Its the engineers, stupid – one from the heart

When I engage with company and teams I’m always keen – nee desperate – to get to meet the engineers and teams who are doing the work. If days, maybe even weeks, go by and I’m not doing that I get very frustrated. More importantly I’m not sure what to believe from those I am talking to.

There was once a bank I spent time with. As soon as I got to the office I discovered almost all the engineers were in a far away country and I wasn’t going to get to visit that country. The few engineers in the London office spent a lot of their time hand-holding those in the far away place. When you looked closely, when you spoke to the engineers far away you found things didn’t add up. One delivered a perfect 10 story points every iteration without fail. Another team increased velocity sprint after sprint. One engineer fell off his moped and broke his arm, the work was still delivered on time – it took all my wiles to discover another engineer had worked all weekend to meet the deadline.

Why am I so desperate to meet the engineers? – well there are several reasons, some more rational than others.

First off, the engineers are where the work happens. In lean parlance they are the gemba, source of truth.

Second, these are the people who will need to change or be changed. There is only so much you can change with an organigram – and to be honest, I’m doubtful reorgs really change much. Sometimes I imagine managers moving their workers around like pawns on a chess board while the reality of work is hand-to-hand combat.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly for me: I see my role as helping these people. I am, by profession, by temperament and by ancestry an engineer. I am motivated by the desire to help those who do the work have a more fulfilling life. I still remember the frustrations I faced as a coding software engineer.

Thats why it hurts – really hurts – when engineers tell me “agile is rubbish”, that “agile has nothing to offer”, when they tell me that I’m not helping. Its not that I’m precious about agile, “agile” is just the toolset I’ve found helps. I also know that tool kit allows me to go outside the toolkit.

I was hired by a Californian company to give agile training to their Cambridge team. A few minutes in, one of the engineers told me directly “Agile can’t help us here, we can’t go any lower.” The other engineers in the room were of the same opinion. It turned out the managers had been to Scrum training and come back pumped up about high performing teams and faster-better-cheaper. Sustainable pace, autonomy and quality weren’t on the table.

That hurt and it may have been the toughest training gig I’ve ever had but I think I turned it around. I demonstrated the need for quality and explained the managers were missing essential parts of the puzzle. Unfortunately I didn’t get to meet the managers – they were off playing chess.

But I do engage with managers. Often they are the route to the engineers. Unfortunately some engineers see that as a problem in itself: “our problem is tech debt, sprinting won’t help us” so I’m discounted. In my world – the world of Xanpan – sprinting is a rod you put up your back to make yourself better, if you don’t address quality (e.g. tech debt) issues then you won’t succeed at time-boxed iterations.

(BTW I talk about engineers because most of my work is with engineers, and software engineers at that. I’ve worked a little with other professions and I’m sure most of what I say carries across directly but my experience and empathy is greatest with engineers.)

To deal with managers one needs to understand their concerns, one needs to listen and speak in ways they understand. Engineers may struggle with managers and technical issues but managers also struggle with their managers, organizational debt, customers and the market.

The same is true when I wonder over into the world of product ownership – Product Managers and Business Analysts. Engineers have a bad habit of seeing these roles as “Management” but if you spend time with the “demand side” people you find their concerns are almost identical to coding engineers. BAs worry that what they are being asked to do is unreasonable, that it doesn’t make sense, that something else needs to change first and that people don’t appreciate how things really work. The biggest difference between programmers and BAs is simply that, on average, BAs dress more smartly and are more likely to put on a tie.

One can’t understand a system and one can’t get to the truth if one can’t visit the place where work happens. When manufacturing things that place is the production line, in the digital world that place is the mind. Constructing software is an intellectual exercise that happens in the mind and is only manifested via a keyboard in code. To see the truth one has to speak to engineers.

I’ve seen some awful work environments: a room packed with 28 engineers, very few windows, little fresh air, a development manager on a raised platform at one end, the HR manager at the other end, her desk right by the single door in and out with the clock-in-clock-out cards on the wall.

More recently a large project at a matrix managed organization. The complexity made it difficult to know who was actually on the project and what teams existed. Management existed in its own bubble.

I feel pain simply seeing such places. What it can be like to work there I can only imagine. I assume people become dumb to the pain, switch off to the failing and accept the normalisation of deviance. Or, to put it another way: a culture of failure.

Both of these two examples shared one thing in common: massive Gantt charts which claimed to plan the work. In one case I saw someone scheduled to spend a month writing a manual in two years time. While these charts claim rationality they are so disconnected with the gemba as to be fantasies. I feel cognitive dissonance knowing that the managers who put their faith in such mechanisms are both rational and totally mad.

Encountering such places is painful for me. On the one hand I want to help, I want to make the engineers lives better – that is what I do! The challenge can be great. On the other hand it can be mentally and emotionally draining. Because I am passionate about what I do I feel that. If I switched off, if I treated it as a money paying gig then I too become part of the same culture and loose my efficacy.

On the other hand, when things go right I love it – perhaps because I’m an engineer and I see fixing the organization as a way of fixing the code, its called Conway’s Law.


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