Its all about the development team

In this fascinating talk given by Ed Catmull, a founding member of PIXAR, he provides critical insight into the success and failures of teams of people and companies as a whole. You should really watch the entire talk, it is well worth your time.

The Least I Can Do: Designing Applications People Can Actually Use

dont-make-me-think If you design applications that anyone in the world, other then yourself, will use then you really need to be thinking about usability during the entire development process.Some of you (hopefully) have heard of Steve Krug, the author of Don’t Make Me Think.

This is a great video of a talk Steve gave at Joel Spolsky’s Business of Software conference which covers The Least We Can Do to create usuable software.

Learning Fatigue, Sustainable Pace, and a Programmers Death March

Have you ever been at the gym, running on a treadmill, while the guy next to you (who is in much better shape I might add) is not only running faster than you but appears to be doing it with ease. You adjust your speed trying keep up, it works for awhile and you feel good about it, but eventually fatigue sets in and you find it increasingly more difficult to stay on pace. Eventually you have to slow down to something thats “sustainable”, something you can keep up for your entire workout.

Learning (and working) can, and often is, just like this.  In the sequel to Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll, the Red Queen says “it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”, eventually becoming known as The Red Queen’s Hypothesis

An excellent article written by 37 Signals entitled Sleep deprivation is not a badge of honor offers some great insight into this analogy.

Learning Fatigue

In the software development world learning is something we as programmers/geeks are, or at lease should be, constantly doing. I read articles/blog posts/chapters in books on a daily basis and still find it nearly impossible to keep up with the ever increasing complexities of our industry.

This can feel very much like being on the treadmill, trying to keep up with that guy next to you. Now don’t get me wrong, I love to learn new things and am constantly fascinated by all the incredibly cool stuff thats coming out these days, but I do need to have balance, one that is “sustainable” (a.k.a Sustainable Pace) otherwise I will suffer from Learning Fatigue.

In a very interesting article written by Dr. Bruce D. Perry, MD. Ph. D. entitled How the Brain Learns Best he discusses Learning Fatigue (what is referred to as Neural System Fatigue).

Through the process of education, we are trying literally to change the brain…Learning requires attention. And attention is mediated by specific parts of the brain. Yet, neural systems fatigue quickly, actually within minutes.

With three to five minutes of sustained activity, neurons become “less responsive”; they need a rest (not unlike your muscles when you lift weights). They can recover within minutes too, but when they are stimulated in a sustained way, they just are not as efficient.

Sustainable Pace

To combat Learning Fatigue, and the guy next to us on the treadmill, we can use the wisdom found in the old parable The Toroise and the Hare:

Slow and Steady Wins the Race

We need to be learning daily, in small consumable chunks, in order to prevent burn-out while maximizing our retention of the ever-increasing complex topics we study and grow to love. This is called Sustainable Pace and its something I believe in, preach about, and practice religiously.

A Programmers Death March

So lets jump back to the Treadmill example at the beginning of this article and make some small changes. The story starts the same way, you’re on the treadmill with Mr. America next to you and you’re trying to keep up. But this time it’s different, this time your boss is standing behind you telling you that you need to “get it done” because his boss put a finger on a day in his calendar and said “it HAS to be done by this day” (with little or no understanding of what it will really take to make that deadline).

So there you are, trying to keep up, knowing that you might not be able to and even thinking that you’re just going to turn around and tell your boss to go screw himself because you have decided to quit your career and sell hot dogs out of a buggy downtown. Sure this example is goofy, but while we chuckle nearly all of us are saying to ourselves “i’ve been there”. This is the “Programmers Death March”, it’s the exact opposite of Sustainable Pace, and it will lead you to either having a heart attack or quitting your career (or both).

So what do we do to avoid the Death March? We have to be realistic about what we can achive in a given time span. In software development we often don’t know how close to finishing a project we really are: the requirements change, the technology available to us changes, and our skills change. The answer is tocommunicate with stakeholders openly, honestly, and most important REGULARLY. This last piece, the part about regular communication, is an Agile Development pholosophy cornerstone. If you aren’t familiar with Agile then definetely take a look, much of it is about how to make your work and ultimately your career more productive and enjoyable.

In addition we cannot forget that ultimately we are the ones in charge, while this may seem rediculous it is actually true. If you slowed down the treadmill and then told your boss that it was necessary in order to be able to complete the project at all, much less on time, there isn’t much he could or would do about it. I strongly encourage you to read the book The Inmates are Running the Asylm by Alan Cooper, its a book about Software Developers taking charge and it will change you’re perspective in many ways.

Making your website project a success

Finding a talented, reliable, and responsive development firm that has the skills you need can be an enormous challenge. Understanding what you need can be just as difficult, here are a few things that will help you get started in the right direction.

Know your target audience:

Who are you creating the website for: the general public, your company’s employees, or existing clients? While this may seem silly it is one of the most overlooked items in nearly all projects. Identifying who the site is for, how they will use it, and what the most important parts are is critical to the success of any website project. Take the time to really think about your target audience, what they need, and how you are going to provide it to them. Write this information down in an outline form and regularly refer back to it during and after the development process, asking each time if you have given your target audience what they need.

Identify a budget:

It is difficult (if not impossible) to know how much a project will really cost, often you are identifying your needs during (and even after) the project is being developed. Even if you have no idea what your project may cost to produce you need to set limits on how much you are willing to spend. Think if your project as if it where the purchase of a new car; you don’t want to go to the Porsche dealership when you can only afford a Yugo and you don’t want to be looking at Yugo’s when you really need a heavy duty truck. Your project is an investment that needs to bring a return, identify how much money you are willing to spend and what your project needs to do for you in order to justify the expenditure.

Ask for a development timeline and make sure everyone can stick to it, including you:

It is important for all parties involved that an estimated development schedule be created and agreed upon by everyone. Your development firm must balance your project with others that it may be involved in; you will need to balance the needs of your project with your current work load. No one party can do it all, realizing that your website development project will require both time and effort from you and setting aside the necessary time to stay on track is one of the most important practices to follow. Making sure you follow up with your development team, getting them the feedback and materials they need when they need them can mean the difference between the success and failure, not to mention reducing a great deal of stress for both sides.

Focus on what’s important:

It’s easy to get carried away with your project, spending time and money on things that don’t achieve the bottom line. Work with your development company to create a “Critical Path”, a set of absolute “must have’s” that represent the bare minimum needed to make your project a success. Before, during, and after the project focus on the Critical Path first leaving the extra’s for later if time permits.

Communicate:

Communication with your development firm makes or breaks a project.
Be responsive: Return phone calls and emails promptly. Keep your development firm informed:if you don’t have time to get them something then let them know, set up regular scheduled meetings/calls to discuss the status of your project and any decisions/changes that may need to be made.

Don’t make assumptions:

Don’t assume others understand what you meant, instead ask them to repeat it to you in their own words. Miscommunication costs time and money, taking a few moments to ensure everyone is on the same page can make your development experience much more pleasant.

Stay involved:

Your development firm cannot do it without you, just as you cannot do it without them. If you haven’t heard from them in awhile give them a call and ask for an update

Get things in writing:

keep a record of your email conversations and follow up any calls with an email that recaps what was discussed.