patkua@work

The intersection of technology and leadership

Category: Organisations (page 1 of 5)

The Trident Model of Career Development

Careers ladders are all the rage in software firms. They create structure and shared expectations around different levels. Like any model, career ladders have pros and cons. Career ladders are a starting point for shared expectations across an organisation. However career ladders cannot be comprehensive, as people are unique, like snowflakes. People bring their different strengths and experiences to what they do. Everyone will do this differently. As a result, I like to explain that levels in a career ladder do not represent a checklist. Rather, levels reflect how people can have a different impact in an organisation in different ways.

In my most recent talk, “Talking with Tech Leads,” I explain how, some companies have a two-track career model. Two tracks are great, as they allow for more development and growth in different areas. Most of the research I did seemed to focus on two main tracks. In Silicon Valley they refer to these as Individual Contributor (IC) and Management tracks. I actually don’t think a two-track ladder is enough. This is why I present you the Trident Career Model below.

The Trident Model of Career Development

The Trident Career Model has three tracks. Each track represents where people spend most of their time or energy.

The Management Track

In this track, people spend a majority of their time (70-80%) on management activities. This still includes leading people, supporting people, managing structures & processes and organising. People in this track must still have some background in the topic they are managing.

Most importantly, their main value add is not necessarily through making decisions related to the specialist field (e.g. system architecture). Instead, they manage the surrounding system & structure to ensure people closest to the work have the best context and information to make better decisions. They provide enough support, time and/or budget to enable others to do what they do best.

Example roles in this track: Engineering Manager, VP Engineering, IT Manager

The Technical Leadership Track

In this track, people spend a majority of their time (70-80%) leading people on a technical topic. People in this track must have relevant hands-on technical skills and experience. They should have good but not necessarily the best skills in the team they are leading. People in this track draw heavily on refined leadership skills to be successful. Classic activities for this role (in the field of software) include:

  • Establishing a Technical Vision
  • Managing technical risks
  • Clarifying/uncovering technical requirements
  • Ensuring non-technical stakeholders understand technical constraints, trade-offs or important decisions
  • Growing technical knowledge and cultivating knowledge sharing in and across teams

Example roles in this track: Lead Developer, Tech Lead, Principal Engineer, Software Architect

The True Individual Contributor (IC) Track

In this track, people spend a majority of they time (70-80%) focused on “Executing/Doing”. Software engineers early in their career reflect this very well. This track still requires people to have excellent communication and collaboration skills. People in this track have impact through the deep/detailed knowledge or skills they offer. Most small companies do not need a deep IC track, as there is no need for specialisation. As an organisation grows, they may need more of these roles. The number of these roles will always be smaller than the other two tracks in a well-functioning organisation.

Example roles in this track: DB Specialist, Performing Tuning Specialist, Domain Specialist.

Conclusion

This model is indeed a simplification. In real life, the Management and the Technical Leadership tracks are not always so clearly separate. I know some companies where Engineering Managers also take Technical Leadership responsibilities, or where Tech Leads or Lead Developers are also expected to take on Management responsibilities. This is not necessarily wrong.

I have personally found that, at scale, it is often hard to find people who have deep skills and experiences at both of these areas, and that it can be useful to have a discussion around where someone’s focus, passion or development progression lies.

As the famous quote goes:

All models are wrong, some are useful.

George EP Box

I have found this Trident Model a useful starting point to contrast differences in roles or expectations. Considering using this model:

  • To develop skills in an area you may want to work
  • When building out your own company’s Career Ladder
  • To explain differences/focuses on existing roles and responsibilities

I hope you found this post interesting. Please leave a comment about your thoughts of the Trident Model of Career Development.

Learning about More with LeSS

Background

I took part in a three day course before Christmas to better understand Large Scale Scrum (LeSS). LeSS’ tagline is “More with LeSS”. I’m pessimistic about most “Scaling Agile Frameworks.” Many give organisations an excuse to relabel their existing practices as “agile.” Not to fundamentally change them. Bas Vodde (one of the founders of LeSS’) invited me to take part in a course just before Christmas. I took him up on the offer to hear it “From the horse’s mouth.”

This article summarises my notes, learnings and reflections from the three day course. There may be errors and would encourage you to read about it yourself on their LeSS website, or post a comment at the end of this article.

About the Trainer

I met Bas Vodde about a decade ago. We met at one of the Retrospective Facilitator’s gathering. He is someone who, I believe, lives the agile values and principles and has been in the community for a long time. He still writes code, pair programming with teams he works with. He has had a long and successful coaching history with many companies. He worked with huge organisations where many people build a single product together. Think of a telecommunications product, for example. Through his shared experiences with his co-founder, Craig Larman, they distilled these ideas into what is now called LeSS.

What I understood about LeSS?

LeSS evolved from using basic Scrum in a context with many many teams. I took away there are three common uses of the term LeSS.

  • LeSS (The Complete Picture) – The overview of LeSS including the experimental mindset, guides, rules/framework, and principles. See the the main website, Less.
  • LeSS (The Rules/Framework) – The specifics of how you operate LeSS. See LeSS Rules (April 2018).
  • LeSS (for 2-8 teams) – Basic LeSS is abbreviated to LeSS and is optimised for 2-8 teams. They have LeSS Huge for 8+ teams, and modifications to the rules. See LeSS Huge.

Practices & Rituals in LeSS

LeSS has a number of practices and rituals as part of its starting set of rules. Some of these include:

  • A single prioritised Backlog – All teams share a single backlog with a priority managed by the Product Owner.
  • Sprint Planning 1 – At the end of this, teams have picked which Backlog Items they work on during a sprint.
  • Sprint Planning 2 – All teams do this separately. Like in Scrum, Sprint Planning 2 focuses on the design and creation of tasks for their Sprint.
  • Daily Scrum – Each team runs their own Daily scrum as per standard Scrum.
  • Backlog Refinement – Teams clarify what customers/stakeholders need. Good outcomes include Backlog Items refined into sizes where teams can take 4/5 into a Sprint. LeSS encourages groups, made up of different team members, to refine Backlog Items. This maximises knowledge sharing, learning and opportunities to collaborate.
  • Sprint Review – Teams showcase their work to customers/stakeholders for feedback. The Product Owner works to gather feedback and reflect this in the overall Backlog. Sprint Reviews should not be treated as an approval gate. It’s about getting more input or ideas.
  • Sprint Retrospective – Each team runs their own retrospective. As per standard Scrum.
  • Overall Retrospective – Members from every team plus management hold a retrospective. This retrospective focuses on the system and improving the overall system.
  • Shared Definition of Done – All teams share an overall Definition of Done, which they can also update. Teams can build on the basis of the shared Definition of Done.
  • Sprint – There is only one sprint in LeSS, so by definition all teams synchronise on the same sprint cadence.

Roles in LeSS

  • Scrum Master – Like in Scrum, LeSS has the Scrum Master whose goal is to coach, enable and help LeSS run effectively. The Scrum Master is a full time role up of up to 3 teams.
  • Product Owner – The Product Owner is the role responsibility for the overall Backlog prioritisation
  • Area Product Owner – In LeSS (Huge), Area Product Owners manage the priority of a subsection of the Backlog. They also align with the Product Owner on overall priorities.
  • Team – There are no explicit specialist roles in LeSS, other than the team (and its members).

Principles of LeSS

A key part of LeSS is the principles that guide decisions and behaviours in the organisation. People can make better decisions when taking these principles into account. You can read more about LeSS’ principles here. Like many other agile ways of working, Transparency is a key principle. Unlike other agile methods, LeSS calls upon both System Thinking and Queuing Theory as principles. Both are useful bodies of knowledge that create more effective organisations.

Another explicit difference is the principle of the Whole Product Focus. This reminds me very much of Lean Software Development’s Optimise the Whole principle. I also like very much the description of More with LeSS principle. This principle challenges adding more roles, rules and artefacts. So think carefully about these!

Overall observations

  • In LeSS, having LeSS specialisations is a good thing. This encourages more distributed knowledge sharing.
  • LeSS explicitly priorities feature teams over component teams to maximise the delivery of end to end value. Both have trade-offs.
  • LeSS doesn’t explicitly include technical practices in it’s rules. It assumes organisations adopt modern engineering practices. To quote their website, “Organizational Agility is constrained by Technical Agility.”
  • A lot of LeSS has big implications about organisational design. Agile teams showed how cross-functional teams reduce waste by removing hand-off. LeSS will be even more demanding on organisations and their structure.

LeSS Huge

The creators of LeSS made LeSS Huge because they found a Product Owner was often a constraint. Since Product Owner’s focus on prioritisation, it’s hard to keep an overview and manage the priority of 100+ Backlog Items. (Note that teams still do the clarification, not the Product Owner). With 8+ teams, they found even good Product Owners could not keep on top of the ~100+ refined Backlog Items (which normally covers the next 3+ sprints).

LeSS Huge addresses this by introducing Categories (aka an Area). Each Backlog Item has its own category, and each category then has an Area Product Owner to manage the overview and prioritisation of Backlog Items in that category.

Guidelines for creating an area:

  • This should be purely customer centric
  • Often grouped by stakeholder, or certain processes
  • Could be organised by a certain market or product variant
  • No area in LeSS Huge should have less than 4 teams

Conclusions

After taking the course, I have a much stronger understanding of LeSS’ origins and how it works. After the course, it feels much LeSS complex than when I first read about it on their website. It includes many principles which I run software teams by. I can also see many parallels to what I have done with larger organisations and LeSS. I can also see how LeSS is a challenging framework for many organisations. I would definitely recommend larger product organisations draw inspiration from LeSS. I know I will after this course.

6 Lessons Learned in my year as CTO at N26

Life has been a bit of a whirlwind trip in the last year. I moved cities (London to Berlin). I started a new role as a CTO. I transitioned from 14 years of consulting into a management role. I joined the hyper-growth startup, N26 – the mobile bank the world loves to use.   It’s been exciting to particularly see the company growth. Our customer base has grown from 500K+ users to more than 1 million. Our users transact more than €1B in currency. We’ve expanded our offices from Berlin to New York. We also announced moving to Barcelona and this is only the beginning. 

In this blog entry, I will share my personal lessons learned on the rollercoaster ride from this year. 

1. Management overlaps with leadership, but is different

Over the almost 14 years of consulting, I spoke all the time about leadership. I still believe that anyone can be a leader. Leading is less about a title, and more about how you act. In my role, I also better appreciate the important role of effective manager. Google even proved that effective management matters.

I still think great managers are also great leaders. We try to test for this at N26 during our interviewing process. We hold our managers accountable for having difficult conversations. We want them to be kind, not only nice.  We want managers to nurture an environment of candid feedback. Great managers manage things and lead people. Managers, unlike coaches or consultants are also held accountable for this. 

2. Hypergrowth stretches everyone

I’ve definitely grown over this year. Our company has also grown rapidly (both with users and people). Hypergrowth means people have opportunities for new tasks. We are also not the first company to experience this. The community has been very generous with sharing their knowledge. I will contribute more to this in the future too, as I build on lessons learned.

I have found myself repeating, “The company will grow much faster than people.” 

With this in mind, I have tried to support, develop and grow as many people as possible. At the same time, I’ve focused on bringing in new skills and experiences that we need. Combining a learning workforce with experienced people is tremendously powerful.

3. Really underscore the Why, not just the What

I believe very much in Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why.” A group of brilliant, collaborative problem solvers will end up with a better idea if they understand why.  You can, of course, still give your input. Your role as a leader it to explain the context. Or to clarify the goal or problem. Not just the solution.

I’ve seen too many technical debates fail because they first didn’t agree on the problem. Agree on why, then move on to what. 

In a fast moving startup, I found people underrate listening. Listening and asking questions are my most powerful tools as a leader.

4. Investing in people has exponential returns

I always try to be generous with my knowledge and experience. I’ve particularly enjoyed helping people grow. Sometimes it’s required tough, candid conversations. Effective feedback helps people grow. Coaching and training helps people see potential they don’t see. It’s been wonderful to help people discover, test and practice tools that make them more successful. 

I’m proud of N26’s technical leaders (both formal and informal). I’m impressed with how people have rapidly grown. I’m also impressed with what they do to pass it on.

5. What got you here, won’t get you there

I read the book, “What got you here, won’t get you there” many years ago. It’s message resonated with me during this year. Startups often go through several phases, “Start Up, Scale up, and Optimise” is how I like to think of it. We are definitely in the Scale Up phase. This phase demands different thinking. 

Acting as if we were in the Start Up phase no longer scales. It’s an educational journey for many people. At scale, you can no longer manage every single situation. At scale, you can no longer make all the decisions. At scale, you have to decide on where you will have the greatest impact. At scale (as a manager), you make less, and need to focus on multiplying more. 

6. Focus on Capabilities, not just People

In Hypergrowth, it’s too easy to hire lots of people. I am wary of this after reading the Mythical Man Month many many years ago. As a manager, I first focus on understanding what capabilities we need. I also think about how those capabilities are best met. Be clear on what you need before hiring people. 

Focusing on what you need helps you find the right people. It also helps those people be clear about how they will be successful. 

Conclusion

I have learned many other lessons in this year as a CTO. The six lessons above reflect some of the major themes for this past year that I hope you many learn from.

I’m super proud of the people I work with. I’m super proud of the product we produce. It’s been a great ride so far, and it’s only the beginning of the journey.


Book Review: Accelerate

I first heard about this book when I saw Jez Humble (@jezhumble) keynote at OOP earlier this year. You will get significant value from this book. Jez has already made many contributions to our industry. He introduced Continuous Delivery (CD) and the Lean Enterprise. He also helped shape the field of DevOps, as we know it today.

The Science of DevOps: Accelerate Book

Think about this book as a very readable academic paper, based on the long-running State of DevOps report.

Rigour in its research method

The book describes how the authors gathered vast data and their research methods. They discuss their observations and lead you to their conclusions, with concrete examples. The author shared how some of their assumptions turned out false. An example is the study showing how there is a positive correlation with Trunk-Based Development (TBD) and quality. This technical book is a rare gem based on rigorous research methods. Nicole Forsgren obviously had a large impact on the book

I’m amazed at how rich their raw dataset is. The authors draw on four years of data from many responses around the world. Their sample size towers over many academic studies. Many academics rely on student control groups instead of real industry data. Rarely academics also get to study a few companies or teams within a single company. The wealth of the raw data gives more weight to the report’s authenticity and credibility.

Martin Fowler highlights one point in the Foreword which I agree with. Even though the survey raw data comes from many sources, it is still self-assessed. Self-assessments are naturally biased by Dunning-Kruger effects.

Strong guidance and good advice

Our industry struggles with useful performance measures in IT. Metrics are either irrelevant or drive poor behaviours. This book debunks false prophets like Gartner’s Bi-Modal IT. Spoiler: You can got fast AND have quality, unlike normal assumptions. The book, Accelerate, gives strong suggestions for useful KPI measures. The authors present convincing conclusions that any modern technology firm should take on. This book gives many ideas to improve software and organisational architectures, and processes.

Many studies such as this focus only on the technical practices (such as CD or TBD). Many experience people realise a focus on technical practices is not enough. They realise organisational processes or structures constrain the value technical practices bring. To make the most of technical practices, management must look at their processes and structures. (Disclaimer: We address this topic in our book about Building Evolutionary Architectures). Maybe it’s confirmation bias, but the chapter on Transformational Leadership is super important.

Here’s an simple example why. Imagine you have an organisation with a Head of Development and Head of Operations. Each have hundreds of people with different reporting structures and processes. If the Heads do not support new initiative like DevOps, collaboration won’t move very far.

Conclusion

I found this book extremely easy to digest. I wanted to read more about their research methods. The authors convinced me of their conclusions and made them come to life with concrete examples. I highly recommend this book for any technology executive in the modern world. Accelerate sets the standards for measuring the performance of technology firms in 2018.

Starting as CTO at N26

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be taking on the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) role for N26 (formerly Number26), Europe’s first mobile bank with a full European banking license, and who is setting new standards in banking.

I’m joining an exciting and talented team based in Berlin, Germany – one of the favourite start-up cities in Europe. In my new role, I’ll draw upon more than a decade of my consulting experiences with the well-respected and industry-changing technology firm, ThoughtWorks – best known for leading the adoption of agile ways of working (particularly its technical practices), publishing open-source software like CruiseControl (the first widely used Continuous Integration servers) and Selenium (well-known automated web-testing tools), and sharing ideas through books like Continuous Delivery and the Lean Enterprise. I’m really looking forward to applying my experiences guiding organisational design, building evolutionary architectures, developing technical leaders all while sustainably delivering value for our customers.

What will be different?

After many years as a consultant, I realise that working with a product organisation is a different beast. I look forward to having some responsibility to instigate and guide changes throughout the organisation and living out the long-term consequences (both good and bad!) of my actions. I know that this is often a missing feedback loop for consulting. In my role, I’ll be able to invest more in challenging and growing people and building out new technical and organisational capabilities.

I also look forward to spending a bit more time “at home”. I still expect to travel for my new role, still speak at some conferences but I hope I will have a bit more say as to when and where I’ll travel to, based on our business needs rather than where clients happen to be based. Did I mention that I’ll also be based in Berlin, and it’s a great city with a very good balanced lifestyle? I might even get a chance to further develop my German again.

Why FinTech and N26?

As a consultant, I was always skeptical about having significant long-term impact on established financial companies. With teams, or parts or the organisations, yes. With a 10,000+ person company, less so. The exciting part about working with N26 is that I will work with a strong management team to prevent unnecessary bureaucracy and to let people focus on adding value to the product and organisation. We benefit from not supporting certain types of legacy, and building software with Continuous Delivery and modern technologies first. I’ll be helping guide us away from the traps and pitfalls I have seen many customers suffer from in the last decade.

The N26 Black Card

I also like the fact that N26 is growing fast, and has already proven to meet customer needs, where all growth has been organic so far with very little advertising. Did you know that we recently hit 500,000 customers (PDF)? It’s also one of the first mobile-first startup banks with a European banking licence, which opens up a world of opportunity that a lot of other FinTech banking products do not yet have.

Here’s what TechCrunch wrote two years ago:

N26 (Number26) could be the best banking experience in europe – Tech Crunch

Bank of the future

In case you can’t tell, I’m really delighted to be leading the technology organisation behind the bank of the future. The team has already accomplished a lot so far, and I look forward to working with the team to do even more. We’re going to build an exciting place to work in the FinTech sector and have a huge impact on our ever-growing customer base across Europe. If you’d like to be a part of the N26 team and join me on this journey, did I mention that we are hiring?

Drop me a line on twitter @patkua (DM’s open), or on my email address if you’re even curious. Berlin’s a great city to live and N26 is a great place to work while you’re there.

Book Review: Scaling Teams

This weekend I finished reading Scaling Teams by Alexander Grosse & David Loftesness.

I know Grosse personally and was looking forward to reading the book, knowing his own personal take on dealing with organisations and the structure.

tl;dr Summary

A concise book offering plenty of practical tips and ideas of what to watch out for and do when an organisation grows.

Detailed summary

The authors of the book have done a lot of extensive reading, research and talking to lots of other people in different organisations understanding their take on how they have grown their organisations. They have taken their findings and opinions and grouped them into five different areas:

  • Hiring
  • People Management
  • Organisational Structure
  • Culture
  • Communication

In each of these different areas, they describe the different challenges that organisations experience when growing, sharing a number of war stories, warning signs to look out for and different approaches of dealing with them.

I like the pragmatic approach to their “there’s no single answer” to a lot of their advice, as they acknoweldge in each section the different factors about why you might favour one option over another and there are always trade-offs you want to think about. In doing so, they make some of these trade-offs a lot more explict, and equip new managers with different examples of how companies have handled some of these situations.

There are a lot of links to reading materials (which, in my opinion, were heavily web-centric content). The articles were definitely relevant and up to date in the context of the topics being discussed but I would have expected that for a freshly published book. A small improvement would have been a way to have them all grouped together at the end in a referenced section, or perhaps, (hint hint), they might publish all the links on their website.

What I really liked about this book its wide reaching, practical advice. Although the book is aimed at rapidly growing start-ups, I find the advice useful for many of the companies we consult for, who are often already considered very succesful business.

I’ll be adding it to my list of recommended reading for leaders looking to improve their technology organisations. I suggest you get a copy too.

Types of Development Teams

In some of the Tech Lead courses I have held, we sometimes talk about leadership styles and whether or not the Tech Lead role is essential. During these discussions, one of the biggest influences on both style and necessity is the style of teams.

This article represents my current classification of teams I have seen over my years in industry.

One man army

A lonely developer working on a project by themselves. Most likely they are working on multiple projects and consequently multi-tasking, because that’s the way the organisation works. Often seen in organisations that are siloed. Technically not a team but treated as a part of a team.

Distributed

Distributed teams come in many shapes and sizes. Although distributed teams are similar to Off-Shore teams (see below), distributed teams tend to be a team spanning several locations. GitHub are an example of a distributed team (and organisation). Often seen with start-ups who are seeking talent not easily found in the same location.

A distributed team typically spans several timezone, making an “all-hands” meeting more difficult. Relies on asynchronous tooling such as chat software (e.g. IRC, Slack) and virtual task boards.

Off-Shore

An Off-Shore team is a distributed team in mainly two locations. Often used by many IT organisations as a “cost-cutting” tactic trading communication effectiveness. Sometimes an off-shore team is a historical artifact (company acquisition or expansion) and necessary to keep essential knowledge alive.

Off-shore teams often have better overlap with time zones that fully distributed teams, but often results in an us-and-them mentality.

The “Pod” shaped team

The “Pod” shaped team is a co-located team who that has most of the skills they need to deliver a project. The team often includes a PM, developers, analysts, testers and sometimes operation and support people. They are all working towards the same project at the same time. This reduces co-ordination and communication lag and makes software delivery more effective.

They are called a “pod” because they are kept to a certain size (typically less than 12 people) to keep communication overhead minimised.

Functional Silos

Functional silos are not representative of effective teams because people are grouped managerially and physically by skillset instead of by goal. Each group is managed by a separate person and in larger company, decision making and authority reaches several layers much higher into the organisational hierarchy. Collaborating and changing the way that a team working on the same project across functional silos becomes very difficult to change.

Typical functional silos often seen: PM (and their PMO), Analysis, Developers, QA, DBA, System Administrators, Network and Support.

The dark side of gaming metrics

I published an article a while ago on how to design for metrics, but I read this well-written, but article of horror, “Why drivers in China intentionally kill the pedestrians they hit.”

This article hits home about the reality of a population gaming a metric and what is leading to a shift in cultural values through their actions. The short story, if you don’t read the article is that it is apparently seen as more economical to pay for someone’s death, than for their healthcare overall combined with a low chance of apparently being caught for murder. Due to the economic cost, it has apparently become acceptable, or at least, very common for someone to finish someone off, rather than pay for what medical aid they made need.

Championing P3 on a panel at DevTalks Bucharest

On Thursday I was presenting at DevTalks Bucharest, a 550+ developer conference with four different stages. I shared the panel with a Sabin Popa (Cloud Strategy Leader at IBM) and there was supposed to be another panelist but they had withdrawn. The topic of the panel was, “Innovation and data privacy – Keeping innovation alive in Cloud!” We first presented a bit about ourselves and our companies, where I was talking about our three pillars: Sustainable Business (P1), Software Excellence (P2), and Social Justice (P3).

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of Phillipp Krenn (@xeraa)

I talked a lot about observations we see around the world with our clients – these stories really resonated with people, particularly because:

  • It is based in reality (and not just sales demonstrations or fancy presentations)
  • People are genuinely interested in what other people are doing around the world.

During the panel, I talked about the responsibilities that we have as developers for privacy, and the responsibilities that we have as educated citizens to get this on the agenda of our parliaments. I touched upon the idea of Datensparsamkeit and that we can use our knowledge to start raising awareness among our friends and families.

Although not meaning to, I found that I probably spent a lot of time talking on the panel – but mostly because both the moderator and the other panelist wanted to keep asking questions of me. I had suggested that Sabin also give his own thoughts about what they could be done about data privacy.

When we touched the topic of innovation in the cloud, the topic of certification came up – something that didn’t really surprise me. One statement was that all platforms would be certified in the future (for security) and that would be considered one form of innovation. Although useful, I challenged the position, talking about how certification gives false confidence – particularly in services and products where people are involved. I think certification is definitely useful for testing mechanical parts, for testing platforms and products that never change – but software is soft. It constantly involves and once a platform is certified, doesn’t mean it will continue to pass the same tests. I see a lot of companies sell certification as an easy answer and I believe it gives companies a false sense of confidence.

An interesting question posed to the panel is what would we do if we are asked by our company to do something that is borderline unethical but not doing the task puts our job at risk and the mention that there are many more people to do our role. This, for me, was an easy answer. I talked about our responsibility of being digitally-educated and responsible citizens of the world and talked about the bravery and confidence of people like Snowden. I challenged everyone we should think through the consequences of mindlessly doing tasks that we don’t believe in and not think about just the consequences of the job right now, but question the consequences for our family, friends and the world we are creating for future generations.

Roles, not People

Naming functions and methods are one of the hardest tasks developers need to take. A good name is hard to find, but with enough thought, is useful to show intent.

Likewise, the name for a given role is useful to help establish what that role is accountable for, and can help speed up communication when people have a common understanding of that role.

All models are wrong, but some are useful – George E.P. Box

Unfortunately there are two inherent problems with role titles:

  • People do not understand the role
  • Roles are not the same as people

Issue 1: People do not understand the role

One point of confusion is assumptions about what the role does or does not do. For example, a Project Manager might assume that the QA role will be responsible for a Testing Strategy. In another situation, a different Project Manager might assume the Tech Lead will be responsible for a Testing Strategy. In this case, different expectations could be a source of conflict about which role is responsible for the Testing Strategy.

Another example might be where the Tech Lead assumes the QA role is responsible for the Testing Strategy, and the QA role assumes the Tech Lead is responsible – resulting in no one really thinking about a Testing Strategy.

A great way mechanism to force a way forward is to run a “Roles & Responsibilities” session. I find an effective method to run one is:

  • As an entire team, brainstorm all the important activities that must be completed by the entire group. Ensure that one activity is written on a separate sticky note.
  • Brainstorm some names of roles and put them at the top of a whiteboard/flipchart next to each other. You may want to add a generic “Everyone” or “Team Member” role as well.
  • Ask everyone to place each activity under the roles they think should be responsible for the activity.
  • Walking the board, review each role one at a time and their activities, inviting discussion and disagreement about why the role should be/not be responsible for that particular activity.

This is a very useful exercise for helping to define, and articulate confusion around particular goals.

Issue 2: Roles are not the same as people

Another common failure mode of roles is where people assume that a role is the same as the person. On my business card, I have the title: Generalising Specialist because it’s true – although I consider myself a developer, architect or Principal Consultant, I am also much more than that.

Generalising Specialiast

Generalising Specialiast

People come with a whole bag of skills and experiences that sometimes fit into a particular role. Just as important as it is to understand a person’s strengths – it’s just as important to understand where their fit for a role is and the gaps. A person may be much more capable of playing several roles at once, or a role can be split among a group of people with the right set of skills and experiences.

Concluding thoughts

Remember that roles are a name we give to a collection of responsibilities and it doesn’t necessarily map to single people. A role may be split among people (where the responsibilities are distributed) but it is essential that everyone has the same understanding of who has those responsibilities.

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