Monday, April 27, 2015

The People Store

An excellent essay from Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister's marvelous book - Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams.

In a production environment, it's convenient to think of people as parts of the machine. When a part wears out, you get another. The replacement part is interchangeable with the original. You order a new one, more or less, by number.

Many development managers adopt the same attitude. They go to great lengths to convince themselves that no one is irreplaceable. Because they fear that a key person will leave, they force themselves to believe that there is no such thing as a key person. Isn't that the essence of management, after all, to make sure the work goes on whether the individuals stay or not? They act as though there were a magical People Store they could call up and say, "Send me a new George Gandenhyer, but make him a little less uppity."

One of clients brought splendid employee into a salary review and was just amazed that the fellow wanted something other than money. He said that he often had good ideas at home but that his slow dial-up terminal was a real bother to use. Couldn't the company install a new line into his house and buy him a high-performance terminal? The company could. In subsequent years, it even built and furnished a small home office for the fellow. But my client is an unusual case. I wonder what a less perceptive manager would have done. Too many managers are threatened by anything their workers do to assert their individuality.

One example of just such a less perceptive manager was a boss who showed extreme signs of being threatened by his people's individuality: He said one very talented worker on the road for much of the year visiting client sites and as a result living on expense account. An analysis of the man's expense reports showed that his expenditures on food were way out of line with those other travelers. He spent fifty percent more on food than the others did. In an indignant public memo, the boss branded the worker a "food criminal." Now, the worker's total expenditures weren't out of line; whatever extra he spent on food, he saved on something else. The man was not more expensive, he was just different.

The uniqueness of every worker is a continued annoyance to the manager who has blindly adopted a management style from the production world. The natural people manager, on the other hand, realizes that uniqueness is what makes project chemistry vital and effective. It's something to be cultivated.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Stephen King | On Writing

Personal notes taken from "On Writing"−a masterpiece written by The King.

The timid fellow writes The meeting will be held at seven o'clock because that somebody says to him, "Put it this way and people will believe you really know." Purge this quisling thought! Don't be a muggle! Throw back your shoulders, stick out your chin, and put that meeting in charge! Write The meeting's at seven. There, by God! Don't you feel better?

I won't say there's no place for the passive tense. Suppose, for instance, a fellow dies in the kitchen but ends up somewhere else. The body was carried from the kitchen and placed on the parlor sofa is a fair way to put this, although "was carried" and "was placed" still irk the shit out of me. I accept them but I don't embrace them. What I should embrace is Freddy and Myra carried the body out of the kitchen and laid it on the parlor sofa. Why does the body have to be the subject of the sentence, anyway? It's dead, for Christ's sake! Fuhgeddaboudit!

Two pages of the passive voice−just about any business document ever written, in other words, not to mention reams of bad fiction−make me want to scream. It's weak, it's circuitous, and it's frequently tortuous, as well. How about this: My first kiss will always be recalled by me as how my romance with Shayna was begun. Oh, man−who farted right? A simpler way to express this idea−sweeter and more forceful, as well−might be this: My romance with Shayna began with our first kiss. I'll never forget it. I'm not in love with this because it uses with twice in four words, but at least we're out of that awful passive voice.

* * *

When I am asked for "the secret of my success" (an absurd idea, that, but impossible to get away from), I sometimes say there are two: I stayed physically healthy (at least until a van knocked me down by the side of the road in the summer of 1999), and I stayed married. It's a good answer because it makes the question go away, and because there is an element of truth in it. The combination of a healthy body and a stable relationship with a self-reliant woman who takes zero shit from me or anyone else has made the continuity of my working life possible. And I believe the converse is also true: that my writing and the pleasure I take in it has contributed to the stability of my health and my home life.

* * *

In an early interview (this was to promote Carrie, I think), a radio talk-show host asked me how I wrote. My reply−"One word at a time"−seemingly left him without a reply. I think he was trying to decide whether or not I was joking. I wasn't. In the end, it's always that simple. Whether it's a vignette of a single page or an epic trilogy like The Lord of the Rings, the work is always accomplished one word at a time. The door closes the rest of the world out; it also serves to close you in and keep you focused on the job at hand.

* * *

Description is what makes the reader a sensory participant in the story. Good description is a learned skill, one of the prime reasons why you cannot succeed unless you read a lot and write a lot. It's not just a question of how-to, you see; it's also a question of how much to. Reading will help you answer how much, and only reams of writing will help you with the how. You can learn only by doing.

* * *

My all-time favorite similes, by the way, come from hardboiled-detective fiction of the forties and fifties, and the literary descendants of the dime-dreadful writers. These favorites include "It was darker than a carload of assholes" (George V. Higgins) and "I lit a cigarette [that] tasted like a plumber's handkerchief" (Raymond Chandler).

* * *

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

A Quota for Errors

An excellent essay from Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister's marvelous book - Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams.

For most thinking workers, making an occasional mistake is a natural and healthy part of their work. But there can be an almost Biblical association between error on the job and sin. This is an attitude we need to take specific pains to change.

Speaking to a group of software managers, we introduced a strategy for what we think of as iterative design. The idea is that some designs are intrinsically defect-prone; they ought to be rejected, not repaired. Such dead ends should be expected in the design activity. The lost effort of the dead end is a small price to pay for a clean, fresh start. To our surprise, many managers felt this would pose an impossible political problem for their own bosses: "How can we throw away a product that our company has paid to produce?" They seemed to believe that they'd be better off salvaging the defective version even though it might cost more in the long run.

Fostering an atmosphere that doesn't allow for error simply makes people defensive. They don't try to systematize the process, when you impose rigid methodologies so that staff members are not allowed to make any of the key strategic decisions lest they make them incorrectly. The average level of technology may be modestly improved by any steps you take to inhibit error. The team sociology, however, can suffer grieviously.

The opposite approach would be to encourage people to make some errors. You do this by asking your folks on occasion what dead-end roads they've been down, and by making sure they understand that "none" is not the best answer. When people blow it, they should be congratulated-that's part of what they're being paid for.