Sunday, 18 March 2012

Notes to a Software Team Leader

Team leading is hard. It is important not to fool yourself that it will be all about the technology and that you won’t have to deal with the dynamics and personalities within the team. Your team may be made up of highly professional, highly skilled and highly experienced individuals, but fundamentally it is a team of people.

Someone, somewhere, maybe even you, has made you the team leader. It may be because you were the first member of the team, because you are the most experienced, because you are the most highly skilled or for some other equally valid reason. Whatever the reason, don’t set yourself above your team. You are still one of the members of your team. Listen to your team and speak to them as another member of the team, Don’t expect people to blindly follow just because you’re the leader. Your team may be full of highly professional people, but don’t assume that means they don’t need to understand the reasons when asked to do something, even by somebody ‘superior’ to them. Expect to justify yourself and welcome the opportunity to share the reasons with the rest of your team. They may be able to see something invaluable that you can’t and the work they do will benefit from the understanding. Never, ever dictate unless you absolutely have too. Allow the discussions to continue as long as is necessary for the team to understand. In extreme cases if you cannot get your team to agree with you don’t force them. There are two possible outcomes from this; either in time they will gain the experience they need to see why they were asked to do what they were asked to do or you will see that they were right to challenge you.

Your team members will have lots of different experience and lots of different levels of experience. You are likely to have two or more people equally capable of completing a particular task to the same standard, but one may enjoy the activity far more. Equally you may have a team member who really enjoys a task, but cannot complete that task to the same standard as someone who enjoys the activity far less. Know your team. Understand not only their strengths and weaknesses, but also their motivations. Play to the team’s motivations as well as their strengths. Give members of the team the opportunity to work on their weaknesses. Consider a persons motivation as well as their strengths. You’re running a team, not a group of autonomous individuals. Consider pairing people up to get the best results.

There will be occasions when someone in the team is not performing as well as they could be. My experience is that broadly there are two types of people in the workplace. There are those that are there because they need the money and those that need the money, but are there as much because they enjoy the work. Developers generally fall into the second category. The issue with an under performing team member is unlikely to be addressed by discipline. As well as enjoying their work, most developers want to do a good job and want to learn how to do a better job. Address under performing within the team with understanding and appropriate coaching. Build your team by enhancing its members, not by replacing them.

There will be times that you want to improve the overall performance of your team. These times may coincide with individual members of the team under or over performing relative to the rest of the team. Be careful about making positive examples of individual members of your team and never make a negative example of a member of your team. Rather than motivating the rest of the team to do better this can cause division within the team and in the case of a negative example, have a bad affect on the moral of the whole team as well as the team member being made an example of. This not to say that when a member of the team excels it should go unnoticed, but the praise must be genuine and not a thinly veiled attempt to motivate the rest of the team. Under performance should be handled with understanding, individual coaching and discretion.

Most important of all trust your team. Don’t micromanage them. In most cases they will have a raft of experience from which they can draw. They know what they’re doing because they’ve done it before. Trust them to do the right thing and make sure you understand it by talking with them.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Remembrance of Things Past

By Kevlin Henney After reading and reviewing Afterglow several months ago I was delighted when Kevlin Henney asked me to review Remembrance of Things Past. Kevlin writes a lot of what I think is referred to generally as flash fiction and although the links to it always catch my eye on twitter I am sorry to say that I don't always make the time to read it. Being asked directly certainly helped! 

My dad introduced me to science fiction. We used to listen to the original radio series of the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy and Charles Chiltern's Space Force and Journey into Space on long car journeys. I still listen to them now in bed at night. I have very clear memories of certain parts of Dr Who and Blakes 7 from my childhood. I grew up with the repeats of Star Trek the original series and, of course, The Next Generation and other spin offs in my teens and twenties. I remember watching and loving 2010 and Dune and then going on to read the books. I got bored with Frank Herbert at the start of Children of Dune, but went on to read most of what Arthur C. Clark wrote. Looking for other things I read Asimov's foundation series. Asimov started to give me an idea of what real science fiction was. Clarke mostly wrote about the science. In fact his best stories were written with other writers, the Rama series for example. It wasn't until the science fiction explosion, that the screening of the X Files prompted, that I really understood what science fiction was. I'm not saying the X Files is real science fiction, it was the other films and series that were promoted at the time that helped me understand. We read science fiction at school in the form of A Rag, a Bone and a Hank of Hair. It wasn't science fiction to me then. There were no space ships, no aliens, no heroes. I understood it even more when I read 1984. Kevlin Henney writes real science fiction. 

 I've wanted to write a blog post about science fiction for some time. Until now it has just seemed self-indulgent. Before I describe what I thought of Kevlin's latest piece and compare it to the authors I read and love today, it would be remiss of me not mention how I discovered “intelligent sci-fi”. While I was at university I got introduced to Babylon 5. This was the first sci-fi TV show that didn't put everything back to status quo at the end of each episode. The story ran right through all five series and you had to watch all of them several times to understand what was going on. Then came Farscape and more recently the remake of Battlestar Galactica. All intelligent sci-fi. In contrast Afterglow and Remembrance of Things Past are short, standalone stories that merely imply that other events have taken place. They're no less intelligent though. 

One of my favorite authors, Richard Morgan, often writes as if you already know the background of the characters and events in the story. These events and characters are then explored and expanded as the story goes along. As a technical writer, who expects first things to come first, this both frustrates me and encourages me to read on to understand. Understanding is very important to me. Remembrance of Things Past starts in just the same way. Drawing me in and building the anxiety of not knowing exactly what's going on. 

The timings of described events are very clear, but don't quite fit, just like the thirteenth chime of the clock described in the opening lines of 1984. Immediately you know something isn't as it should be and want to read more to find out. In Remembrance of Things Past it's the science fiction that allows this, although the science fiction in the story isn't evident until later on. When I started the story I found myself, childlike again, wondering where the science fiction was. 

As Kevlin sets the scene for the story I found myself remembering the opening to Absolution Gap, the final book of the Revelation Space trilogy, by my all time favorite author Alistair Reynolds. Sometimes Reynolds’ imagination just runs away with him and you can’t work out why something is happening. This is not the case with Remembrance of Things Past though. 

Next Kevlin describes some of the characters in his story. It occurred to me that I read far too much serious, even gothic, science fiction where children rarely feature, let alone two happy girls on a beach and one wearing purple star sunglasses. It gives the story a more realistic feel that brings the reader out of the otherwise all inclusive dream feel. 

It would be unfair to say much more about the story in case too much is given away to those reading this review before reading the story. However it must be said that the overriding sense which comes from Remembrance of Things Past is the same as that which came from Afterglow: loss. 

Just in case it isn’t clear, I like and enjoyed this story. It would make an ideal opener for something far deeper and darker. I’m told a novel and even a novella is a long way off. That’s a shame.