Intellectual Humility

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I love having conversations with people I respect, look up to and know are an expert on a subject I’m interested in (and usually ten others besides).

Every now and again I’ll find myself nodding sagely as they reference some great wonder, piece of writing, language, blog, book, person that they assume I know about.

There’s a good reason that I nod along…

I don’t want to interrupt the flow of what they’re saying, it’s interesting and I want them to continue uninterrupted as I take what they’re saying on board.

There’s also a bad reason…

My intellectual ego is seeking their respect and validation. It’s preventing me from admitting that I’m struggling to comprehend.

Unfortunately in a group situation, this momentum can carry us too far. Once the thread has reached a suitable stopping point, how often are we willing to go back and ask for an explanation, more context or admit that we “don’t know” something that someone else assumed we do.

Watch out for rooms full of people listening to something they don’t understand and nodding, not wanting to interrupt and secretly not willing to be the first in the room to break the seal on their lack of knowledge.

What time do we waste walking away not understanding the full picture and having thrown away the best opportunity to seek clarity?

When you don’t know the answer or don’t understand, don’t pretend.  Lead by example and others will also be encouraged to ask or research and share. This in turn will build a stronger knowledge culture for your teams.

There’s no such thing as a dumb question. If you thought of something to ask in a room full of people I guarantee at least one other person will have as well.

Avoid playing intellectual chicken, be proud to ask the first dumb question of the day and get people to respect your intellectual humility rather than your intellectual ego!

Express Your Real Motivations

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Hidden agendas make you unpopular, especially those that are poorly concealed.

Everyone has an agenda. I prefer mine open and public. Some may try to take advantage of that but most will respect it…

Some time ago I attended a session with a team where there had been some communication challenges. The team’s normal very tight, cohesive ethos was fraying.

As a globally distributed coaching team they’d arranged to co-locate for a week to bash out a few things and generally get together before returning to their usual sites.

Dinner and a couple of beers into the first evening together and the team spirit had started to sparkle again – recognizing each other as friends, not just colleagues. The hint of political undercurrent was still gnawing at the edges of the smiles.

Into the second day and one of the very perceptive team members called a halt to proceedings.

My paraphrasing of the conversation…

“OK, time for a break. Before we go on, let’s catch up with each other for a bit… …why are you really doing this job, what’s your motivation – what’s your angle?”

This team knew each other well enough to already know the answers but actually calling them out publicly in front of each other was a new step in uncovering potential hidden conflict.

Because the team ran on trust and acted as a balanced cast (I’ll write about team casting in future); everyone acknowledged and accepted each others’ motivations knowing that despite being potentially sensitive they were honestly and openly given.

Even better, they discussed how each other could support those motivations.

The politics and tension were gone.

Earlier this week I watched someone with a blindingly obvious personal motivation attempt to leverage it in front of a smart bunch of people who were mostly there for related but different reasons. Rather than a public calling out, it was handled through amiable debate over a beer later but everyone in that following conversation recognized the unspoken calling out had been made and started trying to re-engage and collaborate.

Or at least I hope they did

In keeping with the spirit of this post I therefore share my own agenda…

  • I’m naturally creative and like to share
  • I seek personal but usually not financial reward
  • I want to be recognized for “good” things

I strive to make a positive difference by sharing my thoughts or observations and by participating in conversation. I seek personal reward through constructive intelligent feedback, good friends and good company.

Patterns For Collective Code Ownership

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Following the somewhat schizophrenic challenges of dealing with person issues on collective code ownership, here we focus on the practices and practical aspects. How do we technically achieve collective ownership within teams?

We’re using the “simple pattern” approach again. For each pattern we have a suitable “anchor name”, a brief description and nothing more. This should be plenty to get moving  but feel free to expand on these and provide feedback.

Here’s the basic set of patterns to consider:

Code Caretaker

Let’s make it a bit less personal, encourage the team to understand what the caretaker role for code entails. It’s not a single person’s code – in fact the company paid us to write it for them. Code does still need occasional care and feeding – Enter the “Caretaker”.  Be wary though that caretakers may become owners.

Apprenticeship

Have your expert spend time teaching & explaining. An apprentice learns by doing – the old-fashioned way under the tutelage of a master craftsman guiding them full-time. This is time and effort-intensive for the pair involved but (unless you have a personality or performance problem) is a sure-fire way to get the knowledge shared.

If you need to expand to multiple team members in parallel,  skip forward to feature lead & tour of duty.

Ping-Pong Pairing

Try pair programming with an expert and novice together. Develop tests, then code, swap places. One person writes tests, the other codes. Depending on the confidence of the learner, they may focus more on writing the tests and understanding the code rather than coding solutions. Unequal pairing is quite tricky so monitor this carefully, your expert will need support in how to share, teach & coach.

Bug Squishing

Best with large backlogs of low-severity defects to start with. Cluster them into functional areas. Set a time-box to “learn by fixing” – delivery is not measured on volume fixed but by level of understanding (demonstrated by a high first-time pass rate on peer reviews). If someone needs help they learn to ask (or try, then ask) rather than hand over half-cut. This approach works with individuals having peer review support and successfully scales to multiple individuals operating on different areas in parallel.

A Third Pair of Eyes (Secondary Peer Review)

With either an “initiate” (new learner) or an experienced developer working on the coding, have both a learner and an expert participate in peer reviews on changes coming through – to learn and provide a safety net respectively. The newer developer should be encouraged to provide input and ask questions but has another expert as “backstop” for anything they might miss.

Sightseeing / Guided Tour

Run a guided walk-through for the team – typically a short round-table session. Tours are either led by the current SME (subject matter expert) or by a new learner (initiate). In the case of a new learner, the SME may wish to review their understanding first before encouraging them to lead a walk-through themselves.

Often an expert may fail to identify and share pieces of important but implicit information (tacit knowledge) whilst someone new to the code may spot these and emphasize different items or ask questions that an expert would not. Consider having your initiate lead a session with the expert as a backstop.

Feature Leads

The feature lead approach is one of my favourites. I’ve successfully acted as a feature lead on many areas with teams of all levels of experience where I needed to ramp up a large group on a functional area together.

By introducing a larger team, your expert will not have the capacity to remain hands-on and support the team at the same time. They must lead the team in a hands-off approach by providing review and subject/domain expertise only. This also addresses the single point of failure to “new” single point of failure risk seen with “apprenticeship”.

This is also a potential approach when an expert or prior owner steps in too frequently to undo or overwrite rather than coach other members activities. By ensuring they don’t have the bandwidth to get too involved you may be able to encourage some backing-off but use this approach with care in these situations to avoid personal flare-ups.

Cold Turkey

For extreme cases where “you can’t possibly survive” without a single point of failure, try cold turkey. Force yourself to work without them.

I read an article some years ago, (unfortunately I can’t track it down now) where the author explained how when he joined a project as manager, the leaders told him he must have “Dave” on the project as nobody else knew what Dave did. He spent a week of sleepless nights trying to figure out how to get Dave off the project. After removing Dave from the project, the team were forced to learn the bottleneck area themselves and delivered successfully.

(Apologies to any “Dave”s I know – this isn’t about any of you)

Business Rule Extraction

Get your initiate to study the code and write a short document, wiki article or blog defining the business rules in the order or hierarchy they’re hit. This is usually reserved for absolute new starters to learn the basics of an area and show they’ve understood it without damaging anything. It is however also a good precursor to a test retrofit.

Test Retrofit

A step up from business rule extraction whilst delivering some real value to the team. Encourage your learner to write a series of small functional tests for a specific functional area by prodding it, working out how to talk to it, what it does and what we believe it should do. Save the passing tests and get the results checked, peer reviewed and approved.

Chances are you might find some bugs too – decide whether to fix them now or later depending on your safety margin with your initiate.

Debt Payment

After a successful test retrofit, you can start refactoring and unit testing. As refactoring is not without risk this is generally an approach for a more experienced developer but offers a sound way of prizing out functionality and learning key areas in small parts.

This is also a natural point to start fixing any bugs found during a test retrofit.

National Service (also known as Jury Duty)

Have a couple of staff on short rotation (2-4 weeks) covering support & maintenance even on areas they don’t know. This is generally reserved for experienced team members who can assimilate new areas quickly but a great “leveller” in cross-training your team in hot areas.

Risks are generally around decision-making, customer responsiveness, turnaround time and overall lowering of performance but these are all short-term. I’ve often used this approach on mature teams to cross-train into small knowledge gaps or newly acquired legacy functional areas.

My preferred approach is to stagger allocation so that you have one member on “primary” support whilst another provides “backup” each sprint. For the member that covered primary in sprint one, they’re on backup in sprint 2. (expand this to meet your required capacity).

3-6 months of a national service approach should be enough to cover the most critical functional gaps on your team based on customer/user demand

Tour of Duty

Have your staff work on longer term rotations (1-6 months) working on a functional area or feature as part of a feature team. This couples up with the “feature lead” approach.

Again, this is an approach that is very useful for mature agile teams that understand and support working as feature teams but can be introduced on less-experienced teams without too much pain.

The tour of duty can also work beyond an individual role. For example a developer taking a 3-6 month rotation through support or testing will provide greater empathy and understanding of tester and user needs than simply rotating through feature delivery. (My time spent providing customer support permanently changed my attitude toward cosmetic defects as a developer)

Adjacency

This takes a lot more planning and management than the other approaches described but is the most comprehensive.

From the areas each team member knows; identify where functional or technical adjacent areas lay and then use a subset of the approaches described here to build up skills in that adjacency.

Develop a knowledge growth plan for every team member sharing and leveraging their growth across areas with each other. Although this is an increase in coordination and planning, the value here is that your teams get to see the big picture on their growth and have clear direction.

All these patterns have a selection of merits and pitfalls. some won’t work in your situation and some may be more successful than others. There are undoubtedly more that could be applied.

Starting in your next sprint, try some of what’s provided here to developing shared ownership and knowledge transfer for your teams. Pick one or more patterns, figure out the impacts and give them a try.

(Coming soon “Building a Case for Collective Code Ownership” – when solving the technical side isn’t enough)

Your Baby Might Be Ugly

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Everyone thinks their own babies are beautiful. Some probably are but there are plenty that really aren’t. In fact I remember one particularly interesting comment -“ugly people produce ugly babies”

This happens in code too.

Collective code ownership has many challenges. Here I focus on the person pitfalls.

Imagine you’ve just spent the last 3, 5, or even 10 years nurturing and grooming an insanely complex (and dare I say “clever”) functional area of a product. This has been your working heart and soul for years – apart from the occasional customer to distract you. It follows your own unique,  “perfect” coding style and conventions. You’re so damn good you don’t need unit tests, you instinctively know and understand every intricate tracery and element of logic in there.

Why then if it’s so perfect are you not willing to share?

This is where “Bad Captain” starts to kick in with me…

  • Do you believe that every other developer in the building is less capable than you?

(OK, sometimes it might be true but that’s very rare.)

– That’s fine, you can peer review and provide feedback if they don’t meet your standards right? It might be an emotional lurch to start with but seeing someone else succeed and recognize your greatness must surely be rewarding right? I’ll help you if you need.

  • It’ll always be quicker if you work on it. It’s just a waste of time and effort to train someone else up.

– Sure. Except if we had 3 or 4 people capable of working on it in parallel we might get everything that’s on the wish list for it done this year and you might be able to do that other interesting stuff that the rest of the team have been playing with. In fact, I’m willing to invest if it’s that important…

Bad Captain starts to twitch…

…and if it’s not, why do I have someone who believes they’re “one of the best” working on it – I want my “best” people on my priority tactical and strategic items.

  • You’ve been doing this as your own pet-project on the side and it’s not ready to share.

– If it’s important I want a team on it. I’ll happily lobby for some strategic investment. If it’s not as important as anything else we have committed right now I want you helping the rest of the team out…

Bad Captain…

– even if you’re good, you’re not “special”, don’t expect to be treated any differently than the rest of the team.

These first reasons are almost valid. But not good enough for me. The more of these I hear the more I start to twitch, the more terse I get and the more I start to frown and tense up.

Suddenly it’s too late! Captain Hyde takes the helm!

Here’s why Captain Hyde thinks you’re not sharing…

  1. You’re lazy, you’re only any good at this one area and don’t want to have the responsibility of teaching it or learning something new that you’re not so good at. – Time for you to learn a bit about intellectual humility.
  2. If you relinquish control of this code, you relinquish your seat of power, you’ll make yourself dispensable and that can’t possibly happen, you think you’re far too important for that. – I believe in good people, if you’re one of them I’ll fight to keep you. If there’s a squeeze, even the indispensable will get the push. In fact in my experience, the all-rounders are more likely to find new homes.
  3. Secretly in your heart you know it’s loaded with technical debt, years of warts strapped onto the sides, a catalogue of compromises and mud that doesn’t mirror the patterns of the outside world in the 21st century. – In fact I could probably find something open source that does the same thing. Quite frankly it’s an ugly baby that should have been put up for adoption or surgery years ago but your professional pride won’t admit it.

Captain Hyde can’t think of any good reason other than personal self-preservation or embarrassment that someone who is a single code owner would be unwilling for other people to work on and learn their code.

Maybe I’ve just been in management too long but I distinctly remember in my early coding years a call with a colleague in San Francisco where he said:

“Damn, you’re the only guy in the world that knows this stuff man”.

– at which point I felt that little clench inside that said. “I need to find and train my replacements up as soon as I can!”

A similar counterpart of mine in the US at the same time got thrown another pile of stock options every time he threatened to leave – that wasn’t my style as a developer and it’s not my style as a manager either.

Now despite all this ranting, there is another very real problem.

Developing collective code ownership from single points of failure on complex products is time-consuming, expensive and probably not what my business stakeholders want my team “wasting” their time on when we already have experts who are “perfectly capable of maintaining this themselves”.

It’s a fair point.

With a team who are willing to share but have no slack, if I want collective code ownership to succeed I’ve got to be able to market it properly.

The Joy of Peer Reviews (Part 1 – Code)

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Pair programming replacing peer reviews is a myth in the same way that “agile projects have no documentation”.

From my experience peer reviews continue to hold a vital place in agile development and software craftsmanship. Unfortunately they are often misunderstood or misapplied.

“Humanizing Peer Reviews” by Karl Wiegers is the best primer I’ve read so far on peer reviews so I’m not going to duplicate Karl’s efforts – I strongly recommend a thorough read. In fact, print a copy and give one to every member of your delivery team to read and discuss.

Like everything else in modern software development, peer reviews are a collaborative team learning experience. Reviewing code properly means both the reviewer and reviewee walk away having learned something and improved their craft.

With code reviews; beyond reviewing for functional correctness, (the simplest, most obvious and potentially quickest part of a review) there’s a selection of considerations I expect reviewers to look for. (There are plenty more).

  1. No code without tests
  2. Good variable naming
  3. Correct use of classes and interfaces
  4. Small methods
  5. Adherence to standards and conventions
  6. Style consistency across the team
  7. Readability
  8. Good test coverage from small tests
  9. Test code follows the same quality standards as production code
  10. Tests describe expected behaviours
  11. All tests pass
  12. Evidence of some test preparation to consider boundary cases, failure modes and exceptions
  13. Clear exception handing, failure modes and explicit boundaries
  14. Sensible error messages
  15. Code smells
  16. Performance risks or tuning opportunities
  17. Security or other “ility” issues.
  18. Opportunities to learn new tricks
  19. New good practices & patterns
  20. Functional correctness

Once you have cultural acceptance on the breadth of technical peer reviews develop your own checklist that everyone supports and remember the goal of a review is to share improvement opportunities, not for lazy coders to have someone else find their bugs for them or for staff to step on each other.

Now…

If you think peer review of code is problematic for your teams, I guarantee that document peer reviews will be a whole lot worse! – see part 2.