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Seven signs of dysfunctional engineering teams

  • Posted on February 13, 2017 at 3:48 am

I’ve been listening to the audiobook of Heart of Darkness this week, read by Kenneth Branagh. It’s fantastic. It also reminds me of some jobs I’ve had in the past.

There’s a great passage in which Marlow requires rivets to repair a ship, but finds that none are available. This, in spite of the fact that the camp he left further upriver is drowning in them. That felt familiar. There’s also a famous passage involving a French warship that’s blindly firing its cannons into the jungles of Africa in hopes of hitting a native camp situated within. I’ve had that job as well. Hopefully I can help you avoid getting yourself into those situations.

There are several really good lists of common traits seen in well-functioning engineering organizations. Most recently, there’s Pamela Fox’s list of What to look for in a software engineering culture. More famous, but somewhat dated at this point, is Joel Spolsky’s Joel Test. I want to talk about signs of teams that you should avoid.

This list is partially inspired by Ralph Peters’ Spotting the Losers: Seven Signs of Non-Competitive States. Of course, such a list is useless if you can’t apply it at the crucial point, when you’re interviewing. I’ve tried to include questions to ask and clues to look for that reveal dysfunction that is deeply baked into an engineering culture.

Preference for process over tools. As engineering teams grow, there are many approaches to coordinating people’s work. Most of them are some combination of process and tools. Git is a tool that enables multiple people to work on the same code base efficiently (most of the time). A team may also design a process around Git — avoiding the use of remote branches, only pushing code that’s ready to deploy to the master branch, or requiring people to use local branches for all of their development. Healthy teams generally try to address their scaling problems with tools, not additional process. Processes are hard to turn into habits, hard to teach to new team members, and often evolve too slowly to keep pace with changing circumstances. Ask your interviewers what their release cycle is like. Ask them how many standing meetings they attend. Look at the company’s job listings, are they hiring a scrum master?

Excessive deference to the leader or worse, founder. Does the group rely on one person to make all of the decisions? Are people afraid to change code the founder wrote? Has the company seen a lot of turnover among the engineering leader’s direct reports? Ask your interviewers how often the company’s coding conventions change. Ask them how much code in the code base has never been rewritten. Ask them what the process is for proposing a change to the technology stack. I have a friend who worked at a growing company where nobody was allowed to introduce coding conventions or libraries that the founding VP of Engineering didn’t understand, even though he hardly wrote any code any more.

Unwillingness to confront technical debt. Do you want to walk into a situation where the team struggles to make progress because they’re coding around all of the hacks they haven’t had time to address? Worse, does the team see you as the person who’s going to clean up all of the messes they’ve been leaving behind? You need to find out whether the team cares about building a sustainable code base. Ask the team how they manage their backlog of bugs. Ask them to tell you about something they’d love to automate if they had time. Is it something that any sensible person would have automated years ago? That’s a bad sign.

Not invented this week syndrome. We talk a lot about “not invented here” syndrome and how it affects the competitiveness of companies. I also worry about companies that lurch from one new technology to the next. Teams should make deliberate decisions about their stack, with an eye on the long term. More importantly, any such decisions should be made in a collaborative fashion, with both developer productivity and operability in mind. Finding out about this is easy. Everybody loves to talk about the latest thing they’re working with.

Disinterest in sustaining a Just Culture. What’s Just Culture? This post by my colleague John Allspaw on blameless post mortems describes it pretty well. Maybe you want to work at a company where people get fired on the spot for screwing up, or yelled at when things go wrong, but I don’t. How do you find out whether a company is like that? Ask about recent outages and gauge whether the person you ask is willing to talk about them openly. Do the people you talk to seem ashamed of their mistakes?

Monoculture. Diversity counts. Gender diversity is really important, but it’s not the only kind of diversity that matters. There’s ethnic diversity, there’s age diversity, and there’s simply the matter of people acting differently, or dressing differently. How homogenous is the group you’ve met? Do they all remind you of you? That’s almost certainly a serious danger sign. You may think it sounds like fun to work with a group of people who you’d happily have as roommates, but monocultures do a great job of masking other types of dysfunction.

Lack of a service-oriented mindset. The biggest professional mistakes I ever made were the result of failing to see that my job was ultimately to serve other people. I was obsessed with building what I thought was great software, and failed to see that what I should have been doing was paying attention to what other people needed from me in order to succeed in their jobs. You can almost never fail when you look for opportunities to be of service and avail yourself of them. Be on the lookout for companies where people get ahead by looking out for themselves. Don’t take those jobs.

There are a lot of ways that a team’s culture can be screwed up, but those are my top seven.