Thursday, November 13, 2008

Construx SW Development Executive Summit

I have started working again with Construx Software, helping us improve our software engineering practices. I was of course familiar with Steve McConnell, Construx's CEO and his books on software engineering, and I had worked with Construx at a previous company on training and mentoring our development team and development managers.

Earlier this year I attended their 10x Software Engineering course, an excellent software development management course which focuses on understanding and implementing good practices in software development, how to improve quality and team productivity. We enlisted their help on a project assessment with a partner, and Construx is scheduled to come in later this year to teach a Developer Testing Bootcamp course to the development team.
In October I also attended Construx's Software Development Executive Summit: an intimate, intense and highly-focused series of roundtable sessions and high-quality keynotes with the heads of software development and software engineering at large and small companies across North America, Europe and Asia. Like other Construx offerings, the summit was pragmatic, selective, carefully organized and very professionally run. The keynote speakers included Martin Fowler of ThoughtWorks and Ken Schwaber, the creator of Scrum, as well as Construx's CEO Steve McConnell, author of Code Complete and Rapid Development, and Matt Peloquin of Construx; and interesting case studies presented by IT executives at MSNBC and RIM.

It was a unique forum: a chance to meet and share ideas in an open, constructive and respectful environment with serious people who all had extensive experience leading software development and who were all looking for ways to improve. There were so many different stories: companies who had great success (or disappointing failures) at outsourcing (onshore and offshore); companies who were successful delivering using small, agile, results-oriented collocated teams; other companies who followed highly structured, metrics-driven SDLCs and were equally successful. The development organizations ranged in size from a handful of developers to hundreds or thousands of engineers in multiple countries. The roundtable sessions provided me the opportunity to explore problems and share ideas with experienced development managers, product managers and project managers, and thinkers like Martin Fowler. The social engagements provided excellent networking opportunities and were generally good fun, and there was no pressure from vendors or sponsors.

What key ideas did I take back from the summit?

  1. The first key to success is talent. Get the best people you can. Treat them well and support them, give them what they need. Be careful when hiring, and spend time with new hires, help them to be successful. Keep teams together as long as you can: continuity and cohesion of a team pays dividends.
  2. There is no “one way to skin a cat”: software development poses different problems to different organizations, and there are different answers to these problems. What is important is to execute, and to constantly review and improve.
  3. If you want to show value to your customers, deliver value often, deliver what is important first. It’s all about incremental delivery.
  4. In globally distributed teams, follow-the-sun works for operations, but doesn’t for development. Co-locate teams whenever possible.
  5. Develop technical leadership within your organization. Create a path for talented and ambitious technical people who do not fit or do not want to pursue the management track. Follow the lead of IBM, Microsoft and Google and offer a “distinguished engineer” career path where senior technical people are given respect, latitude and a voice in product direction.
  6. Don’t expect to save costs through outsourcing. Outsource for flexibility, to flex your organization’s delivery capability; and to gain access to talent. To outsource successfully takes a lot of discipline and management attention and supporting costs.
  7. Constantly be aware of, and beware of, technical debt. Don’t bet on “throwing one away” when you build a system. Agile methods without discipline (comprehensive reviews or pair programming, developer testing, …) gets fast results at first, but builds up a lot of technical debt that has to be addressed eventually. If you start with disciplined, good practices from the beginning you won't dig yourself as deep a hole.

This is an event I look forward to attending again in the future and will defintely recommend to my colleagues.

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