Category Archives: management

Someone Find Me a Middle-man!

Photo by egavad / per

If you like dirty jokes, go check out this one from Penny Arcade, then come back.
Read it? Okay, look at that last panel:

They can’t cut out the middle-man! The middle-man is the whole point!

This is a good lesson for any small business owner, or the people who do marketing for them.

When you’re a chef, sometimes you want someone else to cook for you specifically so it’s not just like you always do it. Sometimes it’s not just okay to be a middle-man. Sometimes that’s exactly what your customers want.

Same for garbage collectors, travel agents, crime scene cleaners. You’re not doing anything your clients couldn’t do. They just don’t want to. If they don’t-want-to badly enough, you can make some serious money doing it for them.

This works for managers, too, but for a different reason. Don’t hire people who will do everything just like you. Hire people whose skills don’t completely overlap yours and let them use those unique skills. If your employees do everything just like you would, you keep hiring copies of yourself. That’s not a good strategy. (Unless you’re perfect.)

How corporations spin a risk into a benefit

James Maguire, managing editor of Datamation, wrote in “Indian IT Firms: Is the Future Theirs?

“In the past, companies used to award IT outsourcing contracts that were longer, 7-10 years. They would hire one firm to do it, and that firm would have subcontractors,” Ford-Taggart says. Now, big clients split up major projects and request bids on individual components. “Then they’ll say, “Look, we can have this portion done in India for 30% less.'”

This might cause more managerial headaches for the client company, but in fact it’s less risk: clients have fewer eggs in a basket with any one IT firm, so if a projects goes bad or creates cost overruns, the entire project won’t take such a big hit.

Emphasis added.

I hate this corporate executive definition of “risk”. And before you think I don’t get it, I understand what they mean but I think they’re wrong.

When I talk about reducing risk, I mean that I’m making problems less likely to occur. What the execs mean when they take this position is that they’re diversifying the accountability. They want to be able to report that while 20% of the project is at risk, the other 80% is on track.

Well sure, the other 80% can’t be used without the 20% that’s missing. But the focus here should be that we’ve got 80% of the project on time and on budget!

If you admit up front that your process is increasing management headaches, you should realize you’re increasing the likelihood of problems. You may be mitigating the potential impact, but that’s not a given.

Any mitigation strategy that seeks to reduce the impact of a failure, and does so by increasing the likelihood of failure, is probably a bad idea.

How to Finish IT Projects Faster with Less Documentation

If you’re responsible for running an IT project you want things to be done on time and within budget. So how do you set your schedule and budget? Hopefully you define what you want to accomplish, and then ask the developers how long it’s going to take. If you’re putting out a request for proposal (RFP) you’ll have several different answers to that question. Typically the highest consideration in the selection is the total proposed cost. But really, the total time is a better choice.

Why that’s true is based not on ideas about processes, but on ideas about people.

Consultants live and die by billable hours. In the short term, they don’t have any incentive to finish their current project any faster. But in the long term, finishing faster should lead to more work as clients come to respect their ability to meet a deadline. If project managers and clients learn to value that behavior, that is.

How it Could Be

Let’s look at a production support issue for an example. Production support is completely different from most project work in one very important way: the problem is well defined. Something worked on Monday, it doesn’t work on Tuesday. Make it work just like Monday again.

For something with six-figure impact per hour of downtime – and if you think that’s an artificially-high number you’ve never worked with credit card processing – you don’t want a programmer with an impressive resume, dozens of certifications, and decades of experience with your primary programming language. You want Bob, the guy who wrote the system from scratch and demands $1k per hour with a four-hour minimum.

Once you’ve got Bob and his hand-picked team of support people, you get out of their way and let them work. Status reports might be no more than, “We’ve found the problem … We’ve identified the solution … We’re ready to test the fix … It’s live.”

How it Is

But when it comes to new development, companies play it “safe” and look for the best qualifications on paper. They hire based on keyword matching and offer rates based on industry standards for a given skill set. They require specific processes and deliverables (pet peeve: when did “deliverable” become a noun?) and status reporting becomes a significant percentage of the total budget.

Why the Difference?

There are two reasons expert teams get away with less formal process than is typical, but I can only prove one of them. The public answer business sponsors tell themselves to justify the exception to “official methodology” is that the experts have worked the methodology for so long that they can follow the same procedures without exhaustively documenting all the steps. And there is some truth to that.

But I suspect the larger reason is that experts get the work done so much faster there just isn’t enough time for documentation to build up.

The best athletes make things look easy that most people could not even do. A high jumper might clear six feet without even trying hard. Most people would never come close even with months to try.

The best IT people do the same thing. They complete projects in weeks that other people could never do. As “safe” projects drag on specifications are refined, status reports are produced, contracts are negotiated, updates are requested and provided. Meanwhile the expert team has just released to production – so it must have been a small project.

The hard part for the client is to recognize the difference between a project that went smoothly because it was easy, and one that went smoothly because the team made it look easy. But here’s the secret: You don’t really need to recognize the difference.

How to Do Better

The reason you hired someone else to do the work is because you couldn’t do it yourself. Which means you can’t accurately judge which projects really are hard, and which ones just look hard. So don’t judge the project, judge the people.

The people who seem to always be working on small, simple projects – after all, they always go quickly with no major problems – are better at execution. They will be better no matter what the project is.

The day I got a lot smarter

One sign of intelligence is the ability to learn from your mistakes. An even better sign is the ability to learn from someone else’s mistakes. Unfortunately, we don’t always have the luxury of watching someone else learn a valuable lesson, and we have to do it ourselves. But if we pay attention, sometimes we get to learn multiple lessons from one mistake. (Lucky us.)

Case in point: Dealing with a crisis. I was managing a group of web developers, and the project lead on an integration with our largest client was going on vacation. He assured me his backup was fully trained, and would be able to deal with any issues. He left on Friday, and we deployed some new code on Monday. Everything looked good.

Time passes …

On Wednesday at about 4 p.m., we got a call asking about an order. We couldn’t find it in our system. From what we could tell, the branch that placed the order wasn’t set up to use our system yet, so we shouldn’t have the order. At 5 I let the backup go home for the day while I worked on writing up what we’d found. I sent an internal email explaining what I believed had happened. I said that I would call the client and explain why we didn’t have the order, and that they should check their old system.

While double-checking the deployment plan, I discovered that the new branch actually was on our new system … as of that Monday. That’s part of what was included in the new code. That’s when I got the shiver down my spine. By that time the backup, whose house was conveniently in a patch of bad cell coverage, was gone. The lead was on vacation. “Okay,” I thought, “I’ve seen most of this code, in fact I’ve written a good bit of it. I can figure this out.”

Stop laughing. It sounded good at the time.

To make a long story short (Too late!) we hadn’t been accepting orders for three days from several branches, but had been returning confirmations for them. It was somewhere around 3 a.m. when I finally thought I knew exactly how many orders we had dropped, though I hadn’t found the actual bug in the code yet. I created a spreadsheet with the list of affected orders. At one point I used Excel’s drag-to-copy feature to fill a range of cells with the branch number for a set of orders.

Did you know Excel will automatically increment a number if you drag to copy? Yes, I know it too. At 11:30 in the morning today I know it. At 3 a.m. that night I apparently didn’t know that. So I sent it to the client with non-existent branch numbers that I didn’t double-check. “Oops” apparently doesn’t quite cover it.

The reveal

The next morning on a conference call with the client, my boss, his boss, and several other people, we were going over the spreadsheet when someone noticed the problem. To me, it seemed obvious that it was a simple cut-and-paste error on the spreadsheet. But someone — a co-worker, believe it or not — decided to ask, “Are you sure? Because I don’t see those other two branches on here either.” After dumbly admitting that I didn’t know anything about any other two branches, I ended the call so I could go figure out what was happening.

Now I had apparently demonstrated that I didn’t actually know what was wrong, that I had no idea of the scope of it, and that I was trying to cover it up. Yay me. We called in the lead (whose vacation was at home doing renovations) and started going through the code. I finally found the cause of the error, and it caused exactly the list of errors that I had sent out early that morning, except for the cut-and-paste error. The “other two branches” turned out to be from the previous night’s email, where I had specifically said those branches were not affected by the problem.

Within two hours, we had the code fixed and all the orders recovered. So everyone’s happy, right? If you think so, then you haven’t yet learned the lessons I did that day.

  1. No matter how urgently someone says they need an answer, the wrong answer won’t help.
  2. If it looks like the wrong answer, it might as well be the wrong answer. This doesn’t mean counter-intuitive answers can’t be right. It means that presentation and the ability to support your conclusion count.
  3. If you didn’t create the problem, always give the person who did the first chance to fix it.
  4. If someone knows more about a topic than you do, have them check your work.
  5. Don’t make important decisions on too little sleep.
  6. Before making a presentation to a client, review the materials with your co-workers.
  7. Don’t make important changes when key people are unavailable.

Looking at that list, I realize I already knew several of those lessons. So why did it take that incident to “learn” them? Because there’s a difference between knowing something, and believing it.