Revisiting Peopleware

It's been a number of years since I first read Peopleware. I was caught off guard in this second reading to see how much of what was advocated for by DeMarco and Lister can still be considered radical today. Below are a few of my favorite and surprisingly radical quotes.

On pressure, time, and quality

People under time pressure don't work better; they work just work faster. In order to work faster, they may have to sacrifice the quality of the product and their own job satisfaction.

Quality is free, but only to those willing to pay heavily for it.

On the workplace environment

Workers who reported before the exercise that their workplace was acceptably quiet were one-third more likely to to deliver zero-defect work.

One of the ideas that had always stood out for me was their championing of giving workers a quiet, interruption free place to work with a door. So many high-tech offices these days think otherwise, however, opting for vast open plan dungeons that they insist promote collaboration. Collaboration happens through the work that you do and the problems the team is trying to solve. It's not magically a result of overhearing everyone's jokes and water cooler conversations.

Over the years, I have come to my own understanding that open plan offices and bullpens are the design and architecture of command and control rather than collaboration and productivity. Managers and bosses cut from a certain fabric enjoy the hum and buzz of an open plan office. They can effortlessly step out from their offices, chest broad and hands on their hips, to survey the land and ensure that each worker is heads down in their bullpen, collaborating.

On interviewing

It would be ludicrous to think of hiring a juggler without first seeing him perform. That's just common sense. Yet when you set out o hire an engineer or a designer or a programmer or a group manager, the rules of common sense are often suspended. You don't ask to see a design or a program or anything. In fact, the interview is just talk.

While terrible interviewers still use puzzle questions and whiteboard programming exercises, the pressure over the last few years for everyone to have a Github with public code has made sharing a portfolio of past work easy and give potential employers no excuse for having not done their homework. Even better, more enlightened employers in the software industry are moving towards work sample tests, which have the highest validity of any other method for hiring. Peopleware was way ahead of the game here and still is.

On productive teams and diversity

The saddest example of the overly homogeneous work group is the all-male team. Women are obvious victims of the sports analogy: The same male establishment that excluded them systematically from team sports for so long now compounds the felony by insinuating that they're probably bad team players. Of course women function as well on teams as men. Men who have worked on mixed teams find it hard to imagine ever again working on the all-male environment. That was their fathers' sad lot.

Diversity is one of the top issues finally getting surfaced into the broader industry conciousness lately. Again DeMarco and Lister are ahead of the curve in pointing out the obvious 1987. Diverse teams not only boost productivity, they argue, they are an enormous aid to helping teams jell, a prerequisite to productivity.

Conclusion

Peopleware is a quick read and there's good reason that it's considered a classic in the software industry. There's much from its pages that we still need to learn.