Freedom and All That

I’ve just finished posting a new blog entry on XP-Dev.com on the definition of Stories, Tasks and Bugs from XP-Dev.com’s point of view. However, the beauty of it all is that users make XP-Dev.com their own. They end up using it for various other purposes other than software development (and agile at that!). They are free to use it whichever way they see fit.

In my blog entry, I said:

However, this article (and future ones) are only guidelines – you are free to decide on how you’d like to use XP-Dev.com.

“Free to decide” – these words triggered a memory from the past.

Back in 2003 I was doing an summer internship/job with Lec here in the UK and was rushing back to their office from Victoria station in London. I was running late and did not have enough time to read the notice board on which platform I was meant to catch the train from.

I ran to the first person who looked like he worked at the station, and I asked him which is the next train to Bognor Regis (Lec HQ). Apparently there were 2 – one that was leaving at that moment, and another that was leaving in 30 minutes. I wasn’t too sure which one my ticket was for, and showed him my tickets and asked “I’ve got these tickets – which train can I board?”.

As soon as I finished my question, he immediately replied “Take which ever one you’d like – it’s a Free country”. He didn’t bother even looking at the tickets!

With adrenaline still rushing through my heart, I thanked him, ran to the train and boarded it. The train left a minute later.

I have always comeback to this little episode whenever I think of usages of a tool or even idea – let it be a handy tool (screwdriver, etc) or even an edit (one of the team asking whether its OK to use Vim instead of Emacs). I have a 2 second flashback to that moment in Victoria station and reply to them in the same manner – “Its a free country. Do whatever you want.”

And this is the beauty about building tools that people use, like XP-Dev.com. Everyone has their own way of using it and it should be just like that. No hard rules, everyone gets to do it their own way, and everyone is happy.

There’s a saying “With freedom comes responsibility” – so, just don’t do anything unlawful.

Managing People in 15 minutes, or is it Micro-Management ?

I enjoy reading HarvardBusiness.org. There are some really insightful articles there, and I think about some of the better ones days after reading them.

When I first read How to Manage People in 15 Minutes a Day by Daisy Wademan Dowling, I thought that it was a fairly good article. It was short and to the point. 10 minutes went by and that’s when its struck me: it’s rubbish.

Now, the article gives out 4 pointers on how to manage people in 15 minutes a day. My feeling is that its geared towards the busy manager/executive who will need to squeeze out every second of the working day to ensure that the team is working at 100%.

These are the 4 tips that were listed:

  • Turn dead time into development time. Walking back to your office after a meeting? Use those two minutes to give your direct report feedback on the presentation, and on how he could do better next time. He didn’t have a speaking role? Ask him how he thought the meeting went and how he might have made certain points differently — and then offer feedback on that. Direct, in-the-moment feedback is your single best tool for developing people.
  • Constantly spot dead time. Look for every two-minute stretch in your day during which you could be talking to someone else — most often, that’s travel time — and convert each into a coaching opportunity. Walking down to Starbucks to get a coffee? Driving to the airport? Headed out to your car at the end of the day? Ask one of your people to come along with — and talk to them about their goals and priorities.
  • Show up in their workspace. Employees expect you to stay in your seat. Don’t. Once per day, get up and walk over to the desk of someone you haven’t spoken to recently. Take two minutes to ask her what she’s working on. Once she’s done answering, respond “What do you need from me to make that project/transaction successful?” Message to employee: I know who you are, I’ve got high expectations — and I’ve got your back.
  • Make two calls per day. On your way home from work, call (or email) two people you met with that day, and offer “feedforward.” “I like what you’ve done with the Smithers account. Next time, let’s try to keep marketing costs down. Thanks for your hard work.” Always make “thank you” a part of the message. Employees who feel appreciated, and know that you’re trying to develop their skills, stay engaged over the long run.

I won’t go into the details and analyse each and every point. However, here’s my feedback to these 4 tips:

Points 1. and 2. is essentially time management. Its not rocket science and the subject been there since the dawn of modern management. So, lets not kid ourselves that we’re actually gaining new knowledge by coining it in new, fashionable ways. Nothing new here. Telling managers that they need to make sure every second of their time is used effectively is just pointless. Everyone knows about the importance of time management, but most get stuck on how to implement/execute it. For execution, there’s a plethora of seminars, books, papers, conferences around the subject.

When I was managing teams and projects, there were days that felt endless. I usually started work at 7am, and at 8am sharp 5 people decide to whack in 5 different meetings throughout the day at different times. Managing those days were challenging, but its was not rocket science. On days like those, every 5 minutes free time was spent with someone, which is a trait I picked up from my director at that time. I’ve sat in countless of meetings that I had lunch in. You just have to make every moment count.

However, the rubbish part comes on points 3. and 4. If you read them carefully and picture yourself as the manager, it makes sense. But lets remember – management is not about you, it’s about them. Now, put yourself in the place of the your direct report and all of a sudden points 3. and 4. suddenly feel like you’re being micro-managed. This is not the way to lead a team. To be honest, if I had done that to my teams in the past, the consequences would have been dire. Admittedly, managing developers is different from managing a team of say, sales people. However, micro-management is always a bad thing to do. It undermines, demoralises and makes the person feel utterly useless.

Now, it’s not normal to find such low quality content on HarvardBusiness.org, and this one has to be one of the worst I’ve read. Infact, head over to the article right now and just read the comments that were submitted. Not entirely good feedback at all.

Taking the Stairs

I have been awfully quiet since the beginning of the new year and I have to apologise. It has been extremely busy at work, and along with the ambitious plans that I have for XP-Dev.com, I never seem to have any spare time left.

Now, one of the things that I have missed out was blogging about my resolution for this year. 2008 has been a real roller coaster for me – both, professionally and personally, and I do want to share one of my observations which happened at the end of December 2008.

Lazy ?

I work (at an investment bank doing IT “stuff”) on the 6th floor of my building, and one day, the lift stopped at the 2nd floor to let someone in. This lady (she looked young, maybe late 20s) steps in and calls for the 3rd floor. Yes, she just went up one floor, and to make matters worse, there’s a fully functional escalator literally 20 metres away from the lefts.

At that moment, I was just thinking “Jeez, one floor? AND there’s an escalator just there. This is just pushing it. She should have just taken the stairs” (escalators in this case).

And that’s when it struck me – 2008 is the year the world paid the price for the finance industry not taking the stairs.

Her action to take the lifts instead of the escalators, cost me and 4 others in the lift a few seconds each, but it was just plain lazy and inconsiderate.

Reflection

I have only ever worked for 3.5 years, all of it in investment banking. In my short professional career, I have been a developer, a mentor, a manager, an architect, and a general noise generator (the actual label was worse, filled with profanity). I have seen systems and businesses fall to their knees, while others have run perfectly, some flourished and even some failures to take off (i.e. projects/businesses that seem to just go on with no delivery/product/end in sight).

Looking back on these 3.5 years, I noticed that the ones that failed had just taken outright shortcuts. The finance industry, in their goal of getting rich fast took plenty of shortcuts. They were not prudent enough to sit back, reanalyse the situation and figure out the right way to move forward (and actually do it even though its hard work).

Everyone is paying the price for it. Jobs are being cut everywhere. Businesses are failing – all due to the finance industry not taking the stairs. Their actions of taking shortcuts to generate revenue has cost everyone else a lot of grief – physical (monetary, etc) and emotional (job loss, security, etc).

Wake Up

Personally, I hate having to do a half-ass job. I hate taking shortcuts. I like to get to the bottom of things and nip the problem in the bud. I have to admit that there have been times when I did take the shortcuts.

So, my goal for 2009 is simple – take the freaking stairs, and you should too. Whenever you’re in a situation that requires a decision, or solving a problem, just keep asking yourself “What is the actual problem? What is the right solution?” and just do it!

Free Subversion Hosting

Many people over the past few months, have been asking the same questions over and over again about the services over at XP-Dev.com. I don’t mind answering them with the same answers, but I think it is time to put all of these questions into one place and discuss them.

Why are you offering Subversion Hosting for free ? Is it too good to be true ?

Let me set something straight:

I offer it free because I really do not believe that anyone should pay for something so simple to setup and run as Subversion.

Here is the reality: I setup Apache using mod_svn, mod_dav, mod_ssl and mod_auth_mysql once. Believe me: only once and never ever ever ever (ever!) touched it again. No, I am not kidding – only once! No tinkering needed, it just runs like Forrest Gump (no pun intended to all you Gump fans out there).

It does cost $$$ to host it, including my time to add more features to it. Disk space and bandwidth is getting cheaper. They are not free, but then again, if you average it across the number of users that I have on XP-Dev.com, the figure looks really, really small. It is a cost nonetheless, which I’ll try to cover below.

So, we’ve established it does cost money, how are you covering these costs ? Are you really rich ?

OK. I wish I was rich, but the truth is – I am not. I could claim I was rich and lie to you all, but then I would not get any glory every time I look at my monthly bank statements.

So, where does the money come from to pay for the services ? Well, at the moment, I am paying for it. But I won’t be doing this forever.

I have got a few models to generate revenue and these models will be implemented in the next few months. I can’t reveal them to the public just yet, but rest assured that the usage of Subversion and project tracking on XP-Dev.com will always remain free. This is how I started and envisaged XP-Dev.com, and that is how it will always be.

Free Subversion Hosting and Project Tracking on XP-Dev.com is a life-time guarantee.

You’re offering a free service. There’s a catch to it, right ? Are you selling our code to someone else ?

No. Nada. No catch. I am not a petty code trader. I don’t go around knocking on other peoples doors saying “PHP codez $4 per line! .. $3.50 per line! .. $3.40 per line! ..”. I could not even be the least bothered about what everyone else is coding. I have my own ideas to push forward and materialise (one of them is XP-Dev.com, there are a lot more in the pipeline).

So, your code is safe on our servers. No one else other than the ones you have permissioned are looking at your repositories. We do have backups that run every night and copied over off-site, but they are all encrypted before leaving the server.

I put all my code on XP-Dev.com. I am a consumer of my own service. I believe that anyone who offers a service should always be their own users/clients/customers. You should see your service from the customers point of view.

If someone else looked at my code and data, I’d be really worried. I respect that tremendously and try my very best to lock down the server.

What you see is what you get – WYSIWYG. There are no catches at all. Your code and data are safe. We have a “no prying eyes” and “mind your own business” policy.

OK. So it is a genuine service that is FREE with no strings attached. Then I suppose it will have to be an overloaded, slow service ?

Never! This is one of the things that come out from being a consumer of your own service. If the services do get slow, there’s going to be one really noisy, angry, verbal user – me. And I’m really scared of him.

On a serious note, I’d be disappointed with myself if the service ever comes to a unacceptable quality. At the moment it’s fast and quick and I intend on keeping it that way. If it every becomes slow, I’ll be there in front of the queue shouting.

I’m not too sure if this is a good thing, or a bad thing – I’ve only ever worked in the Front Office for Investment Banks building real-time (well, its near real-time) trading and pricing system. They are all high performance scalable systems. The systems I work on can cost a trader anywhere between $100,000 to $500,000 if latency went up a nudge above 10ms (yes, that’s milliseconds!). XP-Dev.com is a testament of my experience building & architecting these crazy systems (trust me, they are crazy!). If performance degrades, it will be a major failure on my part and I’m a really proud person :) .

It is a great service. How can I help ?

This reply is a cliche. There are a few ways you can help.

If you are not a user, register now!

If you are a user, and have any problems, queries or just want to say thank you, then please tell me, or email admin@xp-dev.com. Every single non-spam email that goes there gets a reply. If you don’t get a reply in a few hours, then it’s probably SpamAssassin acting up. You should use this form instead.

If you are a user, or not even one just yet – you can help by telling your friends, mom, dad, brothers, sisters, relatives, neighbours, cats, dogs, fish and everyone else about XP-Dev.com. Digg it, Buzz it, Reddit. Do whatever. Just keep spreading the word. I really appreciate it.

If you have any other questions or concerns, please post them as comments to this blog entry, or do contact me directly.