|By Mickey W. Mantle, Ron Lichty
Published by Addison-Wesley Professional
This article is an excerpt from Chapter 8 of the book "Managing
the Unmanageable – Rules, Tools, and Insights for Managing Software People and
Teams" by Mickey W. Mantle and Ron Lichty. Chapter 8 - and this excerpt -
focuses on establishing a successful programming culture for your team.
An essential and significant element of your role as a great
manager is to create and nurture a successful programming culture. For most of
us, that’s a culture that supports and encourages the delivery of quality
software on time and within budget by a team that developers feel proud and
gratified to be part of for a long time.
But even if you follow all of our earlier advice in chapters 1-7,
it’s not easy to manage. Your programmers don’t always act rationally or
predictably. Some have chaotic personal lives. They don’t always get along.
They can be blunt, reclusive, irritable, manic, silent, impatient, petulant,
abrasive . . . (Speaking as former programmers, such adjectives no doubt described both of us at various times!)
Your organization may not care much about them (unless their
irrational behavior spews beyond your department, of course). But your
organization cares a lot about your ability to produce and deploy software that
meets organizational goals and customer needs.
Almost any group of programmers, no matter how dysfunctional,
will care, too. They care about being productive and building successful
products and services.
As for you, you care even more. In addition to wanting what your
developers want, and wanting to meet your organization’s expectations, you want
to be a high-performing software development manager who can stretch beyond the
ordinary to achieve the remarkable.
You need help. You somehow need to create internal and external
expectations for greatness. You need to instill confidence that you and your
team(s) can deliver. You need a culture that supports your goals and
objectives. And you need to create an environment of excellence that attracts
and retains top talent and motivates stellar work.
Powerful cultures drive high-performance work in ways that no
amount of personal motivation alone can achieve.
Under the right conditions, the problems of commitment,
alignment, motivation, and change largely melt away.
OK, so it may not be greatness you need to deliver. For some
projects it may be functional but frequent delivery. For others your
stakeholders may expect their product to be "flawless." Some teams are formed
to help visionaries conceptualize products. Other teams are formed to keep products
running as the environments they’re built within change. You may find you have
organizational goals as well, goals such as developing and retaining quality
It is essential to creating and nurturing a successful
programming culture that you understand what "successful" means for your
company, your organization, your project, and your team—and how to measure it.
Unless you lucked out and inherited it, you have to create your
own successful programming culture. To maintain it, even if you inherited it,
you need to nurture it. These are truisms whether you and your team are
developing packaged software, software as a service, embedded software, B2B
software components and services, or internal applications for the firm’s
employees. They are true whether you’re part of a tiny start-up, a large
corporation, a nonprofit, or government. Your mission is to deliver value. And
that requires managing the people and the culture.
Creating a powerful programming culture requires establishing a
work setting that is conducive to developing outstanding quality software and
values on-time creation and delivery of on-target, customer-focused software:
An atmosphere of respect and fairness that keeps your staff at
their most productive
An environment in which commitment and motivation are easily
nurtured and grown
Metrics for your products, projects, and deliverables so your
team can measure its efforts and improve its results
The challenge is: How do you do that?
All organizations—large and small, companies, governments, and
nonprofits alike—have a corporate culture already. It’s important to understand
your organization’s culture in order to create the culture you desire.
If it’s a strong, positive culture, it may provide you with a
platform you can leverage to create the right environment for your own team. Or
it may be one that is so corrosive that you need to wall it off entirely to
give your team an insular environment in which it can accomplish good work
To figure out the corporate culture, listen to the CEO. But view
what you hear and see with some skepticism. What companies espouse is not
always how they behave. Look deeper than the words. Enron claimed to stand "on
the foundation of its Vision and Values."
Even where values have been forsaken, smart development managers
recognize that the company’s values, with words painted everywhere, can be
leveraged. A good development manager at Enron would have forged a programming
culture around three frequently espoused values there, "respect, integrity, and
communication," regardless of their absence in the milieu around them.
For organizations less than 30 or 40 years old, our experience
is that the culture almost without fail reflects the personal standards and
core values of the company’s founder(s). Listen to stories from the earliest
employees about how the founder established and grew the company.
Ultimately, culture derives not from the words that are
espoused, but from the lessons that are communicated through action. Look for
how employees, shareholders, and customers are perceived and treated—and the
stories employees tell—regardless of the culture your organization claims to
But even in the best of companies, the best of values can be a
mixed blessing. Ron’s Java initiative at Schwab, at its core, was about
building and sharing best practices, about finding and sharing common ways to
do things. A slam dunk in an organization with Teamwork as a core value, right?
Getting teams to share best practices, approaches, patterns, and even code
should be easy.
But look at Schwab’s other values. Striving plus Responsiveness
can be translated, in practice, into relentless delivery of customer value.
Developers driven to deliver relentlessly will tend to focus single-mindedly on
their own work and neither learn from those around them nor, at the end of a
project, find time to share.
To make his Java initiative successful Ron had to leverage and
emphasize the Teamwork value while deflecting the countermanding pull of the
Striving and Responsiveness values. "I found I could get the attention of teams
by posing the challenge in terms of results. ‘We have a choice: hundreds of
one-off projects that take too long and all repeat the same mistakes endlessly;
or cultivating a culture of sharing, reaping savings from a pattern of reuse
and shared best practices.’"
It should be obvious by now that, even in the best of cultures,
you may have to wall off some or all of your company’s culture.
You know that achieving long-term success requires that you
strengthen your architecture, refactor your code regularly, develop regression
tests, improve your processes, upgrade your hardware and software platforms,
and do the myriad other things that reduce technical debt and keep you in the
game. Mickey often uses the metaphor of oil changes to drive the point home:
"Making products is kind of like driving a car. You have to occasionally, but
regularly, change the oil."
Yet in some companies, senior management may give short shrift
to all but customer-driven projects and ask the question "Why is anyone working
on anything that’s not an obvious customer feature?"
As a rule of thumb, one MBA can neutralize the efforts
of five good engineers.
—Guy Kawasaki, Early Apple Evangelist
and Founder, Garage Technology Ventures
To be successful in the face of customer-value-only senior
management, you need to protect programmers working on under-the-hood
efficiencies from organizational disrespect. They need encouragement,
nurturing, and praise that will come only from within your organization. They
need you to wall off the company’s culture, substituting one of your own
Other elements of corporate cultures can be even more toxic to
software team success. As one example, you’ll need not only to wall off but
figure out ways to circumvent cultures that encourage extreme competition and
noncooperation among employees.
The final element of organizational culture to understand for
your culture-building efforts is: Which function is in the driver seat? Is
yours an engineering-driven, a marketing-driven, or a sales-driven company? Is
your nonprofit driven by its fundraising or by its mission?
drives the organization often defines tech’s role within it.
Ultimately, the essential balancing act that drives decisions in
programming organizations is between being innovative on the one hand and being
responsive to customers and markets on the other.
This is a fulcrum of programming culture, but every organization
sets it differently. If you get it right for your organization, it will be
easier to succeed. If you can’t understand where the organization’s fulcrum is
set, you clearly don’t belong. The fundamental question becomes whether you’re
trying to serve customer needs or developing technology for technology’s sake—technology
because it’s cool.
Start-ups early on are often technology-driven or vision-driven.
But at some point, many if not most companies switch to being customer-focused.
The games and screen savers that Broderbund and Berkeley Systems
built demanded lots of innovation, but that innovation was focused almost laser
like on supporting the entertainment value of their games.
Focus on customers is critical for most organizations. When
Mickey hears the word framework from a programmer on his team—advocating that
the team should build one—his antennae go up. "It’s all too often a sign of
innovation for innovation’s sake," he says.
It is similarly the case that too many programmers are eager to
implement from scratch rather than leveraging already written and debugged
code. It has oft been said that "programmers are the only people who prefer to
stand on the toes of others rather than on their shoulders."
In the end, whether you inherit a positive programming culture
or create your own, developing it and keeping it positive requires you to make
conscious, intentional decisions over and over.
Celebrate what you want to see more of.
Furthermore, it means modeling the culture you’re trying to
create. Your team looks to you as a model of the behavior you expect and want
to see. There may be no stronger illustration of the adages "It’s not what you
say, it’s what you do" and "Actions speak louder than words."
Both of us have known managers who set up programming teams to
compete against each other, contending that it is scrapping that motivates
programmers to do their best work. We think those managers don’t belong in a
software development organization. Some of them came from sales. Sales is an
individual sport. It’s competitive, with salespeople competing against both
quotas and each other.
The reward for being a top-performing engineer, on the other
hand, is seldom a trip to Hawaii, or golf with senior management. In fact,
rewarding competitive performance, whether with those kinds of grand rewards or
subtler ones, is almost always inappropriate and counterproductive. Software
engineering is a team sport. Smart engineering managers make sure their top
performers are happy but reserve the big rewards for entire teams, sending
entire teams off on trips and off-sites, for example, as welcome breaks from
arduous development marches.
Ron helped turn around a start-up inside Fujitsu that was months
late delivering its product. The effort had been based around a culture
dominated by a few senior programmers willing to be heroes but expecting to be
treated as such. Ron built teamwork out of discord by setting expectations that
the work and the rewards would be shared. The team would have to together meet
corporate’s new aggressive deadline or no one would benefit. "When I arrived,
it was a team that had not once met a deadline. But working together, they not
only met but beat this one."
In programming, leading teams to their highest levels of
performance requires creating cultures that encourage mutual respect, innovation,
following standards, expectation of delivery and of excellence, high levels of
communication, fairness, empowerment, professionalism, teamwork, passion,
customer focus, and technical excellence.
 Jim Collins, Good to Great (HarperCollins, 2001), p. 11.
This article is adapted from the book, ‘Managing the Unmanageable: Rules, Tools, and Insights for Managing Software People and Teams’ authored by Mickey Mantle & Ron Lichty, published by Pearson/Addison-Wesley Professional, Sept. 2012, ISBN 032182203X, Copyright 2013 Pearson Education, Inc. For more info please visit www.informit.com/title/032182203X or managingtheunmanageable.net"