Saturday, October 10, 2009

Dreaming in Code - A Failure in Leadership

Reading Scott Rosenberg’s Dreaming in Code gives you a sick feeling, the same sick feeling that you have watching a movie where the hero’s life is coming unraveled, or when you are involved in a project that is going nowhere fast, facing certain failure, and there is nothing that you can do to change the outcome. I made myself read it twice – there are some hard lessons for managing software development in this book.

Dreaming in Code tells the story of the failed Chandler project started by Mitch Kapor, software industry visionary and founder of Lotus Development Corp, currently Chairman of the Mozilla Foundation. Chandler began as an ambitious, “change the world” project to design and build a radically different kind of personal information manager, an Outlook-and-Exchange-killer that would flatten silos between types of data and offer people new ways of thinking about information; provide programmers a cross-platform, extensible open source platform for new development; and create new ways to share data safely, securely, cheaply and democratically, in a peer-to-peer model.

The project started in the spring of 2001. Because of Mitch Kapor’s reputation and the project’s ambitions, he was able to assemble an impressive team of alpha geeks. Smart people, led by a business visionary who had experienced success, interesting problems to solve, lots of money, lots of time to play with new technology and chart a new course: a “dream project”.

But Dreaming in Code is a story of wasted opportunities. Scott Rosenberg, the book’s author, followed the project for 3 years starting in 2003, but he gave up before the team had built something that worked – he had a book to publish, whether the story was finished or not. By January 2008, Mitch Kapor had called it quits and left the company that he founded. Finally, in August 2008, the surviving team released version 1.0, scaled back to a shadow of its original goals and of course no longer relevant to the market.

It is interesting, but sad, to map this project against Construx’s Classic Mistakes list, to see the mistakes that were made:

Unclear project vision. Lack of project sponsorship. Requirements gold-plating. Feature creep. Research-oriented development. Developer gold-plating. Silver bullet syndrome. Insufficient planning. Adding people to a late project. Overly optimistic schedules. Wishful thinking. Unrealistic expectations. Insufficient risk management. Wasted time in the “fuzzy front end”: the team spent years wondering and wandering around, playing with technology, building tools, exploring candidate designs, trying to figure out what the requirements were - and never understood the priorities. Shortchanged quality assurance… hold on, quality was important to this project. It wasn’t going to play out like other Silicon Valley startups. Then why did they wait almost 3 years before hiring a test team (of one person), while they faced continual problems from the start with unstable releases, unacceptable performance, developers spending days or weeks bug hunting.

The book begins with a meeting in July 2003, when the team should be well into design and development, where the project manager announces that the team is doomed, that they cannot hope to deliver to their commitments – and not for the first time. This is met with…. well, nothing. Nobody, not even Mitch Kapor, takes action, makes any decisions. It doesn't get any better from there.

This project was going to be different, it was going to be done on a “design-first” basis. But months, even years into the project, the team is still struggling to come up with a useful design. The team makes one attempt at time-boxed development, a single iteration, and then gives up. Senior team members leave because nothing is getting done. Volunteers stop showing up. People in the community stop downloading the software because it doesn’t work, or it does less than earlier versions – the team is not just standing still, they are moving backwards.

The project manager, after only a few months, quits. Mitch Kapor takes over. A few months later, the “fun draining out of his job”, he asks the team to redesign his job, and come up with a new management structure. OK, to be fair, he is rich and doesn’t have to work hard on this, but why start it all in the first place, why put everyone involved, even those of us who are going to read the book, through all of this?

The new management team works through a real planning exercise for this first time, making real trade-offs, real decisions based on data. It doesn’t help. They fail to deliver – again. And again with an alpha release. They then spend another 21 months putting together a beta release, significantly cutting back on features. By the time they deliver 1.0 nobody cares.

It’s a sad story. It’s also boring at times – the team spends hours, days in fruitless, philosophical bull sessions; in meaningless, abstract, circular arguments; asking the same questions, confronting the same problems, facing (or avoiding) the same decisions again and again. As the book says, “it’s Groundhog Day, again”. I hope that the writer may have not fully captured what happened in the design sessions and planning meetings – that, like the Survivor tv show, we only see what the camera wants us too, or happens to, an incomplete picture. That these people were actually more focused, more serious, more responsible than they come across.

The project failed on so many levels. A failure to set understandable, achievable goals. A failure to understand, or even attempt to articulate requirements. A failure to take advantage of talent. A failure to engage, to establish and maintain momentum. A failure to manage risks. A failure to learn from mistakes - their own, or others.

Most fundamentally, it was a failure of leadership. Mitch Kapor failed to hold himself and the team accountable. He failed to provide the team with meaningful direction, failed to understand and explain what was important. He failed to create an organization where people understood what it took to deliver something real and useful, where people cared about results, about the people who would, hopefully, someday, use what they were supposed to be building. And he gave up: he gave up well before 2008 when he left the company; he gave up almost from the start, he gave up when the hard, real work of building out his vision had actually begun.

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