Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Compatible Opinions on Software

I'm switching teams this month. I'll be working out of the DRW New York City office in the near future. I've been with my current team for almost 2 years, and I've learned plenty of valuable lessons. I'm not sure if the most valuable take-away centers around Compatible Opinions on Software; however, it's definitely the take-away that seems to remain in the fore-front of my memories.

The guys I work with in the DRW CT office are truly talented. Each individual on my team is someone I would consider to be a great software developer. As a result, we don't tend to have discussions on issues that where one answer is clearly right and another is clearly wrong. Instead, we often find ourselves in situations where one or more individuals have differing opinions and a "correct" answer cannot be found. Despite everyone being an excellent developer, several members of the team have incompatible opinions on software.

Here's the net result: Quality software. We aren't talking about a problem that caused projects to fail. On the contrary, our customer is very happy and the team is largely happy with the product we deliver. Unfortunately, as a teammate puts it, I seem to be immune to complacency. Even though things are good, I wont be satisfied until they are great. And, I feel that incompatible opinions on software is our largest production thief.

In general, it seems that anything can cause incompatible opinions. However, to make clear what I'm talking about, here is a short sample list of incompatible opinions I've run into:
  • powerful language vs. powerful IDE
  • monolithic application vs many small components
  • what level of duplication is acceptable, and why
  • specialization vs generalization
  • team size
For the majority of my career I've believed - if I work on a team of excellent developers everything will simply fall into place. I now believe that being technically excellent is only the first requirement. I also believe that you can have two technically excellent people who have vastly different opinions on the most effective way to deliver software.

Two developers who prefer a powerful language may or may not be more productive than two developers who prefer a powerful IDE. However, both of the previous pairs will be more productive than one developer who prefers a powerful language teamed up with one developer who prefers a powerful IDE.

I'm not talking about people who love IntelliJ but are perfectly willing to learn emacs. If you're open to working in emacs then you have a compatible opinion with an emacs zealot. I'm talking about people who have tried the opposing point of view and still have a strong opinion that it's not the best way to deliver software. Putting those people on the same team only ensures a never-ending battle about why things aren't as good as they could be.

Of course, having differing views can be a good thing. Diversity ensures all kinds of benefits. I'm not suggesting that you rid yourself of all diversity. However, for the sake of productivity, I suggest that you do your best to avoid working with someone who has both an opposing view and is as inflexible as you are on the subject. The more central the subject is to the project, the more likely it is that productivity will be lost.

Let's get back to a concrete example. For me personally, I strongly prefer Clojure to Java. That's not to say that Java doesn't have it's place, it does. But, if both languages are valid choices, I'll always opt for Clojure. Given that opinion, I'm more effective if I'm working with someone else that prefers Clojure to Java. The language decision is important to me, very central to the project, and likely to be an ongoing issue.

Building off of the previous example, I don't personally care if we use IntelliJ or Emacs. As long as the IDE or editor choice is a reasonable one, I'm happy to use whatever someone else on the team prefers. I welcome diversity on compatible opinions. In fact, it's likely that diversity on compatible opinions will lead to greater productivity as better solutions are found.

So what can you do? The obvious answers: I've started making a list of opinions that I'm less flexible about. If I'm interviewing for a teammate, I'll ask questions to ensure we have compatible opinions on software. If I'm interviewing for a new job, I'll ask the interviewers about their opinions on software. To a certain extent I've always asked these questions, but I think I'll have better results if I identify which of my opinions I'm less flexible about and focus a bit more on ensuring that there aren't any conflicts.

If you already have a team in place and aren't looking to leave it's a bit harder to resolve incompatible opinions on software. Depending on the size of your team, you may be able to split the team up into smaller groups of people who have compatible opinions on software. Obviously, this will depend on having enough people to allow for a split, and having software that can be logically divided. If you can pull this off, you also get the nice benefit of seeing the results from doing things differently, without having to change your approach until it makes sense for you.

At this point I've worked on three different teams that achieved a level of productivity greater than that of any other teams I've been a part of. Of course, there are several factors that contributed to the success of all three teams. However, all three teams had compatible opinions on software, and avoided an entire class of problems that erode productivity. You'd have a hard time convincing me that those two things weren't somehow related.

1 comment:

  1. I see where you're coming from and pretty much agree, but my guess is that most developers would love to be in a position where this is their biggest issue.


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