Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Individuals Over People

I've been pondering a few different ideas lately that all center around a common theme: to be maximally effective you need to identify and allow people to focus on their strengths.

I hear you: thanks Captain Obvious.

If you are reading this it's likely that you're familiar with the phrase "Individuals and interactions over processes and tools" from the Agile Manifesto. I'm sure we agree in principle, but I'm not sure we're talking about the same thing. In fact, it's more common to hear "people over process" when discussing Agile, which I believe is more appropriate for describing the value that Agile brings.

Agile emphasizes people (as a group) over processes and tools. However, there's little room for "individuals" on the Agile teams I've been a part of. I can provide several anecdotes -
  • When pair-programming with someone who prefers a Dvorak layout a compromise must be made.
  • When pair-programming with someone who prefers a different IDE a compromise must be made.
  • Collective code ownership implies anyone can work on anything, which often leads to inefficient story selection. (e.g. the business accidentally gives a card to someone who isn't ideally skilled for the task. Or, a developer decides to work on a card they aren't ideally skilled for despite other better suited and equally important outstanding cards)
  • Collective code ownership requires a lowest common denominator technology selection. (e.g. If 3 out of 5 people know Ruby and 5 out of 5 know Clojure, selecting Ruby for any application, even when it's the appropriate choice, is likely to be met by resistance)
  • Collective code ownership requires a lowest common denominator coding style selection. Let's be honest, it's easy to code in a language such as Ruby without a deep understanding of metaprogramming and evaluation. Both metaprogramming and evaluation are powerful; however, you can only take advantage of that power if you are sure everyone on the team is comfortable with both techniques.
I could ramble on a bit more, but hopefully you get my point.

I'm still a believer in Agile. It's the best way I know how to take an average performing team and put them on a path to becoming a well performing team. However, I think the Agile practices also put a ceiling on how effective a team can be. Perhaps my favorite anecdote: Ola Bini believes he is 10x faster when using Emacs as compared to IntelliJ - when writing Java! 10x is huge, so what does he use when he's pairing: IntelliJ. If there's knowledge transfer occurring then perhaps the 10x reduction in delivery speed is a good decision; however, if he's pairing with someone of a similar skill level who isn't statistically likely to maintain the code in the future it's a terrible choice. Ola is programming at 1/10 of his possible efficiency for no reason other than it's the Agile way.

Clearly, it's gray area - the knowledge transfer level will vary drastically based on who he's pairing with and what they are pairing on. That's the important point - people are more important than processes, but individuals are the most important. If you want to achieve maximum productivity you'll need to constantly reevaluate what the most effective path is based on the individuals that make up your team.

If you already agree with the ideas above then you're probably familiar with the idea that you need to learn all the rules to know when to break them. That's an old idea as well. Unfortunately, I don't see much written on this topic in the software development world. The last 3 years of my life have been lesson after lesson of how smart people can break the Agile rules and get much larger gains as a result. I've decided to tag posts that cover this subject as "Individuals over People". There are even a few historical entires available at http://blog.jayfields.com/search/label/individuals%20over%20people.

Hopefully these ideas will spark a few discussions and inspire other post-Agile developers to post their experiences as well.
Post a Comment