Sunday, October 08, 2017

How Can I Have More Leadership?

I was asked, "How Can I Have More Leadership?"

Many people were interested in my answer, even though I'm not sure whether this question means

How can I have more leadership applied to me?


How can I provide more leadership for others?

In some ways, it's the same question either way. Why? Because if you want more leadership applied to you, the primary way to get it is to provide it yourself.

There are many things you could do to provide more leadership, but I would suggest that before you do any of them, set your mind firmly on this definition of leadership:

“Leadership is the ability to enhance the environment so that everybody is empowered to contribute creatively to the task.”

Don’t forget any of the key words. Check them out when you’re about to do something you think of as “leading.”

  • enhance: you’re making the environment better in some way, and there's lots of way to do that, not one single "leader" way

  • for everybody involved, so make sure what you think is an enhancement is really that for everybody

  • so they’re empowered, which doesn’t mean forced or ordered, especially not by you

  • creatively, not in some stupid or mindless way, and not necessarily in the way you would do it

  • and stay on task, for your job is not to fix everyone else, but to help the job at hand get done

If you keep these things in mind, you won’t always be perfect at leading, but with practice you’ll get better and better, with fewer blunders.

Monday, October 02, 2017

Can they charge me for bugs?

How likely is it that you can create 0 software bugs?

A contract programmer told us, "For years, my client has aimed for 0 bugs on every software release. However we can't control the bugs that closely. Now the client has come out with an idea of charging me a penalty—a cost refund as much as 3% per bugs from what I charge them. What can I do?"

First of all, stop calling them “bugs.”  They are not independently reproducing life forms. They are made by us humans, and there are no perfect humans.

Next, listen to what experienced S/W developers will tell you. Perfect software is a myth, an illusion.

But suppose you did produce a piece of zero-error software. How would you know that’s what you had? I’ve known software that was thought to be error-free for 30+ years, then an error turned up. Are they still going to be charging you penalties thirty years from now?

Quite simply, perfect software violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Then, too, software that might be perfect yesterday can become imperfect because of changes in the world today.

But, if they want to charge you for errors detected in software you built, that’s okay. What you need to do is charge them more for the software to begin with, to account for what you will eventually have to pay back. Just set a time limit—maybe a year or so, or until someone else modifies the code. And be sure you have an agreed definition of what constitutes an “error.”

This is not a simple question. I’ve written at least two books on the subject, and ultimately they don't cover every possible variation. But at least give your client a copy of the books so you can begin your negotiation with some intelligent information, not just myths and illusions:

Monday, September 25, 2017

Dealing With Failure as a Developer

He asked, "How do I not feel like a failure when I went to one of the best schools and got one of the top internships, only to be a bad developer in the end?"

And here's what I told him:

First of all, tell yourself how lucky you are that you found out that you don’t happen to be good at development. Lots of people are good at other things, but aren’t good at development, don’t know it, and persist in doing a bad job. You should be extremely happy you’re not one of those clueless people.

Tell yourself that you failed at one thing, so far. Most people in their lives fail at many things. It’s perfectly normal.

The few people who never fail at anything are generally those who never try anything new, or risky. Tell yourself how lucky you are that you’re not one of those jerks.

When we try things, sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail. But succeed or fail, we always have the possibility to LEARN. Many of the people who do fail at things never take up the possibility to learn, so ask yourself “What did I learn from this failure.” Keep asking like that for each failure, and you will become a very smart person.

It would also be a good idea to learn to use a different way of speaking about yourself. You are not “a failure.” You are a person who failed at something. Once. Therefore, you are a real human being. That’s pretty good, isn’t it?

For some tools to help you work through this feeling of failure, read: More Secrets of Consulting: The Consultant's Tool Kit

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Which is Better, Writing on Screen or Paper?

I'm frequently asked, "Do writers and programmers feel more creative and expressive with pen and paper, or do thoughts come out as easily as when typing on a keyboard?"

It's a debate that I've listened to for more than half a century. Every tool for writing has some proponents. In other words, there’s no one way that’s better for every writer all the time. That's why the debate will never be settled. Even so, we can learn from it.

Personally, I have published a great variety of work—non-fiction, fiction, poetry, data queries, children’s stories, computer code, advertisements, polemics, applications. I've done so while writing

• by hand with pen or pencil or sharpie or marker pen

• on a manual typewriter or electric typewriter or computer keyboard

• with a stylus on a diver’s slate in a pool or shower

• with my toe in pink Bermuda sand

• with my voice into a recorder or computer voice-to-digital app

• with my bare finger on a touch screen

• with an electric router on a wooden beam

I may have used other approaches, but I can’t remember what else. I'm pretty sure, though, contrary to rumor, that I have not yet written with a hammer and chisel on a stone tablet. Something to look forward to.

Moral #1: if you’re a real programmer or writer of any kind, you would never let the lack of your favorite medium stand in the way of your writing.

Moral #2: If you want to be a real programmer or writer, for heaven’s sake, experiment with any medium you can imagine. You’ll find, as I did, that certain media are better for capturing your voice for each different coding problem, each different story, and each different type of writing.

So if your favorite tool isn't available, don't whine and don't shut down. Experiment instead!

Even if your favorite tool is available, experiment!

Besides, your primary tool is you, not the pen or keyboard or chisel, so keep experimenting with all those secondary tools that help you discover yourself.

And read Weinberg on Writing: the Fieldstone Method, which has taught thousands of writers how to experiment with their writing under every imaginable circumstance.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

What should be my next step to becoming a better programmer?

What's your next step?

I'm guessing, but if you’re like most programmers, you’re already too involved in technical details, You may have mastered Python, Java, Ruby, C++, or a dozen other languages and platforms, but your ability to deal with other people is less than adequate.

Studies of programmers at work show that typical programmers spend 70% of the time dealing with other people. (Agile programmers may spend even more time). [See, The Psychology of Computer Programming]

- Do you ever misunderstand what you've been asked to do?

- Are you ever misunderstood when explaining what you're trying to do?

- Do you ever have fruitless arguments with your boss? With your coworkers?

- Do you ever have trouble dealing with people who are not as smart as you?

- Do you sometimes have trouble dealing with feedback about your performance?

If so, and you want to improve, perhaps you should devote some time to developing your People Skills.

At the very least, you'll learn how to solve "people problems" more efficiently, thus leaving you more time, in a better mood, to do the technical work of programming.

Next step? Take a look at this bargain bundle:

Sunday, September 10, 2017

False Urgency

What should I do with a client or boss who insists that a certain task is urgent, but it turns out to be likely a false alarm?

In your mind, subtract 10% from this persons trust account, then watch for the second occurrence. It might be a one-time mistake or it might be a person who thinks every little thing is "urgent."

If it happens again, tell him or her that you charge double (or triple) for urgent tasks. If he or she isn’t willing to pay, then find another client.

If you're an employee and this is your boss, you obviously can't charge them with money, so you have to find another way to make them pay. My favorite way was simply to ignore them and proceed at my normal pace, in priority order. I never got fired for doing that, particularly when it became evident to everyone that the urgency was false.

This is just one of the ways you have to train your clients and your managers if you want to be a successful employee, contractor, or consultant.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Must There Always Be Inferior Code?

Some people claim that when you learn high software standards you will never again develop in inferior ways. Is this true?

I think you can arrive at a meaningful answer by using an analogy:

Some people claim that when you learn high medical standards, a doctor or nurse will never again treat a patient in inferior ways. Is that true?

Seen in this light, the answer is obvious. Most doctors and nurses will not treat patients in inferior ways—unless it's an emergency, like an explosion or a fire in which many people need saving in a hurry. If that happens, the doctor or nurse will return to those patients when the emergency has calmed down. Same in software.

But there do exist a few medical professionals who don’t live up to such high standards. They are, after all, human beings. Yet in spite of their inferior practices, some of their patients do get better. Why? Because humans have built-in healing mechanisms—but software does not.

Software with sick code doesn’t heal itself. Those programmers who develop in inferior ways will eventually produce troublesome code. But the key word is "eventually."

The inferior programmer may not be around any longer when the code's trouble makes itself known, so some inferior programmers can get away with hacky ways for an entire career.

It’s a good manager's job to recognize these inferior programmers and replace them and their code before the true costs of their inferior work become evident.

Some managers overuse the tactic of forcing programmers to code in a hurry, as if there's always an emergency. Just as in medicine, emergency treatment of code tends to produce inferior results. Managers who care only about the short-term will not do anything about their inferior programmers, but they, too, may move out before the consequences of their inferior management become apparent.

That’s why inferior programming practices persist. And, as long as programmers and managers are human, inferior practices will always persist. But they don't have to persist in your world. It's up to you. \

Code in haste, debug forever.

Sunday, September 03, 2017

Why is reading or writing something different from doing something?

First consider reading. Reading is (usually) a solitary activity, with no feedback. Without feedback, there's no check on what you believe you're learning.

Now, writing. Unless you put your writing in the hands of someone (or perhaps some computer analysis app), there's also no feedback, so there's no check on whether you wrote sense or nonsense.

When you do something, you interact with the real world, and the world responds in some way. With the world's feedback, you have the possibility of learning, confirming, or disconfirming something. That's why we strongly favor experiential learning over, say, lecturing or passive reading or writing.

If you want to teach somebody something, don't just send them to a book, or, even worse, tell them what you want them to know. Instead, figure out a way to have them experience the situation in which the learning applies.

After they've had the experience, you then might want to send them to a book where they can read about what they experienced.  Alternatively, you might ask them to write about their learning and have you read what they wrote.

You can try this out:

Step 1. Write a sentence or two about what would happen if you tried to move your desk six inches (15 cm) to the left or right.

Step 2. When you finish writing, get up and move your desk six inches (15 cm) to the left or right.

Step 3. What did you learn in steps one and two?

For a far more thorough answer to this question, see my four-volume series on Experiential Learning 

Then do some of the experiential exercises you find there.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

How Does One Manage an Incompetent Manager?

How Does One Manage an Incompetent Manager?

The questioner does not say whether the manager's is their boss or employee, but I'll answer assuming they're the employee. If they're the boss, they should manage the same way they would manage any of their employees who is not competent to do the job they're paid for.

This is not just one question because there are quite a few different breeds of incompetent managers. To take just two examples, some are incompetent because they don’t interact with their employees at all, while others micromanage with a vengeance. It seems clear that you’d want to handle each situation in its own unique way.

If your manager is invisible, leaving you alone, just be thankful and go about your business. Believe me, you’re lucky.

For me, the first step in managing a micro-manager is to leave. Find another job, with different manager. A better one.

As for other managerial symptoms of incompetence, you can try working with the manager as one person to another, but realize that this amounts to taking on a second job. If you’re not a a trained psychologist, you might be better just leaving this one alone.

But if you decide you have the skills to manage your manager, do it the way a competent manager would. That is, concentrate on the question, “How is this manager interfering with the work we are being paid to do?” If their incompetence isn’t interfering in a significant way, maybe offer a bit of feedback, but only once, and then get on with your paying job.

In many cases, someone you perceive as incompetent can be a lot easier to live with than to fix. They may not even be as incompetent as you believe.

But if you're seeking advice on a particular pattern of incompetence, write me a note or comment. I will try to help you with specific actions to take.

Oh, and by the way, if you’re neither this manager’s boss or employee, then it’s none of your business, so just leave it alone. There are more incompetent managers in the world than you can possibly cure.

Here's a couple of books you might find helpful:

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Am I Boring, and What Can I Do About It?

I was asked, "Am I boring, and what can I do about it?"

The questioner explained, "Everything I have to say seems boring or unimportant. When I talk about my feelings it seems like I'm complaining or too complicated for others to understand. I don't feel like talking to anyone anymore. What should I do?"

I’ve heard this complaint many times, and much of the time, the person’s problem is not talking, but listening.

I advised him to devote some attention to what the others are saying to him and around him. Often they are trying to tell him why they seem bored, but he's not paying attention (which is a common symptom of “boring” people).

So I had him work on his listening for while and see what happened. He discovered some startling changes.

If you think you're boring people, maybe you’ll want to read

p.s. BTW, his question itself seems like he's complaining, and it may be too complicated for others to understand. As an exercise in learning to be less boring, try rewriting it so it’s not complaining and far less complicated.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Basic skills of a good programmer?

Many outstanding programmers were asked, "What are the basic skills required to be a good programmer?" Lots of good and useful answers were given to this question, such as, test before coding, use a particular tool, or use Agile methods.

For me, though, with more than 60 years of programming experience, the one thing that made me a better programmer was my ability and willingness to examine myself critically and do something about my shortcomings. And, after 60 years, I'm still doing that. You could say it's incremental development applied to myself.

I also examine my strengths (long-comings?) because I know that my greatest strengths can quickly become my greatest weaknesses.

For instance, one of my great strengths as a programmer was speed. If something had to be done quickly, I was the guy to do it. But the weakness in my speed was my tendency to omit the last few hours of testing that would make the project rock solid. I had to learn the importance of taking the time to do a precision job.

Many programmers do examine themselves critically, but then they work to improve their greatest strengths, to the exclusion of their weaknesses. That practice takes them a certain distance, but the nature of computers is to limit your ability, by highlighting your greatest weaknesses. 

A computer is like a mirror of your mind that brightly reflects all your poorest thinking. To become a better programmer, you have to look in that mirror with clear eyes and see what it's telling you about yourself.

Armed with that information about yourself, you can then select the most useful external things to work on. Those things will be different for you than for anyone else, because your shortcomings and strengths will be unique to you, so advice from others will often miss the mark.

Good programmers make good use of their best tools, and you are your best tool, so sharpen yourself.

See, for example, 

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Must a Developer Know the Language?

We were asked, "Have you ever applied for a software developer job where you didn't know the language?"

My story is not exactly the same as others might have, for several reasons, but I think it does answer the question.

There are two phases to my story. My first job developing software was at IBM, in 1956. At that time, I didn’t know any programming language, largely because there really weren’t any languages other than machine code. So, I spent two weeks in a closet learning my first computer language.

Actually, it was three languages at once: machine codes for the IBM 704 and 650, plus the wired “language” for the IBM 607.

The second phase of my story takes place some years later, when I became a consultant. In that role, I have helped many, many clients who were using languages I didn’t know—even though I knew quite a few by that time, including LISP, Smalltalk, APL, PL/I, COBOL, FORTRAN, C, Pascal, Simula, several home-grown special application languages, and the machine code for the IBM 7090, 1410, 705, STRETCH, Dec’s PDP-1 and a few other machines. I had also studied in a bookish way quite a few other machines while doing competitive analyses for IBM.

I was able to help those clients largely because their problems seldom had much to do with the details of their chosen language(s). Instead, they were people problems of all sorts. The problems that did wind up with a language embodiment were usually easy to spot using my general knowledge of computer languages and typical errors people made in using them. That’s why I’ve always insisted that professional developers should know at least a handful of different language.

I think there's an analogy here with the term "mathematical maturity," something we might call "programming maturity." Here's how Wikipedia defines mathematical maturity:

Mathematical maturity is an informal term used by mathematicians to refer to a mixture of mathematical experience and insight that cannot be directly taught. Instead, it comes from repeated exposure to mathematical concepts. It is a gauge of mathematics student's erudition in mathematical structures and methods.

For instance, a mature mathematician is able to transcend notational differences, unlike my tutorial student who flunked algebra because he had learned to "solve for x," but said, "You didn't teach me to solve for y."

We could easily use most of those words to define "programming maturity," the ability that allows you to succeed in a developer job using a language in which you have no previous experience.