blarg?

February 18, 2020

Dexterity In Depth

Filed under: a/b,academic,documentation,interfaces,mozilla,science,vendetta,work — mhoye @ 10:50 am

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I’m exactly one microphone and one ridiculous haircut away from turning into Management Shingy when I get rolling on stuff like this, because it’s just so clear to me how much this stuff matters and how little sense I might be making at the same time. Is your issue tracker automatically flagging your structural blind spots? Do your QA and UX team run your next reorg? Why not?

This all started life as a rant on Mastodon, so bear with me here. There are two empirically-established facts that organizations making software need to internalize.

The first is that by wide margin the most significant predictive indicator that there will be a future bug in a piece of software is the relative orgchart distance of the people working on it. People who are working on a shared codebase in the same room but report to different VPs are wildly more likely to introduce errors into a codebase than two people who are on opposite sides of the planet and speak different first languages but report to the same manager.

The second is that the number one predictor that a bug will be resolved is if it is triaged correctly – filed in the right issue tracker, against the right component, assigned to the right people – on the first try.

It’s fascinating that neither of the strongest predictive indicators of the most important parts of a bug’s lifecycle – birth and death – actually take place on the developers’ desk, but it’s true. In terms of predictive power, nothing else in the software lifecycle comes close.

Taken together, these facts give you a tools to roughly predict the effectiveness of collaborating teams, and by analyzing trends among bugs that are frequently re-assigned or re-triaged, can give you a lot of foresight into how, where and why a company need to retrain or reorganize those teams. You might have read Agile As Trauma recently, in which Dorian Taylor describes agile development as an allergic reaction to previously bad management:

The Agile Manifesto is an immune response on the part of programmers to bad management. The document is an expression of trauma, and its intellectual descendants continue to carry this baggage. While the Agile era has brought about remarkable advancements in project management techniques and development tools, it remains a tactical, technical, and ultimately reactionary movement.

This description is strikingly similar to – and in obvious tension with – Clay Shirky’s description of bureaucracy as the extractive mechanism of complexity and an allergic reaction to previous institutional screwups.

Bureaucracies temporarily suspend the Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a bureaucracy, it’s easier to make a process more complex than to make it simpler, and easier to create a new burden than kill an old one.

… which sounds an awful lot like the orgchart version of “It’s harder to read code than to write it”, doesn’t it?

I believe both positions are correct. But that tension scribes the way forward, I think, for an institutional philosophy that is responsive, flexible and empirically grounded, in which being deliberate about the scale, time, and importance of different feedback cycles gives an organization the freedom to treat scaling like a tool, that the signals of different contexts can inform change as a continuum between the macro and micro levels of organizational structure and practice. Wow, that’s a lot of words in a strange order, but hear me out.

It’s not about agile, or even agility. Agility is just the innermost loops, the smallest manifestation of a wide possible set of tightly-coupled feedback mechanisms. And outside the agile team, adjacent to the team, those feedback loops may or may not exist however much they need to, up and down the orgchart (though there’s not often much “down” left in the orgchart, I’ve noticed, where most agile teams live…) but more importantly with the adjacent and complementary functions that agile teams rely on.

It is self-evident that how teams are managed profoundly affects how they deliver software. But agile development (and every other modern developer-cult I’m aware of) doesn’t close that loop, and in failing to do so agile teams are reduced to justifying their continued existence through work output rather than informing positive institutional change. And I don’t use “cult” lightly, there; the current state of empirical evaluation of agile as a practice amounts to “We agiled and it felt good and seemed to work!” And feeling good and kinda working is not nothing! But it’s a long way from being anything more than that.

If organizations make software, then starting from a holistic view of what “development” and “agility” means and could be, looking carefully at where feedback loops in an organization exist, where they don’t and what information they circulate, all that suggests that there are reliable set of empirical, analytic tools for looking at not just developer practice, but the organizational processes around them. And assessing, in some measurable, empirical way, the real and sustainable value of different software development schools and methodologies.

But honestly, if your UX and QA teams aren’t informing your next reorg, why not?

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