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A Technical Debtor Toward continuous improvement

(I’ve been sitting on this for a week or so now, thinking that it needed to be tightened up a bit to make it less rambling. Since that’s clearly not going to happen, reader beware!)

I had the privilege of spending around 90 minutes last night sitting and listening to Sonny Rollins play a concert at the Disney Center in LA. If you don’t know who Sonny Rollins is, I don’t know how to explain the experience; if you know who he is, I don’t need to.

Suffice it to say that he has been recording professionally for over 50 years, and helped create an entire genre of music. A true master by any definition. One of the most intriguing aspects of a concert like this, however, is watching the master step aside and let the rest of the musicians play. Not just play their parts, but really play… letting them take over the spotlight, to strut their stuff, to soak up enthusiastic applause from the crowd.

Maybe a lot of it has to do with the fact that Sonny Rollins has been doing this for more than a half-century. Maybe it has something to do with a kind of patience you learn when you’re on the far side of 80 – and the man can still blow a mean sax for 90 minutes without stopping! Maybe it has to do with the fact that he was out there for the love of the music and the love of the show, not because he had anything to prove to anyone and, I like to think, not for the money. Perhaps it had more to do with the fact that, when you’re at that level of mastery, the other musicians are going to be good. Really good.

Whatever the reasons, there was a incredible freedom on that stage – the ability to improvise, for each musician to showcase their own specialization and skills, and them come back to the common theme, back to being on the same page, as it were.

All this took place in the same venue that is home to the L.A. Phil. Somehow, I can’t ever see the same kind of free-wheeling improvisation happening in that context.

And, since I’m a geek, I started thinking about agility. Rollins has put together a quintet that reflects his own particular style and past. No upright bass or piano for Rollins – drums, bongos, electric guitar and bass guitar along with his sax. It’s not about the mix of instruments. Other trios, quartets, and sextets use different mixes of instruments. New Orleans jazz tends towards trombones instead of sax; some prefer cornet or trumpet. But no matter what the choice of instruments, size matters.

Team sizes are something I’ve been thinking about for a while. We’re on a quest to rethink how our teams are organized. They just feel too big, too unwieldy. In fact, they really don’t feel like teams at all. Most of the time, they feel more like collections or people who happen to report to the same manager. I attribute this to a couple factors. One is over-specialization; we have a tendency to have people work in silos. Although the teams are product-focused, within them our developers are both generalists and specialists. On the one hand, we expect them to be able to build an entire vertical slice of the application; on the other hand, each developer tends to be responsible for the vertical slice. As a result, developers often work on their own piece of the puzzle, in isolation.

This sort of feels like working on a jigsaw in a group – each person taking a set of colors and piecing them together to reveal a portion of the overall picture. But what inevitably happens when you go to meld all those pieces together? Inevitably, you have some sections that are too big to move easily. These sections end up falling apart under their own weight as you try to move them. Not only that, but there are other challenges – figuring out where that section fits, and how to tie it into the rest of the puzzle. Often, this is when you find a few pieces need to be added – these pieces are “glue,” if you will.

The other issue that arises is due to the overhead of maintaining communications in a team. My mother, who worked in IT for around 30 years, once told me that 20% per team member is a good rule of thumb for maintaining communication. While this is a rule of thumb, it seems to imply that any team over about 6 people is going to become less agile simple because of the communications burden. Teams of ten or twelve seem like they fall into the philharmonic organizational model. Complicated pieces of music requiring dozens of players to all be on the same page requires a much different model than the jazz quintet. There’s much less room for improvisation, originality or freedom. (There are probably orchestral musicians who will take exception to this characterization; I’m calling it like I see it from the cheap seats.) And, there’s one guy up front who is running the show, whose job is to keep all of those dozens of players on the same page, to facilitate communications.

Somehow, the orchestral model doesn’t feel much like a self-organizing team, either. The first violin may be the best violinist in the orchestra, but they don’t get to perform free-wheeling solos. I’ve never heard of an orchestra getting together for a jam session.

But I have heard of teams that organize their work based on the developers available, rather than organizing the developers based on the work required. I have heard of teams where desired functionality is deferred – or worse yet, schedules are missed – because one critical person doesn’t have any bandwidth available. I’ve heard of teams where people simply don’t have the big picture, because there is too much communication overhead for everyone to be aware of everything that is happening on a project.

I once heard Paul Rayner say something to the effect of “you have a process that is perfectly designed to give you exactly the results you have.” Given a choice, I want a process that’s much more like jazz than orchestral music. I want a process that doesn’t burden me with lots of forms and checkboxes and stuff. Give me the simplest, most lightweight process that will work – and a smaller team of the best developers I can find. This seems like the kind of process that will get the kind of result I want to be part of.

Posted on Wednesday, May 26, 2010 9:03 AM Software Development , Jazz | Back to top


Comments on this post: Agile Like Jazz

# re: Agile Like Jazz
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YES! I've been a musician and dancer for 40 years and an IT geek for 10 (currently an information architect in a large corporate IT dept after several relatively agile startups). Software dearly needs more metaphors from music, art, dance, and other creative forms of collaborative expression and communication. Dave Nicolette concludes in Agile and Six Sigma (http://www.davenicolette.net/articles/six_sigma.html) that ""Control of variation" is not a meaningful goal for software development, in the same sense as it is for manufacturing." The key process skill of working on any team, software or otherwise, is information transfer from one mind to another: listen and speak, read and write, upload and download. As web-based collaboration provides richer, multithreaded media for communication, so do our ways of communicating need to move beyond performer/audience or the half-duplex telephone courtesies of when to speak and when to listen. In an IDE, on SharePoint, or on a wiki, harmony is not a metaphor! Jazz has a process framework, called jamming. It has agile documentation, called charts. Larger ensembles have process documents called arrangements. And so on, and so on. Music is a very rich metaphoric language for communicating about software, and I look forward to more such riffs!
Left by Lynn Noel on Jun 01, 2010 10:45 PM

# re: Agile Like Jazz
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Jazz has a process framework, called jamming. The key process skill of working on any team, software or otherwise, is information transfer from one mind to another: listen and speak, read and write, upload and download. It has agile documentation, called charts. Dave Nicolette concludes in Agile and Six Sigma (http://www.davenicolette.net/articles/six_sigma.html) that ""Control of variation" is not a meaningful goal for software development, in the same sense as it is for manufacturing". As web-based collaboration provides richer, multithreaded media for communication, so do our ways of communicating need to move beyond performer/audience or the half-duplex telephone courtesies of when to speak and when to listen. In an IDE, on SharePoint, or on a wiki, harmony is not a metaphor!
Left by etui cuir nokia c7 on Mar 23, 2011 6:49 AM

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