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Posts tagged ‘opinion’

10
Jul

Deadlines: All Taking, No Giving

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It’s pretty much an open secret that in software development, asinine (and sometimes completely outrageous) deadlines, like estimates, are a way of life. The comic below shows what is–sadly–a typical representation of your average private sector software engineer.

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That being said, it should come as no surprise that everybody has advice on how to try and combat the problem. From TechRepublic‘s 10 tips for meeting IT project deadlines to the utilization of agile software methodologies (see Deadlines in Agile by Stephan Kristiansen). Besides the usual suspects of scope creep, inept employees and managers, and micromanagement from both up top and from the customer. But for the most part, it’s typically managers that cause the most issues, sometimes through no fault of their own (for instance, if the company is riding on the release of a product, it’s either get it done or everyone is out of a job, and us developers don’t get golden parachutes).

A typical communication flow, ideally, would look like below. The bold red arrows represent directives, requirements, and specifications for the project (e.g., deadlines). The thinner black lines represent feedback. This is then processed and sent back down through the bold red arrows.

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This is what it looks like in real life, at least from my perspective based on my experiences.

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The thickest red lines are the same before. The thinner (but still thick, cause I like ’em thicc) red lines represent pressure, chastising, or other negative reactions. Notice that there is no feedback loop, only a one way path. This phenomenon is called shit rolls downhill. It is a common trope among any team that develops a product.

Some may argue that the idea is to get a product out the door before a competitor eats your lunch. While I agree with that, it can also be argued that getting a quality product out the door that stands apart from your competitors is just as important. To achieve this balance between speed of delivery and quality. Always refer back to the Good/Cheap/Fast paradigm:

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I can appreciate that people up top have a vision. I, and many other developers like me, want that vision to become a reality because we share it, too (in most cases; I’m not naive to the fact that some of us just want a paycheck). But reality can be disappointing, and because we live in that reality management has to be open to the fact that some things just cannot be helped. It’s fine you want a deadline, but you have to be realistic about it.

But they try to get around this.

Next time, we’ll examine the Good/Cheap/Fast paradigm and the Mythical Man Month and how wily managers try to cheat the system.

 

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1
Jul

The Love/Hate Relationship with Estimates

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Love ’em or hate ’em, estimates are a manager’s best friend and an engineer’s (developer/producer/whipping post) nightmare.

And they’re not going anywhere.

Reading the comment section on Hacker News today on the article Dear Agile, I’m Tired of Pretending by Charles Lambdin when the subject on estimations came up. Specifically, this comment by bougiefever:

I’ve been developing software for over 20 years, and I still can’t estimate how long something will take me when I’ve never done it before. This uncertainty needs to become more than just a stick to beat developers about the head and shoulders with. Most of the time the PMs understand this, but there have been many projects where they just don’t get it. I have suffered great anxiety from being forced to give estimates when the truth is I have no clue. It depends on how easy it is and how many unforeseen issues I encounter. It was so bad that once my husband asked me how long it would be before I was done cooking something, and I practically had a meltdown. That’s when I knew it was time to leave that team. Can we stop pretending we can forecast the unknown?

This was countered by xwdv:

No.

Even bad estimates are better than no estimates. If you are having meltdowns your reputation is being tied too closely to your ability to give estimates.

You must never turn estimates into a promise, always remind people they are estimates. (Emphasis mine –ATH)

Want to give fast estimates? Here’s how:

1) first determine the scale of the task? Is it a year, month, week or day kind of task?

2) Then, it’s just 3 of those units. The smallest task takes 3 days. One day to completely fuck up, one day to figure out why, one day to get right. The longest takes 3 years. One year to fuck it all up, one year to learn why, one year to finish it.

I suggest never giving estimates in units smaller than a day. They just become noise. If a task is smaller than dayscale just say the task is too small to provide any meaningful estimate but won’t take more than a day.

And lastly, to help solidify the talking points of this post, this response to the above by bb88:

> Even bad estimates are better than no estimates.

No estimate is clearly better. (Emphasis mine –ATH) Here’s a common story I’ve seen across multiple companies.

1. Marketing management asks Engineering management how long it takes to do feature X so they know when to launch the online ad campaign.

2. Engineering management then asks potentially good coder how long it will take. Coder replies with a time and “it’s just an estimate.”

3. Engineering management reports to Marketing that coder’s estimate leaving off the most important caveat, and Marketing treats that as the gospel truth.

4. Coder takes longer than expected because of some bad technical cruft that some other engineer put in because he was potentially rushed or just plain inept.

5. Marketing is pissed because they now have to withdraw the ad campaign, and starts blaming engineering.

6. Under increased scrutiny, Engineering gets a bad reputation, who then throws the coder under the bus in front of Marketing and other managers.

7. This shows up on the coder’s annual review who then leaves.

8. Engineering hires replacement which will have a 3-6 month learning cycle, and potentially writes worse code than the person that just left.

EDIT: The point is that if there’s no estimate, management has to deal with the uncertainty that the coder experiences. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.

There are two distinct statuses that a software developer will be looked upon by those outside of their respective realm within an organization: as wizards that can turn out miraculous, spectacular(?) software, or as insufferable buffoons who seem to forget that in some cases people’s lives are in their hands and yet they still manage to drop the ball.

This is why I hate it when the upper echelon of my current employer call me “the man”–this placing of me on a pedestal is dangerous and sets a very bad precedent of me being a 24×7 miracle worker. I’m not the Jesus of software engineering, folks.

With estimates, in response to xwdv, while you, the programmer, may reach a mutual agreement with the individual or group requesting the estimate that it is in no way, shape, or form, a concrete definite obligation that it’s going to fall within that time frame, that agreement is moot when they go and construct it as a promise to the next party, whether it be upper management, the customer, or your own mother. And this has led to some small uprisings in the software development community, such as the #NoEstimates movement. From the article Estimates? We Don’t Need No Stinking Estimates! by Scott Rosenberg:

The annals of software-project history are packed with epic train-wrecks. The best-documented ones are in the public sector, including the FAA and the FBI and Healthcare.gov. Private industry is better at keeping its pain to itself, but when the full tales of slow-motion belly-flops like Microsoft’s Windows Vista get told, it isn’t pretty. The most-cited numbers on software-project failure are those of the Standish Group, a consulting outfit that reported that in 2012 only 39 percent of software projects were considered “successful.”

Late software projects run up costs, incur collateral damage and sometimes take down entire companies. And so the software industry has devoted decades to waging a war on lateness — trying frontal assault, enfilade, sabotage, diplomacy and bribes, and using tactics with names such as object oriented programming, the Rational Unified Process, open-source, agile and extreme programming.

Estimates play a part in nearly all of these approaches. Estimates are the siege-engines of the war on lateness. If we use them carefully and patiently and relentlessly, the hope is, maybe, eventually, we’ll win.

Why is software so late? One venerable intellectual tradition in the field says the answer lies in software’s very nature. Since code costs nothing to copy, programmers are, uniquely, always solving new problems. If the problem already had a solution, you’d just grab a copy from the shelf. On top of that, we have a very hard time saying when any piece of software is “done.”

Non-engineers need to understand that software development is not an exact science; a lot of it involves trial-and-error. When the stakes are high, we need time to ensure that everything is copacetic. I know this advice is going to fall on deaf ears no matter how many times I try to teach management and others about how this industry works, but I know you, dear reader, will agree. In any case, perhaps this is a case for business coaches to start teaching their clients about software estimation and project management.

Whatever the case, estimations are not going anywhere, period. Otherwise, you’ll get pie-in-the-sky vaporware that, if it ever does come out, fails to live up to its expectations (“You spent X [months/years] on it! Why does it suck!”) and becomes yet another argument for either waterfall estimation or agile burndown charts (Duke Nukem Forever anyone?). The lack of estimations is merely cannon fodder for management to rubber stamp you as incompetent and find some other schmuck to make that promise. Worse yet, when that check bounces, you’ll still bear the majority brunt of the blow back.

If that’s the case, you might as well project something insane and walk it back. Hey, under-promise and over-deliver, right?

 

12
May

Data Centers: Huge Economic Impact for Who?

I was reading the article Why data centers fail to bring new jobs to small towns by Alison DeNisco Rayome.

 

In Boydton, VA, recently profiled in the New York Times, Microsoft recently built a large data center housing thousands of computer servers.

People thought when Microsoft came in it would create jobs, but that’s just not the case,” said E.W. Gregory, the head of the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union. Instead, they brought in outside technicians to do most of the work, he added. About 25 local residents got jobs, primarily as administrative assistants or janitorial staff, Gregory said.

Hundreds of Boydton residents lost jobs in recent years, as several factories and a prison closed. Gregory said he believes Microsoft chose the town for a data center primarily because “land was cheap.”

It helps the community to a point, because restaurants, gas stations, and hotels are getting more business,” Gregory said. “The people are nice and hard working, but there is no industry for them to work in.

 

This is a subject that I can relate to as I’m from the area where Facebook plopped down a data center outside the rural town of Forest City, North Carolina. The chatter from elected officials and Facebook themselves was that this would be a boon for the local economy and create numerous new jobs. But, while the temporary outsourcing of local construction laborers was a small uptick, the same problem that was experienced by E. W. Gregory appeared. Data centers are, more or less, gigantic network closets. There is simply no need for that many technical staff. In any case, Facebook continued expansion projects, with the latest being as recent as 2016. An estimated “125 full-time jobs [and] full-time third party (sic) contractor positions” would be created. This is in a county with a population of around 65,000 with a workforce of roughly 26,000 people. Therefore, the presence of Facebook will theoretically have a 0.004% positive impact on a county that is already below the poverty line. Data USA states that the 2017 median household income was $38,573 (USD), which is $19,079 (USD) less than the median income of the country as a whole. The outlier in this instance is the Lake Lure area, which comprises the western half of the county (see below). Forest City (and my subsequent hometown of Ellenboro) is center and right.

Income by Location (Rutherford County, NC)

What an impact that data center is having, huh? When examining the most common and most specialized jobs, there was no change in the years since the data center’s operation:

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I should also mention that Walmart is the biggest employer in the county. So why did Facebook choose Rutherford County and why did the county commissioners (and Duke Energy) bend over backwards to give them so much economic incentive? The answer is always the same: taxes. From the article Study: Facebook Data Center in North Carolina Has Massive Economic Impact, we see that $198,000 were added to local property tax rolls and $336,000 tax was paid on electricity usage (the state managed to get $194,000 in franchise taxes). The article goes on to boast that “[o]ver three years (since the site went live in April 2012) the data center resulted in addition of 4,700 across North Carolina, including direct creation of 2,600 jobs.”

Am I mad that Facebook built a data center in my former back yard? Hardly. I don’t live there and they are free to purchase land and set up shop wherever they want. What does irritate me is when they (in conjunction with the local government) start blowing smoke up the collective asses of the local populace. Of course, this is the same populace who keeps voting in the aforementioned local government, but what do I know? Apparently what’s good for the county’s (and state’s) goose is good for the gander.

So the next time someone suggests to you that a new data center is going to turn the town on its head and make waves, take it with a grain of salt.

Better yet, smack them with a car battery.