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I recently finished reading Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (3rd ed.). The book is a collection of essays about people-related issues that apply to software development (aimed more so toward managers). The authors, Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister, are software consultants that decided to capture their findings and observations in book form; the first edition was published in 1987, and the most recent edition was revised in 2013.


Peopleware has been on my to-read list since September 2014 and frequently appears on reading recommendation lists I’ve encountered when learning about teams, management, or soft skills. The two tipping points for reading it now rather than later are (1) the team dynamic at work has changed given a developer changed jobs, and (2) my friend just finished reading it and had a physical copy to lend.

This post is a collection of notes I made for myself while reading the book.

Managing the human resource

  • Managing thinking workers is different than production workers (e.g., “make a cheeseburger, sell a cheeseburger”).
  • Fostering an atmosphere that doesn’t allow for error simply makes people defensive. People won’t try things that may turn out badly.
  • You seldom need to take Draconian measures to keep your people working; most of them love their work.
  • Theories of value
    • Spanish Theory of Value — finite value; get more from the soil (gold) or people’s backs
    • English Theory of Value — value is created through ingenuity and technology
  • Workaholism is more like the common cold: Everyone has a bout of it now and then.
  • Most of the things to improve productivity (pressure for more hours, mechanizing the process, compromising quality, standardizing procedures) make work less enjoyable, so people quit.
  • People under time pressure don’t work better — they just work faster.
  • Bad managers like to throw down unreachable deadlines to give their workers something to help them strive for excellence.
  • Pressuring people to deliver a product that doesn’t measure up to their own quality (not what the market wants, which may be of lower quality) is almost always a mistake.
  • The builder’s view of quality (tied to self-esteem) is higher than what the market requires and is willing to pay for.
  • Poor quality is almost always blamed on the builders.
  • “The flight from excellence” — allowing the standard of quality to be set by the buyer, rather than the builder.
  • People work well by providing their own estimates (or having no estimates at all).
  • Organizational busy work tends to expand to fill the working day.
  • The manager’s function is not to make people work, but to make it possible for people to work.

The office environment

  • It matters a lot who your coding pair mate is. Good pairs amplify each other, as do bad pairs (they do worse).
  • Something about the company environment and corporate culture is failing to attract and keep good people or is making it impossible for even good people to work effectively. (They think individual differences outweigh team effects.)
  • Better environment factors
    • Dedicated amount of space
    • Quiet
    • Private
    • Limited interruptions
  • Increased workplace density (more people) –> more noise –> higher error rate.
  • In the flow state, there is no consciousness of effort; the work just flows.
  • 60 minutes of flow state does not equal six 10-minute work periods.
  • Telephones are very disruptive.
  • Paging is even more disruptive, because it interrupts everyone to locate one person.
  • Management should make sure there’s enough space, enough quiet, and enough ways to ensure privacy so that people can create their own sensible work space.
  • An ideal desk environment has a wall behind you and a place to look out farther than 8 feet.
  • Today’s module cubicle is a masterpiece of compromise: It gives you no meaningful privacy and yet still manages to make you feel isolated.
  • Windows are very good to have; Denmark requires workers to have at least one.
  • Consider a blend of indoor/outdoor spaces when designing work spaces.
  • Have communal/messenger zones on the periphery, and close-knit (family) groups at the interior.

The right people

  • Get the right people, make them happy so they won’t leave, turn them loose.
  • Strong managers don’t care too much about appearance; doing so is a sign of their insecurity.
  • Older institutions have lower entropy (i.e., less disorder) and are tighter than younger, sprightly institutions.
  • Leadership isn’t about extracting work from people, it’s about serving them.
  • Continuous partial attention — young people have their attention pulled in multiple directions all the time. There’s a difference between being on Facebook 2% of the day (30 minutes) vs. attending to it 2% of the entire day. Partial attention is the exact opposite of flow.
  • Someone in your company should be able to answer these questions:
    • What is the annual employee turnover?
    • How much does it cost on average to replace a person who leaves?
  • For orgs with pathologically high turnover, people leave because…
    • They’re just passing through (no long-term feelings for the job)
    • They feel disposable (company doesn’t care about them)
    • They believe loyalty is ludicrous
  • In the best organizations, the short term is not the only thing that matters. What matters more is being best. And that’s a long-term concept.
  • A common feature of companies with low turnover is widespread retraining.
  • An expense (e.g., electric bill) is money that gets used up. An investment (e.g., computer) is an asset to purchase another asset; that is, the value has not been used up. People are investments.
  • Focusing on short-term gains leads to “bottom-line consciousness” or “eating the seed corn.”
  • When companies downsize, on the books all of the lowered expenses go right to the bottom line. The cost of investing in the employees you just let go is not factored in as a loss.

Growing productive teams

  • Teams by their very nature are formed around goals.
  • You can’t count on the organization’s goals aligning with all employees. For example, maybe some people don’t care about this quarter’s numbers and can’t rally behind that goal.
  • The purpose of a team is not goal attainment, but goal alignment.
  • Jelled teams are usually marked by a strong sense of identity.
  • Team members feel they’re part of something unique.
  • There is a feeling of joint ownership of the product built by the jelled team.
  • There is a sense of obvious enjoyment that people take in their work. Interactions are easy, confident, and warm.
  • Managers can feel threatened by jelled teams because…
    • They’re not part of the team
    • They’re worried the team will leave en masse
  • You can’t make teams jell; you can hope they will.
  • “Teamicide” is caused by…
    • Defensive management
      • Trust your people. If your staff isn’t up to the job at hand, you will fail (and you should get new people).
      • Allow them to make mistakes; you can still override decisions or give specific directions.
      • People who feel untrusted have little inclination to bond together into a cooperative team.
    • Bureaucracy
    • Physical separation
    • Fragmentation of people’s time (e.g., unnecessary meetings)
    • Quality reduction of the product (no one feels good building a lower-quality product simply for the sake of cost or speed)
    • Phony deadlines
    • Clique control
  • Teams are catalyzed by a common sense that the work is important and that doing it well is worthwhile.
  • Well-knit teams use peer-coaching. One person isn’t always the teacher of knowledge.
  • Any action that rewards team members differentially is likely to foster competition.
  • The sports “team” metaphor isn’t precise because individual players are highlighted. Think of a choir instead.
  • Good managers provide frequent easy opportunities for the team to succeed together.
  • Visual supervision (think hovering boss) is a joke for development workers. Visual supervision is for prisoners.
  • Skunkworks project — done under the radar because they refuse management’s advice to kill it
  • Managers devote their energy to building and maintaining healthy chemistry.
  • Make a cult of quality; it’s a long game strategy
  • A successful manager takes pains to divide the work into pieces and makes sure that each piece has some substantive demonstration of its own completion. When the team completes it, there is closure, which brings the team closer together.
  • Get everyone pulling in the same direction and then somehow get them fired up to the point that nothing, not even their manager, could stop their progress.
  • Don’t break up a good team. (Give them the option to stay or go at the end of projects, though.)
  • Managers aren’t usually part of the team. A team that needs that much leadership isn’t functioning that well as a team.
  • The structure of a team is a network, not a hierarchy.

Fertile soil

  • Self-healing systems have a sense for when the system is not working correctly. These are usually ad hoc, and are difficult to automate because they’re non-deterministic. You need humans with familiarity of the underlying goals.
  • methodology — basic approach to getting a job done
    • Tailored plan
    • Skills to execute that plan
  • Methodology — centralized thinking
    • Documentation instead of work
    • Minimal methods/options (this only works well when you have lots of equal ways to solve the problem)
    • Responsibility lies with the system rather than people
    • Demotivating because it treats workers as incompetent
  • Instead of Methodology, use training, tools, and peer review.
  • Risk management doesn’t exist to make risks go away, but to plan for sensible mitigation when things go wrong.
  • Issues with meetings
    • Lots of vested parties; more communication pathways –> higher complexity
    • People use meetings to get noticed, so people focus on talking
    • Complexity implies higher status
  • Working meetings have a purpose (agenda), and the meeting is over when the decision to made has been made
  • Eliminate ceremonial meetings and spend the time in 1-on-1 conversation. Ask yourself, “What ends this meeting?”
  • When staffing a project, understaff at first (i.e., be lean), and then bring more people on when the work has been better defined.
  • When people are fragmented (working on several projects concurrently), the wasted time isn’t seen. For example, when shifting from A to B, there is very little time in between, but B takes longer because of context switching at the start.
  • A decent coach understands that his job is not to coordinate interaction, but to help people learn to self-coordinate.
  • Consider “need to know” when thinking about who to send e-mails to. Don’t spam.
  • People hate change. When we start out to change, it’s never certain that we will succeed. And the uncertainty is more compelling than the potential for gain.
  • The fundamental response to change is not logical, but emotional.
  • When imposing change, you’ll see a range of resistance (in order from least to most)
    • Blindly loyal (ask no questions)
    • Believers but questioners
      • Skeptics (show me)
      • Passive observers (what’s in it for me)
      • Opposed (fear of change)
      • Opposed (fear of loss of power)
    • Militantly opposed (undermine and destroy)
  • Satir model of change: old status quo –> chaos –> practice & integration –> new status quo
  • Change only has a chance of succeeding if failure – at least a little bit of failure – is also okay.
  • Most organizational learning takes place in the middle of the company. The top level is too busy with 50K-foot perspectives, and the bottom is too close to the ground and rarely has power to effect change.
  • Effective organizational learning takes place if middle managers communicate and collaborate with each other instead of trying to stab each other in the back (or outdo one another).
  • “But we still have a strong need for community. The complicated truth of our times is that most of our towns no longer satisfy this need. It is instead in the workplace that we have our best chance of finding community. If it’s there to be found…”
  • An organization that succeeds in building a satisfying community tends to keep its people. When the sense of community is strong enough, no one wants to leave.
  • It’s not about the products you build, but the communities you build (which in turn build the products).

It’s supposed to be fun to work here

  • We think the goal is to turn chaos into order. Without some chaos, things would have no contrast. It’s the chaos’ existence that drives us.
  • Here are some ways to keep small amounts of disorder
    • Pilot projects (tinker with one part of the process)
    • War games (like a tournament where teams compete to build something; you now have a shared experience of something you fought though)
    • Brainstorming (structured session for producing insight)
    • Training, trips, conferences, celebrations, retreats (just getting out of the office can be helpful)
  • The idea of a “job” has changed, so many people freelance. Companies can deal with this by letting people define their own job (fellows, gurus, intrapreneurs).
  • Sociology matters more than technology or even money. It’s supposed to be productive, satisfying fun to work. If it isn’t, then there’s nothing else worth concentrating on except to address these issues.

Wrapping up

The book was an easy read, especially with it being a collection of short essays. There were many times I found myself nodding as I read along (i.e., affirming my gut barometer still works) and many other times where I found myself armed with new tools to use. Even if you don’t have “manager” in your title, this book can help you learn how both healthy and unhealthy organizations form, work, and thrive (or die).

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