The most important factor in software work is not the tools and techniques used by the programmers, but rather the quality of the programmers themselves.
Joel also has a great essay on how attempts to codify the successfulness of talented people just don't work.
1. Some things need talent to do really well. 2. It's hard to scale talent. 3. One way people try to scale talent is by having the talent create rules for the untalented to follow. 4. The quality of the resulting product is very low.
I was listening to a local sports station the other day interview John Gagliardi, who, on 11/8/03, became college football's winningest coach. A lot of the interview centered around John's coaching style, and the fact that he does a lot of things different (no tackling during practice, for example). The overall gist was that he didn't have a very detailed infrastructure for his team -- much of what a big college football program would do, he doesn't worry with. In fact, he summarized his approach this way (and I paraphrase because I didn't write down the quote being in the car at the time):
What you really need are good players. Good players don't need a lot of rules.
(Or structure: “On the best teams, different individuals provide occasional leadership, taking charge in areas where they have particular strengths. No one is the permanent leader... The structure of the team is a network, not a hierarchy.” Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, 2nd ed., p. 155, Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister -- via Dave Hoover's blog
January 2004 :: Bill Caputo posts this [quote is digestized]:
[Non-agilists] see nothing -- or very little -- in the XP process definition that will make people successfully deliver -- but its true of any process. [They] want a process that will make others succeed. Agilists believe this view of process is inherently flawed. No process makes you successful, but people who will succeed anyway can do so with a more or less painful process.
XP is simply the best collection of practices I have ever found that are generally useful in addressing the problems I try to solve on each project -- but in the end, I succeed because of me and the people around me, not our process, which we readily change in response to our current challenges.
[W]e don't claim XP will protect us from the harmful, we claim that it aids the successful.
What do you consider the most important thing for a programmer to do when he begins working on a new project?
I think each should be sure they are in good physical condition without nagging psychological problems.
What do you consider the most important thing for a programmer to do when he begins working on a project that has already begun?
She should get sufficient information to decide, before signing on, whether she should sign on. Most programming projects that fail have already failed before most of the programmers have signed on, but through lack of courage or due diligence, many programmers sign on anyway. It's like doctors agreeing to do surgery on corpses.
Would you recommend a career in programming to young people today?
It depends on what the young person wants to do. I always give the same career recommendation: “Do what you want to do.”
What courses would you recommend they take? What languages/technologies should they key on?
They shouldn't key on languages and technologies. They should key on learning to communicate, to think, and to work well with other people. Once they have those, the languages and technologies become simple matters. Without them, no amount of language or technology expertise will do much good.
May 2004 :: Fast Company article on how good companies become great. The secret sauce? People. [via Clarke Ching]
Take David Maxwell's bus ride. When he became CEO of Fannie Mae in 1981, the company was losing $1 million every business day, with $56 billion worth of mortgage loans under water.
Maxwell told his management team that there would only be seats on the bus for A-level people who were willing to put out A-plus effort. He interviewed every member of the team. He told them all the same thing: It was going to be a tough ride, a very demanding trip. If they didn't want to go, fine; just say so. Now's the time to get off the bus, he said. No questions asked, no recriminations. In all, 14 of 26 executives got off the bus. They were replaced by some of the best, smartest, and hardest-working executives in the world of finance.
With the right people on the bus, in the right seats, Maxwell then turned his full attention to the “what” question. He and his team took Fannie Mae from losing $1 million a day at the start of his tenure to earning $4 million a day at the end.
[O]nly a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.
Source: Benjamin Franklin, The Writings of Benjamin Franklin, Jared Sparks, editor (Boston: Tappan, Whittemore and Mason, 1840), Vol. X, p. 297, April 17, 1787.
If I had to pick one as my key to software development it's that the critical element in a software development effort are the people you have doing the work. The productivity of the best developers is far more than the average, much more than the difference in salaries.
He added another article in Feb 08 talking more about the productivity factor:
Although the technorati generally agree that talented programmers are more productive than the average, the impossibility of measurement means they cannot come up with an actual figure. So let's invent one for argument sake: 2. If you can find a factor-2 talented programmer for less than twice of the salary of an average programmer - then that programmer ends up being cheaper. To state this more generally: If the cost premium for a more productive developer is less than the higher productivity of that developer, then it's cheaper to hire the more expensive developer. The cheaper talent hypothesis is that the cost premium is indeed less, and thus it's cheaper to hire more productive developers even if they are more expensive.
One of the great things I keep seeing (used to be “keep learning”, but at least by now I half expect it when things blow up in my face), is how the individual chemistry between people operates outside of all the nice theory we construct.
Mary Poppendieck (via InfoQ), offers an interesting quote that seems to come across counter to the other quotes on this page:
We get brilliant results from average people managing brilliant systems. Our competitors get average results from brilliant people working around broken systems. - Fujio Cho, Chairman Toyota Motors
Elsewhere at Poppendieck's site, this paper gives more insight:
[Scholtes] says, “All of the empowered, motivated, teamed-up, self-directed, incentivized, accountable, reengineered, and reinvented people you can muster cannot compensate for a dysfunctional system....” So where does this leave us? Which is more important - process or people?
[The answer is both, “Process AND People”] ... People like to use effective processes, and they also like to have control over their own environment.... Process improvement may be done only “at the gemba” [the place of the problem] and it is up to the workers to decide whether or not a proposed improvement should be implemented.
October 2007 :: Joel weighs in again, this time via Inc.com:
Mistake No. 1: Start with a mediocre team of developers. Designing software is hard, and unfortunately, a lot of the people who call themselves programmers can't really do it. But even though a bad team of developers tends to be the No. 1 cause of software project failures, you'd never know it from reading official postmortems.
At Fog Creek, we tend to review about 400 candidates for every full-time hire, because the best developers can be 10 times as productive as the merely excellent developers.
A mature person is one who is highly conscious of when it's appropriate to follow rules and when to break them. A mature person is largely self-guided. Only in exceptional circumstances does a mature person need to refer to or appeal to a rulebook at all.
May 2010 :: A dissenting opinion from Michael Hill (though it does align with the quote earlier on this page from Fujio Cho, Chairman of Toyota Motors, “We get brilliant results from average people managing brilliant systems.”):
“XP Requires High-Skill Teams”
This noxious notion burbles around the interwebs in various configurations, as it has since the beginning of XP. It’s mistaken.
I’ve worked with many more low-skill teams than high-skill ones, for two reasons:
I’m not cheap, therefore much of my business comes from teams that are in trouble. High-skill teams can hide and defer trouble far longer than low-skill ones.
There are far too few programmers, therefore the world of commerce has to settle for low-skill (and no-skill) ones. At least 75% of all programmers are low-skill ones.
I keep thinking I should give up before I start when I see a low-skill team. Fortunately, I am really bad at money, so I don’t refuse many clients. This has impressed upon me the complete irrelevance of skill level in adopting and adapting XP.
... and what Michael calls irrelevant, Brian Marick says is missing from the original Manifesto:
[Teams] should invest in one of the four values I want to talk about: skill. As someone who wants to remain anonymous said to me:
I’ve also been tired for years of software people who seem embarrassed to admit that, at some point in the proceedings, someone competent has to write some damn code.
Here is a fact that will shock people who are unaware of the way computers and software are designed: at the extreme edges of the normal distribution, there are programmers who are 100 times more productive than the average programmer simply on the basis of the number of lines of computer code they can write in a given period of time. Going a bit further, since some programmers are so accomplished that their programming feats are beyond the ability of most of their peers, we might say that they are infinitely more productive for really creative, leading-edge projects.
The trick to developing a new computer or program, then, is not to hire a lot of smart people but to hire a few very smart people. This rule lies at the heart of most successful ventures in the personal computer industry.
This makes me wonder how far back this notion of ‘X times more productive’ goes. 100x seems unlikely given any measure, but especially Cringely's measure of “lines of code.”