Friday, 4 December 2015

The Importance of Leading by Example

I didn’t have time to write a short blog post, so I wrote a longer one instead.” – Mark Twain (mostly)

As I mentioned recently in “Missing the Daily Commute by Train” my previous engagement was a little out of the ordinary for me. Normally I’m just another programmer working in a delivery team alongside other developers, testers, BAs, etc. but in this instance I was doing a more hands-off consultant style role.

This is quite an unusual type of engagement for the consultancy through which I am currently working (Equal Experts). Whilst they prefer to put together an entire team, including developers, testers, UX specialists, etc. to try and ensure the best chance of delivering a successful outcome (a product the customer really wants), sometimes they have to settle for less control.

Small Cogs, Big Wheel

To date I’ve worked on a few different projects at a couple of sites and by-and-large the consultancy firm has only provided developers as that is what the client has wanted (they have preferred to provide their own people for the other roles). Even so, despite being there to deliver a software product we have naturally been able to put our many collective years of software development experience into effect and provided input, not only on the aspects of coding, but also on how the team works.

It’s very tempting to try and solve the entire organisation’s problems, but we have to remember that first-and-foremost we are there to deliver a specific project. If we can also impart other knowledge about how the team, and even possibly the division or organisation, might consider doing things better then that’s an added bonus. Shared correctly any advice is often welcomed and sometimes the desired outcome is achieved. Not every battle may be won, but a few changes here-and-there can often make a big difference to how the team behaves and the quality of work delivered.

Being a Bigger Cog

What was different about this recent engagement was that we were there explicitly to try and instigate such over-arching changes in the first place. Re-organising the teams from being silos grouped around similar skill sets (i.e. programming language/platform, testing, etc.) to cross-functional teams where the entire technology stack was catered for was an obvious change as it meant the delivery of any feature should mostly stay within the delivery team.

Much of what we did was to observe what was happening and try and correct the team’s and, to a much lesser extent, an individual’s behaviour. The latter was rare and really just signified a behaviour that was probably common to that person’s role rather than actually about one specific individual.

As an outsider (to the team) this was reasonably easy to do because the advice often involved getting the right people to talk to each other. Learning to decipher a Kanban board and act on it appropriately is by no means trivial, but it generally involves focusing on helping only one person in the team – the Scrum Master. Many of the techniques we employ when running a project actually involve giving up on modern technology and tools and going back to pen and paper or whiteboards. In essence there is no learning curve for the tooling, only in the approach [1].

In contrast there are often many developers and testers in a team and getting all of them to understand what it takes to write sustainable software without actually helping them directly felt like a more insurmountable task. You can talk all day long about concepts like test-driven development and continuous integration but many of the barriers to implementing those lay at the architectural level.

As I mentioned at the beginning the initial driver for the engagement was “an agile transformation” and due to the organisation’s structure the sponsor was effectively interested in us changing the way they manage the project rather than the way the software is developed. In short, changing the engineering practices were near the bottom of the list of priorities.

No Time to Improve

When the initial dust had settled around re-organising the teams and throwing out the vast quantities of paperwork they would generate to facilitate hand-offs, we got to start addressing the technical aspects. This, sadly, didn’t go anywhere near as well.

Where the team re-organisation happened very quickly (a couple of months) and, somewhat surprisingly, caused very little disruption, the problems with the architecture and development practices would require a significant investment in time and therefore also money. It would also likely have an impact on the delivery schedule due to the refactoring needed to get a fluid delivery pipeline in place [2].

As I discussed only recently in “Don’t Fail Fast, Learn Cheaply” modern development practices often have an air of redundancy about them and refactoring was a classic case in point. Right from the start the notion that you would rewrite existing code to support a sustainable pace of change in the future was rejected. When the management team focus on how to stop the more disruptive 10% being less productive instead of enabling the 90% to work much better you know you have an uphill battle.

Ultimately the entire codebase, except for one small area, was not written with modern, automated testability in mind. As a consequence there would need to be a non-trivial amount of work to do just to get the code into a position where it was possible to even begin testing through unit or acceptance tests. Doing this “rewrite” costs time, which when you are used to dedicating 100% of your time delivering production code means a substantial short-term hit.

A side-effect of having no slack in the schedule also means that there is no time to improve ones skills. Abraham Lincoln suggests that time spent “sharpening our axe” is essential as without learning we never find more efficient ways to do our work. In an industry like software development where the goal posts are moving all the time it’s paramount that we keep inspecting our axe to see when it’s becoming blunt.

The knock-on effects of the abyss they had found themselves in meant that they were in a vicious cycle where the architecture doesn’t easily support automated testing and changing the architecture to support automated testing was too difficult. With no rapid feedback there were lots of bugs which caused rework for testers and developers and that put more time pressure on them.

Eating the Elephant

There is a saying about how you go about eating an elephant – one bite at a time. With a system that resembles a Big Ball of Mud it’s often hard to even know where to start. Once upon a time I was brave enough to spend three days just sorting out the #includes (and forward declaring types) in a large C++ codebase just so that I can get the simplest unit test in place. If I had known it would take 3 days I’m not sure I would have started, but it paid huge dividends once it was done, both for the change I needed to make at the time and subsequent ones. This kind of experience gives you the courage needed later on to be brave and tackle these kinds of seemingly insurmountable problems.

And this is where I began to notice where not being embedded in the team delivering code on a daily basis was beginning to constrain the work we, as consultants, were trying to do. From the perspective of the developers at the client it’s all very well having a consultant impress upon you the theory about how it will help in the long term, but I won’t be the one having the uncomfortable conversations about why I appear to be taking so long now.

I kept trying to put myself back in that position all those years ago to try and remind myself what it felt like so that I could find another way to make the developers more comfortable with doing the right thing. I also reread one of my earliest blog posts “Refactoring - Do You Tell Your Boss?” to find inspiration there too. I thought it might be possible to use pairing as a way to help ease the pressure but that never went anywhere either.


In retrospect I think the difference between what happens when we’re inside the team helping them with delivery versus outside them consulting, is down to accountability. When we’re in the team our heads are on the block too and so leading by example is fundamental to getting people to follow. When we’re outside the team we’re ultimately not (seen as) accountable for the changes we might have a hand in advising on.

When you truly believe in techniques like refactoring, test-first development, pair programming, etc. you exude an air of confidence that makes it easier to just accept that it’s the best way to work. You stop asking for permission to do things that are rightfully yours to do and you focus on how best to achieve the desired outcome, which caters both for the short term and the longer term goals.

In the past when I’ve thought about what it means to “lead by example” I’ve probably focused on the mechanics of the various software engineering practices – what it means to develop in a test-first manner or how you refactor something. What I’m realising now is that showing someone how to use the tools and techniques is not nearly as important as showing them what can be achieved by applying them. By tackling the really gnarly messes one bite at a time we illustrate that it’s plausible to eat the entire elephant, and that is the impetus they need to start the leap from theory to practice.


[1] I realise that sounds like I’m trivialising how to run agile teams which is clearly not that easy when you look at how many enterprises are run. The cultural problems are universal and usually the root cause, so therefore not something that is easily changed, but you can still make a very big impact by forcing more collaboration and taking their enterprise-level toys away.

[2] Of course by not changing the process at all the speed of delivery will continue to drop anyway as change becomes harder. But that has probably been so slow and gradual that it’s largely gone unnoticed.

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