Why would BloombergBusiness (BB) devote a whole issue—38,000 words—to the subject of writing computer code and managing computer coders? Because that’s the future.
“Software,” we learned from Marc Andreessen in 2011, “is eating the world.” In the process, software is eating up organizations and executives who don’t understand it or know how to manage it. As the BB article says, “Now that software lives in our pockets, runs our cars and homes, and dominates our waking lives, ignorance is no longer acceptable. The world belongs to people who code. Those who don’t understand will be left behind.” So BB is offering a tour of the strange, magical, mysterious world of software for frightened executives—and everyone else.
This cleverly-written, and often-funny, article by Paul Ford begins with the quandary of an apparently successful executive whose experience and skills are useless in coping with languages he doesn’t understand, management practices with strange names he cannot grasp, people he doesn’t feel comfortable with and threats to his survival as a manager that are all too real. Software development is consuming an ever-larger part of his budget while it is becoming ever central to his, and his organization’s, future.
The article follows the executive through an extended lesson in what software is all about. It describes the different languages—Java, Python, C, C++, C#, Perl and so on—along with their strengths, weaknesses and personalities, and even more important the management practices that are used to direct it.
It is safe to say that in the 21st century, it will be as common in high school to learn a couple of languages like Java and Python as it was to study French and Spanish in the 20th century.
With a light touch, it gives a simplified and amusing account of the executive’s encounter with the terminology and management practices of Scrum, with its daily standups, its Scrum Masters and its sprints.
This is real. A Scrum Master in ninja socks has come into your office and said, ‘We’ve got to budget for apps.’ Should it all go pear-shaped, his career will be just fine. You keep your work in perspective by thinking about barrels of cash.
It gives a fair account of the main management practices of managing software: Agile and Scrum.
There are as many variations of Agile. I’ve had terrible meetings in my life when I sat between two teams and one of them explained, at length, why Agile with Kanban was better than Agile with Scrum. You could smell the money burning
Here is Agile, as I’ve seen it done: You break down your product into a set of simple-to-understand user stories about who needs what. You file those stories into an issue-tracking system, often a commercial product such as JIRA.
You divide work into sprints of a week, two weeks, or whatever suits your management style, and you give each sprint a name and a goal (implement search, user registration), then the programmers take stories to go off and make them happen.
Every day your team checks in and tries to unblock one another—if you are working on the tool that sends e-mail and the e-mail server isn’t working, you tell everyone. Then someone else steps up to help, or you stick with that story and do the best you can, but everyone needs to be working toward the sprint goal, trying to release some software. And once the sprint is done, you deliver something that actually, really works and move on to the next thing, slowly bringing a large, complex system into operation.
That’s an ideal case. Done well, it avoids magical thinking ('It will all work when we get everything done and wired together'). It has its critics and can seem to have as many branches (c.f. Scrum, Kanban, and 'Agile with Discipline') as Protestantism.
It gives an account of what happens when the troubled executive picks up his courage and attends a daily standup.
One day you go to the pen where they keep the programmers. Their standup starts at 10 a.m., and some hold cups of coffee. They actually stand. Mostly men, a few women. They go around the room, and each person says what he did yesterday, what he plans to do today, and if he has any blockers. Most of the people are in the office, so they’re doing the standup in person; when people are traveling, they do it over chat. Two people are dialed in, the new hires from Boston and Hungary, both with strong accents. They tell the same story as the rest.
The executive gradually becomes comfortable with the world of software.
Then will come reports. Revenue reports, analytics, lists of new markets to conquer, all manner of new customer data that will be yours to parcel out and distribute. That will be your role, as the owner of the global database of customer intent. Thousands, then millions, of new facts that can help the company plan its sales and product development cycles. A good thing. And, you hope, the new site will generate more revenue, being faster, better, API-driven, and deployed across platforms to Web, mobile Web, and multiple apps…
You can feel it, the S, off in the distance, coming toward you. It will arrive in due time, and you will stick it to the front of the VP in your title and all will be well. The coders all smile at you in the hall now that you’ve sat in on code reviews and feature discussions and stood quietly in the middle of standups. You know some of their names, even if you could do a better job of pronouncing them.
Perhaps you have a future in software after all.
Change Or Die
Not all encounters between executives and software will end so happily. Many executives will not make the effort to understand the new world of software that is emerging or the management practices related to it. And the new world will gobble them up and spit them out.
Many will find that mastering software involves shedding some of their basic assumptions about how the world works and how it should be managed. Top-down directives don't work in this world: code responds to intelligence, not authority. Nor does maximizing shareholder value work in a world in which customers are in charge. So the learning involves more than mastering the technical aspects of coding. It involves a different way of understanding and interacting with the world. It is a Copernican revolution in management.
A bonus for executives: once they understand how Agile and Scrum can manage the extraordinary complexities of software development, they will realize they can use the same management expertise to manage the mounting complexity of the rest of their business. In effect, Scrum is a major management discovery.
BB has done executives a great service by providing us with a simplified Baedeker for this strange new world. Death is not inevitable. There is no longer any need to go on faking your way through meetings about software. It can be understood. It is the future.
So read the article. Then re-read it. And then re-read it again.
As the editor says, “It may take a few hours to read, but that’s a small price to pay for adding decades to your career.”
And read also:
Why software is eating the world
Scrum is a major management discovery
Why do managers hate Agile?
Inspect and adapt the Agile Manifesto
Agile: Best kept management secret
Follow Steve Denning on Twitter @stevedenning
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