it's been noticed...

§ October 1, 2009 01:22 by beefarino |

Just ignore this post, I just need to release some steam...

We just had an emergency team meeting.  The topic: it's been noticed by the executives that we're not always around when they are.  Someone needed something and one of us wasn't there to oblige.  That must have really chapped their hide.  

Well, I've noticed some things too.  Here's what I've noticed:

  • I'm VPN'ed into work at midnight fixing the build someone else broke;
  • I'm constantly tweaking our unit tests to keep them working as the rest of the team gets to plod on to greenfield pastures;
  • I'm responding to support emails at 2am;
  • I'm answering the support phone at 4am;
  • I still make the 9:30am scrum;
  • I bust my hump as a principal developer on a project, only to hear the executives single-out my superiors to praise for my work;
  • After four rounds of layoffs, I've taken on so many roles here I've lost track;
  • I haven't dropped the ball on any of my responsibilities (or if I have, no one has let me know about it);
  • I've been willing to drop my life for days at a stretch to make emergency trips to fix client issues;
  • I'm frequently the last one out the door at the end of the day;
  • I see my kids for maybe 90 minutes a day;

... and more thing I noticed: the people I work for only notice me when I'm not around.


Resolution 2009: Be a Beacon, Bypass the Bugzappers

§ December 31, 2008 06:39 by beefarino |

Being the last day of 2008, I thought I would share my professional resolutions for 2009.  First, let me share with you what someone recently said to me during a discussion about leadership:

"Every person shines a light for others to see, and they choose whether that light is a beacon or a bugzapper."

He went on to explain that a beacon uses their experience, passion, and knowledge to to make people better.  A bugzapper uses their experience, passion, and knowledge to bring people down, to make themselves feel bigger by making others feel smaller. 

Now that we're talking the same language, my professional resolution for 2009 is to be a better beacon.  My goal is to be more successful at beaconage by trying some of the following things...

get out of my silo 

My team works fairly independently, along clearly delineated sandboxes defined my expertise.  I hate this - I'm not an expert in anything, so rather than feel useful I feel pigeon-holed, and my projects are usually so isolated that I end up working on them alone.  The work is stagnant, usually off-the-backlog, and I never feel like a "real" contributor.  So, I'm going to start finding ways to help out in other areas of the system, and spiking some projects ideas that touch areas outside of my sandbox. 

I'm not sure how I'll make this happen or how welcome my presence will be, but our team has become a skeleton crew steering a galleon, so I think I can make a few opportunities for myself ...

try more, do more, write more

I feel like I should accomplish more than I do, both professionally and personally.  I'm going to try some modest time management tactics and see how much more stuff I can get done.  E.g., I'm trying out maintaining my away-from-work projects and spike ideas using a backlog, and managing their execution with sprints in the hope that I don't pitter away my free time on endless and unnecessary polish.  

Moreover, I want to update this blog more frequently with details of these projects and spikes.  I love to write, and this blog my primary outlet for it.  

smile more, talk more

I know it sounds silly, but I'm starting to understand that to most people a 6-foot 2-inch 200+ pound barrel-chested dude with hair turning to dreds halfway down his back is scary-looking.  And I'm a thinker, so I tend to be pretty quiet unless I have questions.  The combination can come off ... unwelcoming.  So, I'm going to try to wear a smile and chime in more by default, and see what that gets me.  

cope with the bugzappers

This is, without a doubt, going to be the hardest part of my resolution.  There are (and always will be) people chomping at the bit to shit all over my efforts, and I tend to take that rather personal.  I never enjoy conflict, but I understand conflict is necessary to improve myself or others.  However, being brow-beaten, chided, degraded, or ignored frustrates me to no end and accomplishes nothing beyond making me want to kick the bugzapper in the sack.

That is my biggest obstacle at this point: coping with the bugzappers in a way that doesn't turn me into one of them.

Suggestions welcome.

Effective Retrospectives

§ November 17, 2008 09:29 by beefarino |

Matt Grommes wrote another thought-provoker today on sprint retrospectives; my comments started wandering and found their way into this post...

The few retrospectives I've facilitated have taught me a few tricks.  Matt is correct when he says that a retrospective can turn into monster vetching session if allowed to do so.  In my opinion there are two keys to avoiding this:

  1. provide a structured way for the team to express their input;
  2. timebox everything. 

I've found the following retrospective structure to be effective in producing actionable feedback....


I show up to facilitate a retrospective armed with the following items:

  • a white board with working markers and an eraser;
  • green, pink, and yellow post-its;
  • pens;
  • a kitchen timer;

Sometimes I bring a yummy treat, but I've had that backfire when the sugar rush ebbs and the team starts to wander mentally.  I also try to schedule the retrospective as the last event in the workday for everybody, but early in the week.  This seems to keep the team at ease, but focused.

First: Establish Trust in the Process

Like confessions extracted under coercion, feedback is worthless when obtained from someone who doesn't feel secure enough to be honest.  Agile processes in general rely heavily on open communication, and I found that my non-agile team displayed a lot of mistrust in the retrospective's goals.  

I begin each retrospective with a technique described in Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great that is aimed at measuring the willingness of the group to communicate.  Each person writes on a post-it a number between one and five inclusive, indicating their willingness to participate in the discussion to follow:

  1. I will not speak;
  2. I will be quiet and let others talk;
  3. Some things I will discuss, some things I will not;
  4. I'll talk about almost anything;
  5. I'll talk about anything.

The anonymous post-its are collected, tallied, and discussed briefly.  Obviously the goal is to have all fives, maybe one or two fours in the mix.  The times I've seen anything else, it's either because a communication problem exists on the team, or the goal of the retrospective is in question (e.g., QA feels like they will be scapegoated for a missed deadline).  

I keep discussion to five minutes, reiterating the retrospective Prime Directive, making sure that everyone knows they are expected to keep the conversation productive, and that the goal is to make the team work together better.

Second: Discuss Good Things

Next I pass out the green post-its and pens, and ask everyone to write down as many things as they can think of that worked well during the sprint.  I ask them to include team and personal efforts,  new or existing processes, anything they can think of that made a positive contribution to the effort.  I use the timer to box the task to 5 minutes.  

I collect the anonymous post-its and start going through them one at a time, collating as necessary.  I read each Good Thing aloud and open the floor for discussion.  I try my best to categorize them on the whiteboard as we go, so the team can see common trends.  For example, several post-its may comment on positive effects realized in documentation and QA from adding a bit of structure to the developer's subversion commit notes.

This part of the retrospective is generally pretty easy.  There isn't a lot of gray area in terms of choosing to maintain a practice that has a positive effect on the team. In addition, I find that discussing the positives first helps the team open up more during the next task...

Third: Collect and Categorize Bad Things

I pass out the pink post-its, set the timer for 5 minutes, and have the team jot down anything they felt impeded their work.  I emphasize "anything" - I would rather someone write down 10 also-rans and 2 gems than to spend the entire time deliberating on what to write at all.  

Against the advice of most retrospective experts, I ask the team *not* to exclude personal remarks about other team members; however, I do remind them that the remarks should be constructive, and that the retrospective is not a performance review.  For example, I would consider this appropriate:

Jim would benefit from writing more unit tests, having regular peer reviews, and mentoring.

but this inappropriate:

Jim's code sucks and never works.

As usual, I collect the post-its anonymously (I like to use a coffee can with a slit in the lid, BTW), during which time I draw two columns on the whiteboard: "Under Our Control" and "Out of Our Control".  I read each Bad Thing aloud and ask the team a single question:

Do we have control over this?

Their answer is usually unanimous, and it dictates which column the post-it falls on the white board.  There is no discussion of the Bad Thing at the point - the purpose of this task is only to isolate whether the Bad Thing is something team can fix themselves. 

Finally: Discuss Solutions and Take Action

Once the team can see what they can control and what they can't, the discussion can begin.  I spend a few minutes on the "Out of Our Control" items, but only to alleviate fears and to keep the discussion solution-focused and positive; I then remove those items from the board.

Moving on to the remaining post-its classified as "Under Team Control," I align them down the left side of the board in no particular order and draw racing lanes across the board for each.  I then ask the team which Bad Thing they believe had the most negative impact on their work, and we start the discussion there.

This is the part where I find the role of facilitator to be most important. It is very easy for the team to drift off-topic, or for to get bogged down in complicated solutions to simple problems.  I find it helps to focus discussion by reiterating one simple question:

What can we do today to prevent the Bad Thing from happening tomorrow?

Most of the time the team will produce a viable solution.  If the team can't gel on a fix, I pass out the yellow post-its, we storm out fixes for a few minutes, collate them in the racing lane, and then discuss.  The point is to keep the conversation on-target and constantly moving forward.  Once the team settles on a solution, I jot down the actionable items in the racing lane.

I repeat this process for each Bad Thing, allowing the team to choose the ordering, spending at most 10 minutes on each one.  If we get through them all in the retrospective's timebox, I'll open the floor to general discussion; however, my experience is that there is little else to discuss at that point if I've done my job.

Offline: Summarize and Reiterate the Solutions

Once the retrospective is over, I write up a short summary.  I list all the Good Things, and all the Bad Things and their proposed solutions.  I send this out to everyone involved, both pigs and chickens.  I also keep a copy handy to remind myself and others of the specific commitments we made as a team to better ourselves.

So there you have it Matt.  In my limited experience, what I find makes an effective retrospective is lots of structure to focus the team on one thing at a time and curb the naturally vetching tendencies.

Coping with the Fear of Changing Code

§ April 20, 2008 14:43 by beefarino |

Another fear I'm seeing on the team is a fear of changing existing code.  The fear may stem from several sources: the code implements complex behavior that is undocumented; the code is inherited from a resident expert who is retasked or otherwise unavailable; the code hasn't been maintained properly and reads like a plate of spaghetti.  Whatever the source, a team member's response to the fear follows the pattern:

When team members are afraid, they will act in either their own interest of self-preservation, or in the interest of team survival.

When confronted with such code, a team member can choose one of two paths: they will choose to do as little with the code as possible, leave it alone as much as they can and still satisfy everyone's expectations; or they own up to the situation and remove the source of the fear, making the code easier for anyone to cope with and understand.

Those who pursue self-preservation take the former track.  They exert a lot of effort to develop an understanding of the code, but don't do anything to persist or share that knowledge.  Chances are they are trying to act in the team's interest by developing specialized knowledge of the code, but in the long-term they benefit only themselves.  The code remains an untenable briar patch for the next poor sod who receives it.

Those who pursue the best interests of the team take the latter approach.  They write unit tests around the existing code; they refactor the code and leverage the common design patterns to make the code comprehensible; they seek clarification from the business heads and write documentation targeted to other developers.  Their actions are targeted, whether implicitly or explicitly, at communicating with the other members of their team.