It’s The Culture, Stupid!

We’re just four weeks away from Codemanship’s 10th birthday, and this might be a good time to reflect on how and why I started my developer training business, as it may hold clues about where Codemanship might go in the next ten years.

When I started the business, I’d been a professional software developer for 16 years. For the majority of that time I freelanced, working for a wide range of companies on a wide range of business and technical problems. Along the way, I progressed into leadership roles, and found more and more of my time being spent coaching and mentoring teams  – with varying degrees of success. I also wrote and delivered training for a number of companies, so Codemanship wasn’t my first rodeo in that respect.

I’d attempted to make the transition to full-time training and coaching several times, but the dice never quite fell where I needed them to. It takes time to build up a business: to build a reputation, to build a client base, to build a livable income. And it’s very difficult to do that while you’re holding down a full-time job at the same time. I would typically try for 6-9 months, and then wimp out and go back to contracting.

The opportunity I needed fell into my lap in 2008. I was finishing up a contract with BBC Worldwide as a  – and this was my official title – Software Development Coach. Whereas before, that side of my work happened “between the gaps” as I led dev teams, when time and resources allowed, now it was my full-time job. With the blessing of the management, I was there to help teams do dev better.

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Matt Wynne shares ideas in a goldfish bowl session at BBC Worldwide

Alongside my permanent counterpart, Peter Camfield, we coached teams on what we might now call the “craft” of writing software. And over the course of a year, we saw some quite dramatic changes. It’s easily the most satisfying experience I’d had up to that point.

I get a real kick out of seeing dev teams being empowered to do great work, out of seeing the level of enthusiasm for and pride in their work rise, and out of seeing how so many of those great folk have gone on to inspire a good many developers themselves: people like Matt Wynne, Rob Bowley, Julian Everett and Hibri Marzook, who are today valued contributors and influencers in the developer community.

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Hibri Marzook participates in an Agile planning game

The experience at BBC Worldwide was, I now realise, very atypical, even though tech there was pretty typical of most organisations of that size. They had the people, they had the talent. It was there all along. All that was needed to set fire to this “kindling” was a suitable catalyst, which – it turned out – was me and Peter. Once we got the fire going, it burned all by itself.

I was fresh off a contract that, on paper, gave me the exact same goal. I had been working as a “Development System Architect” for a large software company, as part of a team that was charged with defining and imposing development processes and practices. This was very much CMMi territory, and I’d been hired for my uncanny skill at drawing boxes connected by arrows and my encyclopedic knowledge of arcane dev processes that no team anywhere has ever actually followed.

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Gojko Adzic visits BBC Worldwide to give a talk on Specification By Example

We produced reams of documents telling developers how to do their jobs, which, of course, nobody ever read. Sure, we had the full backing of the VP of Engineering. But that made no difference. After one year, nothing had changed. Nothing had improved. And this was by no means the first time I’d seen that happen…

I had decided – after years of watching top-down attempts at software process improvement fail to deliver meaningful, lasting change – to try doing something bottom-up; to water the roots instead of the canopy of the organisational tree. This, it turned out, was far more successful.

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Eric Evans plays the piano before his talk on Domain-Driven Design at the BBC Club

Instead of prescribing processes and practices from above, we started with the developers themselves and what sort of things got them fired up. More simply, we ignored the “system” and focused on the culture.

It started small, with regular lunchtime meet-ups where developers were invited to come along and talk about any topic they thought interesting. Eight people out of a department of roughly 100 came to the first one. That might sound like a failure, but I’ve come to realise that if you can find eight people in your IT department who would give up their lunch to share their ideas about software development, that’s something you can really build on: a solid foundation for change.

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Martin Fowler defeats the Daleks yet again before his talk “Software Design in the 21st Century”

The audience grew each session, and for many it was their first experience of talking in front of other developers. By the time I moved on, pretty much everyone in the IT department went. And quite a few folk from BBC corporate, too. We had some big talks by some very well-known speakers in some pretty large rooms.

Sure, there was a bit of training, and a lot of coaching and mentoring from myself and Peter for the teams that invited us in. But I firmly believe that wasn’t what made the difference, in the long run. What made the difference was that dev teams found themselves working in a more inspiring, energizing environment. They were thinking about this stuff, and – most importantly – talking about this stuff. They didn’t need to be told to do it. They wanted to do it.

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Peter Camfield, Dan Rough and Josh Chisolm celebrate the fact that I’m leaving

And then, like all families, some of them eventually flew the nest and spread that enthusiasm and inspiration far and wide, to companies like 7Digital, Songkick and the Co-op, to OSS ventures like Cucumber, to meet-ups and conferences like Software Practice Advancement, and the original Software Craftsmanship conference (in fact, the first one was hosted by the BBC). Some of that BBC Worldwide DNA can be found imprinted on businesses and teams and communities all around the world. For example, the list of “good habits” of TDD originated there.

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Keith Braithwaite debuts his “TDD as if you mean it” workshop at SC2009 at the BBC

I’ve seen this effect before in other companies, like ThoughtWorks and Google. It’s not their “development system” that makes the difference; it’s their developer culture. If you want talented teams of inspired engineers doing their best work, focus on building a strong developer-led culture in your organisation. You don’t need to make them. Just let them.

My experience at BBC Worldwide in 2007-2008 was so rewarding that I genuinely dreaded going back to the same old same-old on another gig. As it happened, the next contract was one of the least satisfying of my career; trying to deliver working software to a difficult client in difficult circumstances with micro-managers bearing down on us and totally unrealistic expectations. That made up my mind: I was getting too old for that shit.

The relationship I’d built with tech teams across the road in BBC corporate offered an “out”. They wanted training and coaching from the guy who organised all those spiffy lunchtime talks they’d been going to. It was enough work for a few years to allow me to focus exclusively on that, and build the client base Codemanship enjoys today.

Sure, it’s a small business, and in the grand scheme of things I make a small difference. But it’s immensely satisfying. Nobody was going to offer me my dream job, so I invented it. And ten years later, he we are.

And, because it’s my company, we do things on my terms. This isn’t corporate, top-down intervention. Typically, I’m not there because the CTO wants me there. (Quite often I’m there despite the management’s wishes!) My work begins and ends with the developers. They ask for the training – sometimes they have to beg and stamp their feet to get it, of course – and it’s 100% training for developers, written by a developer, and delivered, with a big dollop of developer rabble-rousing and advocacy, by a developer.

And I never forget: when it comes to meaningful, lasting change… It’s the culture, stupid!

 

When Do We Learn?

whendowelearn

It’s always interesting when something you post on social media seems to chime with what a lot of people think. Yesterday, I posted this:

Judging by the likes and retweets, as well as the replies and comments, this is a debate many of us have had.

I’ve posted many times before about how most employers of software developers have an expectation that we arrive fully formed with all the skills and experience they need. They make little time and offer little support for learning as part of the job. This is one of the underlying causes of the so-called “skills crisis” in our industry: employers will wait to find someone with Java 9 experience, but won’t wait for someone with Java 8 to get up to speed.

But be absolutely sure: learning is part of this job. Arguably learning is the job. We’re innovating all the time, and that implies that we’re continually solving new problems and continually learning. It’s one of my fundamental principles of software development: it’s a learning process.

If you condemn developers to learning entirely by trial and error, with no input from other, more experienced developers who’ve “been there, done that and got the t-shirt” – whether it’s in person, from books, from blogs, from videos – then a great deal of their time – and your money – will be wasted making all the same mistakes all over again.

And if you give them no time to learn and adapt from their own mistakes – through retrospectives, root cause analysis, Kaizen and the other continuous improvement activities – then you condemn your dev teams to perpetual Groundhog Day, doing everything the hard way, again and again and again.

The smart dev organisations make time and space and assign resources to learning, sharing knowledge and continuously improving. It could be through ongoing training (pretty rare),  or dedicated 10-20% time for teams to learn, experiment and improve (very rare),  or structured long-term mentoring (vanishingly rare).

Many organisations expect these things to happen outside of working hours, in the developer’s own time. Indeed, many developers expect that, too. It’s a regrettable fact in this industry that if you want to learn and progress, you will probably have to invest a lot of your own time, energy and money into making that happen. This is bad news for us all when potentially great developers, with bags of smarts and heaps of aptitude, also have tonnes of outside commitments – young children, elderly relatives, volunteering in their communities, or just generally having a life outside of software.

When the signal goes out, loud and clear, “If you want to be successful as a software developer, forget having a life”, we shouldn’t wonder why the profession lacks diversity.

How do we change this? I’ve said this before, but it bears saying again: the time and resources for continuous learning will not be freely given, even when we know it’s in the best interests of employers. We must take it.

Welcome To The NEW Codemanship Blog

It’s a hard thing to move on from something successful, but even though the old Codemanship blog regularly gets more then 10,000 readers a month, I felt it really was time to upgrade the platform.

All new posts will appear here, and you can treat the old blog as an archive of all the good legacy stuff. And what a lot of legacy stuff that is?! More than 1,500 posts in 14 years (yes, the blog predates Codemanship by several years.)

This blog’s feed is what you’ll need to update your reader with if you want to keep up with all my latest spiffy half-baked ideas and opinions.