Kerry Buckley

What’s the simplest thing that could possibly go wrong?

Archive for the ‘Rants’ Category

On being beaten with carrots

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CarrotsTraditional approaches to motivation tend to fall into one of two camps: the carrot (“do this and you’ll be rewarded”) or the stick (“do this or you’ll suffer the consequences”).

I guess I’m fortunate to work for a company (and in a country) where by and large there isn’t a culture of firing people who don’t meet performance targets – instead we have a system where an ever-increasing proportion of people’s pay packet is made up of a performance-related bonus, rather than a fixed salary.

So, how do you go about getting your bonus each quarter? Simple: just meet your agreed targets.

Of course, nothing in a large corporation can ever be that simple, so in practice there’s a complex tiered system of company, business unit, programme, project, team and individual targets, which are combined in a magic spreadsheet to generate how much bonus everyone gets. Each of these targets, and the performance against them, has to be agreed, monitored, quantified, audited and levelled. At each stage politics comes into play. Those that enjoy playing systems try to set targets they know they can achieve. People concentrate on meeting the letter of the objectives, possibly to the detriment of other activities, like helping colleagues or making process improvements.

Now step away from this corporate dystopia for a moment, into the world of Agile Software Development. A world where we value Individuals and interactions over processes and tools, and Responding to change over following a plan. A world where we strive to build projects around motivated individuals, give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done. Where working software is the primary measure of progress. Where at regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly. Where the self-organising team, accountable directly to it customer or product owner, is responsible for its own delivery and processes.

Now, when agile teams in large organisations are forced to jump through the externally-imposed hoops of objectives, development action plans and post-implementation reviews (which add little visible benefit and take up time that could be spent delivering business value), is it any wonder that the carrot of performance-related pay feels like it’s more of a punishment than an incentive?

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Public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Written by Kerry

April 22nd, 2008 at 1:11 pm

Posted in Agile,Enterprise,Rants

Government IT waste

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Money down the drainThere’s an article in today’s Guardian called Not fit for purpose: £2bn cost of government’s IT blunders, with the following summary:

The cost to the taxpayer of abandoned Whitehall computer projects since 2000 has reached almost £2bn – not including the bill for an online crime reporting site that was cancelled this week, a survey by the Guardian reveals.

I have no doubt whatsoever that the government wastes a vast amount on IT contracts, but I think that, by concentrating on the cost of cancelled projects, the article misses the point slightly.

If a project is clearly never going to deliver, it’s far better to cancel it than to fall into the trap of the sunk cost fallacy, and keep pouring money in in the hope that eventually everything will turn out OK in the end.

The real questions for me are ‘are the government’s IT needs being met at the most cost-effective manner?’ and ‘why does it take so long to realise that a project is doomed?’

I don’t know anything about the projects discussed in the article, or about how government IT contracts are handled in general, but I’d be willing to bet that the following guesses aren’t too wide of the mark:

  • Someone decides that a new system is required, and produces a huge list of everything they think it needs to do. This goes out to tender, and the job goes to whoever manages to produce the lowest quote while still giving a reasonably credible impression that they can actually complete the work in the specified time.
  • The contractor goes off and starts work. They talk to the civil servants who are responsible for specifying the system, but probably not to the people who will actually have to use it. They then go off and produce a design, get it signed off, and set up teams to work on all the identified subsystems.
  • Every few months they deliver a progress report, assuring the client that everything’s progressing according to plan. After a year or so the schedule probably slips a bit, but they assure everyone that it’s jsut a blip, and the final delivery won’t be significantly affected (we can always trim the testing phase a little, right?)
  • Because the contract fixed time, cost and scope, there’s only one thing that can be adjusted to keep the project profitable when the estimates turn out to have been optimistic: quality. Of course this ripples forward, with more and more time spent chasing problems caused by poor quality work in existing parts of the system.
  • When (eventually) the first version of the system is delivered, there are integration problems, it doesn’t quite do what the people specifying it actually wanted, and it turns out that large parts of the specification weren’t that important, but some vital features have been missed out altogether. Depending on just how big a disaster it all was, one of two things happens:
    • The project gets cancelled. The contractor moves on to the next lucrative contract, and an enquiry’s set up to investigate the specific reasons for the project failure, completely missing the big picture.
    • The problems are slowly ironed out, and the missing features are added to the requirements for the next release. The contractor rubs its collective hands at the thought of the massive fees they can charge for the change requests, and a huge amount of time is wasted arguing about whether each change is a new feature or a bug request.

I’m not (quite) naive enough to suggest that all these problems could be solved by wholesale adoption of XP, but I get the impression that the government (and the media reporting on these fiascos) isn’t even aware that there is a better way. With major companies adopting an agile approach now (or at least pretending to), how long before the people responsible for spending our taxes wake up?

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Written by Kerry

January 5th, 2008 at 2:43 pm

Posted in Agile,Rants,Software

An Apostrophe is not an Open Quote

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Just spotted this dreadful logo for Le Web 3:

Le Web Logo

I know this often happens in body text when an over-enthusiastic ‘smart quotes’ feature in a word processor mistakes the apostrophe for an opening quotation mark, but someone really should have noticed it in a logo.

Written by Kerry

November 6th, 2007 at 10:42 am

Posted in Rants

Corporate Web Filtering

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The other day I was listening to someone speaking about the rollout of an open source web-filtering solution to 20,000 pupils in the Yorkshire and Humber area. A mildly interesting story in itself, and a nice win for the OSS community, but it got me thinking.

When it comes to Internet access, Why do some companies literally treat their employees like children?

Written by Kerry

November 5th, 2007 at 2:46 pm

Posted in Rants

Steven Fry’s call to arms

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Steven Fry has written a detailed comparison of smartphones on his blog. It’s quite long, but very entertaining (as you would expect) and well worth a read.

As a ‘corporate software engineer’ myself, this in particular struck a chord:

Break free, all you corporate software engineers and designers: the excuse that you are under the rule of dullards, greedy share-price number crunchers and visually and ergonomically illiterate yahoos is not good enough. Persuade them. Otherwise we all get a digital environment that’s a vile as a 60s housing estate.

Amen to that.

Written by Kerry

September 20th, 2007 at 10:23 am

Posted in Rants,Software

Free papers

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T-shirtHow do Londoners put up with the hordes of people that try to force a free paper into your hands every ten yards? It drives me mad every time I’m down there.

I think I might have to get a T-shirt made.

Written by Kerry

August 8th, 2007 at 8:11 am

Software/geek symbiosis

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Yesterday I was lucky enough to get the chance to attend a talk/workshop on TiddlyWiki, presented by its creator Jeremy Ruston, with quality supporting acts from JP and Doc Searls. Jeremy has just joined BT as Head of Open Source Innovation, which is pretty cool in itself.

One of the comments he made that particularly struck me was to the effect that a piece of software is a living thing, but is parasitic, requiring a ‘geek host’ to live on. Much of the value of software isn’t what it does, but what it can potentially do. Once you separate the software from its geek, it starts to die, because it can no longer adapt to changes in its environment.

I think this is something that we’re losing in the world of corporate IT. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Kerry

June 9th, 2007 at 3:54 pm

I hate British Summer Time

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No, not the season – the clock change. The bizarre anachronistic ritual of spending six months of the year pretending that it’s an hour later than it really is.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Kerry

March 25th, 2007 at 11:05 am

Posted in Rants

Gratuitous rant

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Why on earth do politicians and the media keep banging on about “carbon emissions,” “carbon trading,” “carbon-neutral” and so on, when they’re actually talking about carbon dioxide? It drives me mad!

There, that feels better. I’m going to relax now with a nice glass of hydrogen.

Written by Kerry

March 14th, 2007 at 7:18 pm

Posted in Rants

Agile in the enterprise: don’t try to steer the supertanker

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When people talk about large organisations making major changes to their core processes or values, sooner or later someone will compare the process to steering a supertanker – if you turn the wheel now, you’ll have travelled quite a distance before there’s any noticable change in course.

This analogy falls down when you’re trying to introduce agile software development. If you want to be agile, a supertanker just won’t do the job any more. It’s time for small teams to jump into the lifeboats and set off in their own directions, leaving the heavy old legacy systems to continue their progress on their predictable course. The lifeboats are far nimbler and can react much quicker to changing conditions. Of course (and that sound you hear is the analogy stretching close to breaking point) they would still be in radio contact with the captain, so you wouldn’t lose sight of the overall strategy.

Personally, the lifeboat I was in until Christmas now has a new crew and is sailing under a flag of convenience out of Mumbai. I have no idea what I’ll be doing in the new year, or whether we’ll remain as a team, but at the moment it feels very much like we’re being dumped back on the supertanker, and while we’ve been off charting new territories, the ship’s only turned by a degree or two.

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Written by Kerry

December 28th, 2006 at 4:39 pm

Posted in Agile,BT,Rants