Saturday, February 6, 2010

Real Resources for Software Development Managers

With all of the blogs and books and training programs and even a few magazines still available on software development, agile methods and software project management, there is surprisingly little material that is of real value to a software development manager: information that is thoughtful, current and grounded in real experience.

A lot of what you can find is noise. Blog postings by enthusiastic kids who have finished a project or two using Scrum and are now self-made experts on team dynamics and Agile development. Someone pushing a Project 2.0 collaboration tool or yet another “Agile Software Development using…” or “Agile Project Management…” book, or blogs going over (and over) the same ground, or tiresome evangelism for “Big A” Agile training and consulting.

It’s difficult to find useful information in all of this for software development managers who want to dig deeper. I’ve put together a list here of the resources that I have found useful, and find myself going back to.

Construx Software Builders

Construx is a consultancy specializing in software development management, founded by Steve McConnell, a leading thinker on software engineering and best practices in software development, and author of some of the definitive books on software development: Rapid Development and Code Complete.I learned a lot about good software engineering and software development management from these books. While Code Complete, a guide to writing good, clean code, was significantly revised in 2004, Rapid Development is showing its age, and needs to be updated to take into account XP and Scrum and other new ideas in software development. But it is still the best overview available of SDLCs and the risks and success factors in software projects.

Construx offers a wide range of consulting services including organizational reviews and project reviews and software due diligence reviews for acquisitions. They also offer an excellent set of training programs on software project management and software engineering. Some of the courses that my team and I have attended include:

Code Complete Essentials on the basics of good software development

Master Class on Estimating Software Projects

Developer Testing Bootcamp

Professional Tester Bootcamp

and 10x Software Engineering an excellent course on improving software development results for experienced managers.

You can also get access to white papers and posters including their famous list of Classic Mistakes in software development; and CXOne, a lightweight framework for managing software projects, with templates, samples and checklists.

Once each year or so, Construx holds an Executive Software Summit for experienced software development managers, CTOs and other senior people interested in improving how software is built. This is head and shoulders above the other software management conferences that I have attended.

Agile Development Resources

Scrum seems to have won the Agile development methodology wars over XP and DSDM and Crystal and whatnot, fundamentally because it is much easier to understand and follow (and also, unfortunately, easier for teams to build sloppy software faster). So, until Lean Software Development or some other new idea establishes the next wave you should make sure to understand Scrum, even if you don’t swallow it whole.

Certified Scrum Master training is not expensive, it doesn’t take long, and you’ll leave with a decent understanding of the method and its values and driving principles. Make sure to get a good teacher: I went straight to the source, Ken Schwaber. His book Agile Project Management with Scrum summarizes what you’ll learn from the course and is a good resource for follow-up.

Of the Agile / Scrum community blogs, the most valuable that I have found is Mike Cohn’s Succeeding with Agile and I would recommend his book of the same name if you are serious about understanding and implementing Scrum.

Pragmatic Programmer’s Bookshelf

There are a lot of good books on software development in the Pragmatic Programmer’s Bookshelf including a set of special interest for software development managers:

Manage It! by Johanna Rothman, is a simple but excellent book on incremental and iterative development practices, scheduling and estimating and risk management for small and mid-size projects and teams. This is the best, most practical book I have found on applying lightweight, agile development methods, and while it leans towards Scrum it is not dependent on any single methodology. This book also introduces program management and project portfolio management, which is explored in more detail in Manage Your Project Portfolio: useful if you’re new to the problems of managing small programs using lightweight techniques.

If you are serious about program and portfolio management, and you have the time and money, I strongly recommend the professional program on Advanced Project Management at Stanford University which you can attend online or on campus. This is a world-class program on aligning strategy with execution, managing customers, understanding and exercising power and influence, and coordinating and planning integrated programs and project portfolios.

Johanna Rothman is also the co-author (together with Esther Derby) of Behind Closed Doors, an introductory but good book on coaching and mentoring developers and managing teams. It offers practical advice and good reminders on issues like managing priorities, the value of 1-on-1 meetings, how to deal with technical people, how to give feedback – a leadership resource, but written specifically for software development managers and team leads.

Ship It! by Jared Richardson, Will Gwaltney, Jr, outlines the basics of building and deploying software in an agile context: the use of tools for source code control and continuous integration, useful strategies for adopting automated unit testing, basic engineering practices, small team leadership techniques, fundamentals of incremental development, common problems faced.
Of the books in this series, this is the most basic / introductory, but it is worth a quick read for a framework for iterative, incremental development.

Release It! by Michael T. Nygard, is an excellent resource on technical architecture for distributed, web-based (especially Java) systems – a high-level view of the challenges that your team will face building real systems, patterns and anti-patterns for stability and scalability, and how to engineer a system for real world operations. It is the “hardest” of these books, and will be useful to your architects and Dev/Ops team. You can follow Michael’s current work at his blog, Wide Awake Developers.

Although not part of the Pragmatic Programmer’s suite, you also need to read The Visible Ops Handbook, a simple, practical introduction to IT systems change management and release management.

Software Project Management Resources

I wrote earlier about Scott Berkun’s Making Things Happen, a reissue of The Art of Project Management. This is a practical, focused and well-written book on basic issues in software project management, on leadership and communications and especially on execution, based on his experience managing programs at Microsoft.

The Mythical Man Month, by Fred Brooks – yes, it really is worth reading and re-reading if you haven’t read it in a while.

As a counterbalance to all of the agile and small team collaboration stuff, I enjoy following Herding Cats. This blog is all about large-scale, high-risk, high-complexity, safety-critical projects and large-scale programs like manned space flight and nuclear power and weapons systems. It offers a completely different and provocative perspective on project management problems, and is a good resource on complexity and risk management.

Leadership Resources for Software Development Managers

Cornell University offers an excellent online program on High Performance Leadership covering change management, leadership, negotiation and coaching.

Another excellent resource on leadership is the Center for Creative Leadership, which offers inexpensive live or pre-recorded webinars.

The American Management Association and its Canadian equivalent, the Canadian Management Center, provide excellent training programs on management and leadership.

The only leadership blog that I follow consistently is Great Leadership. It’s a bit cheerleadie at times, but it it is thoughtful and has good links to other leadership resources.

The general leadership books that I have found useful and worth going back to are Difficult Conversations and Getting to Yes both developed out of the Program on Negotiation at Harvard Law School. Its Program on Negotiation for Senior Executives is an excellent course, and definitely worth taking for development managers (don’t be put off by the “for Senior Executives” label).

The Best of the Software Development Manager Blogs

Of the many other software development management blogs and forums, there are only a couple that I follow regularly:

Joel on Software of course: it's well-written and provocative, and focuses on small-scale software development and on how to run a software business. Unfortunately, for the last few months the focus has been on one of Joel’s latest ventures, Stackoverflow: a useful and free resource for problem solving for developers. While this has been good for Stackoverflow, it has not made for especially interesting reading. Here’s hoping that Joel gets back to subjects of wider interest soon.

Hard Code by Erich Brechner, the head of the best practices group at Microsoft. While this is written for Microsoft’s internal developers, most of the issues and problems that he explores apply generally to the software development community, and it is entertaining and real.

I’ll add to this resource list as I find other useful information.

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