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Published April 1, 2020 Updated October 10, 2021
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Peopleware by Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister

I read Peopleware about a year ago as a member of a book club and enjoyed it. The following is a loose capture of notes and thoughts on a chapter-by-chapter basis for sharing further. I say loose because the book is organized in six parts:

  1. Managing the Human Resource

  2. The Office Environment

  3. The Right People

  4. Growing Productive Teams

  5. Fertile Soil

  6. It’s Supposed to Be Fun to Work Here

The problem is each part has subs-sections and even sections within those sections which don’t always have the best descriptive titles. My biggest complaint about the book, as a whole, is the section titles don’t always make the most intuitive/navigable sense. With that in mind, the structure of these notes deviate slightly from the outline of the book.

I’d encourage reading the book for yourself. You might find discoveries in addition to what I found interesting.

Managing the Human Resource

Fostering an atmosphere that doesn’t allow for error simply makes people defensive. They don’t try things that may turn out badly. You encourage this defensiveness when you try to systematize the process, when you impose rigid methodologies so that staff members are not allowed to make any of the key strategic decisions lest they make them incorrectly. The average level of technology may be modestly improved by any steps you take to inhibit error. The team sociology, however, can suffer grievously.

The opposite approach would be to _encourage people to make some errors. You do this by asking your folks on occasion what dead-end roads they’ve been down, and by making sure they understand that "none" is not the best answer. When people blow it, they should be congratulated—that’s part of what they’re being paid for.

As mentioned in the first chapter of Extreme Ownership, failure is an important aspect to learning and growing but takes a lot of humility and courage to pull off correctly.

The statistics about reading are particularly discouraging: The average software developer, for example, doesn’t own a single book on the subject of his or her work, and hasn’t ever read one. That fact is horrifying for anyone concerned about the quality of work in the field; for folks like us who write books, it is positively tragic.

I agree. I’d even say a bit depressing. At least this has been my experience but wish the opposite was true.

There may be many and varied causes of emotional reaction in one’s personal life, but in the workplace, the major arouser of emotions is threatened self-esteem.

Also known as imposter syndrome, I suppose. One way to reduce this is to foster an environment that encourages empathy while not skimping on thoughtful discourse. One example is via constructive Code Reviews.

We all tend to tie our self-esteem strongly to the quality of the product we produce—not the quantity of product, but the quality. (For some reason, there is little satisfaction in turning out huge amounts of mediocre stuff, although that may be just what’s required for a given situation.) Any step you take that may jeopardize the quality of the product is likely to set the emotions of your staff directly against you.

My personal motto has been quality over quantity for several years now so this rings especially true for me.

Quality, far beyond that required by the end user, is a means to higher productivity.

Yep! 🎉

Parkinson’s Law

This is the notion/adage that work will expand to fill the time given for it’s completion. Interestingly, a clear sign of poor leadership is when managers think they can target impossibly optimistic dates for delivering software. This wishful desire is unfortunately lazy thinking when the root cause is, most likely, inefficencies in team performance and/or dynamics.

Managerial Wisdom

The manager’s function is not to make people work, but to make it possible for people to work.

The Office Environment

Lots of excellent data and resources collected here that supports people doing better in quiet environments with few distractions. Having a personal space and access to natural light with a view of the environment is most ideal.

Police-mentality planners design workplaces the way they would design prisons: optimized for containment at minimal cost. We have unthinkingly yielded to them on the subject of workplace design, yet for most organizations with productivity problems, there is no more fruitful area for improvement than the workplace. As long as workers are crowded into noisy, sterile, disruptive space, it’s not worth improving anything but the workplace.

Gilb’s Law

Anything you need to quantify can be measured in some way that is superior to not measuring it at all — Tom Gilb (Author of Software Metrics).

Gilb’s Law doesn’t promise you that measurement will be free or even cheap, and it may not be perfect—just better than nothing.

You simply can’t afford to remain ignorant of where you stand. Your competition may be ten times more effective than you are in doing the same work. If you don’t know it, you can’t begin to do something about it. Only the market will understand. It will take steps of its own to rectify the situation, steps that do not bode well for you.

In order to make the concept deliver on its potential, management has to be perceptive and secure enough to cut itself out of the loop. That means the data on individuals is not passed up to management, and everybody in the organization knows it. Data collected on the individual’s performance has to be used only to benefit that individual. The measurement scheme is an exercise in self-assessment, and only the sanitized averages are made available to the boss.

Flow

For anyone involved in engineering, design, development, writing, or like tasks, flow is a must.

Flow is a core value of this collective. Unfortunately, it is often undervalued and overlooked at other places I’ve worked. Our most powerful asset is our mind and if don’t allow for individuals to have the autonomy to master that flow, we are handicapping ourselves.

Unfortunately, you can’t turn on flow like a switch. It takes a slow descent into the subject, requiring 15 minutes or more of concentration before the state is locked in. During this immersion period, you are particularly sensitive to noise and interruption. A disruptive environment can make it difficult or impossible to attain flow. Once locked in, the state can be broken by an interruption that is focused on you (your phone, for instance) or by insistent noise. Each time you’re interrupted, you require an additional immersion period to get back into flow. During this immersion, you’re not really doing work.

Remote work and home offices help in this regard but doesn’t mean you can be lax with your Inbox.

What matters is not the amount of time you’re present, but the amount of time that you’re working at full potential.

Environment Factor

Environment Factor = Uninterrupted Hours / Body-Present Hours

The higher the number, the better. Although, the book only mentions finding a high of 38%. Still, worth measuring and using as a tool for encouraging better team performance.

Workspaces

Your people bring their brains with them every morning. They could put them to work for you at no additional cost if only there were a small measure of peace and quiet in the workplace.

Appearance is stressed far too much in workplace design. What is more relevant is whether the workplace lets you work or inhibits you. Work-conducive office space is not a status symbol, it’s a necessity. Either you pay for it by shelling out what it costs, or you pay for it in lost productivity.

There is an invisible cost to productivity and creativeness incurred when workspaces are not planned carefully.

Management, at its best, should make sure there is enough space, enough quiet, and enough ways to ensure privacy so that people can create their own sensible work space. Uniformity has no place in this view. You have to grin and bear it when people put up odd pictures or clutter their desks or move the furniture around or merge their offices. When they’ve got it just the way they want it, they’ll be able to put it out of their minds entirely and get on with the work.

The book mentions four patterns that make up a sensible workspace:

  • Tailored Work Space from a Kit

  • Windows

  • Indoor and Outdoor Space

  • Public Space

For more on this, see the following works by Christopher Alexander:

The Right People

Hiring, retaining, and managing people is hard work but worth the effort.

Management

Managers are unlikely to change their people in any meaningful way. People usually don’t stay put long enough, and the manager just doesn’t have enough leverage to make a difference in their nature. So the people who work for you through whatever period will be more or less the same at the end as they were at the beginning. If they’re not right for the job from the start, they never will be.

Having been a leader myself, I find this disheartening. I like to believe people can change and grow but, it’s true, people have to want to change. Though I have only my own experience to draw from, I have seen people change over longer periods, such as five to ten year spans. Unfortuantely, as mentioned above, people often don’t stay put long enough for that kind of growth to be realized within the same company. Mostly likely the individual has moved on or the job/company, itself, is no longer in business.

The key point here is don’t skimp on the hiring process. Instead instill a strong hiring process. On the flip side, don’t hesitate to take action if toxity is detected.

Strong managers don’t care when team members cut their hair or whether they wear ties. Their pride is tied only to their staff’s accomplishments.

Entropy is levelness or sameness. The more it increases, the less potential there is to generate energy or do work. In the corporation or other organization, entropy can be thought of as uniformity of attitude, appearance, and thought process. Just as thermodynamic entropy is always increasing in the universe, so, too, corporate entropy is on the rise.

The most successful manager is the one who shakes up the local entropy to bring in the right people and let them be themselves, even though they may deviate from the corporate norm. Your organization may have rigor mortis, but your little piece of it can hop and skip.

Another side to this coin is management that steps up to lead by example and as a service without any desire to gain acknowledgement or reward. This benefits everyone and those who benefit from this altruistic nature are happy, appreciative, and champion this behavior in turn.

Leadership as a service almost always operates without official permission.

Team jell takes time, and, during much of that time, the composition of the team can’t be changing. If you need to use a reactive strategy of contract labor, your team will probably never jell. In fact, the workforce you manage almost certainly won’t be a team at all.

Onboarding

  • Day One - Initially, the ramping up of a new employee provides is a cost to the company and drain on those who are providing support.

  • ~2 Months - The new employee is starting to do useful work.

  • ~5 Months - Full working capacity.

  • TOTAL: ~3 months of lost work due to startup cost. This is compounded if the business logic is highly esoteric.

The total cost of replacing each person is the equivalent of four-and-a-half to five months of employee cost or about 20 percent of the cost of keeping that employee for the full two years on the job.

Employee turnover costs about 20 percent of all manpower expense. But that’s only the visible cost of turnover. There is an ugly invisible cost that can be far worse. In companies with high turnover, people tend toward a destructively short-term viewpoint, because they know they just aren’t going to be there very long.

In an organization with high turnover, nobody is willing to take the long view.

If the organization is a development shop, it will optimize for the short term, exploit people, cheat on the workplace, and do nothing to conserve its very lifeblood, the peopleware that is its only real asset. If we ran our agricultural economy on the same basis, we’d eat our seed corn immediately and all starve next year.

The insidious effect here is that turnover engenders turnover. People leave quickly, so there’s no use spending money on training. Since the company has invested nothing in the individual, the individual thinks nothing of moving on. New people are not hired for their extraordinary qualities, since replacing extraordinary qualities is too difficult. The feeling that the company sees nothing extraordinary in the worker makes the worker feel unappreciated as an individual. Other people are leaving all the time, so there’s something wrong with you if you’re still here next year.

The book continues by saying a common aspect of companies with the lowest rate of turnover provide retraining support for its staff. It’s not the cheapest solution. Interestingly, it is cheaper to fire and hire what you need. However, the best organizations retrain which helps build a strong sense of community which more than justifies the cost.

Human Capital

Companies that downsize are frankly admitting that their upper management has blown it.

Companies of knowledge workers have to realize that it is their investment in human capital that matters most. The good ones already do.

Growing Productive Teams

The most enjoyable work experiences are those that were the most challenging and high levels of growth.

When a group of people fuse into a meaningful whole, the entire character of the work changes.

In the best work groups, the ones in which people have the most fun and perform at their upper limits, team interactions are everything. They are the reason that people stick it out, put their all into the work, overcome enormous obstacles.

A jelled team is a group of people so strongly knit that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Once a team begins to jell, the probability of success goes up dramatically. The team can become almost unstoppable, a juggernaut for success. Managing these juggernaut teams is a real pleasure. You spend most of your time just getting obstacles out of their way, clearing the path so that bystanders don’t get trampled underfoot: “Here they come, folks. Stand back and hold onto your hats.” They don’t need to be managed in the traditional sense, and they certainly don’t need to be motivated. They’ve got momentum.

A Jelled Team

Signs:

  • Low turnover.

  • A strong sense of identity.

  • Sense of eliteness.

  • Joint ownership of the product.

  • Obvious enjoyment.

Terminology:

  • Team - A group of people with a tight bond (i.e. a jelled team) that is pleasing to to others.

  • Clique - A group of people that represent a threat.

The jelled work group may be cocky and self-sufficient, irritating and exclusive, but it does more to serve the manager’s real goals than any assemblage of interchangeable parts could ever do.

I would caution that you can still have a jelled team without being cocky or irritating. You can do this by forming a solid empathetic bond with respect for one another. Not just within the team but also with those outside the team.

Teamicide

The flip side of a jelled team:

  • Defensive management - Low bonding and cohesion occurs when there are those who feel untrusted.

  • Bureaucracy - Mindless paper pushing keep people from working and doesn’t allow them to be focused on success.

  • Physical separation - Keeping people apart, who are suppose to work closely together, prevents casual interaction that is necessary for team formation.

  • Fragmentation of people’s time - The interactions of jelled teams are exclusive which makes it unwise for someone to be part of multiple teams as it becomes too much context switching.

  • Quality reduction of the product - "Self-esteem and enjoyment are undermined by the necessity of building a product of clearly lower quality than what they are capable of."

  • Phony deadlines - Kills any hope of having a jelled team as the manager loses credibility for imposing impossible or unrealistic deadlines and sets the project up for failure from the start.

  • Clique control - Let it happen organically and from the bottom up naturally. That is the only way a jelled team begins to grow.

  • Motivational accessories - These are harmful and belittling to teams.

  • Overtime - "[The] negative impact can be substantial: error, burnout, accelerated turnover, and compensatory undertime." "Extended overtime is a productivity-reduction technique, anyway. The extra hours are almost always more than offset by the negative side effects."

Managerial actions that lead to teamacide:

  • Annual salary or merit reviews.

  • Management by objectives.

  • Praise of certain workers for extraordinary accomplishment.

  • Awards, prizes, bonuses tied to performance.

  • Performance measurement in almost any form.

Remove barriers that rob people in management and in engineering of their right to pride of workmanship. This means [among other things] abolishment of the annual or merit rating and of management by objectives. — W. E. Deming, Out of the Crisis (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Center for Advanced Engineering Study, 1982), p. 24.

Building A Successful Team

Success breeds success, and productive harmony breeds more productive harmony. Your chances of jelling into a meaningful team are enhanced by your very first experience together.

Good managers provide frequent easy opportunities for the team to succeed together. The opportunities may be tiny pilot subprojects, or demonstrations, or simulations, anything that gets the team quickly into the habit of succeeding together. The best success is the one in which there is no evident management, in which the team works as a genial aggregation of peers. The best boss is the one who can manage this over and over again without the team members knowing they’ve been “managed.” These bosses are viewed by their peers as just lucky. Everything seems to break right for them. They get a fired-up team of people, the project comes together quickly, and everyone stays enthusiastic through the end. These managers never break into a sweat. It looks so easy that no one can believe they are managing at all.

If you’ve got decent people under you, there is probably nothing you can do to improve their chances of success more dramatically than to get yourself out of their hair occasionally. Any easily separable task is a perfect opportunity. There is no real management required for such work. Send them away. Find a remote office, hire a conference room, borrow somebody’s summer house, or put them up at a hotel. Take advantage of off-season rates at ski areas or at beaches. Have them go to a conference, and then stay over for a few days to work together in peace. (We’ve heard of at least one instance of each of these ploys.)

Chemistry for Team Formation

The following is a simplistic overview but will delve into each:

  • Make a cult of quality.

  • Provide lots of satisfying closure.

  • Build a sense of eliteness.

  • Allow and encourage heterogeneity.

  • Preserve and protect successful teams.

  • Provide strategic but not tactical direction.

Make a cult of quality

The use of cult is a bit egregious as I’ve worked in cult-like cultures before and they are insidiously toxic. That said, I definitely agree quality should be one of the founding values of any team culture as emphasized below:

The judgment that a still-imperfect product is “good enough” is the death knell for a jelling team. There can be no impetus to bind together with your cohorts for the joint satisfaction gained from delivering mediocre work. The opposite attitude, of “only perfect is good enough for us,” gives the team a real chance. This cult of quality is the strongest catalyst for team formation.

It binds the team together because it sets its members apart from the rest of the world. The rest of the world, remember, doesn’t give a hoot for quality. Oh, it talks a good game, but if quality costs a nickel extra, you quickly see the true colors of those who would have to shell out the nickel.

When team members develop a cult of quality, they always turn out something that’s better than what their market is asking for. They can do this, but only when protected from short-term economics. In the long run, this always pays off. People get high on quality and outdo themselves to protect it.

This is probably one of my favorite sections in the entire book as assembling a collective of individuals who care about the craft and quality of code is very much at the heart of what this site is about.

Provide lots of satisfying closure

For companies, closure is not anything on the radar. For teams, however, it is a necessary component of finishing a long stretch of work and feeling good about finishing it. Being able to celebrate that success/accomplishment before moving on provides appropriate closure.

Build a sense of eliteness

People require a sense of uniqueness to be at peace with themselves, and they need to be at peace with themselves to let the jelling process begin.

The great manager knows that people can’t be controlled in any meaningful sense anyway. The essence of successful management is to get everyone pulling in the same direction and then somehow get them fired up to the point that nothing, not even their manager, could stop their progress.

Whatever the elite characteristic is, it forms the basis of the team’s identity, and identity is an essential ingredient of a jelled team.

Allow and encourage heterogeneity

When teams stay together they build up momentum for the next endeavor.

On the best teams, different individuals provide occasional leadership, taking charge in areas where they have particular strengths. No one is the permanent leader, because that person would then cease to be a peer and the team interaction would begin to break down.

A little bit of heterogeneity can be an enormous aid to create a jelled team. Add one handicapped developer to a newly formed work group, and the odds go up that the team will knit. The same effect can result from adding a co-op student or an ex-admin on the first project after being retrained. Whatever the heterogeneous element is, it takes on symbolic importance to team members. It is a clear signal that it’s okay not to be a clone, okay not to fit into the corporate mold of Uniform Plastic Person.

Preserve and protect successful teams

You can’t always make it happen, but when a team does come together, it’s worth the cost. The work is fun; the people are energized. They roll over deadlines and milestones and look for more. They like themselves. They feel loyal to the team and to the environment that allows the team to exist.

Fertile Soil

The maddening thing about most of our organizations is that they are only as good as the people who staff them.

You’re only as good as the weakest link in the chain or the lowest common denominator.

The Hawthorne Effect

People perform better when trying something new while methodoligies can debilitate due to treating everyone as less than what they are skilled at.

Dancing With Risk

The Peopleware premise—our main problems are more likely to be sociological than technological in nature—applies nowhere more strongly than in the area of risk. The mechanics of risk management are widely understood; when it doesn’t get done, the reason is likely to be in the organization’s politics and culture.

Making Change Possible

People hate change. When we start out to change, it is never certain that we will succeed. And the uncertainty is more compelling than the potential for gain.

The fundamental response to change is not logic, but emotional.

It is frustrating and embarrassing to abandon approaches and methods you have long since mastered, only to become a novice again. Nobody enjoys that sense of floundering; you just know you would be better off with the old way. Unfortunately, this passage through Chaos is absolutely necessary, and it can’t be shortcut.

Chaos is an integral part of change.

Paradoxically, change only has a chance of succeeding if failure—at least a little bit of failure—is also okay.

Organizational Learning

High-tech organizations may accumulate experience at an astonishing rate, but there is no guarantee that their learning will keep track.

Learning is limited by an organization’s ability to keep its people.

When turnover is high, learning is unlikely to stick or can’t take place at all. In such an organization, attempts to change skills or to introduce redesigned procedures are an exercise in futility. They may even act perversely to accelerate the rate of employee turnover.

Successful learning organizations are always characterized by strong middle management.

The book continues by stating learning doesn’t happen at the top because leadership is too far removed and focused on larger issues. It doesn’t happen at the bottom either because those at the lower levels can’t see or are not always aware of the opportunities. They also have little power too affect change too.

In order for a vital learning center to form, middle managers must communicate with each other and learn to work together in effective harmony. This is an extremely rare phenomenon.

The Making of a Community

Great managers form communities as everyone has a need for community. Interestingly, where you live no longer serves as a source of community (most of us don’t even know our neighbors). What happens, instead, is finding a sense of community in the workplace.

The science of making communities, making them healthy and satisfying for all, is called politics.

Digression on Corporate Politics

Aristotle included Politics among the five interlinked Noble Sciences that together make up Philosophy. The five are:

  • Metaphysics: The study of existence, the nature of the universe and all its contents

  • Logic: The ways we may know something, the set of permissible conclusions we may draw based on our perceptions, and some sensible rules of deduction and inference

  • Ethics: What we know about man and what we may deduce and infer (through Logic) about acceptable interactions between pairs of individuals

  • Politics: How we may logically extend Ethics to the larger group, the science of creating and managing such groups consistent with ethical behavior and logical recognition of the metaphysical entities—humans and the community made up of humans

  • Aesthetics: The appreciation of symbols and images of metaphysical reality, which are pleasing to the extent that they are logically consistent and that they inform us about ethical interaction and/or political harmony

Why It Matters

An organization that succeeds in building a satisfying community tends to keep its people. When the sense of community is strong enough, no one wants to leave. The investment made in human capital is thus retained, and upper management finds itself willing to invest more. When the company invests more in its people, the people perform better and feel better about themselves and about their company. This makes them still less likely to move on. The positive reinforcement here is all to the good.

Pulling Off The Magic

Like any work of art, your success at fostering community is going to require substantial talent, courage, and creativity. It will also need an enormous investment of time. The work will not be completed by you alone; at best, you will be the catalyst. The form of your creation will not be very much like anyone else’s.

It’s Supposed to Be Fun to Work Here

Sociology matters more than technology or even money. It’s supposed to be productive, satisfying fun to work. If it isn’t, then there’s nothing else worth concentrating on. Choose your terrain carefully, assemble your facts, and speak up. You can make a difference.

Closing Thoughts — Leadership

The following is a compilation of ideas taken from the book on leadership I thought were worth noting:

  • Avoid prodding people into action because this will not make them anymore creative, inventive, and/or thoughtful. In fact, it’ll make it worse for those that need to think and process information in order to solve problems. In some cases it might help to reduce the workload because most people enjoy what they are doing.

  • Avoid being threatened by anything staff does to exert their individuality.

  • Be aware of individual’s uniqueness because it is vital to allowing that person to be effective. It’s also something to be cultivated.

  • Identify the catalyst/champion. Sometimes these people can’t be measured in terms of work produced by how well they smooth out the rough edges of a project and team. A catalyst is able to get everyone and everything jelling together smoothly. They are the shadow behind the scenes.

  • Avoid overtime becase each hour of overtime will result in an equivalent hour of undertime — Time spent catching up on the things they neglected while previously working longer hours.

  • Avoid encouraging workaholism because it’ll eventually backfire on you in the form of revenge (for the workaholic realizing they have been treated unfairly, not recognized, and uncompensated) or will leave for a different opportunity.

  • Avoid arbitrary dates and schedules because people under pressure don’t work better, they instead work faster by sacrificing quality.