I was interested to read Roy Osherove’s account of his worst team leaders recently. Jason Crawford writes about what he thinks makes good team managers. They are not talking about the same role I think.
Roy is talking about a technical lead on a team of developers and his basic problem is the technical lead’s perceived lack of or interest in technical ability. His criticisms fall into basically two categories: training, and judgment. He wants a technical lead to help make him a better developer by judging it. A lead that refuses to judge is no lead at all.
Jason Crawford draws portraits of three kinds of managers, but the best, he says, focus on communicating values. He is not suggesting that a good project manager should moralize to his employees, but rather that the PM should have a clear idea of the values of the company and ensure that the work his reports do conforms to those values. If we apply this to Roy’s technical lead, Roy’s technical lead should value technical ability to the point that he would be willing to point out mistakes and help the developer become better at his job.
I recently had occasion to write a recommendation for a former Project Manager. With permisssion, I’ll reprint the entire recommendation:
“Maggie Roberts was a great project manager. She was great at communicating with both technical and non-technical personnel. She knew enough about the technical work to describe the expected results as well as the goal she hoped to accomplish with the results, and then she got out of the way and let me deliver the results to her. When I had a better idea of how to get the desired results, she allowed me to pursue it.
My favorite thing about working with Maggie was her directness and the clarity of her expectations. She was never shy about indicating what was and was not good about the work I turned in. Her criticism was never cruel or directed toward me as a person, but targeted the work I turned in and its relationship to our client. She was not shy with her praise either. She had the same directness with pointing out great things I did as she did with errors. She always related both praise and criticism directly to how my performance affected the client. By making sure I had a clear understanding of our goals, and by being so clear about judging my work, she encouraged me to look for more creative ways of meeting our goals. She made me feel like both a technician and a partner in our quest to save our client money. Working with Maggie was a challenge because of the high standards she set, and a pleasure because the standards were clear, and she made sure I had the tools I needed to meet them. I can honestly say that I grew as a technician under her leadership.”
Maggie was not a technical lead, but a PM. In that role, she communicated values (save the client money, show each step of the work) very clearly, and she demanded quality. I had never worked with SQL Server before working with Maggie, but in six months I got two years of experience. When I created an automated Excel spreadsheet to retrieve data and perform the formatting we were doing by hand, she was very free with her praise.
There are four basic engineering aspects to developing a software system: Requirements, Test, Design, and Implementation. When a project is squeezed for time, it is the Design and Test aspects that get squeezed to make room for Implementation. Design activities are in effect frozen, which means that the design of the system will stay static even as new features are added. Testing simply stops, with all that that implies.
As implementation continues, new requirements are uncovered or areas of existing requirements are discovered to need modification or clarification. All of these factors imply necessary changes to the design of the system, but since design is frozen, the necessary changes don’t happen. Since testing isn’t happening, the full ramifications of this fact are not immediately felt.
The only remaining implementation choice is to squeeze square pegs of new features into the round holes of the existing design. This option requires more time to implement because time is spent creating overhead to deal with the dissonance between the design and the requirements. The resulting code is harder to understand because of the extra overhead. This option is more prone to error because more code exists than should be necessary to accomplish the task. Every additional line of code is a new opportunity for a bug.
All of these factors results in code that is harder to maintain over time. New features are difficult to implement because they will require the same kind of glue-code to marry a poor design to the new requirements. Further, each new feature deepens the dependency of the system on the poor design, making it harder to correct, and making it ever-easier to continue throwing bad code after bad. When considered in isolation, it will always seem cheaper to just add crap-code to get the new feature in rather than correct the design, but cumulatively, it costs much more. Eventually it will kill the project.
As bad as all this is, the problems don’t stop there. As long as the ill-designed code continues to exist in the system it serves to undermine the existing and all future features in two ways. 1) It becomes a pain point around which ever more glue-code will have to be written as the interaction of the ill-designed feature with the rest of the system changes. 2) it acts as a precedent in the code-base, demonstrating that low-quality code is acceptable so long as the developer can find a reason to rationalize it.