Software And Tactics

The image of a software engineer is that of a quiet and analytical guy working in isolation on some green-on-black code. There is some truth in this image. Studies have shown that interruptions are bad for programming, and that engineers need long streaks of uninterrupted time to fully immerse into a development activity. Projects are frequently structured in modules that are owned by individual programmers. In this solo view of software engineering, the less communication, the better.

In the agile view of software engineering, people and communication are at the center. You succeed as a team, or fail as a team. The code is not owned by individuals, but collectively by the team (chapter 10, Extreme Programming Explained). Work is organized into short actionable tasks, which prevents multi-tasking, ensures high focus, and high reactivity. These strict rules are the key ingredients to hyper-productivity.

Agility is the result of the combination of several elements, such as unit-testing, continuous integration, refactoring, etc. Amongst these elements, collective ownership is one of the hardest to implement. In contrast to the other elements, collective ownership requires a change of attitude, not just a change of technical practices. It requires moving from a solo mindset to a collective mindset.

To better understand how a collective mindset can be implemented, one should look at other professions were a collective mindset is critical. This is the case for instance for sport teams, firefighters, police officers, or SWAT team (Special Weapons And Tactics). 

A SWAT team’s effectiveness depends on its excellence in several practices:

Communication

SWAT team members communicate the action they engage in, the risks, and impediments. Communication must be concise, and adhere to a common vocabulary. The team lead oversees and coordinates the activities if necessary.

These considerations apply pretty much as is for software engineering:

“I’m about to launch the stress test of the web portal. Do you copy?”
“Copy that. I’m monitoring the logs.”

Execution

SWAT team members train together standard practices and procedures to improve execution, such as the manipulation of weapon or hardware. Only Practice makes perfect. 

Software engineers should similarly train standard practices to improve execution, and master their tools. Sample practices to train include:

  • Navigating in the IDE
  • Synchronizing and merging code
  • Updating database (scripts, data, etc.)
  • Deploying software
  • Running various kinds of tests
  • Assessing code quality
  • Gathering performance metrics
  • Keeping the wiki up-to-date
  • Organizing release notes

Pairing

SWAT teams operate in dangerous environments. Mistakes are usually fatal and threats abound. By working in pairs, members can watch one others to prevent mistakes and protect themselves.

Pairing is great for software engineering, too. It reduces the risk of mistakes during coding, deployment, database updates. “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow” as Linus’s Law says. While there are no external threats to software development, pairing favors knowledge transfer, and if a member is sick or leaves the team, the work can still go on smoothly.

The highly dynamic view of collective software engineering is as a complete clash against the highly analytical view of solo software engineering.

There are definitively parts of software engineering, such a design, that require quietness and thinking. But a large part of daily software engineering activities aren’t so: small refactorings, writing unit tests, fixing integration issues, measuring load and response times, etc. do not involve much thinking. They just need to be done.

There is scientific evidence that 80% of what a software developer does in a day—different steps and small microsteps— is not brain work. They do what they have done 50, 100, 1,000 times before. They just apply a pattern to new situations. — Mastermind of Programming, p.336

Lastly, collective software engineering requires redefining working time. In most working environments, individuals can work with their own schedule (hours, rhythm, pace). This is perfectly fine in the solo view of software engineering; however, it breaks the dynamics in collective software engineering. Ideally, team members always work together towards the team’s objective.

Software engineering is not always a creative endeavour. It is a fight against time and code rot. To win this fight, you need clever tactics. The challenge is to work as a an effective SWAT task force — where SWAT stands for Software And Tactics.

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