Peopleware by Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister – How to successfully lead in the software industry – leadership book review

Peopleware leadership book review

II. The office environment

Overtime may be a fact of life in the software line of work, but this industry could hardly have come through a period of such phenomenal prosperity if the software built on the whole weren’t worth a lot more than was paid for it. So how do we explain the fact that software people as well as workers in other thought-intensive positions are putting in so many extra hours?

1. The importance of space and quietness in the workplace

A disturbing possibility is that overtime is not so much a means to increase the quantity of work time as to improve its average quality. You hear evidence that this is true in such frequently repeated statements as these:

  • “I get my best work done in the early morning, before anybody else arrives.”
  • “In one late evening, I can do two or three days’ worth of work.”
  • “The office is a zoo all day, but by about 6 P.M., things have quieted down and you can really accomplish something.”
Asking colleagues for some quiet time can be a daunting task

To be productive, people may come in early or stay late or even try to escape entirely, by staying home for a day to get a critical piece of work done. Staying late or arriving early or staying home to work in peace is a damning indictment of the office environment. The curious thing is not that it’s so often impossible to work in the workplace but that everyone knows it and nobody ever does anything about it. Changing the environment is not beyond human capacity, and it should be one of the focus points of every manager who notices this kind of issues in the work environment.

The hypothesis that qualities of the workplace may have a strong correlation to developer effectiveness is an easy one to test. All you have to do is devise a set of fixed benchmark tasks, similar to those that developers do in their normal work, and observe how well they perform each of these tasks in different environments. The Coding War Games were designed with exactly that purpose in mind

Coding wars

In the mid 80s, more than three hundred organizations worldwide have participated in a study were teams of software developers compete to complete a series of benchmark coding and testing tasks in minimal time and with minimal defects. The benefit to the individual is learning how he or she compares with the rest of the competitors and the benefit to the company is learning how well it does against other companies in the sample.

Participating to a coding tournament can be a great experience for a software developer

The following were productivity non-factors: programming language (assembly being the only exception), years of experience (people who had ten years of experience did not outperform those with two years of experience), salary (the half above the median made less than 10 percent more than the half below, but they performed nearly twice as well).

Each war game participant filled out a questionnaire about the physical quarters in which they work at their companies. As it turns out, the top quartile, those who did the exercise most rapidly and effectively, work in space that is substantially different from that of the bottom quartile. The top performers’ space is quieter, more private and better protected from interruption.

The main difference between the developers who had better results and those who struggled was their work environment

The data presented above does not exactly prove that a better workplace will help people to perform better, it may only indicate that people who perform better tend to gravitate toward organizations that provide a better workplace.

What this proves is that a policy of default on workplace characteristics is a mistake. If you participate in or manage a team of people who need to use their brains during the workday, then the workplace environment is your business. It isn’t enough to observe, “You never get anything done around here between 9 and 5” and then turn your attention to something else. It’s dumb that people can’t get work done during normal work hours. It’s time to do something about it.

Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister – Peopleware

A study designed by the architect Gerald McCue with the assistance of IBM area managers concluded that a minimum accommodation for the mix of people slated to occupy the new space would be the following:

  • 100 square feet (about 9 square meters) of dedicated space per worker;
  • 30 square feet (about 3 square meters) of work surface per person;
  • Noise protection in the form of enclosed offices or 6-foot-high (2 meters) partitions (IBM ended up with about half of all professional personnel in enclosed one and two person offices);
Work space for Code Wars participants

The Open-Space workplace came strong and without warning. The advocates of the new format produced not one shred of evidence that effectiveness would not be impaired. If we look at the Code Wars experiment, only 16 percent of participants had 100 square feet or more of work space. Only 11 percent of participants worked in enclosed offices or with greater than 6-foot-high partitions. There were more participants in the 20 to 30-square-foot group than in the 100-square-foot group. Across the whole Coding War Games sample, 58 percent complained that their workplace was not acceptably quiet, 61 percent complained that it wasn’t sufficiently private and 54 percent reported that they had a workplace at home that was better than the workplace provided by the company.

Workers who reported before the exercise that their workplace was acceptably quiet were one-third more likely to deliver zero-defect work (More than 66% of the zero-defect workers reported noise level okay. Only 8% percent of the One-or-more-defect workers reported noise level okay)

Cost reduction to provide work space below the minimum surface would result in a loss of effectiveness that would more than offset the cost savings. If you peek into a conference room, you may find three people working in silence. If you wander to the cafeteria mid-afternoon, you’re likely to find folks seated, one to a table, with their work spread out before them. Some of your workers can’t be found at all. People are hiding out to get some work done. If this rings true to your organization, it’s an indictment. Saving money on space may be costing you a fortune.

Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister – Peopleware

Does that really matter to you? In the long run, what difference does it make whether quiet space and privacy help your current people to do better work or help you to attract and keep better people? Now that you know all these studies, will you be the one who will make this a priority?


2. Body hours vs Brain hours

You went through this also when you were a developer: at the end of the day, you have to log hours for your work. At the end of the week you may have to send a detailed work report. But were you really focused during those hours or did you felt a lot of time was wasted?

The Flow State of the developer

During single-minded work time, people are ideally in a state that psychologists call flow: a condition of deep, nearly meditative involvement. In this state, there is a gentle sense of euphoria, and one is largely unaware of the passage of time: “I began to work. I looked up, and three hours had passed.” There is no consciousness of effort; the work just seems to flow very well.

Not all work roles require that you attain a state of flow in order to be productive, but for anyone involved in engineering, design, development, writing, or like tasks, flow is a must. These are high-momentum tasks. It’s only when you’re in flow that the work goes well.

Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister – Peopleware
When you are in the flow state you can accomplish a lot of things in just two hours

Unfortunately, you can’t turn on flow like a switch. It takes a slow descent into the subject, requiring 15 minutes or more of concentration before the state is locked in and during this immersion period, you are particularly sensitive to noise and interruption. You can remember from the previous section (that is if you were in a state of flow while reading) that a disruptive environment can make it difficult or impossible to attain flow. Once locked in, the state can be broken by an interruption that is focused on you (an sms, a Facebook notification, a colleague asking for help) or by insistent noise. Each time a developer is interrupted, he requires an additional immersion period to get back into flow and during this immersion, they’re not really performing at their best.

An hour in flow really accomplishes something, but 10 six-minute work periods sandwiched between 11 interruptions won’t accomplish anything. As a manager, you may be relatively unsympathetic to the frustrations of being in no-flow. After all, you do most of your own work in interrupt mode—that’s management—but the people who work for you need to get into flow. Anything that keeps them from it will reduce their effectiveness and the satisfaction they take in their work. It will also increase the cost of getting the work done.

Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister – Peopleware

The E-factor

Whenever the number of uninterrupted hours is a reasonably high proportion of total hours, up to approximately 40 percent, then the environment is allowing people to get into flow when they need to. Much lower numbers imply frustration and reduced effectiveness. This metric is called the Environmental Factor or E-Factor:

E-Factor = Uninterrupted Hours/Body-Present Hours

This could be an other example of why the Open-Office fails: E-Factors can be threatening to the status quo. If you report 0.4 for a sensible space and 0.1 for a cost-reduced space, for example, people are likely to conclude that the cost reduction didn’t make much sense. Workers in the 0.10 space will have to put in 4 times as much body-present time to do a given piece of work.

Telephone vs E-mail

It is natural that the telephone should have reshaped somewhat the way we do business, but it ought not to have blinded us to the effects of the interruptions. At the least, managers ought to be alert to the effect that interruption can have on their own people who are trying to get something done. But often it’s the manager who is the worst offender (one of the programmers in the Code Wars experiment said that his manager used to switch the calls to him).

When electronic mail was first proposed, most of us thought that the great value of it would be the saving in paper. That turns out to be trivial, however, compared to the saving in re-immersion time. The big difference between a phone call and an electronic mail message is that the phone call interrupts and the e-mail does not; the receiver deals with it at his or her own convenience. The amount of traffic going through these systems proves that priority “at the receiver’s convenience” is acceptable for the great majority of business communications. After a period of acclimatization, workers begin to use electronic mail in preference to intra-company calls. It doesn’t make all the calls go away, the important ones must still be there.

As a manager, what tools of communication are you imposing? What would be the best one for your team? Scheduling calls and using text communication otherwise (mostly e-mail) seems to work best in these times to preserve the state of flow.

3. Architectural solutions for improving productivity

The person who is working hard to deliver a high-quality product on time is not concerned with office appearances, but the boss sometimes is. So we see the paradoxical phenomenon that totally unworkable space is gussied up expensively and pointlessly with ornaments and furniture instead of using more space for workers, and their needs. The next time someone proudly shows you around a newly designed office, think hard about whether it’s the functionality of the space that is being touted or its appearance. All too often, it’s the appearance which is stressed far too much in workplace design. What is more relevant is whether the workplace lets you work or inhibits you.

In response to workers’ gripes about noise, you can either treat the symptom or treat the cause. Treating the cause means choosing isolation in the form of noise barriers—walls and doors—and these cost money. Treating the symptom is much cheaper. When you install Muzak or some other form of pink noise, the disruptive noise is drowned out at small expense. You can save even more money by ignoring the problem altogether so that people have to resort to iPods and headphones to protect themselves from the noise. If you take either of these approaches, you should expect to incur an invisible penalty in one aspect of workers’ performance: they will be less creative (work will still be good except for observing solutions that are right in front of them). In the chapter of the book called “Creative Space” you can find a detailed research about working with music.

Christopher Alexander, architect and philosopher, is best known for his observations on the design process. He frames his concepts in an architectural idiom, but some of his ideas have had influence far beyond the field of architecture. (Alexander’s book Notes on the Synthesis of Form, for example, is considered a kind of holy book by designers of all kinds.) Together with his colleagues at the Center for Environmental Structure, Alexander set out to codify the elements of good architectural design. The resultant work is a three-volume set entitled The Timeless Way of Building. The effect of this work is still being debated, but you can check it out because it can make you understand why you love certain spaces and never feel comfortable in others.

People cannot work effectively if their workspace is too enclosed or too exposed. A good workspace strikes the balance. . . . You feel more comfortable in a workspace if there is a wall behind you. . . . There should be no blank wall closer than eight feet in front of you. (As you work, you want to occasionally look up and rest your eyes by focusing them on something farther away than the desk. If there is a blank wall closer than eight feet your eyes will not change focus and they get no relief. In this case you feel too enclosed).

Christopher Alexander, A Pattern Language

III. The Right People (who to hire, how to create teams and spot future leaders)

The final outcome of any effort is more a function of who does the work than of how the work is done. Yet modern management science pays almost no attention to hiring and keeping the right people. Management science is much more concerned with the boss’s role as principal strategist and tactician of the work. We are taught to think of management as playing out one of those battle simulation board games. There are no personalities or individual talents to be reckoned with in such a game; you succeed or fail based on your decisions of when and where to deploy your faceless resources.

Total War – my favorite strategy game

Of course, the manager has to coordinate the efforts of even the best team so that all the individual contributions add up to an integrated whole. But that’s the relatively mechanical part of management. For most efforts, success or failure is in the cards from the moment the team is formed and the initial directions are set out, because talented teammates make the life of the manager a lot easier. In this chapter we will focus more on building effective teams by recognizing the individuality of every team member, an to do that we need to learn hot to:

  • Get the right people.
  • Make them happy so they don’t want to leave.
  • Turn them loose.

A. How to choose the right people for the job

In our egalitarian times, it’s almost unthinkable to write someone off as intrinsically incompetent. There is supposed to be inherent worth in every human being. Managers are supposed to use their leadership skills to bring out untapped qualities in each subordinate. This shaping of raw human material is considered the essence of management.

Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister – Peopleware

As parents we do have a shaping effect on the children over the years, but as managers we are unlikely to change the people we work with in any meaningful way. People usually don’t stay put long enough, and the manager just doesn’t have enough leverage to make a difference in their nature. The percentage of employees who always look for self-improvement (both personal and technical) is relatively low, so the majority of people who will work for you through whatever period will be more or less the same at the end as they were at the beginning. That means that with the exception of young student interns with no experience, it is a great probability that if they’re not right for the job from the start, they never will be. All of this means that getting the right people in the first place is very important.

You may get to play a significant part in the hiring of new people or the selection of new team members from within the company. If so, your skill at these tasks will determine to a large extent your eventual success.

Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister – Peopleware

Fighting Uniformity

When you do the hiring, you will also subliminally take into account the position of your organization. Each person you hire (or accept in your team) becomes not only a part of your working group, but also a part of your boss’s empire and that of the next boss up the line. Because you’re hiring on behalf of the whole corporate ladder above you, an unsensed pressure may push you towards the company average, encouraging you to hire people that look like, sound like, and think like everybody else.

In a healthy corporate culture, this effect can be small enough to ignore, but when the culture is unhealthy, it’s difficult or impossible to hire the one person who matters most, the one who doesn’t think like all the rest. The need for uniformity is a sign of insecurity on the part of management. Strong managers don’t care when team members cut their hair or whether they wear ties, their pride is tied only to their staff’s accomplishments.

Entropy is levelness or sameness: the more it increases, the less potential there is to generate energy or do work. In the corporation or other organization, entropy can be thought of as uniformity of attitude, appearance and thought process. There is not much you can do about this as a global phenomenon, but you’ve got to fight it within your own domain. The most successful manager is the one who shakes up the local entropy to bring in the right people and let them be themselves, even though they may deviate from the corporate norm.

Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister – Peopleware

Aptitude tests and leadership

If it’s so important that the new hire be good at the various skills used in the job, why not design an aptitude test to measure those skills? The software industry has had a long, irregular flirtation with the idea of aptitude testing. In the sixties, the idea was positively in vogue but by now the organizations have begun to give up on the concept, the main reason being that the tests measure the wrong thing. Aptitude tests are almost always oriented toward the tasks the person will perform immediately after being hired. They test whether he or she is likely to be good at statistical analysis or programming or whatever it is that’s required in the position. You can buy aptitude tests in virtually any technical area, and they all tend to have fairly respectable track records at predicting how well the new hire will perform (but if you buy a really popular one, be aware that the candidates might have studied it before).

A successful new hire might do those tasks for a few years but then it will move on to be a team leader, a product manager or a project head. In this scenario, that person might end up doing the tasks that the test measured for two years and then do other things for twenty.

The aptitude tests we’ve seen are mostly left-brain oriented. That’s because the typical things new hires do are performed largely in the left brain. The things they do later on in their career, however, are to a much greater degree right brain activities. Management, in particular, requires holistic thinking, heuristic judgment, and intuition based upon experience. So the aptitude test may give you people who perform better in the short term, but are less likely to succeed later on. Maybe you should use an aptitude test but hire only those who fail it.

Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister – Peopleware

This does not mean that the aptitude tests are no good or that you ought not to be using them: you should use them, just not for hiring. The typical aptitude test you buy or build can be a wonderful self-assessment vehicle for your people. Frequent interesting opportunities for private self-assessment are a must for workers in a healthy organization.

How to spot possible leaders

The best leadership (the kind that people can mention only with evident emotion and deep respect) can be exercised by people without positional power. Even though it happens outside the official hierarchy of delegated authority, we can look for signs that can reveal great leadership potential (follow them if you want to lead even without anyone appointing you leader):

  • Step up to the task;
  • Be evidently fit for the task;
  • Prepare for the task by doing the required homework ahead of time;
  • Maximize value to everyone;
  • Do it all with humor and obvious goodwill;
  • (optional) It also helps to have charisma.

B. How to retain the best employees

For the individuals considering a change in job, the reasons can be as many and varied as the personalities involved, but for the organizations with high turnover (above 30%), the reason is usually either
a just-passing-through mentality of the employee or a feeling of disposability: management can only think of its workers as interchangeable parts (since turnover is so high, nobody is indispensable). Who could be loyal to an organization that views its people as parts?

The insidious effect here is that turnover engenders turnover. People leave quickly, so there’s no use spending money on training. Since the company has invested nothing in the individual, the individual thinks nothing of moving on. New people are not hired for their extraordinary qualities, since replacing extraordinary qualities is too difficult. The feeling that the company sees nothing extraordinary in the worker makes him feel unappreciated as an individual and if his other colleagues are leaving all the time, he might start to think that it is something wrong with him if he is still there the next year.

People tend to stay at such companies because there is a widespread sense that you are expected to stay. The company invests hugely in your personal growth: there may be a Master’s program or an extensive training period for new hires, as much as a year in some places. A common feature of companies with the lowest turnover is widespread retraining. We may find a lot of managers and officers who started out as secretaries, or payroll clerks, and many of the experienced developers may have started as QA engineers. Students came into the company often right out of school, but when they needed new skills to make a change, the company provided them. It seems like No job is a dead end. It may seem cheaper in the short run to fire the person who needs retraining and hire someone else who already has the required skills and most organizations do just that, but the best organizations do not. They realize that retraining helps to build the mentality of permanence that results in low turnover and a strong sense of community.

Articulating the contract to young workers is going to be essential to give them a chance to fit in

But there is a group of employees that require special attention: the new generation. They think differently than those before them did at their age, and given that they grew up with the newest technology, they might have other aspirations, mentality, habits and way of working. Specifying the importance of making progress in their work and that allocating a 2% block of the time to Facebook is better than having 2% of their attention on social media during the entire day might seem common-sense for the “old generation”, but in this case it really is something that must be stressed out. If this is not done right, the new recruits may misunderstand or overlook some rules that are vital to the organization and that can get them closer to a termination of their contract.

Articulating the contract to young workers is going to be essential to give them a chance to fit in. If work needs to be done in flow, then your people need to be ready to focus. Continuous-partial-attention periods have to be defined as personal time off, acceptable within limits during the workday. The rest of the workday is for, well, work.

Tom DeMarco & Timothy Lister – Peopleware

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