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Is Project Management Killing Good Products, Teams and Software? (techbeacon.com) 176

New submitter mikeatTB writes: "For software development, no significant developer activity is predictable or repetitive; if it were, the developers would have automated it already," writes Steven A. Lowe, Principal Consultant Developer at ThoughtWorks, via TechBeacon. "In addition, learning is essentially a nonlinear process; it involves trying things that don't work in order to discover what does work. You might see linear progress for a while, but you don't know what you don't know, so there will be apparent setbacks. It is from these setbacks that one learns the truth about the system -- what is really needed to make it work, to make it usable, and to make a difference for the users and the business. In other words, the dirty little secret of software development is that projects don't really exist. And they're killing our products, teams, and software." Lowe continues: "Projects, with respect to software development, are imaginary boxes drawn around scope and time in an attempt to 'manage' things. This tendency is understandable, given the long fascination with so-called scientific management (a.k.a. Taylorism, a.k.a. Theory X), but these imaginary boxes do not reduce underlying complexity. On the contrary, they add unnecessary complexity and friction and invite a counterproductive temptation to focus on the box instead of the problem or product. This misplaced emphasis leads to some harmful delusions: Conformance to schedule is the same thing as success; Estimation accuracy is possible and desirable enough to measure and optimize for; The plan is perfect and guarantees success; The cost of forming and dissolving teams is zero; The cost of functional silo hand-offs is zero; The bigger and more comprehensive the plan, the better; Predictability and efficiency are paramount."
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Is Project Management Killing Good Products, Teams and Software?

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  • Eisenhower (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Strider- ( 39683 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @06:51PM (#55262655)

    To quote Dwight D. Eisenhower, "In preparing for battle, I have always found that plans are useless but planning is indispensable."

    If you go into a major project without some sort of project management, it's not going to end well. However, the management of the project needs to be flexible enough to adapt to the changing environment. Decent project management will see when things are under resourced, and help to fill in those gaps (if possible), and should keep the project going in the right direction.

    • Re:Eisenhower (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Zaelath ( 2588189 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @07:11PM (#55262743)

      Decent project management will see when things are under resourced, and help to fill in those gaps (if possible), and should keep the project going in the right direction.

      That's (probably) more mythical man month PM bullshit right there.

      Generally in a software project "under-resourced" means the milestones aren't being reached, which either means you have bad milestones, bad requirements, or bad coders.

      Adding another 5 coders to part of the project doesn't make it go faster if the first one has written a pile of garbage and it needs to be unpicked or more likely the new coders are rubbish and no one wanted them on their project, so they're available to "help".

      Most PMs I've met have been great people with great PM skills, and no clue if what a coder is telling them is accurate. I'm sure there's some counter-example with great code assessment skills, but that doesn't make them representative of the class.

      • Re:Eisenhower (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Strider- ( 39683 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @07:30PM (#55262815)

        Generally in a software project "under-resourced" means the milestones aren't being reached, which either means you have bad milestones, bad requirements, or bad coders.

        I guess I didn't make myself sufficiently clear, and you hit the nail on the head. By resources I was meaning not just people, but equipment, tools, requirements, knowledge, plans, or is it just bad milestones to begin with. Adding more people to a failing project is a recipe to make it fail faster, the solution is to figure out what's going on early so the problems can be resolved.

        • Re:Eisenhower (Score:5, Insightful)

          by Zaelath ( 2588189 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @07:45PM (#55262889)

          Ah, fair enough. I've seen at least one manager kill a project at birth since it was not possible to do, but that's pretty rare.

          Also, I'd forgotten the absolute worst PM trend; project is going too slowly, we need a daily meeting that we'll pretend is 15 minutes, but is actually an hour and probably subtracts 2 from the day with prep and recovery.

          • "Let's all sit down for this standup because it will take too long. Wait......you want to change the name from standup? Why?"
          • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

            Also, I'd forgotten the absolute worst PM trend; project is going too slowly, we need a daily meeting that we'll pretend is 15 minutes, but is actually an hour and probably subtracts 2 from the day with prep and recovery.

            No, the absolute worst is the all hands status meeting. I had one PM do that every Friday. Everyone who worked for him had to attend (we were a small company, so it was about 20+ people from every department). (!!! ALERT !!!! Useless meeting sign #1 - More people are attending than necessar

      • by Kiuas ( 1084567 )

        Generally in a software project "under-resourced" means the milestones aren't being reached, which either means you have bad milestones, bad requirements, or bad coders.

        These are all possible. It's also possible that requirements have been changed (because it has come to light that the original ones are bad). In fact the larger the scope of the project is, the more likely it is that the original plan is not comprehensive and things will come up during development that require the tweaking of the requiremen

      • Many of the projects I work on would do great with extra people. Work where we have thousands of hours needed to develop sufficient testing for certification of the software. A vast majority of these tests are independent enough that you could throw a separate expert at each test and get them done in no time at all.

        The problem that management fails to grasp is a smart person who has worked on similar projects is not an expert at this particular project. When we throw a bunch of new people at it, the bott

    • Depends upon what project management is, it's not the same thing everywhere. Ie, where I am now the project manager can do nothing whatsoever about getting more people to work on something. However they do keeping the monkeys focused in the same direction. They have to deal with factory shutdowns, supply chain issues, software delays, and so forth. They have to plan that when the parts arrive that someone will be ready to make use of them shortly, that the schedules get updated when there's a hiccup down

  • said: adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.
    • Usually... The goal is to avoid getting "management to help" you with your project, because their favorite tool for a late project is to throw resources at it and ask you for time wasting progress reports.

      Attention, All, Attention. Because this project is behind schedule we will be requiring hourly status reports, unless status improves!

      Fredrick Brooks was right.... There is no silver bullet (unless you bring your own from home).

      • and ask you for time wasting progress reports.
        Those come automatically out of Jira or what ever Issue tracker you are using.

  • by nimbius ( 983462 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @06:57PM (#55262685) Homepage

    1. project managers that graduated from the school of flagellation. the ones that think assigning a firm date to every goal is the only way to ensure it gets completed, and are willing to waterboard you for not adhering to the holy calendar. some of what we do in systems engineering -- like deprecating old systems or rolling out your cloud provided buzzgasm solution -- is highly technical. if you're not willing to draw diagrams or at least document how and why we arrived at some of these goals, youre just another manager.

    2. project managers that ignore dependencies. sometimes other teams need to get involved to accomplish a given task or objective and if youre not willing to make the call, then who is? securing time from the beleaguered network guy, the storage zombies, or the NOC is technically under your purvey. if we make it all the way to the calendars release date and you havent done the needful when it comes to taking to other teams and understanding the business structure, then we can hardly be blamed.

    3. companies that insist on contract-based project managers. they arent around long enough to learn the business or the systems in place, so they have very little incentive to participate fully in the project lifecycle. these shitlords get away with floating from company to company and doing very little at all.

    • project managers that graduated from the school of flagellation

      I've encountered one that it even worse: the Golgafrincham B ark school of project management where you have to hire a business consultant to go around and make sure that the project really is what we need and, after that, to ask whether the proposed solution will satisfy everyone, and after that to... etc. although it did not get quite as far as involving telephone sanitizers. The result was that what should have been a simple one or two month project took over two years, much of which was pointless and e

    • by swb ( 14022 )

      I'd add a couple of more.

      Project managers that don't understand the details of what they're managing, but want to manage the details. We're on our second project manager in about 4 years and she's great with clients and very personable but she doesn't know anything about the technology we implement.

      So when a project has complications and I explain them to here, I can either waste my breath explaining the details of the problem and the details of the underlying technology and why the problem is a problem, o

  • Yes.
    • Or maybe no.
      • by sfcat ( 872532 )

        Or maybe no.

        Definitely YES, I've rarely come across a more true thing outside of mathematics

      • There are very, very few project managers that are actually not detrimental to the production process. And a tiny subset of those is actually helpful. I'm blessed with some of this category (and yes, they cost more than minimum wage... quite a bit more).

        The best project managers know that their job is to keep the spice flowing and to give their engineers what they need to be productive. They know how to requisition resources at the right time and in the right amount for the right people from the right sourc

  • by bobbied ( 2522392 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @07:00PM (#55262697)

    "The Mythical Man-Month" by Fred Brooks.

    This should be required reading once a year for ALL direct and indirect management of any engineering or software development team.

    Again with the "Oh, Look at what I found, managing complex tasks is hard!" How many times will we be blessed with the same insight that Mr. Brooks put on paper way back in the 1970's? My guess is "just once more!"

    • ^^ THIS.

      I was about to post a "No Shit, Sherlock" as an answer to "Is Project Management Killing Good Products, Teams and Software?" but your answer is perfect.

      Time and time again I seen people / companies _completely_ fail to heed the two most important points of the book:

      * Plan to throw one away, you will anyways.
      * Adding more people to an already late project just makes the project later

      It would be funny if it wasn't so sad how people are completely ignorant of software development history. But I guess

    • by Entrope ( 68843 )

      Lowe is doing even worse than just complaining that planning knowledge work is hard: he's complaining that it is not only impossible, but that it is harmful to try. It's great for consultants if they can convince the customer that is true, because then the customer won't actually hold them responsible for time or dollar budgets, but it is essentially not true. Almost no software development is comparable to building a fusion reactor from scratch, or sending a manned spacecraft to Jupiter, and competent ma

    • by rastos1 ( 601318 )

      Does nobody read anymore "The Mythical Man-Month" by Fred Brooks.

      I've recently decided to revisit that book (after ~20 years) and I was not impressed. For example, the book talks about one man having the overview - seeing the whole picture, making design choices and ensuring consistency in various parts of the project ... the trouble is that the projects now are much bigger, more people are involved, often at different locations and timezones ... I mean, perhaps it can be an interesting read and good in

  • Has the blogger got anything to back up his claims or is it just another consultant looking for a gig?

  • by sgrover ( 1167171 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @07:07PM (#55262727) Homepage
    I've been around for a number of years in the dev trade. I've seen good and bad projects. When project management is done well it makes a world of difference. Everyone knows what needs to be done without needing three meetings a week just to figure out who is working on what. The deliverables get clearly defined, and change management is enshrined and accounted for. Working in this environment is awesome. Now, do project management badly and your project WILL be over budget and over schedule. Nobody will be happy and it will be a crap job. Nobody will be especially clear what the deliverables are because change management is not accounted for and you have moving targets. The team spends more time finding who to blame than just fixing the problem. My opinion - if you are using the wrong tools, you'll have wrong project management. (i.e. Asana is a task tracker, not an asset manager, resource planner, time log, or credential manager... Task tracking is only part of the equation).
  • by Gim Tom ( 716904 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @07:16PM (#55262761)
    Project mis-managers make nice pretty Gantt charts to show the C-suite, but try to actually use them to plan and manage a project. Gantt and PERT were developed as REPORTING visuals during the Polaris missile program to show Congress how things were working. I got a degree in Industrial and Systems engineering before being seduced by computers and during my entire career I never saw any Project Manager that understood that. What's worse they would pull times for task completion out of somewhere the sun never shone.

    At one time I was over a group that did final post production QA on in house programs. The project manager allocated a week for the QA testing of the entire system and I told him that it would take at least four and maybe six weeks. I had no input to the original time allocated. On the very first day of testing I was able to find enough problems that when I wrote them up and turned them over to the project manager that day he turned blue. It was at least three weeks work before he was able to get those fixed and give us another shot at testing. Final outcome was that we were right at the six week point before we were able to report the system clean enough to use.
    • The worst time to plan a project is at the beginning. You have zero information. You don't know if your goals are reasonable/achievable/desirable. You don't know if you will need to "pivot", you don't much of anything. The way to minimize project and time risk is to know a lot before you commit to a deliverable. Too often, when people talk about "project" and they focus on cost or schedule, it drives all out all exploration, and you end up on a death march towards goals set when you knew nothing.

      Most

  • Shitty project management is doing this. But this is no news, is it?

    Software stuff is infinetely creative and infinitely complex - it is very easy to screw stuff like this up from a management perspective. Especially since software developers themselves often get predictions about their work wrong - even in an environment where they can control all aspects of their project.
    Good project managment is an art and with software it is an exceptionally arcane art. Screw it up even a little and your project goes ha

  • by sfcat ( 872532 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @07:25PM (#55262789)
    The problem is that upper management doesn't understand that status reports have a non-zero, non-trivial cost. When a project gets into trouble, the number of status reports and meetings increase, which surprise surprise, slows down progress. Also, software development is non-linear for at least part of any non trivial project. Refusing to accept that fact has caused problems for decades. Sometimes as a developer, it feels like management is working against us. Does any of that sound like a useful part of running the business?
    • That is why you let the issue tracker generate the status report(s).
      So if a manager goes maniac he can click the button to get a new report every second if he so desires.

  • by jellomizer ( 103300 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @07:25PM (#55262791)

    Project Management isn't suited for Product development.
    Most project management methods are based on some fallacies.
    1. The users of the product knows what they want: The truth is they don't know what they want until they can get their hands on it, and know if what they see if they like it, hate it, or have a some tweaks that are needed. No matter how many meetings you have with static pictures and blueprints. The user just doesn't know what they want until they can get their hands on it.

    2. Development of modules have a start time and a complete time: Function X may take 2 days to develop. Because it is prerequisite for function Y. However after function Y is completed and used function Z, You need to go back to function X, to get the data prepped for function Z, but you couldn't put that code in for function Z support until you have completed function Y which needed X. Coding isn't linear, they are parts that needs to be addressed and fixed, causing other parts to be reworked or adjusted.

    3. People are interchangeable: A coder is a coder right. Well no. Some of them are really good at doing Database calls, while others are most comfortable with the HTML and JavaScript. While there is an other one who is most comfortable with the Middle tier code. Sure all of them may be able to code all the parts if needed, but for the most part each ones is going to be a specialist in particular parts. This means not all people are used qually or performing each task as efficiently as someone else.

    4. People have lives outside the project: While working most people may get called to take a look at a different project (bug fix a previous completed application) they may need to sit in a meeting for a future project. Also they can get sick, have family emergencies...

    5. Coders just code uniformly: There is a degree of artistic pride every coder uses. Everyone will approach problems a bit differently, they may be arguing with the Architect for them to be doing something a particular way or they will just ignore, misinterpret, the internal parts of the spec, and just make sure the output meets the specs. So this often creates some conflict because the internal changes may affect something else (timing, system resource, readability...) So we may need to redo the function, or just adapt the rest of the stuff around these changes.

    Most PM policies are based on manufacturing processes. Where the goal matches the outcome. Product Development the outcome is usually different then the initial goal.

    • Dude just ask a product manager

    • It is easy to think that way, but you miss out on many of the benefits of a good project manager. A good PM isolates the team from the politics, manages the scope, and tracks financials-- things programmers and engineers generally hate.

      Software really isn't that different from any other creative field in terms of trying to benchmark in real time. It can be done, but with a lot of caveats, disclaimers, and SWAG. Project managers understand that enough to control the process.

      Working with bad project manager

    • You're describing what sounds like a waterfall approach. Successful software development shops dropped that nonsense twenty years ago.

  • "Is HR turning away good job candidates because they are looking for perfect job candidates?"

    I feel like some people are refusing to listen to the truth and then after battling with reality for years, they finally arrive to the same conclusion only to announce it like it's some sort of new groundbreaking discovery.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @07:26PM (#55262799) Journal
    "The bigger and more comprehensive the plan, the better"

    The plan that is genuinely comprehensive enough can just be compiled and shipped as the software product, no?
  • by MerlynEmrys67 ( 583469 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @07:30PM (#55262813)
    Take each task estimate... add 50% and turn the date into management.
    Track time estimates, and the 50% slop on top of it. If 1/2 way through the project you have gone through 3/4 of your slop time, you already know you aren't going to make it. If you have only gone through 1/3 of your slop there is a good chance you might actually make it by the 150% time.
    • by tomhath ( 637240 )

      If 1/2 way through the project you have gone through 3/4 of your slop time, you already know you aren't going to make it.

      The fallacy there is that you think you can determine when you're 1/2 way through the project.

      Burned half the calendar time? Doesn't mean anything.

      You think half the development is done? No way to know that.

    • Double it and add 30.

      FTW Also roughly converts Celsius to Fahrenheit.

    • Good luck with winning a bid that way :D

      Why can you not let people do their own estimates and take them?

      the likelihood that anything _you_ add (or remove) improves the accuracy is more or less ZERO.

  • by Snotnose ( 212196 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @07:37PM (#55262841)
    I first hit this in the 80's. Our company was the first to use microprocessors to replace walls of computers with boxes maybe 3 cubic feet (1x1x3), that by the way did 10 times the work the walls of computers did.

    One quarter the defense budget got cut and we went from growing 40% to 20%. 20% growth sounds good to you and me. But to the bean counters it was a layoff. That got the expected profits for the quarter back in line at the expense of future growth and morale.

    I have to admit, that first layoff got rid of a lot of deadwood. But the second, third, and fourth really killed the company. Those that were either marginal, or not good at politics, got canned. Those that were good at their jobs looked around, said "um, how about no", and left.

    I got hit in the 4th layoff, and only got laid off again once since I learned the signs. The second time was a start up failing, I hadn't yet learned how to read a balance sheet.

    MBAs don't understand the morale hit they take when they do a layoff. They may say they do, but they don't. I've survived several layoffs, each time morale went to hell and a lot of good people went searching for more stable pastures.
  • by MountainLogic ( 92466 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @07:38PM (#55262845) Homepage
    Wow. So much to say on this I don't know where to start. In embedded system development, where you are co-developing HW/FW/SW, there is such a mismatch between worlds that I've yet to see a good way to manage it. HW often has three+ month iteration cycles so it is a complete mismatch with software cycles. The only PM magic I've seen is Design Reviews Up Front (DRUP). For example, after the HW folks have rough block diagrams done in the first week or two, have a deep design review with ALL parties (ME/FW/SW/Mfg/Buyers/Service/etc) BEFORE they start detailed schematic design then have another DRUP before layout. This is the closest thing I've seen to continuous integration in embedded systems. Far too often I've seen the EEs show up for the only design review with finished schematics three days late for sending it to layout only to hear from the FW or SW team that the CPU they've chosen will not work. Of course by then it is too late then to fix the problem. The SW team is usually off developing on an overpowered development board (or worse, PCs) that has no relation to the real target so the SW will never fit the real product. The other big review fail I've seen is only inviting your discipline to your design review (eg., only EEs to HW). Inviting only your tribe to only a final review is only an exercise in "how can our tribe improve for next time," not a way to improve this product. I still do run things scrummy, but tend to be very lax on estimates, etc.
    • by Ichijo ( 607641 )

      I also work on systems that combine custom HW, SW, and FW. What works for us is to design the interfaces between the three first. Then that becomes the requirements, and the three teams can then go off and design their subsystems any way they want as long as they meet the requirements.

  • All one needs to do is... ask Betteridge [wikipedia.org].

  • Lessons learned (Score:4, Interesting)

    by The Evil Atheist ( 2484676 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @07:45PM (#55262887) Homepage
    I'm continually surprised at all the things we learned about engineering software systems that don't get applied back into management.

    We know throwing threads at a problem doesn't work if all you do is end up locking everything. We know that high coupling and low cohesion leads to irreducible complexity. Sharing mutable state instead of doing a little bit of analysis to see what the dependencies are and break down tasks to minimize the reach of these dependencies.

    Yet somehow, all these lessons from concrete experience (rather than abstract theory) gets thrown out the door in project management, even from managers who were once software engineers. Project management should be there to facilitate message passing and work stealing queues without trying to force when these things happen.
  • by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @07:46PM (#55262893) Homepage

    If the project is feasible, good developers will get it done regardless of or even despite the plan. The vast majoity of plans have problems because they want a man-year's worth of code from three months of work, which means it was never a good plan. But poor project management can turn a bad plan into a disaster by refusing to acknowledge the delay. I've been in meeting that pretty much involved badgering the developers until our estimates said we'd deliver. Oddly enough those "revised" estimates never came true...

  • by Billly Gates ( 198444 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @07:53PM (#55262939) Journal

    Whoa man all the cool hip project managers Agile development [youtube.com] as it solves 100% of the problems 100% of the time. It makes you grow a beard and transports you to a hipster Silicon Valley coffee shop with music playing that hasn't even been written yet complete with groupies watching you code.

  • Wouldn't have hurt if the author had been given a project plan and a deadline for that article.
    Maybe I'm getting old and impatient but it went on for far too long.
    Great sentiment and I have seen many of the effects mentioned, but hey, summarize.

  • What is this Theory X?

    I am still using the Waterfall Model [google.com] and IBM's Rational Rose Modeler. [google.com] Does software development get any better?

  • by ErichTheRed ( 39327 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @08:26PM (#55263085)

    The difference between an effective and ineffective PM is astounding in most places I've worked. On one end you have a forceful PM who will beat up their resources and harass their managers until the work is done. On the other are the PMPs clinging for dear life to their copy of the PMBOK who are unable to get anyone to do what they want.

    You can tell a PM isn't so great when you hear the exact same phrases and jargon repeated in the exact same order on endless conference calls. [1] I'm not saying it's easy either...I could never do that job because I can't coerce people to do what needs to be done. And when it comes down to it, that's a PM's only job...well, that and checking the boxes and filling out Gantt charts.

    [1] I swear that one PM I worked with would say "Good morning, who just joined the call?" in the EXACT same tone, rhythm and texture at the sound of every beep on conference calls. It was like a machine!

  • by aaarrrgggh ( 9205 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @09:15PM (#55263275)

    On anything with more than 5-6 people on a team, a project manager is a necessity. It is inefficient in first-order terms, but keeping people focused on what they are good at (and a dedicated person managing scope) dramatically improves productivity. Generally, less than 10% of hours should be in project management.

    Bad project management is a different beast. Bad project managers add needless complexity, waste time, and draw focus to aspects of the project that participants cannot control.

    • Actually so small teams don't need a project manager and most of the time they run Scrum/XP anyway.

      The project manager might be helpful in coordinating teams, especially if they belong to different companies, suppliers and customers.

      If a software team needs a project manager, I would fire the team and get better developers.

  • by Beeftopia ( 1846720 ) on Monday September 25, 2017 @11:10PM (#55263753)

    They're trying to reduce everything to statistics and numbers, like Robert McNamara did in Vietnam. [pbs.org]

    It's trying to make sense of something they don't really understand - the human element. The chaos. Motivation. Leadership. Ability.

    "If you can't measure what's important, what you can measure becomes important."

  • I think the author of the article has either completely messed up the roles of People/Line Management, Product Management, Project Management and Product Development in Agile Development; or he mistakenly thought all companies are with infinite resources.

    In an agile team using Kanban, for example, there is no “project” at all—there’s only a continuous stream of value-delivering work, prioritized by someone who keeps a finger on the pulse of the customer and validated with actual customers.

    Yes, we use Kanban, and we deliver a continuous stream of value-delivering work, prioritized. However, the prioritization did not come from someone but an entity of 3, composing of the Project Manager, Product Manager and the Product Owner. These 3 negoti

  • A good management attack can utterly destroy any project.

"I say we take off; nuke the site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure." - Corporal Hicks, in "Aliens"

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