Friday, October 17, 2008

The Joel on Software MBA: Peopleware

SunfishNot long after I graduated from college, I stumbled across a book which explained exactly why my employer's quarterly performance reviews felt so frustrating and useless. The authors of Abolishing Performance Appraisals: Why They Backfire and What to Do Instead went to great length to demonstrate that performance reviews were worse than useless.

When I told my supervisor about my discovery, her reaction surprised me. Rather than being interested in the book or the findings, she was totally ambivalent. If anything, she seemed to believe more strongly in the value of performance reviews. The reviews made sense to her. It didn't matter that there was research and data indicating otherwise.

I suspect that Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams* falls into a similar category: books big companies are immune to. Having read Peopleware for my virtual Joel on Software MBA, I'm confident that the book's ideas would work great. I'm sure Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood agree -- they advise managers** to staple Peopleware to their face.

Like Abolishing Performance Appraisals, Peopleware resonates with me, but doesn't mesh well with the status quo. This sort of book would interest and inspire the engineers, but -- at large corporations -- ultimately let them down: most managers couldn't implement the suggestions if they wanted to.

For instance, about 58 of the 174 pages concern the work environment. If you work in the typical large office, this third of the book will explain how you couldn't design worse conditions for productivity. Cubicles? Noise? Interruptions? You might as well have your developers code from the local Jiffy Lube. Think of the money you'll save on office space and free Folgers coffee!

Peopleware explains why Joel Spolsky went to such great lengths to give his developers Bionic Offices, complete with windows and closing doors. Good luck convincing your typical corporation to give their engineers offices with windows. They'll have all sorts of excuses explaining why offices are a perk for management, cost too much, or don't allow for proper teamwork.

Aside from environmental issues, Peopleware addresses how to motivate developers, hire the best people, retain them, build awesome teams, and fight counter-productive bureaucracy. In other words, it's more about the engineers (and sociology) and less about technology.

This might seem like an indirect approach to productivity. It doesn't involve bossing people around, demanding long hours, or hiring consultants. You won't find justifications for treating your engineers like factory workers, buying fancy tools, or flying to exotic locations. Instead, it advocates making engineers happy and simply making productivity possible. Psychology and sociology do the rest of the work.

Unless you work at a very progressive company, Peopleware will have you constantly fighting bureaucracy, trying to fix the office environment, and struggling to make time so you can have conversations with your team. Worse, your peers probably won't understand or appreciate what you are trying to do.

Ultimately, you may find it easier become an entrepreneur and start your own people-friendly and productivity-friendly company. But maybe that's the point.

* I'm reviewing the first edition of the book, but there is a second edition of Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (Second Edition) available as well. You can help me and my publisher by purchasing from these links. In association with Amazon.
** Peopleware concerns the field of software development, although I believe it applies equally to other engineering fields. It probably applies to just about any intellectual and creative effort, especially those requiring teamwork.

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