Saturday, May 18, 2019

The Process is Personal is Political

This year I've read three books that follow projects from the perspective of individual contributors, managers, and the business. They are The Goal, The Phoenix Project, and The Soul of a New Machine.

The Goal is perhaps the most well-known. It's a pedagogical novel in which a manufacturing plant manager is given three months to turn his failing plant around. He stumbles across a mentor who, with well-chosen questions and challenges, exposes the fallacies of the traditional production models being followed and suggests new ways to analyse the business. The philosophy at the heart of this is the Theory of Constraints, where constraints can be anything that gets in the way of the business goal, and the aim, as described by a couple of its key players is "not so much to reduce costs but to increase throughput". (p. 298, Kindle)

The Phoenix Project is also fictional but this time set in the world of IT, Ops, Dev, and Test. Again, the main protagonist is under pressure to change outcomes in a complex system, again finds a mentor and, again, The Theory of Constraints is central. In fact, the authors freely admit that the book is "an homage to The Goal, hoping to show that the same principles ... could be used to improve technology work." (p. 341)

The Soul of a New Machine sees journalist Tracy Kidder given access to a product team at the Data General Corporation during the development of the MV/8000 computer (codenamed Eagle) in the late 1970s. It predates the other two books, and has no obvious aim beyond the telling of a good story through the varied lenses of a selection of its protagonists.

For those who've been around implementation, deployment, and maintenance projects of any size or complexity over any length of time there will be many moments of empathy, sympathy, and antipathy in these three works. As a tester, I particularly enjoyed reading about debugging the prototype Eagle: "Veres ... tells Holberger [that they] ran 921 passes [of the test suite] last night, with only 30 failures. And Holberger makes a face. In this context, 921 is a vast number. It means that any given instruction in the diagnostic program may have been executed millions of times. Against 921 passes, 30 failures is a very small number. It tells them the machine is failing only once in a great while — and that's bad news ..." (p. 194)

There's a bigger picture here, though. Crudely, the first two books are about processes and their underpinnings while the third is about people and their interactions. They are symbiotic, they interact intimately: process is made by people, people follow imposed process and are the instigators of emergent process. Understanding both people and process is crucial in the workplace.

People and process are both also subject to politics, and understanding that is important too. In the Phoenix Project, as improvements are attempted in one group, turf wars and ass-covering activity break out around the place. In The Soul of a New Machine, the Eagle project can only exist because of the experienced under-the-radar manoeuvrings of the group manager, Tom West. "We're building what I thought we could get away with" he says early on. (p. 31)

I'd recommend all three of these books. Why? Well, the recognisable episodes and personalities are great fun in a Big Chief I-Spy kind of way, but the higher value for me came from the opportunity to use someone else's eyes to view them. And then, naturally, to reflect on that and try to apply it to my own contexts.

The editions I read:
  • The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder (Avon) 1981
  • The Goal, Eli Goldblatt 30th Anniversary Edition (North River Press) 2014, on Kindle
  • The Phoenix Project 5th Anniversary Edition, Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, George Spafford (IT Revolution) 2018
Thanks to the Dev manager for the loan of The Soul of a New Machine.
Images: Amazon and AbeBooks.

1 comment:

  1. I read 'The Soul of a New Machine' many years ago, long before I was working with computers in any detail or joined the industry. It taught me a lot about the work that goes into developing even the smallest of features which we now take for granted - a clickable button in a GUI, for instance. It has led to my general philosophy on our modern lives and the tools we interact with daily. Almost anything you or I use has been designed and then made; anything we use has at some time been the focus of one or more people's entire working life. So to me, that means that we should not take these things for granted; we should respect the artefacts we use every day, because that implies respecting the unknown thousands of people who conceived, designed and made the things we are surrounded with.