Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams

Saturday May 23, 2020

"... the major issues of software development are human, not technical."

This 1987 book has wisdom still in rare supply. Humans are non-modular. Solving problems relies on people more than technology. The best management is something like an evolution of Montessori teaching. The book is organized into six parts:

  1. "Managing the Human Resource" (introduction)
  2. "The Office Environment" (literally, setting up a nice physical space)
  3. "The Right People" (people are important, hire well, avoid turnover)
  4. "Growing Productive Teams" (encourage teams to jell)
  5. "Fertile Soil" (good practices for meetings, email, etc.)
  6. "It's Supposed to Be Fun to Work Here" (conclusion)

The book's recommendations

Make it possible for people to work without interruption.

Everyone can be self-coordinating:

"Each time you're inclined to send a coordinating e-mail to a colleague or to anyone who works for you, think about what steps you have to make to coach that person to self-coordinate. Don't expect this to be easy. Telling someone what to do is easy, while instilling self-coordinating abilities in that same person is much more complicated. But it pays off in the long run." (page 202)

Process rules and strict methodologies are bad. Let people have good training, tools, and peer review (page 180).

Every project should be trying exactly one really new thing. Apart from escaping local maxima, this is based on an interesting interpretation of the Hawthorne Effect:

"... the Hawthorne Effect. Loosely stated, it says that people perform better when they're trying something new." (page 181)

Consider "Open-Space meetings" which are informal "mingling" meetings that allow small group conversations (pages 190-191).

They recommend brainstorming techniques à la de Bono on page 228:

They encourage considering fallback plans, especially regarding deadlines:

"The risk we tend not to manage is the risk of our own failure." (page 184)

Flipping attitudes

The Netflix "freedom and responsibility" approach provides an interesting contrast. Netflix wants to be "a pro sports team" with coaches who "cut smartly, so we have stars".

The Peopleware authors note explicitly (page 158) that they dislike the sports team comparison, because sports teams have internal competition and individuals can succeed or fail independent of the group.

The Netflix approach can sound exciting, but it's also why Netflix is known for a culture of fear. Peopleware is much more like Debugging Teams, with its focus on humility, respect, and trust. "Above all, resist the urge to manage."

I hadn't known anything about TQM (Total Quality Management) but I was interested to see that it's a real flip from what I'd expect from such a bureaucratic-sounding name.

Deming’s 14 Points on Quality Management:

  1. "Create constancy of purpose for improving products and services."
  2. "Adopt the new philosophy."
  3. "Cease dependence on inspection to achieve quality."
  4. "End the practice of awarding business on price alone; instead, minimize total cost by working with a single supplier."
  5. "Improve constantly and forever every process for planning, production and service."
  6. "Institute training on the job."
  7. "Adopt and institute leadership."
  8. "Drive out fear."
  9. "Break down barriers between staff areas."
  10. "Eliminate slogans, exhortations and targets for the workforce."
  11. "Eliminate numerical quotas for the workforce and numerical goals for management."
  12. "Remove barriers that rob people of pride of workmanship, and eliminate the annual rating or merit system."
  13. "Institute a vigorous program of education and self-improvement for everyone."
  14. "Put everybody in the company to work accomplishing the transformation."

Some of those points seem opposed to metrics, which isn't always the stance of the Peopleware authors:

"Gilb's Law: Anything you need to quantify can be measured in some way that is superior to not measuring it at all." (page 58)

Hiring and development

The authors seem generally capable of holding two opposed ideas at the same time, and this is especially true in their takes on hiring and development of employees.

"... managers are unlikely to change their people in any meaningful way. ... If they're not right for the job from the start, they never will be." (page 94)

"At Southern California Edison some years ago, the person in charge of all data processing began as a meter reader. At EG&G, there was a program of retraining administrative staff to become systems analysts. At the Bureau of Labor Statistics, philosophy Ph.D.s are hired to become software developers and the retraining starts with their first day on the job. At Hitachi Software, the chief scientist has as his principal function the training of new hires. At Pacific Bell, a main source of new systems people is the retrained lineman or operator." (page 123)

"If your staff isn't up to the job at hand, you will fail. Of course, if the people are badly suited to the job, you should get new people. But once you've decided to go with a given group, your best tactic is to trust them. Any defensive measure taken to guarantee success in spite of them will only make things worse." (page 144)

This is an interesting apparent tension.

Signs of age, signs of prescience

Peopleware was updated in 2013, but it isn't completely modern. Innocuously, it refers to the Eagle project as if everyone knows it. More unfortunately, it uses "open kimono" as if there's no reason not to.

The authors rail against the interruptions of the telephone. At least for me, this is dated. They're right, phones are awful, but everybody knows this now and I can't remember the last time somebody called me for work.

They emphasize the importance of uninterrupted work time and flow in a way that is pretty well known now, I think. Paul Graham's 2009 Maker's Schedule, Manager's Schedule is one related popularization.

The authors don't comment at all on remote work, which I think is unfortunate.

Two more quotes

"There is very little true teamwork required in most of our work." (page 136)

"Managers are often not true members of their teams" (page 137)