Tuesday, October 15, 2013

I don't own my team

If you know me you know that I strongly believe that the language we use shapes our thoughts. I hate the dehumanizing use of resources when we mean people, or use of 'the business' when referring to people outside of IT.

The new phrase that I'm trying to eradicate from my language is 'my team'.

Since moving back into a team lead role I've started using this phrase again and it's been making me feel increasingly uncomfortable. It does so in two regards. Firstly, it's possessive as if I own the team. Secondly, it makes me feel that I'm solely responsible for the team and their output.

In conversations with other team members, I've switched the my to an our. When talking to people outside of the team, I'm starting to refer to my own team by the team name. I also noticed that  have been referring to other teams by team leader name. This needs to stop too.

By using our I feel like we're all in it together rather than me being above the team or owning them.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Missing feedback loop. How can I serve a team member better?

In one-to-one meetings with my managers, past and present, I've asked about things I could do better. I've just realised that I've never asked the people I manage the same thing. How could I serve them better?

Some people might see this as weakness, but I see it as the opposite. If I'm not getting feedback other than top down, I'm missing a critical piece.

This shouldn't be an annual thing either, but a continual process of improvement both ways.

Of course this is going to require trust, which has to be built over time, but it's not going to stop me taking the first step.

Friday, August 2, 2013

The absurdity of 'the business'

I've often heard software development departments refer to other parts of the organisation as 'the business'. Not only is that wording divisive, but it's also completely absurd. I've often heard the same departments that we call 'the business', also calling other parts of the organisation 'the business'. We're all the business; we're not a lesser or greater part; we're all in it together

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Software development career treadmill

In my last post I outlined many of the reasons why software developers are a good model for career resilience. It was based on the fact that we have to be resilient due to how quickly technology and trends move.

Several times in the past, I've been asked what one thing would I tell people considering a career in software development. I always give the same piece of advice; be prepared to continually learn.

There are downsides to this continual learning cycle though; I've dubbed this the software development treadmill. This treadmill keeps on going at a slightly uncomfortable pace and doesn't relent no matter how tired you get. This continuous pace requires you to have a passion for software development. Without that passion, it's been my experience, you'll washout or stagnate into a career deadend. Passion is critical because it will help keep you motivated to continually learn and practice, most often in your spare time.

Even those who do continually learn and practice aren't guaranteed to always be on top of new technology and trends. This is mainly because there are so many things that you could spend your time on. You end up having to pick and choose based on what interests you and your guess at where the industry is going. Sometimes you'll hitch your cart to the wrong horse and will have to leave that deadend; then scramble to catch up with what the market is actually doing.

For developers in the west, there's also the constant fear of being outsourced. This adds an extra pressure to keep up.

Eventually even lifelong learners can get tired of this unrelenting pace of change. Traditionally developers would move up into management, where their development skills don't have to be as sharp. That said, I've noticed that with the advent of self-organising teams and flatter hierarchies, there's less of a need for management and therefore less opportunities for promotion; these positions were limited before anyway. As a result we're staying in development jobs for a lot longer. This presents additional challenges. As you get older your family commitments generally increase. This means that you have less time to learn and practice on your own time.

Finally there's an unspoken darkside of being an older developer and that's that it's seen as a young person's game. There's a myth in the industry that young people are far more creative. If you want to have a long career in software development you'll need to be on top of your game.

Has this been your experience as a software developer? I'd love to know either way.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Software developers are a model for career resilience

Since the official end of the Great Recession, the private sector has pretty much rebounded. The Dow Jones has recently hit all-time highs and some companies are now posting record profits. Despite this, unemployment has remained stubbornly high. In the US there are three unemployed people for every job opening. We've also seen old business models are being disrupted and companies that can't adapt are closing their doors.

With this in mind, people are now having to become more creative and adaptable with their careers. You can no longer rely on a company to help you design a career path. It's up to you now.

In a recent conversation it struck me that software developers are naturally career resilient and, in my opinion, serve as a good model for others.

So why are we more resilient? Because we have to be.

Our field is always in a state of flux. Programming languages, frameworks and technologies go in and out of fashion. It's very easy to get caught out by focusing on one language and suddenly finding that the industry has moved on; leaving you behind. This is hard to come back from. If you don't continually keep on top of new technologies and learn new skills, you'll stagnate and be stuck.

Another reason you can get stuck is due to skill related pay. When you have a skill that's in demand you get paid a premium for that. When the market moves and you don't, you can struggle finding a new job that pays as much as the previous because that skill is no longer in demand. This might not be completely obvious until you try to make a move.

Another wrinkle is that technology choice can be geographical. For example, working in London in the late nineties - early 2000s most web application shops used Perl. When I moved to Houston there were very few companies that were looking for Perl developers. I ended up finding a job at one of the few Perl shops in Houston, but the local industry moved to .NET so I did the same.

Software development contractors are even more resilient than their fulltime counterparts.They are able to shift from position to position; only looking for the next position a week or so before the current one ends.

How resilient is your career?

For more information about increasing your career resilience, I recommend reading the following article by Michele Martin:

Career Resilience: The Four Patterns that Should Guide All Your Career Moves

Friday, February 22, 2013

New name, new focus

Those that have been reading my Scrum+ blog for a while might have noticed that the name has recently changed. This is because my main focus is now around building better places to work and my blog posts were starting to be only on that topic. Thanks to everyone that has visited over the last few years and I hope you'll continue to read as I post about this new focus area. Thanks to +Michele Martin for the name suggestion as well as others that contributed to the renaming effort.

Let's break our dependence on being told what to do

The 20th century model of work was one of hierarchy, one where your superiors you told you what to do.

Many people are still stuck in this mindset. It's easy to do. When you're not being told what to do you feel uncomfortable and unsure what to do. I've fallen into this at times in the past too.

The problem is, if you are dependant on being told what to do, you become less creative, adaptable and resilient. If you find yourself in an uncertain situation, you're more likely to fall back on things you've done in the past rather than looking for something new.

Right now, the future of work is uncertain. We're currently going through a time of rapid technological innovation. Organisations are able to do more with less people. Companies that don't innovate are going out of business as new ones disrupt legacy business models. This amongst other things, is causing unemployment to rise. Hundreds of people are competing for a handful of jobs.

As existing jobs are automated we're going to need to find new problems to solve, which means people to be able to think for themselves.

I believe that we should create organisations that have a culture of innovation, where all employees can use their own creativity and ingenuity to solve problems. Not only will this help companies become more adaptable and resilient, but by doing this we can help people break the dependency on being told what to do. This in turn, will help them find their own ideas to tackle and ways to thrive in this uncertain future.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Say no to degree discrimination

I'm going to come straight out and say it. If you're hiring for a position that doesn't require a degree, yet you're requiring one, you're discriminating plain and simple. Plus you could be missing out on a potentially good candidate.

I'm frustrated after reading an article from the New York Times about the increasing number of companies in the US requiring a batchelors degree for all open positions. This growing trend really concerns me because it's an artificial barrier that not everyone can get over.

Hold on James, are you worried about this because you don't have a degree? Damn Skippy I am, but there are plenty others out there too that don't deserve to be discriminated against.

So here's one of the reasons I'm frustrated. Within the first few paragraphs of the article I came across this quote:
"College graduates are just more career-oriented," said Adam Slipakoff, the firm's managing partner. "Going to college means they are making a real commitment to their futures. They're not just looking for a paycheck."
This is a gross generalisation if I've ever heard one. A degree doesn't mean anyone is more career orientated (or is better learner, but that's a subject for another post). Perhaps they can't afford to go to university, which is an increasing problem as costs rise. Perhaps university isn't the best place for them to learn. Perhaps they're just tired the education mill by the time they graduate from high school.

What happened to the people without degrees that started in the mailroom and worked their way up to CEO? Isn't that part of the American dream? Are these people not career oriented?
Hint: they're still out there.

I've met plenty of people with degrees that haven't a clue what type of career they want, and I've met plenty of people without degrees that are very career focused. In fact some of the most talented software developers I know don't have a degree. One thing that they do have is a love of learning.

As I mentioned I don't hold a degree myself, yet I've had a sucessful career as a software developer and software development manager. When I started my career as a software developer, I actually had to unlearn what I was taught in formal education on that topic. For me, university just wasn't the right learning environment for me. I learn best by doing. 

If someone has a passion, they don't have to have a degree they will learn what they need as they go along.

Obviously there are some careers that definitely require higher education, but a lot can be taught on the job.

This brings me to my next point. A few paragraphs later I came to this quote:
"When you get 800 résumés for every job ad, you need to weed them out somehow," said Suzanne Manzagol, executive recruiter at Cardinal Recruiting Group
If you're filtering on something that's irrelevant to the job, why stop there. Are you going to filter on gender, age or race? No because there are laws preventing that. What would you do if the government said you couldn't filter needlessly? When I hire, I put my money where my mouth is. I don't discriminate on any of the above.

Degrees also become even more irrelevant as a person progresses through their career. What if you have a candidate that has far more experience, but no degree?

I have an idea. Let's filter out candidates on something important, whether or not they can do the job and whether they have a passion for learning. If you have too many people applying for a position, that's s good thing.

I think I've made my point. I'll leave you with some rampant elitism:
"Besides the promotional pipelines it creates, setting a floor of college attainment also creates more office camaraderie, said Mr. Slipakoff, who handles most of the firm’s hiring and is especially partial to his fellow University of Florida graduates. There is a lot of trash-talking of each other’s college football teams"

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Unbalanced self-organising teams

In my experience it's very easy to disrupt the balance of a self-organising team, just change someone's status within the company. If a self-organising team is made up of peers, each person takes leadership dynamically. Even if the team has a few junior members they tend to fall into a mentee - mentor dynamic. If one person is perceived to be more important the team will look to that person for leadership. I'm not saying that self-organisation can't work with an imbalance in status, it's just that different considerations are needed.

Firstly it's up to the person in question to understand this change in dynamic and address it directly with the team. One idea is for the leader and team to come to an agreement that no one person is more important than the others. Put this agreement on the wall in the team's working area. That way they can point to it and hold the person with more perceived importance to it if necessary.

Note: Violation of that agreement, can send a message to the other team members that the leader doesn't agree with the working agreement.

What are your experiences with unbalanced self-organising teams?

Monday, January 7, 2013

Downtime and employee focus

In all places of work, there will be periods where people will have downtime. Conventional wisdom states that "idle hands are the devil's playthings". This might well be true if someone cannot channel their energies in an appropriate direction. To get around this problem many organisations try to optimize on efficiency to achieve the mythical 100% utilization. That way no-one will have downtime and be unconstructive, right? 

This might be possible for machines, but not people. We don't operate the same one day to the next and you can't predict how someone will be feeling on a specific day. Perhaps they didn't get enough sleep; perhaps they're having problems at home. In addition, organisational slack helps businesses adapt better when their market shifts and more.

Coming back to downtime, clearly a company doesn't want people sitting around doing nothing. I can understand that. If an organisation lives their values and has worked hard to engage the employee in their work, then that opens up the possibility of the employee using that downtime for the benefit of the company. The problem comes when the employee isn't engaged with their work.

Let's focus more on engaging employees rather than trying to keep them busy.

Do you agree or disagree?