Working practices

Conversation versus concentration

Compare and contrast two blog entries that popped up in my RSS reader on the same day last week. In the blue corner Joel O’Software, fighting for private offices. And in the red corner, Martin Fowler, battling it out for continuous collaboration between developers and their customers.

Naturally, they’re not really at opposite ends of a spectrum — in fact, their posts are about different things — and they’ll find a lot to agree with each other. But look at a select part of each of their text and see the contrast. Here’s Joel:

Not every programmer in the world wants to work in a private office. In fact quite a few would tell you unequivocally that they prefer the camaradarie and easy information sharing of an open space. Don’t fall for it. They also want M&Ms for breakfast and a pony.

And here’s Martin:

One of Kent’s suggested names for ‘Agile’ was conversational software development – the point being that it’s a two way communication. This isn’t something like a telecoms protocol that you can define, but the back and forth discussions about how software can enhance the business are where the real value lives. Much of this conversation is of half-baked ideas, some of which grow into valuable features – often ones that aren’t things that the customer originally thought of.

It’s notable how two people renowned for being leaders in software can be veering apart on what should be a fundamental issue: how should people interact? Joel is for concentration, Martin is for conversation.

It’s notable also that they do different things in the software world. Joel produces shrink-wrapped products on behalf of his own company. So does Microsoft, the company Joel used to work for and who he praises for “putting literally everyone in individual, private offices”. Martin is a gun for hire (via his employer), called in to consult on a variety of projects for different companies, no doubt 90% of the time producing in-house software for each client.

I can’t escape the feeling that their respective backgrounds inform their respective views, though wouldn’t for a second think that implies that one approach always suits one kind of output.

So, should one prefer concentration or conversation? Obviously[*] it depends on several factors, and here’s the way I see it…

First, it must come from whoever you start with. If Joel O’Software starts a one-man band and likes to work in silence, then takes on his first employee, he’s not going to want his hire to keep piping up with questions every two minutes. Similarly, if you’ve created your business by extolling the virtues of pair programming then you’ll be looking exclusively for developers who will continue that good work. If you start with one introvert or extravert, you’ll grow from there.

Second, it depends on where you think your strengths are as an organisation. Joel talks a lot about productivity and algorithms, while Martin tends to talk of people and methodologies. Each also has an interest in the other’s topics, but their chosen hot subjects are where they see the biggest gaps, and where they think they can most make a difference.

Third, it’s about how you see your team. I suspect Joel has very low staff turnover, hires developers very infrequently, and there’s no doubt he puts a lot of effort into picking the cream of the crop: he’s in a buyer’s market, and his developers will all be very smart. Martin will inevitably work with a much broader range of companies. While they will of course have made a very smart decision to hire him and his colleagues (ahem) they will tend more towards the market norm, and will also tend to be fairly large development teams — even if individual project teams are smaller. Thus Martin is going to be much more concerned about sharing information between developers, evolving designs collaboratively, establishing standards and keeping those standards refreshed.

Finally, it’s about how you see the long term. Again, low staff turnover and a tight-knit team means Joel is less concerned about knowledge silos, but an average corporate team will have average turnover and will have its average share of crises. Knowledge sharing and reducing single points of failure is essential in these cases.

All of that is why I favour conversational development. Knowledge sharing and evolving ideas is key to me as a general principle, all the more so that Guardian Unlimited is such a diverse site that there’s just so much to know. That doesn’t mean it’s easy for everyone, but for me a typical team will be stronger if it keeps every last bit of information flowing round, ideas constantly exchanged and checked, and experience continuously refreshed and revised. Concentration is often needed, but too often the price paid is too high, and is only found when one person is seconded to another project, has left, or is holiday.

[*] I think there’s a progression whenever you ask “Is A or B better?” Naive or inexperienced people will always pick one or the other. Eventually they’ll come to hedge their bets because they realise things are more subtle than they previously thought, or else it just makes them sound wiser. Finally they may reach a point when they are (or regard themselves as) leaders in their field and act as evangelists or iconoclasts pushing one or other opinion heavily. You’ll see a lot of hedging on this blog.

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “Conversation versus concentration

  1. You’re right that Joel has a low turnover. Apparently no one has quit in six years which is almost unbelievable.

    Posted by MC | 14 August 2006, 1:59 pm
  2. It is incredible. But not always entirely good, I’d say. People leaving is rarely a good thing, but it does have the benefit of giving you the opportunity of bringing in new blood (without an additional salary).

    Posted by Nik | 14 August 2006, 2:41 pm