How to hire good people

Posted by Robert Merrill on October 25, 2008 under Concepts, Software-Intensive Businesses | Be the First to Comment

Seth Godin says that you should be careful who you work for, either as an employee or as a client.

Executives and managers, consider the corollary. If you want to hire and retain people with certain character qualities, talents, and skills, then you and your organization probably need to exhibit those. If you are lacking in some way, join the club. We all are. Character can be developed, and skills can be acquired. Talent? Find someone you trust, who has what you lack, and team up. They need you, too.

The Software Value Circle

Posted by Robert Merrill on October 17, 2008 under Concepts | Be the First to Comment

This figure goes with the article Let’s All Join Hands on WTN, the Wisconsin Technology Network.

The Software Value Circle shows the relationship between cost (creating and operating software) and benefit (use of the software for positive business impact).

The Software Value Circle shows the relationship between cost (creating and operating software) and benefit (use of the software for positive business impact).

Analog and Digital, Principles and Optimization

Posted by Robert Merrill on October 14, 2008 under Concepts | Be the First to Comment

Even though I’m on a near total news blackout (in order to conserve my emotional strength for things I can do something about), over the last couple of months I’ve learned a little bit about derivatives (the financial kind) and credit default swaps.

What were they thinking?

It reminds me of a story my father told me. My father is a Depression kid, and was a lawyer in Houston, Texas. Many of his clients were successful small business owners and investors (and probably also Depression kids). When Enron imploded, my father asked one of them, “How much money did you lose?” Read more of this article »

Who I Am Not

Posted by Robert Merrill on October 3, 2008 under Concepts, uFunctional Values | Read the First Comment

I’m a regular Seth Godin reader, and today he really struck a chord with his post When You Stand For Something. His trackbacks led me to What You Don’t Stand For by David Rendall.

In Gerald Weinberg’s Secrets of Consulting, I read, “If you can’t fix it, feature it.” So here goes.

  • I don’t like telling people what to do, and I’d rather build people up than take them down. (Though I’m learning that sometimes that’s the most loving thing to do for them in the long run). So I’ve avoided management as it’s commonly structured, and that has kept me from advancing to a position of leadership that I can put on a resumé. But just because I’ve never been a king doesn’t mean I won’t be an effective royal advisor.
  • I’m not very assertive. Because of that, sometimes people are surprised by my strength of conviction when it comes to Things That Matter.
  • I’m not competitive, or driven to win for winning’s sake, but that doesn’t keep me from seeing what it will take to win.
  • I don’t make a very good first impression, or form a very accurate first impression of others. That has made me persistent in relationships, and careful not to jump to conclusions. Hypotheses, yes. Conclusions, no.
  • I don’t handle stress well, so I have avoided the heavy travel, do-or-die projects, conflicting demands of middle management, and other things you need to do in order to get ahead. So I haven’t gotten ahead, at least not on paper.

That’s who I am not.

Here’s who I am. I am probably as intelligent, insightful, teachable, and compassionate as anyone you have ever met. I learn quickly and deeply. I’m not afraid of a blank sheet of paper (you don’t emerge from a Ph.D. program if you are). I’m also not afraid of a complex, convoluted situation of people and software (provided you don’t start screaming at me to solve in a day what has been five years in the making). I’m not afraid to walk away from something when it’s time, but I’m no opportunist or quitter, either (I’ve never been less than 10 years with any organization).

If you invite me into the executive circle of your software-intensive business, you will probably find that I am different from most of you.

That’s precisely why I will be useful.

Stupid Estimation Tricks 1: The Stretch

Posted by Robert Merrill on October 2, 2008 under Estimation | Read the First Comment

Use this to help someone (or yourself) to come up with an estimate when “you have no idea.”

Imagine you just met with a sponsor for a half hour and heard a project vision. She ended the meeting with, “The steering committee meets this Friday, and I need to know about how long this will take. You don’t need to be exact–just a ballpark will do.”

Famous last words.

Being a firm believer in the principle that “estimates should come from people who will do the work,” you convene the three-person team that seems right for this project.

Six deer eyes, staring at the headlights. Here’s where I use a facilitation technique I call “the stretch.”

“Could you do this in a month?” I ask. I’m met with gales of laughter. I open my notebook on the table in front of them and draw a graph. “OK, one month, no way.”

Initial graph, with zero probability at one month

Initial graph, with zero probability at one month

“How about a year?” I ask. “No problem,” responds the chorus. “They’ll never give us that long.” Cautious Chuck then adds, “And don’t forget all of the data conversion that they say they’ll do, but we’ll end up doing ourselves. It’s not a sure thing.” So I plot another point–12 months, 90 percent. “OK with that?” “Sure,” says Chuck.

Graph with four points

Graph with four points

“How about three months?” Everyone shifts nervously in their chairs. “Well, if we can code it in Rails, we can reuse most of Waldorf,  and if they’ll drop some features if we get in trouble, we could have something in three months,” says Optimistic Olivia.

“What are the odds?” I ask. “50/50?” “No way,” says the chorus. “One in ten?” “Yeah, that sounds about right.” So I plot another point, and draw a smooth curve.

Graph with initial range

Graph with initial range

“Does 50/50 in eight months, and almost-sure-thing in thirteen months sound about right?”

“Sally [the sponsor] is usually pretty reasonable. Working with her, we could have something done in a year, even if we run into data problems,” says Pragmatic Paul. So I adjust the curve a little.

Graph with range adjusted on the high end

Graph with range adjusted on the high end

“OK, I’ll tell Sally 8 months 50/50, and that we can commit to 12 months based on what we know now. She understands ranges and won’t sign us up for trouble.”

The Stretch is useful a number of reasons:

  • By starting with a very low number and going to a very high number, it gives the estimators permission to say NO and YES with confidence.
  • It also reflects the reality that the estimate is a range, and not a single number, and produces a range as a result.
  • It can be applied very early in the lifecycle, even “gleam-in-the-eye” stage, as here.

If you’re supporting a knowledgeable decision-maker (more on that later), you can give them a range directly from The Stretch. If you know your number will turn into a not-to-exceed, you can use the top end, and then have the 50/50 for your initial project plan.

You can combine The Stretch with Wideband Delphi if you’re worried about groupthink setting in.