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Friday Philosophy – Why is my Manager a Moron? June 20, 2014

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour.
Tags: , ,
3 comments

We’ve all been there. We are trying to do our job, get the work done, fix people’s problems and make the systems we work on better. But our manager is a Moron. How can we do what needs to be done with that idiot in charge? How did they get to be the manager?

Why is my manager a Moron?

The simple answer is that he/she probably is not a moron at all. But you have to blame someone for things not being the way they are:

  • You could lay some of the blame with your co-workers (especially Richard, Richard’s are almost always pretty useless :-) ) but you are all in this together, right?
  • The clients/customers are idiots of course, we all know that, but those problems are usually more to do with identifying what needs doing (and the clients should be handled by that idiot in charge).
  • You could blame the people below you but you might not be in a position to do that (see later).
  • You certainly can’t blame yourself can you?
  • So that leaves the moron manager.

There are of course managers who are poor managers, and even some who really are not that clever and should never have been put in charge. They get there due to a number of reasons such as being in an organisation where you get promoted just for having been around for a certain length of time or because they play golf with the right people or have had carnal relationships with their superiors…. But many people become managers because they were simply the best out of a limited choice or they simply did not run away quickly enough.

And of course, there are good managers.

On thing I have become aware of over the years is that the loudest and most persistent critics of managers tend to be those who have never managed anyone or anything themselves. I came across one chaps a few years back who was constantly complaining about his manager, his manager’s manager, his previous manager. They were all stupid, they all had no idea about the job, all of them were lazy. I asked him how many managers he’s had “Dozens! And they were ALL Idiots! All of them!”. Guess what. He had never been a manager of anyone or anything. And was unlikely to ever be a manager as all the current managers (a) disliked the complaining little sod and (b) knew he would be a nightmare manager, let alone a moron one.

Now that I’m old and bitter, I tend to be a lot less critical of managers, especially if they are at a level or below where I’ve managed at any point (I’ve managed teams, projects, managers of teams and, for a little while, a chain of 3 levels down – so senior middle manager I guess). The reason for my leniency is I have some understanding of what being a middle manager does to you.

  • You get told stuff that is not to be passed on and decisions are made for reasons not to be divulged. Which only makes you wonder what stuff and reasons are being kept from you by the management layer above you…
  • You are told to lie to your staff about things. Which only makes you wonder which of the things *you* are being told are lies.
  • You have to make decisions about limited resources and opportunities – I can only give one person a promotion so do I promote the best person or the one who will complain the loudest if passed over? I wonder if I should shout louder to my manager about my salary?
  • About the only time your minions come and see you it is to complain, tell you stuff is wrong, let you know that they want time off at short notice for {spurious reason that is actually they have a new girlfriend and a terribly strong need to spend a week with them in a tent in the Lake District}.
  • You can see ways you could improve things but it is blocked by your manager, who is a Moron.

The bottom line is your manager is probably acting like a Moron – as they are too stressed out by being a middle manager to function properly any more and are constantly being sniped at by you, telling everyone (s)he is a Moron.

Yep, it really is your fault.

So stop complaining, do your job, give them some slack, stop slagging them off and take your manager to the pub for a pint, they need it. And if they are still a moron in the pub then, sorry, you’ve got one of the real Morons.

Friday Philosophy – Whatever Happened to Run Books? July 27, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy.
Tags: ,
3 comments

I realised recently that it is many years since I saw what used to be called a Run Book or System Log Book. This was a file – as in a plastic binder – with sheets of paper or printouts in it about a given system. Yes, this was a while back. It would often also have diagrams {occasionally drawn by hand on scraps of paper – so that would be the database ERD then}, hand-written notes and often the printed stuff would have scribbles against it.

{BTW I asked a colleague if he remembered these and when he said he did, what he used to call them – “err, documentation???”. Lol}

There was one book per key system and you could tell if a system was key (that is, Production, or a development system where a large development manager would punch you in the eye for losing anything, or any system the DBAs wanted) as it had a run book. It held information that was important about the system and, although you could look up most of it when logged onto the system itself, was useful to grab and just check something. However, it was vital if you had to recover the system.

Being a DBA-type, the run books I used to see and use were database focused. The front page would have the SID, name, host name (and even the spec of the host), version, tnsnames info, block size, backup strategy and schedule and, very importantly, the system owner. Yes, the big guy who would be upset if you lost the system. In there you would have printouts of the tablespaces, datafiles and sizes, the backup script, users (and passwords, very often), reference data tables, filesystem layout, OS user details and anything else
needed to recover the system.

This was an evolving and historical set of data. I mentioned above that you would have maybe scraps of paper from when a design session had come up with an alteration to the system. Corrections would often be done by hand. When you printed off the tablespace sizes on Monday, you did not throw the old one away but just added the new one, so you had information about the growth of the DB going back in time. Once in a while you might thin out the set but you kept say one a month.

It was actually that which got me to thinking about runbooks. At a site recently one of the DBAs was asking me if I knew of a screen in OEM that showed the growth of space used over time and my immediate thought was “well look in the run book” {I was very tired that day and losing my grip on reality}. Not being able to find a screen for what he wanted and knowing the data in OEM/AWR was only going back a month anyway, I suggested a simple spreadsheet that he could maintain. With the run book you could flip to the printouts of tablespace sizes, grab a piece of paper and do something lo-tech like this:

This would take less time than firing up Excel, typing the figures in, getting the graph wrong 3 times and then printing it out. Though if you had to go show Managers how the data was growing, you invested that time in making it pretty {why do high level managers insist on “pretty” when what they really want is “informative”?}

So why have Run Books gone {and does anyone out there still use them, in physical or electronic format}? It certainly seemed standard practice across IT in the 80′s and 90′s. I suspect that the reason is that most of the information that used to go into them is now available via online GUI admin tools and looking at them is actually faster than going and grabbing a physical book. Besides, if your DBA or Sys Admin team is split between UK, India and Australia, where do you keep a physical book and allow everyone to check it? I have vague memories of electronic Run Book applications appearing but they never seemed to get traction.

That is one of the drawbacks of using GUI admin tools. No, this is not just some tirad by a bitter old lag against GUI tools – they are generally a massive improvement on the old ways – but they are not perfect. Most of them only hold a short history and printing out the data is often tricky or impossible. All you can really do is screen dumps. No one has those little scripts for listing out basic information anymore {except us bitter old lags} as they have GUIs to do all that and, heck, I can’t go printing off a load of stuff on paper and sticking it in a binder – that is so 20th century!

Maybe I’m being unfair and OEM has a “run book” section I have simply never seen – but I’ve never seen it. If it is/was there, how many people would use it?
I do miss the Run Book though. Especially the ease with which I could look up all those passwords…

Friday Philosophy – Identifying and Nullifying Fake Urgency April 20, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Management.
Tags: , ,
6 comments

You know how it goes. You get a call/mail/text with something along the lines of “I need to know all the details of customer orders placed on Tuesday 7th by customers based in Botswana – and I need it ASAP, by end of play today at the latest”. So you skip lunch, drop that task you have been trying to get around to doing all week and work out how to resolve the issue that has just been dropped on you. It takes a lot of effort and you finally get it sorted out around an hour after you told your girlfriend/boyfriend/cat you would be leaving the office that day – and mail it off to the requestor. You might even call them to let them know it is done, but oddly they don’t answer.

Next day, you see the guy who wanted this urgent request and ask if it was what they wanted “Oh, I have not looked at it yet – but thanks for doing it.”

NO! “Thanks” does not work in this situation. I’d have more respect for this guy if he laughed at me and said “got you again, sucker”. Many of you know what I mean don’t you – if you are in a support-type-role, this can be a big part of your life.

I had a job years back that seemed to consist 90% of such tasks. I was the development DBA team leader responsible for testing, validating and promoting code to production. Everyone’s changes were Urgency Level 1, to be done as an emergency release and many could not be put in place until after 5pm. I’d be sat there at 18:30 in a massive but virtually empty office, applying changes along with one or two of my guys. Everyone else had gone home. This was not once or twice a month, it was 4 or 5 times a week. What are you to do?

Well, I came up with one tactic that seemed to work pretty well.

Anyone who asked for an emergency change had to be there, on site, available when the change was done.
There were of course cries of protest and people stated it was ridiculous that they had to be there, they were not needed, the change had been tested thoroughly {oh how I laughed at that – a thoroughly tested “emergency” change huh?}. No, I replied, you had to be there in case it went wrong as it’s your system, your data and, frankly, your emergency. If it is not urgent enough for you – the guy wanting it to be done – to be inconvenienced, well it sure as hell is not urgent enough to inconvenience me. “You can call if there are problems” – What, after you have escaped the locality? Maybe turned off your phone? And if I get you , I have to wait for you to come back in? No no no. Urgent emergency now equates to presence in office. After all, I’ll be there.

I stuck to my rule. If the requester could not be bothered to stay, I downgraded the request to “Planned” and put it through the CAB process. If the requester dumped on one of their team and made them stay, I mentally marked them half a point down and factored it in next emergency.

The change was remarkable. I was no longer in the office on my own every evening. I was not there with someone else either. I was simply not there as, when you made the emergency a little bit inconvenient to the requester, it magically stopped being an emergency.

There was another change. Less cock-ups. Seeing as these changes now went through the CAB process and slightly more testing {like, some testing} the duff changes were more likely to be detected before they caused damage. My bosses went from regarding me as “not a team player” to “Not a team player – but we kind of get your point now”.

So my advice is, if someone wants to try and make something your emergency, find some way of making sure it remains inconvenient to them. If they are willing to put up with the inconvenience, then it is a real emergency and you need to crack on with it.

Friday Philosophy – Lead or Lag (When to Upgrade)? January 20, 2012

Posted by mwidlake in development, Friday Philosophy, Testing.
Tags: , , ,
10 comments

I was involved in a discussion recently with Debra Lilley which version of Oracle to use. You can see her blog about it here (and she would love any further feedback from others). Oracle now has a policy that it will release the quarterly PSUs for a given point release for 12 months once that point release is superseded. ie once 11.2.0.3 came out, Oracle will only guarantee to provide PSUs for 11.2.0.2 for 12 months. See “My Oracle Support” note ID 742060.1. However, an older Terminal release such as 11.1.0.7 is not superseded and is supported until 2015 – and will get the quarterly PSU updates. This left the customer with an issue. Should they start doing their development on the latest and theoretically greatest version of Oracle and be forced to do a point upgrade “soon” to keep getting the PSUs, or use an older version of Oracle and avoid the need to upgrade?

This is in many ways a special case of the perennial issue of should you use the latest version of Oracle (or in fact any complex software solution) or go with the version you know and trust? Plus, should you patch up to the latest version which in theory gives you protection against bugs and vulnerabilities (along with the CPUs). Yes, they are two separate issues but people tend to sit on the same side of both points, for the same reasons.

The arguments to stay using an older version are that it is working, it is stable, you do not need the new features and upgrading is a lot of work and effort. Plus the new version will have new bugs that come along with the new features you do not need and things might be turned on by default that you could do without (like stats collecting or not creating the actual segments when a new table or partition is created). If you remain on your favourite version long enough, you get another issue which is that the latest version of Oracle might not be compatible with your ancient version of the OS or another package or programming language critical to your system (I got caught in a terrible web with old perl, old O/S and old DB that resulted in a need to upgrade all three together – ouch!).

The arguments to moving forward are that you get access to the latest features, that over all older features will have more bugs fixed in newer version, performance will be better {again, overall, exceptions allowing}. Also, if you do hit bugs and problems there are no issues in having to first upgrade to a fully supported version. Plus, fixes are made for current versions first and then back-ported to older ones. Those pack-ported fixes can cause real problems when you DO decide to upgrade.

The big sticking points are the effort involved in upgrading and living with the bugs that you find that Oracle Testing didn’t.

I’ve got a few of other considerations to throw into the pot.

Firstly, if you are developing something new, it is not a lot more effort to use the latest version. This allows you to learn the new version and eases the transition of older systems to it.

Secondly, Oracle like you if you use the latest version, especially if it is the latest-latest version or even beta. Yeah, the helpdesk will not have a clue about some of your issues but in my experience you get access to those really smart guys and gals in Oracle who do the third-line support or even the development work.

Thirdly, if you are on the latest version, if you do decide to freeze on that version for a while, for stability and a quiet life, you have a lot longer before your version (at least at a major level) drops out of support.

Fourthly, dynamic, inquisitive, flexible staff like new things. In my experience, environments that freeze on an old version have a higher percentage of staff who either like it dull and repetitive, or hate it being dull and repetitive – and itch to get out. If I’m in charge, I know which type of staff I like to have more of {NB there are some very good arguments for having some staff who like it dull and repetitive}.

As you can guess, I am in the “be on the latest version” side of the argument. I was ambivalent about it until a few years ago when I noticed a trend:

Sites that like to move forward tend to (a) do it in a controlled manner and (b) have the infrastructure to do proper regression testing.
Site that like to stay still lack the ability to do regression testing and move forward only when forced – and in a pressured, unplanned and frankly chaotic manner.

That was it, that was the real key thing for me. The further you lag behind the more likely you are to eventually be forced to upgrade and it won’t be a nice time doing it. I know, there are exceptions, systems still running Oracle 6 absolutely fine on an old DOS6.1 box. In the same way you also get the odd 95-year-old life-long smokers – and thousands of 45-year-old smokers with emphysema.

When I have any sway over the situation I now always strive to be on modern versions of Oracle {OS, language, whatever} and to patch small and regular. To support all this, have very good regression testing. I’ve only a couple of times been able to get the regression testing sorted out as well as I would like, but when you do the pain of patching and upgrading, as well as developing and integrating, is so much reduced that not patching seems madness.

So to sum up:

  • If it is a new development, go for the very latest version, play with the latest features if potentially beneficial and see if you can get Oracle to be interested in your attempts. ie (B)lead.
  • If you have good regression testing, plan and carry out patch and version upgrades as they come available and stay current. ie Lead
  • If you have a complex solution in place and no/poor regression testing, do not move to a new major release, leave it a while for the worst new bugs to be found and fixed. Then move. ie Lag
  • If your system is old AND critical and all the guys and gals who implemented it are long gone, stay on that version for ever. ie stagnate.

Oh, and if that last one applies to many of your systems – dust off the CV and start reading technical manuals. One day you will need a new job in a hurry.

Friday Philosophy – Team Ice-Cream and Telling Offs September 30, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Management.
Tags: ,
5 comments

If you manage people, it helps if they don’t dislike you. Sadly, this can be the default starting opinion for some people who have never been managers (we all know someone who “has never had a decent manager, they are all bloody idiots”). Frozen dairy products might be a route to easing this situation.

I mention this as we in the UK are having an unusually warm start to autumn, an Indian Summer as we call it. I used to work in a place that had an on-site cafe and a nice area outside to sit. If the weather was warm and I knew my team was not facing some crisis, I would occasionally pop my head around the door and announce “Team Ice-Cream!”. Anyone who wished could come down with me and I would buy them an ice-cream of their choice and we would sit out in the sun for 15 minutes and talk rubbish.

I’ve done similar in other situations. Taking the guys to the pub is the obvious one and it usually is appreciated, but in some ways it is less successful. I think this is because people will come to the pub because they want a pint and will put up with any idiot willing to provide a pint of Fosters (why is it so many of the “all managers are idiots” brigade drink some brand of nasty lager?). People will come for a tea/coffee or an ice-cream only if they are at least ambivalent to the provider. If you really dislike someone, who cares about an ice-cream? The serious malcontents will stay away and this helps identify people who really are not happy with you {so you can beat them mercilessly of course – or, if you’ve progressed beyond the school-yard, put some thought into why they are unhappy and what to do about it}.

By the way, this is very different to everyone going to the pub/restaurant in the evening and spending hours telling people what “you really think” and trying to impress Jessica the new trainee/intern. Such team building events generally need much more planning.

It’s a cheap bribe, should you resort to such shallow tactics to make people like you? Well, it’s only a cheap bribe as I said above. The trick to it is that it has to be {almost} spontaneous, such that the team are not expecting it, and not all the time. I’m not sure the teams I have done this for have always appreciated that I made special effort to do this either after a hard period of work or when there had been some malcontent within the team (people fall out, it impacts the rest of the team). The way I look at it, it also has to be a team thing and not an individual thing as the sitting around talking rubbish is a key part to the team being a team. Even if it is just over a cup of nasty coffee in the basement – that particular company’s canteen was not the best.

Oh, I should mention that I have access to a wife that makes wonderful cakes. Left-over cake is a brilliant “team ice-cream” substitute, it is both “cheap” so not a bribe but also appreciated as someone put effort in. My wife in this case. I Never claim I made the cake. well, not often.

TeddyBear Picnic Cake

That’s the carrot. What about the stick? When it comes down to it, you are there to guide the team and the individuals in it and get the best you can out of them. Not being disliked is important but you are not there to be their friend either. If someone transgresses you need to correct them.

In my opinion one of the very worst things a manager can do is dress down a member of their staff in public. That is not correcting them, that is either an attempt to humiliate them or an attempt by the boss to scape-goat the blame to a subordinate. Neither is morally correct and both are highly likely to engender considerable dislike or even hatred.

I distinctly remember one situation where I was in a team meeting and the boss’s managers came in and wanted to know why a recent change had gone so badly wrong. The manager’s response was immediate, he picked one of the team and said something like “It was him, he didn’t test the change properly”. It was so obvious that the sub-text was “it was not my fault”. In reality the sacrificed staff member was not at fault but the boss sure as heck was. A manager gets paid more as a boss and part of the reason is that you take both the credit and the blame for your team’s efforts. This action by that boss did not make us scared of failing and thus work harder, it made us distrust the man and demoralised us.

Sadly it is something I’ve seen a lot over the years and never by what I would call a good manager. I just don’t understand why these people think a public dressing down is going to inspire the target or the audience to work more effectively.

If I’m in the situation where, in a meeting or discussion, it becomes obvious one of my guys has screwed up we discuss how to sort it out as a team. Then after the meeting, the transgressor and I have a private conversation. This has several benefits:

  • I am not publicly humiliating them or scoring points in front of a crowd.
  • Neither of us is playing to the crowd and so are more likely to be honest.
  • Things can be said that stay private. I’ve had team members mess things up because they have more important issues on their mind that they are uncomfortable with the team knowing about. I’ve had to tell a guy this is chance #last and the next step is disciplinary.
  • This never happens, but there is a very small theoretical chance I could have misunderstood and, in fact, it’s my fault. You look a right idiot if you attempt to dress someone down in public and it turns out to be you.

As I said, that last point has never happened to me {yes, this is an outrageous lie :-) }. I’ve experienced that last point from the other side as well. In a large meeting I had a board member pushing me as to why we had not finished a project on the date I promised. I kept giving vague answers about “other things coming up” and it would be done by a new, given date. She would not let it go though so eventually I had to say “It is late because you told me to do other stuff as top priority, I raised this project and you told me to delay it. So it is late because you changed the priorities. That would make it your responsibility.” She was very angry but it had been her choice to do this publicly.

All this boils down to – Reward the team in public. Chastise the individual in private.

In Defense of Agile Development (and Their Ilk) September 21, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in development, Management.
Tags: , , , ,
10 comments

In my previous post I asked the question “why doesn’t Agile work?”. I’m not sure the nuance of the question came over correctly.

I’d just like to highlight that the question I asked was “Why does agile not work”. It was not “Why is Agile rubbish“. I’ve said a few times in the past couple of weeks that I like the ideology of Agile and I am (and have been for years and years) a strong proponent of prototyping, cyclic development, test driven design and many other things that are part of the Agile or XP methodologies.

That distinction in the title is a really important distinction and one I’d hoped I’d made clear in my post. Looking back at my post though, I think it is clear I failed :-(. I highlighted reasons why I think Agile does not work and in my head I was thinking “if we avoid these, Agile could work” – but when you write something down it does not matter what is in your head if it does not reach the paper.

I’m actually frustrated that in the last few years I have not seen Agile really succeed and also that this must be the normal situation, going on the response you get when the topic of Agile comes up with fellow technicians and comments on my own blog.

However, on that post about Agile two people who’s opinion I deeply respect came back at me to say “Agile does work!”. Cary Millsap, who many of you will have heard of as the “Method R” guy and the person behind Oracle Flexible Architecture. And Mike Cox, who most of you won’t have heard of but Mike taught me a lot about sensible development back in the 90′s. He’s one of the best developers I have ever had the pleasure of working with and I know he has had great success with Agile and RED. I’m not sure if they read my post as “Agile is Rubbish” or they are, like me, simply frustrated that it can work but so often does not.

So I’ve been thinking about this a lot this weekend and I was helped by Cary’s paper on the topic that he mentioned in his comment. I’d highly recommend downloading it as it is an excellent description of not only why Agile can help but describes how and some of the pitfalls {I’d started my own post on that, but go read Cary’s}. I should add, you can see Cary present his case for Agile at the UKOUG conference this year.

So where does this bring me to? Well, I think “Is Agile good or bad” has become almost an “IT religion” topic, people love it or loath it and it is based on what they have seen of the methodology in real life. No, that’s wrong, it is based on what they have seen that has been labelled with that methodology in real life. Or worse, it is based on anecdotal opinion of those around them. The thing is, if you look at what XP is supposed to consist of or what Agile Programming is supposed to consist of, most of us would agree that a great deal of it makes sense in many situations. I’d disagree with some of the details in Cary’s paper but overall I’m in strong agreement. Sadly, What Agile and XP is supposed to be is not well matched by what you see on the ground in most cases. So even if these methodologies are right for the situation, what has been implemented is not the methodology but probably more a slap-dash process that simply jettisons documentation, design and proper testing. This whole thread sprung from my lamenting the demise of database design and several of the comments highlighted that the introduction of Agile seemed to equate, at least in part, with the demise of design. As MIke and Cary say, and as I think anyone who has successfully utilized Agile would say, Design is an integral part of Agile and XP methodology.

Agile can and does work. But many things can and do work, such as taking regular exercise to keep healthy or regularly maintaining your house to keep it weathertight. Like Agile, both take effort but the overall benefit is greater than the cost. And like Agile, do it wrong and you can make things worse. If your window frames are starting to rot and you just slap a new layer of top-coat on them all you will do is seal in the damp and rot and hide the problem – until the glass falls out. Going for a regular 5 mile run is good for you – but not if you are 10 stone (60KG) overweight and have not run in years. A 5 mile run is also not a good idea if you want to be a long-jumper. Right training (methodology) for the right aim. Also, just like keeping healthy, house maintenance or anything that takes effort but works, proponents tend towards extremism – probably as a reaction to the constant {perceived} pig-headedness of critics or the failure of people to just do what now seems so sensible to them {think reformed smokers}. I’ll have to buy Cary and Mike pints to make up for that jibe now, and promise them it was not aimed at them personally…

Sadly, the reality is, Agile does not work 90% of the time it is tried. So, does that mean Agile is actually rubbish? Or at least, not fit for purpose, because many companies are not able to use it? Companies are there to achieve something and the IT systems are part of achieving that something. If Agile cannot aid that IT department then Agile is the wrong way for that department and company.

*sigh* I’ve gone on and on about this and still not got to my own main point, which is this.

- Can we identify reasons for Agile and XP Failing.
- Having identified the Reasons, can we fix them in simple ways?
- Can we create some simple guidelines as to when a project should be more Agile and when it should be more Up-Front design.

I’d love to know people’s opinions on those three points above.

Friday Philosophy – Why doesn’t Agile work? September 16, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in development, Friday Philosophy, Management.
Tags: , ,
13 comments

Why doesn’t Agile Development Methodology seem to work?

I’m going say right here at the start that I like much of what is in Agile, for many, many years I’ve used aspects of Rapid Application Development {which Agile seems to have borrowed extensively from} to great success. However, after my post last week on database design, many of the comments were quite negative about Agile – and I had not even mentioned it in my post!

To nail my flag to the post though, I have not seen an Agile-managed project yet that gave me confidence that Agile itself was really helping to produce a better product, a product more quickly and most certainly not a final system that was going to be easy to maintain. Bring up the topic of Agile with other experienced IT people and I would estimate 90% of the feedback is negative.

That last point about ongoing maintenance of the system is the killer one for me. On the last few projects I have been on where the culture was Agile-fixated I just constantly had this little voice in my head going:

“How is anyone going to know why you did that in six months? You’ve just bolted that onto the side of the design like a kludge and it really is a kludge. When you just said in the standup meeting that we will address that issue ‘later’, is that the same “later” that accounts for the other half-dozen issues that seem to have been forgotten?”.

From what I can determine after the fact, that voice turns out to be reason screaming out against insanity. A major reason Agile fails is that it is implemented in a way that has no consideration for post-implementation.

Agile, as it is often implemented, is all about a headlong rush to get the job done super-quick. Ignore all distractions, work harder, be completely focused and be smarter. It really does seem to be the attitude by those who impose Agile that by being Agile your staff will magically come up with more innovative solutions and will adapt to any change in requirements just because they work under an agile methodology. Go Agile, increase their IQ by 10 points and their work capacity by 25%. Well, it doesn’t work like that. Some people can in fact think on their feet and pull solutions out of thin air, but they can do that irrespective of the methodology. People who are more completer-finishers, who need a while to change direction but boy do they produce good stuff, have you just demoralized and hamstrung them?Agile does not suit the way all people work and to succeed those people it does not suit need to be considered.

The other thing that seems to be a constant theme under Agile is utterly knackered {sorry, UK slang, knackered means tired, worn out and a bit broken} staff. Every scrum is a mad panic to shove it all out of the door and people stop doing other things to cope. Like helping outside the group or keeping an eye on that dodgy process they just adopted as it needed doing. Agile fails when it is used to beat up team. Also, I believe Agile fails when those ‘distractions’ are ignored by everyone and work that does not fall neatly into a scrum is not done.

I suppose it does not help that my role has usually been one that is more Production Support than development and Agile is incompatible with production support. Take the idea of the scrum, where you have x days to analyse, plan, design, unit test and integrate the 6 things you will do in this round. On average I only spend 50% of my time dealing with urgent production issues, so I get allocated several tasks. Guess what, if I end up spending 75% of my time that week on urgent production issues, and urgent production issues have to take priority, I can screw up the scrum all on my own. No, I can’t pass my tasks onto others in the team as (a) they are all fully assigned to their tasks and (b) passing over a task takes extra time. Agile fails when it is used for the wrong teams and work type.

I’ve come to the conclusion that on most projects Agile has some beneficial impact in getting tasks done, as it forces people to justify what they have done each and every day, encourages communication and gives the developers a reason to ignore anything else that could be distracting them as it is not in the scrum. Probably any methodology would help with all of that.

My final issue with Agile is the idiot fanatics. At one customer site I spent a while at, they had an Agile Coach come around to help the team to become more agile. I thought this was a little odd as this team was actually doing a reasonable job with Agile, they had increased productivity and had managed to avoid the worst of the potential negative impacts. This man came along and patronisingly told us we were doing OK, but it was hard for us to raise our game like this, we just needed help to see the core values of Agile and, once we did, once we really believed in it, productivity would go up 500% {That is a direct quote, he actually said “productivity will go up by 500%”}. He was sparkly-eyed and animated and full of the granite confidence of the seriously self-deluded. I think he managed to put back the benefits of Agile by 50%, such was the level of “inspiration” he gave us. Agile fails when it is implemented like a religion. It’s just a methodolgy guys.

I find it all quite depressing as I strongly suspect that, if you had a good team in a positive environment, doing a focused job, Agile could reap great rewards. I’m assured by some of my friends that this is the case. {update – it took my good friend Mike less than an hour to chime in with a comment. I think I hit a nerve}.

Friday Philosophy – Tainted by the Team August 26, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in development, Friday Philosophy, humour, Management, rant.
Tags: , , , ,
3 comments

A while ago whilst working on one project, a colleague came back to his desk next to mine and exclaimed “I hate working with that team! – they are so bad that it makes everyone who works with them look incompetent!”

Now there is often an argument to be made that working with people who are not good at their job can be great for you, as you always looks good in comparison {it’s like the old adage about hanging around with someone less attractive than you – but I’ve never found anyone I can do that with…}. It is to an extent true of course, and though it can seem a negative attitude, it is also an opportunity to teach these people and help them improve, so everyone potentially is a winner. I actually enjoy working with people who are clueless, so long as they will accept the clues. You leave them in a better state than when you joined them.

However, my friend was in the situation where the team he was dealing with was so lacking in the skills required that if you provided them with code that worked as specified, which passed back the values stated in the correct format derived from the database with the right logic… their application code would still fall over with exceptions – because it was written to a very, very “strict” interpretation of the spec.

In one example, the specification for a module included a “screen shot” showing 3 detail items being displayed for the parent object. So the application team had written code to accept only up to 3 detail items. Any more and it would crash. Not error, crash. The other part of the application, which the same people in the application team had also written, would let you create as many detail items for the parent as you liked. The data model stated there could be many more than 3 detail items. I suppose you could argue that the specification for the module failed to state “allow more than three items” – but there was a gap in the screen to allow more data, there was the data model and there was the wider concept of the application. In a second example, the same PL/SQL package was used to populate a screen in several modes. Depending on the mode, certain fields were populated or not. The application however would fail if the variables for these unused fields were null. Or it would fail if they were populated. The decision for each one depended on the day that bit of the module had been written, it would seem. *sigh*

The situation was made worse by the team manager being a skilled political animal, who would always try to shift any blame to any and all other teams as his first reaction. In the above examples he tried to immediately lay the blame with my colleague and then with the specification, but my colleague had managed to interpret the spec fine (he did the outrageous thing of asking questions if he was not sure or checked the data model). Further, this manager did not seem to like his people asking us questions, as he felt it would make it look like they did not know what they were doing. Oddly enough they did NOT know what they were doing. Anyway, as a consequence of the manager’s hostile attitude, the opportunity to actually teach the poor staff was strictly limited.

That was really the root of the problem, the manager. It was not the fault of the team members that they could not do the job – they had not had proper training, were unpracticed with the skills, siloed into their team, not encouraged to think beyond the single task in front of them and there was no one available to show them any better. The issue was that they were being made to do work they were not able to do. The problem, to my mind, was with the manager and with the culture of that part of the organisation that did not deal with that manager. He obviously did not believe that rule one of a good manager is to look after the best interests of your team. It was to protect his own backside.

But the bottom line was that this team was so bad that anything they were involved in was a disaster and no one wants to be part of a disaster. If you worked with them, you were part of the disaster. So we took the pragmatic approach. When they had the spec wrong, if we would alter our code to cope, we would alter our code. And document that. It gave us a lot of work and we ended up having a lot of “bugs” allocated to our team. But it got the app out almost on time. On-going maintencance could be a bit of an issue but we did what we could on our side to spell out the odditites.

I still know my friend from above and he still can’t talk about it in the pub without getting really quite agitated :-)

Friday Philosophy – The Secret to Being a Good IT Manager June 3, 2011

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, humour, Management.
Tags: , ,
10 comments

If you go into a book shop there will probably be a section on business and, if there is, there will almost certainly be a load of books on how to be a manager. Shelves and shelves of them. There is also a large and vibrant market in selling courses on management and aspects of management. I’ve been on a couple of such course and, if you can manage to be open minded whilst keeping a cynical edge, I think they can be useful.

However, I think I most of them are missing the key points and that if you can but hold on to the following extensive list of guiding principles you will be a good IT manager. Maybe even an excellent one :-):

  1. Your top priority, at all times, is to see to the best interests of your people.
  2. Whatever you develop, be it code, databases, network, a team of support staff – User Acceptance is paramount.
  3. You must find ways to deal with other teams and your own management hierarchy in such a way as to be allowed to do (1) and (2).
  4. That’s it.
  5. OK, if pushed, I’d say Never Lie. Maybe that’s just personal though, it’s because I don’t have the memory, audacity or swiftness of mind to pull it off. By not lying I don’t have to try and construct what I said to who and why.

I’m sure people could cite some other hard rules like “you must be within budget” or “you need to get buy-in to your vision” but I don’t agree. Budgets can be negotiated and the difference between those deemed visionaries and those deemed fantasists seems to be to me down to success and luck. Luck is luck and for success I refer you to points 1 through 5.

OK, maybe a final rule is:

  • Never ask for or aim for something that is not realistic.

So, I am now able to develop my team and my application and not expect to be able to spend half the company profit on the fastest box out there, as it is not realistic.

There are a shed load of other things that I think are important to helping you be a good manager, you know, techniques and methods for improving things, but nothing else that is key.

And it’s such a simple, small list even I can aim for it.

The shame of it is that I don’t think it’s enough to be developed into a book or a course so I can’t sell the idea. That and I’ve gone and given it away in this blog. Also, though I feel I can give points 1,2 and 5 a good shot, point 3 is way beyond me…possibly because of point 5… So I am not a great manager.

I’m going to hide behind this stout wall now, with my hard hat on, and wait to be told how naive I am…

Update – A couple of weeks later, Kellyn on her DBA Kevlar blog put similar sentiments to looking after your guys, more from the employee’s perspective and far better covered

Why given so many of us feel this way and want things to be this way…are they not?

Friday Philosophy – The Best IT Person I Have Met September 24, 2010

Posted by mwidlake in Friday Philosophy, Perceptions.
Tags: , ,
3 comments

I’ve had the pleasure of working with and meeting a lot of talented and capable people in IT – some of them have even been nice people too :-) {In fact, most people I have met do not match that annoying myth about IT’s reputation for social awkwardness). However, for me one person sticks out in my mind as the best person I have worked with in IT.

It’s Barry. I’m pretty sure none of you have met Barry, and in fact as I knew Barry back in 1996 I’m not so sure I would recognise him (or remember his last name) if I met him now.

Barry and I met when I got press-ganged into a Unix system administration team. I was just getting started at being an Oracle Performance person and knew very little about Unix Sys admin. But, for reasons I won’t go into now, I went home on the Friday as an “Oracle expert” and came in on the Monday to find my desk had been physically lifted and moved into the Unix sys admin corral andI was now a “Sys Admin not-expert”. My protestations were listened to – and then ignored, with the information that if I did “not knuckle down and get on with it”, the money would stop flowing. So, rather dazed and just a tad unhappy with the situation, I sat – and sulked – at my desk. And sat next to me was Barry.

You are probably expecting me to now tell you that Barry knew Unix sys admin inside out and how he took me under his wing and showed me the ropes. Well, he didn’t. I have no idea where they got Barry from, I think he was a pro-C developer, but he had been similarly abused by management and he knew even less about being a sys admin than I did. I at least knew my way around a few monitoring commands like top, w, ps, “glance” etc.

Barry was also not very quick with IT. Don’t get me wrong, he was not stupid, but he was not one of these people who just had an affinity for technology and spent all his spare time building their own media server when CD-ROMS for PCs were still quite new. In fact, he seemed to find the whole of IT to be something of a challenge.

What Barry had though was enthusiasm, commitment and curiosity. Not in an annoying, bouncing all over the place crying “this is great” way, but more a case of “OK, server Falcon has run out of disk space. What can I do about it? How do I find out where the storage has all gone, who is using it and can I get it back off them?”. And he would set to. He’d start with what he knew (which was little more than the “Man” (Online Manual} command in the first week) and work through it. Every few minutes he’d be tapping me on the shoulder and saying things like “Look, you can get information about disk usage here, and map it to the real physical disks by greping for this”.

It was Barry’s attitude that made him stand out, and also his ability to infect you with the same attitude. I started off in that team furious and demoralized, determined to find a new position and resign ASAP. But Barry got over his annoyance and started working. He asked me for advice and discussed the issues over with me, even though I was as clueless as him. When he found something he showed me it. When I found something, he was keen to learn it.

Between us, we got by. We knew very little and it was hard work, but because Barry was not daunted and would keep working on the problem until he had it sorted, he dragged me along with him. I would still be there with him into the evening, sorting something out, when everyone else had gone home. He did not take on every problem people came to us with, he would stick with what he felt was the biggest issue until it was sorted, and he would keep with it, and ask for help, and try what you suggested.

{oddly enough , the worst person I ever worked with was already in this team. Maybe that is why the others left and Barry and I were pulled in!}

It only lasted a few months as we both escaped to jobs more suited to our skills, but I learnt a few things. One was that a crummy job could be made a lot better just by your attitude and another was that some people (Barry, not me) had a real talent for enthusing people and thus getting things done. And also, that you did not have to be highly intelligent or knowledgeable to do a very good job. That’s lucky for me, then :-)

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