Agile Thing…

Timeboxing is a classic work/time management technique that is decades old.  When we timebox, we are dedicating a specific amount of time to accomplishing a particular goal/task/activity.  It’s really that simple.  If you set aside thirty minutes every day to playing the piano (like I do), that thirty minutes is a timebox. If you set a software release date of this date next year, then you have a timebox of one year.  Timeboxes can be long or short.

Timeboxing, as a time management technique, brings high levels of focus and attention to work that is being done within the timebox.  I was recently reminded of the power of timeboxes in a story someone shared with me.  They had given an associate of theirs an assignment but after several months, there had been very little traction or progress and it was becoming frustrating for everyone.  They had a meeting and decided to assign a  “box of time” to the assignment and then assess progress at the end of the “box of time”.  Before you knew it the assignment that had dragged on for months was completed in a matter of weeks.  The timebox brought much needed focus that had been lacking.  (It should be noted that the inability to assign a “box of time” to an activity is an indicator of the state of the system.)

High-performing teams have goals.  The best goals have a time component associated with them.  When time is involved, we have a timebox present (be it implicit or explicit).  For many Agile frameworks and methods, timeboxing is foundational construct.

Popular in Agile Frameworks…

Agile frameworks and methods such as EVO, Scrum, XP, DSDM all make use of explicit timeboxes.  These timeboxes are traditionally very short periods of time (one to four weeks).  The different methods also prescribe the use timeboxes differently.  Some prescribe fixed duration timeboxes while others allow for dynamic duration timeboxing.

Most of the methods for which timeboxing is foundational associate a batch of work items with a single timebox e.g. completing a set of user stories in a Sprint towards a Sprint Goal.

Having individual work items have their individual timeboxes (fixed date) for is more common in the Kanban Method, which, in my opinion, also uses dynamic duration timeboxing.

There are pros and cons with the different ways that timeboxes can be used.  There are also external factors that need to be taken into consideration when deciding how to use timeboxes.  Be open to experimenting and trying new things if your team works with timeboxes.

In The Wrong Hands…

Any construct can be misused and timeboxes are no exception to this.  The misuse of timeboxes by senior leaders, managers, Scrum Masters, Product Owners etc etc has led to the falling out of favor of timeboxes in many software development circles.  The timebox is essentially used as a weapon against teams instead of an instrument of help for teams. The pressure of the two-week Sprint is something that many teams have come to dread and sadly it shouldn’t be so.

A lot of this misuse has it roots in Theory X thinking where organizations operate with the tacit assumption that people dislike their work and will do anything to shirk responsibility hence external control and direction is required in order to make sure individuals in the organization do work. With this mindset in place, timeboxes are used as a control mechanism by people in positions of “authority” (such as managers, Product Owners and Scrum Masters) BUT not the team itself.

Have you worked in or know of organizations where teams are told by someone outside of the team of HOW much work they need to get done in a Sprint or iteration before they even started and then are measured based on this as the progress?  Some popular Agile scaling frameworks (that will not be named) come awfully close to reinforcing such practice.  In these cases, timeboxes rule the teams instead of the teams ruling timeboxes.

There Is Still Goodness…

However, just because something can be (and is) misused doesn’t mean it isn’t useful. Timeboxes are very useful when used as a technique by teams for their own self-control and self-management.  When timeboxing is used to bring focus to goals and aims, it can be particularly helpful.  When used to ensure feedback is occurs in a timely fashion, it is also beneficial.

In my next post, I’ll take a look at practices that can help teams minimize the need for explicit timeboxes.