Creating and Maintaining a Virtuous Cycle – Quickly Growing a Software Team and Continuing to Deliver

This post was originally published on my LinkedIn profile.

As Software Professionals we all strive to work for teams and more importantly organisations who work in an agile fashion. The reality is often different to what is sold, but I think the difference is the way in which we cope with change.

The Hut Group is a company which embraces change and its ability to thrive with change is a major reason why it has grown, and continues to grow, at a phenomenal rate.

Recently, a slow-burning project sprang into life over the course of a couple of weeks. The upshot was that the software development requirement was intimidatingly large, critical to the delivery of the Group’s largest ever single investment and constrained by hard dates. This is not an unusual prospect for any of us, we can all regale stories and tales of woe in this regard.

At the time, there were three Engineers working on the project – a lot of time had been spent on setting up the architectural plan and understanding the problem and code had been cut. This all felt as though it was waiting for something to happen, it was obvious it couldn’t deliver in its current guise, but there was a lack of drive and urgency around the whole project. Conversations were happening as though the decisions being made were final, but in retrospect, I’m not sure any of us believed that.

The new impetus had to be used to kick this beast into life.

It was clear that the team had to grow to meet the demand, but it was also clear that the new team would need shorter goals than the final delivery of the project over twelve months away. The first short-term goal was agreed, the goal would drive out the delivery of core functionality and force the organisation to prioritise only the critical requirements. The goal was to be delivered in eight weeks’ time.

The challenge of growing the team was helped by the fact that the work was greenfield and allowed us to use golden phrases like ‘devops’, ‘cloud’ and ‘AWS’. We were passionate about what we were building, it was interesting, challenging and put the team 100% in control of everything – selling this was not difficult. We initially aimed to grow the total team size from four to twelve. By the end of the eight weeks, it was fifteen. We met people we really liked and we overshot a little. The new recruits came via transfer from other teams at THG and people new to the Group.

During the eight week period it seemed that every few days a new member of the team was joining. We continued with our two week sprint cycle, our retrospectives, standups and showcases. I firmly believe that this is what kept us in control. The pressure of wanting to showcase new functionality every two weeks and the goal at eight weeks was key to the team retaining its focus. There was no time for anyone to be ‘the new guy’ – most people qualified for that badge!

I believe that it was the iterations that gave us the ability to manage all this change whilst still delivering. The iterations made us constantly strive for adelivery and the retrospectives that came with the iterations allowed us to change our process repeatedly as the team grew and some of our old processes became inadequate and less efficient.

The constant change of requirements, dev process and new people arriving was therefore a force for good. Not only did the team become bigger, but everyone within the team became more productive and happier. When an individual feels more productive, they’re happier, they’re more relaxed and they become even more productive – it’s a virtuous cycle.

To the world outside of the team, the increase in size was not immediately obvious (during the initial increase in size, we also moved the team to a dedicated space nearer the business owners – away from our HQ). The only visible change was the improvement of the quality and quantity of work in the showcase.

At the end of the eight weeks, the goal was achieved – there was the odd late night with pizza in the run-up and not every showcase went without a hitch but the goal was achieved and it was important that the team celebrated the achievement. Within the space of two months, the team had more than tripled in size, delivered a major milestone, was together and flying.

Before the bulb on the projector from the final showcase had cooled, work began on the next goal – in fact on the next four goals. It was important to continue to ride the wave as long as we could. The momentum of a team is so important. From a management perspective, we need to be vigilant that this momentum doesn’t come at the cost of quality – that’s why the dev process has to be be there, be strong and be followed. To truly be followed, it needs to be a process that the team feel they own, that they have complete control over.

It’s now over a month since the end of the first eight week goal and we’ll soon be reaching another goal. The dev process continues to be tweaked every two weeks and today, we’re working far closer to the business owners than we ever were in the first eight weeks. We all work hard to maintain the virtuous cycle. We’re not perfect, we are better than yesterday and not as good as tomorrow.

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Thanks for reading this far, please share if you enjoyed the post.

I’m always looking to meet people within the industry and learn about others’ experiences. I also have opportunities within this team for Software Engineers with varying experience and specialities.

If you’ve any questions, comments or feedback or to enquire about working with us, just drop me a message or leave a comment.

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How valid is the implied legal advice in Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”?

Whilst reading a pdf I’d saved to pocket, probably from an RT on twitter, of the best questions and answers on Quora 2010-2012 I came across something of a gem that I wanted to share…


How valid is the implied legal advice in Jay-Z’s “99 Problems”?

Ryan Lackey, Mostly harmless.

Fairly valid, although it depends on the state; I’m not familiar with the laws of 1994, and the location is unspecified, but from the video, possibly Brooklyn, NY.
Here’s my take on the song:

The year is ninety-four, in my trunk is raw
In my rear-view mirror is the motherfuckin’ law
Got two choices y’all, pull over the car or (hmm)
bounce on the Devil, put the pedal to the floor
And I ain’t tryin’ to see no highway chase with Jake
Plus I got a few dollars, I can fight the case

Not running from the police seems like excellent advice.

So I, pull over to the side of the road
“Son, do you know why I’m stoppin’ you for?”
Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low
Or do I look like a mindreader, sir? I don’t know
Am I under arrest or should I guess some more?

In general, not volunteering information at a traffic stop is great advice.

“Well you was doin fifty-five in the fifty-four;
license and registration and step out of the car –
are you carryin a weapon on you? I know a lot of you are”
I ain’t steppin out of shit, all my papers legit

Unless the cop can testify to reasonable suspicion [RS] that the defendant is armed — in which case he can search the driver and immediate vicinity for weapons for self protection — you shouldn’t need to get out of the car. Pushing back on this makes sense, if only to ensure whatever RS grounds would be documented, so they can get the case thrown out later. If the RS was invalid or not present, all evidence coming after that is “fruit of the poisoned tree” and discarded.

Jay-Z 99 Problems

“Well do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?”
Well my glove compartment is locked,
So is the trunk in the back,
And I know my rights, so you gon’ need a warrant for that

Consenting to a voluntary search is never a good idea, especially if you have felony weight on you. The standard to search the glove compartment is actually fairly low in California, since it’s accessible to the driver. Even though it is locked, the tenth circuit court of appeals has found that during a protective search of the vehicle (i.e., looking for weapons with RS), the glove box can be searched since it being locked may not prevent the driver from gaining control of a weapon. [1] The trunk can be opened if the car is impounded, for inventory reasons, which is a common way to get evidence. However, a locked case inside the trunk will not be opened (depends on the state).

“Aren’t you sharp as a tack! You some type of lawyer or somethin,
somebody important or somethin?”
Child I ain’t passed the bar, but I know a little bit
Enough that you won’t illegally search my shit
“Well we’ll see how smart you are when the canine comes”

A canine can only be used during a routine traffic stop if it doesn’t unduly delay the driver — it’s reasonable to walk back to your cruiser to get a dog, but you can’t wait to call one in.

This all goes out the window if reasonable suspicion is developed.

I got 99 problems, but a bitch ain’t one
Hit me!

[1] US v. Palmer, 360 F. 3d 1243 – Court of Appeals, 10th Circuit 2004
http://www.quora.com/l/boq-ryan-lackey


I will continue to read the pdf and report back with any more gems…

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Should I really like my job?

Now, before I start, note that this is written whilst I like my job, so is likely to be rose-tinted.

I sometimes think my job is a bit unique. Lots of people like what they do, so it’s not special. Sometimes, it frustrates the life out of me, that’s part of the challenge.

The bit that I really like, however, is the part that I think is quite rare and unique. The project completion moments, the times where weeks/months of work come to fruition. They can be found in many jobs, so its not the plain sense of achievement.

What I like the most is the buzz I get from setting various components up, wiring them together, having an idea of how something should work, constructing everything as I think it needs to be and then switching it on, running it. And it working. First time.

Whether it be a simple ‘hello world’ on a console, or a complex cog in an already complicated engine. The time an idea becomes a reality, a piece of functionality, a portable asset of some, often considerable, business worth.

The creativity of development is often overlooked. Yes, I do follow rules, patterns and standards, but all endeavours have these. The art is in making new, innovative ideas within these parameters.

Controlled creativity. Its clearly not an expressive art, “the coder here shows his love for this woman by encapsulating the shared functionality in a super class”, although some of the mood swings of devs might be similar to those of fiery tempered artists.

One more characteristic I posses is rapid change of opinion, so my next blog might be about the mind-numbing, monotonous job of coding.

Life as a dev…

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Hitchiker’s Guide… You MUST read the books, film not so much.

Having recently read 4 of the 5 books and just watched the film, I struggle to understand how the books can be so brilliant, yet the film miss the mark so heavily.

The imagination and craft of the books (not to mention the comparisons between Adams’ description of the Guide itself and a Kindle/iPad) is well recognised, yet it just doesn’t transfer to screen.

The first reason and main cause must be the struggle to fit all the stories into a 2 hour film. It’s just not possible, and huge swathes of the story are omitted from the film.

Ultimately, I just don’t think the books’ charm transfers to screen. The books not only showcase Douglas Adams’ sense of humour and imagination, but facilitate the reader’s imagination to wander, picture their own universe and add embelishments.

Obviously, this is a criticism levelled at many book to film adaptations, different here though because of the books’ origin (in radio) and Adams’ role in co-writing the screenplay.

In my opinion, I just don’t think the film is done well enough. Average storytelling, effects, characterisation and a general rushed feeling that the director was struggling to fit everything in. Empathy with characters is so important in a film; completely lacking here.

A film per book would allow for the story to be told, but even then, I think it may come across as boring. I don’t really think the director’s imagination runs wildly enough, restricted by time, budget or free-thinking, I don’t know.

My recommendation would be, read the books, you MUST read the books, but don’t bother with the film, fight the temptation.

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If…

Trying times always remind me of If… by Rudyard Kipling. A cliché it might be, but that doesn’t stop being a great mantra to try to live by.

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,

Is the most meaningful snippet in my opinion; that inner strength is the most valuable trait.

This may well be the most bollocky blog entry I ever write.

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Being Kept in the Loop

It is an exciting time to be working at The Hut. In it’s relatively short life, I suspect there have been very few occasions where there hasn’t been some exciting event on the horizon.

Having recently been briefed on the company’s Q1 performance, ‘things we learnt this quarter’ and plans for the future, I suddenly feel a real part of this organisation. We are all in this together, we’re going to aim for the stars, achieve our goals, and do it well.

Inclusion

An often underestimated importance of employee happiness is inclusion. To feel included is to be part of something, when included, you become a stakeholder. If you feel you have a vested interest in the success of your employer, if you feel ‘at home’ in your work, then, it can be said with certainty that, you will work harder and better.

The flip side is that if an employee feels excluded, the exact opposite effect is achieved. Morale falls, as does work rate, the care the person takes in their work and invariably the quality drops.

You’d imagine, given the clear delineation between these two outcomes, that it is a simple choice for an employer or manager to decide which path to take. This is not the case.

Often, the decision isn’t actively made and the organisation falls into a negative culture.

Communication is a word mentioned in every management handbook, HR mission statement and presentation about ‘How to Manage Effectively’, so much so that it is taken for granted and often ignored or incorrectly presumed.

Communication does not have the power to solve all of an organisation’s problems, yet, if ignored or poorly done, it does have the power to pulverize morale and undermine work done.

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First Day at the Hut Group

Arriving at just before 10am is a pleasant treat for your first day at a new job.

Quick introductions and within 10 minutes of being in the building I am in a ‘standup’ going over the stories and tasks for the coming day/week.

A discussion with the Chief Technical Architect (of which I start off understanding 5% and end up understanding 50%), and the plan changes. Review tasks again and it’s straight into pair programming.

This is developing with Agility. Bringing everyone up to speed with short standups, lending from XP and Scrum to get the best value for development time.

When, like The Hut Group, you put Agility at the heart of your business, aims to ‘deliver good value development’ and ‘do the least amount of work to get the job done’ make perfect sense.

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