Thursday 18 September 2014

The Courage to Question

A while back we had a retrospective where the exercise was to come up with some values that we as team wanted to adhere too. For those of us that are aware of the principles, values and practices from XP it’s harder to come up with something that isn’t just taken directly from there, but one of the items written down was “courage”.

As we went through and discussed what was meant by each suggestion it was interesting to see that the definition of courage came from the project manager and wasn’t so much about feeling confident in our abilities, but instead it was about being able to question authority. In a number of cases a demand has been made on the team and at least one of us has questioned what benefit it would provide. However, this isn’t just us being bloody-minded. In each case we can’t fathom what value the decision (or policy) would add to either our project or even the company as a whole. If someone could easily point out the value we’d all be happy to go along with it, but often it doesn’t appear to make any sense.

For example we started our current project using a private GitHub repo, largely because it was going to take forever to get set up on the company’s TFS farm (the older 2010 edition, not the newer Git friendly version). We also knew we’d be far more productive with Git as we’d already shown to be the case over the last 9 months on two other projects. Despite this we were asked to move to TFS. We were told “it’s the company standard”. So we asked for clarification on why we should disrupt our current fluid workflow (and give up the ability to work remotely too) when we’re using a service that is also saving them money. If they wanted us to use all the other TFS features, like work items and the build servers we could understand it, but we weren’t sure they did. And it turned out they didn’t. They just needed to have a copy of the source code in TFS for their maintenance team to take over at the time of going live. Of course they would prefer to have sight of it in TFS sooner (very sensible), which is what lead to the use of git-tfs that I wrote about a few months back in “Developing With Git, Pushing to TFS”.

Other things that we’ve headed off have been the desire to re-use one project’s security group on another because they happen to have the same members. We were also asked to switch to their own internal (SharePoint based) version of Trello instead of the real thing, but we went back to Trello because it was just too painful to use and there is no one assigned to fix the bugs and improve the internal version [1]. One result of the TFS battle was that we got to talk to someone in the company’s TFS admin team, explain our position and consequently get ourselves onto their programme for upgrading to the Git-friendly version of TFS. The choice of database technology has also reared it’s ugly head again and experience taught us we would be in for a struggle there too, and did. Apparently, although the development team may have the best understanding of the (scale of the) problem they are trying to solve, it falls to another department with no direct involvement to decide what the best tool for the job is. Developer productivity definitely did not feature in their decision matrix either.

I wrote an article for ACCU’s C Vu journal a few months back titled “Developer Freedom” which recounts the battles developers have in the enterprise to get anything done efficiently. I feel like I’m becoming more militant as I get older, but I guess that’s because as I get older and more experienced I have less tolerance for people towing the party line just for an easy life. If they say they want productive teams then I believe they should actually put some effort into making that happen. Of course what makes it easier to take such as stance is being in a position to ask questions where any fear of reproach can be met with finding another project at another client that respects its team and their values. I appreciate that those early in their professional programming career’s don’t have such luxuries to fall back on.

I’m really glad this behaviour got noticed by other members of the team, and more importantly that they see it as a positive attitude. I suspect that it could easily be viewed by others as some kind of ego trip - “my way or the highway” - but I don’t think we ever “threw our toys out of the pram” when a decision had gone against us. If we did put our spades down, then it was probably because it wasn’t worthy of any further debate.

The point of a retrospective is to “inspect and adapt” so that the team can work more effectively together. There’s little point doing that if you cannot instigate the changes you desire and sometimes you might need to fight pretty hard to get them. Of course one also hopes the cost is worth it in the end.


[1] I understand why a company might choose to build its own tooling, because they can integrate in ways a 3rd party tool perhaps can’t. But they can easily end up like many open source projects - abandoned and only half-finished once the initial excitement has worn off.

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