A Fool with a Tool

One of my quips that people seem to get a kick out of is:

“A fool with a tool is still a fool”

My point is simple: woodworking tools in the hands of craftsmen can produce fine furniture or musical instruments. But merely the availability of great tools “doth not a masterpiece make.” Not to take the woodworking analogy too far, but power tools can also make it easier for the amateur to get hurt.

The reason a quality piece can be turned out more efficiently with a tool is the ability for the craftsmen to more quickly realize the design and architecture. In addition, tools can help make patterns easier to replicate. From actual patterns (like certain cross-section shapes on molding), to templates (like violin bodies), to connectors (like Kreg pocket hole jigs). A woodworking shop will also make good use of building components to put into larger assemblies.

So, tools in the hands of experts can help realize the design. Tools that are able to help apprentices produce parts designed by the masters, can help produce more output and help train the apprentices.

But put me in a room with the most awesome woodworking tools, and I will not be producing Stradivarius-esque violins any time soon (or ever, most likely).

Working Remote

Imagine software development with an entirely remote team.

Using modern technology (IM, IRC, Skype) and 24×7 connectedness, team members can even do remote pairing without sitting side by side. When you think about it, whether developers are 10 cubicles apart, 10 floors apart, 10 blocks apart, or 10 states apart, today’s modern collaboration tools make it almost as easy as sitting next to each other. After all, being 10 cubicles apart for most devs is about the same as 10 states apart.

Admittedly, there could be some efficiencies to being co-located. Sticky notes can be more easily shared on the local wall. Sketches on whiteboards are more collaborative as folks can easily share pens and authorship in real time. And, there are some inefficiencies: you can interrupt your co-worker ad infinitum. you can discuss things around the water cooler, etc.

Conversely, remote teams require more attention to being very open, visible, and sharing. Web-based issue trackers and wikis become invaluable. Doodles often become either camera phone snapshots uploaded to the wiki, or they become collaborative drawings via a wiki graphics plugin, or drawing source file put into version control or otherwise shared. Co-worker interruptions take on a certain hierarchy of importance once you get a few rules of etiquette in place. for example: if an answer can wait, use email (and use an email list!). if you’d like it within the hour, IM. if it is urgent, phone. If it is private use, a back channel — but ensure text “conversations” that should be public are moved into the visible realm. Similarly, it is best to answer things via the wiki or issue tracker, and email links if needed. This avoids the dreaded “management/requirements by email” problem. Keep it visible and shared for all!

So, remote teams that do a real good job of being visible probably spend more time *being* visible and more time creating (mildly) more formal artifacts than a co-located team would require. That could be considered less efficient. However, more artifacts being one side effect of being remote is not all bad and wasted effort. On the contrary. This often leads to greater efficiencies as the team grows. Each new member helps grow and improve the “getting started” wiki page, for example. Or, each new person added to the team helps grow the “FAQ” page.

If only i had plotted the time required for a new team member to get up to speed (and they were almost all remote), it dropped steeply with members #2 and #3, and is now a very flat line at a very low level. I can bring on new contractors and have them doing issues within a day or so.

In some cases, we’d get the teams together every so often — usually when there was at least one “office” of sorts (often the client). But not always.

Having been doing remote work for over a decade, and being on a kick to have shared project knowledge bases for the past 20 years (when early on, the best I could muster was a shared network drive and local web server kind of thing), i am comfortable in my remote ways.

I have also successfully instilled this on other teams that had remote offices and team members.

But it does take effort and commitment. It can easily degrade if members do not feel comfortable being always visible and sharing.

I’d be interested in your trials and tribulations at working remotely.

Hiring a Team Member

I read this very good post “The Number One Trait of a Great Developer” by Tammer Saleh at Engine Yard, and it made me think…

I used to rant about “It’s the Business, Stupid” in conferences, implying that we should be solving problems for our clients, not simply playing with the next shiny toy. Sure, I love shiny toys, and I love to play with them — especially when they make sense within the context of solving a problem. But your scenario is an oft-spotted pattern where folks lack the engineering skills required to build right-sized solutions to meet the here-and-now needs.

And of course, anyone can come up with a complex solution that sprawls across multiple cubicle walls on e-size plotter paper (that’s easy). Only a rare few can come up with the minimalist solution that meets the needs of the business, and can easily grow over time.

As far as hiring, I like to look for the “engineering” mind. After all, engineers put man on the moon, not scientists.