The Importance of Communication in Today's Software Teams: An Interview with Ken Whitaker

[interview]
Summary:

Josiah Renaudin: Today I'm joined by Datalight VP of engineering Ken Whitaker, who will be delivering a keynote at November's Agile and Better Software East Conference. Ken, thank you very much for joining us today.

Ken Whitaker: Thank you.

Josiah Renaudin: All right, could you tell us just a bit about your experience in the industry?

Ken Whitaker: Yeah, I have over twenty-five years in the industry. Early on as a software developer, expanded into leading QA, engineering, technical support, and most recently agile project management. To this day, I work with actual teams, so I know what it's like to be a hands-on leader delivering commercial apps and finished software tools.

Josiah Renaudin: It seems like that hands on experience is really going to help you with your keynote, which is called, “From Chaos to Order—Leading Software Teams Today.” A lot of it discusses time prioritization. How long did it personally take you to learn how to focus your attention and effectively use your time?

Ken Whitaker: Well, a long time [laughs]. Time is one of the most precious commodities that we have, and I've been involved with a number of organizations throughout the years where time has been completely mishandled. Actually, the keynote focuses on not only time prioritization and the most important element of changing the culture to getting things to the done state, but also carefully balancing planning, process, and people activities in order to deliver quality products and services on time. I guess the key theme is injecting quality into everything you and your team does.

Josiah Renaudin: Now how can you take on each day's tasks without getting instantly overwhelmed? I know sometimes I'll come into work, I'll see a full inbox and be like, "Man, how am I going to get all this done? What order should I do this?" What do you suggest for the best method for tackling all of the day's tasks?

Ken Whitaker: Right, that's a great question. I think this is one of the most difficult things to overcome. As we take on more responsibility, without a balance that I mentioned, you become too narrowly focused on the tactical and avoiding the buzzards overhead that can cause missed opportunities where the competition just changed the playing field and we didn't expect it or employee attrition, which is a real concern now that the technology hiring market is growing once again … and lack of motivation among the team.

When walking into a technology organization, in this case a software development organization, two approaches I take is one, to understand the impact of what the team has on the customer. Number two is examine how people's time is spent. I usually correctly assume that the raw talent is really good. What I tend to find is that there's no balance, planning is out the window. People activities becomes a afterthought and you spend a lot of time working on the mechanics of process and I think that is a horrible imbalance so that's one of the things I tend to try to do is to make sure that there's a culture shift to properly balance those three elements.

Josiah Renaudin: Now are the expectations for a team leader too high in your mind, or does effective time management make their daily tasks manageable?

Ken Whitaker: Talk about pressure. Building apps have gotten a whole lot simpler with better tools. Customer needs have gotten a whole lot more complex, and it can easily appear to upper management that, you know, what's the big deal? We pay you guys big time money. You have an office, a nice computer, and all the coffee you can drink. It's just software, why does it have to be so difficult?

I remember the great productivity books from Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister that really point out the impact of way too much multitasking on the ability of any of us to get things done. We tend to overload everyone with more concurrent work, and yet the schedules don't change. So yeah, I do believe expectations need to be reset. They tend to be way too high. One of those things that we talk about during the keynote is what available time does your team really have. It's not what you think. It's not even close to the forty hours per week.

Josiah Renaudin: I'm a communication major, so for me, I feel like I understand the importance of communication in everyday life, in class, in a lot of different jobs. But how important is effective communication for a team leader?

Ken Whitaker: Well according to the PMBOK Guide, that is the reference from the Project Management Institute, about 90 percent of your job is to communicate some form of communication. Yet we spend an enormous amount of time not doing that and in some cases, thinking that instant communication via IM or email counts. The overall trick is to be an effective communicator. I do present during the keynote summit amazingly easy ways to do just that.

Josiah Renaudin: Do you think that we're struggling as effective communicators because of, like you mentioned, IM-ing and texting and a lot of the digital means that we communicate? Do you think that that's making our face-to-face communication suffer?

Ken Whitaker: Absolutely. In fact I see people on the development teams trying to avoid face-to-face contact with human types. I don't know if it's in the nature of folks that are primarily introspective, not exactly outgoing. All of that stuff is typical of what you assume.

On the other hand, I think it's more solving problems and coding and testing and doing all of those things that excite folks that we work with. The whole act of being an effective communicator is one of the best challenges that I have to change a culture in a group.

Josiah Renaudin: As a team leader, what do you see as the best method for keeping your team focused on a particular task and not getting sidetracked by everything else that's coming in?

Ken Whitaker: Right. I'm a huge proponent of agile and Scrum specifically. Getting that daily dose of reality of what we can do to help you complete the task works wonders without the emphasis of doneness, and I spell that as D-U-N-N-E-S-S (that's part of my southern education, by the way.) I swear there's a huge tendency for creative minds to wander and your project never seems to surpass the 90 percent almost-complete state of unhappiness.

I think really focusing on an agile, frequent dose of project focus as well as crisp communication to getting things done is the way to go and that goes for software engineers, writers, documentation writers, testers, the whole gamut of people on a team.

Josiah Renaudin: Now can you talk a bit about the concept of awards versus incentives within a team?

Ken Whitaker: Yes, very simply incentives are carrots on a stick. The behavior often desired for sales staff is sometimes forced on the technical project teams. The management hopes that technical people can be motivated by money or other forms of bait, working with folks whose priorities are more in the work that they do. There's a fundamental difference in motivational techniques when you award, and private awards work best where key contribution in the timely manner to those that least expect it works the best.

For team cultures where sales is instead primarily individual achievement oriented, these simply have different dynamics. If you really want to introduce a culture where what motivates your staff is long lasting, fair and positive ... I can't tell you how many times I've seen the wrong person in a team singled out in a company meeting with the president giving him a big fat check, much to the dismay of the rest of the team who contributed equally or even more. Not good.

Josiah Renaudin: What lesson would you most like your audience to walk away with following your keynote in Orlando?

Ken Whitaker: Two or three techniques that they can put into use to improve their ability to lead when they return back to the salt mines the following week. That's it.

Josiah Renaudin: All right, well I appreciate your time, Ken. I'm very much looking forward to hearing more about your thoughts on team leadership and team management in the coming months.

Ken Whitaker: Well, you're welcome. Thanks for your time.

Ken WhitakerKen Whitaker of Leading Software Maniacs® has more than twenty-five years of software development executive leadership and training experience in a various roles and industries. He has led commercial software teams at Software Publishing (remember Harvard Graphics?), Data General, embedded systems software companies, and enterprise software suppliers. Ken is an active PMI® registered education provider, Project Management Professional (PMP)® certified, and a Certified ScrumMaster (CSM). Ken is author of Managing Software Maniacs, Principles of Software Development Leadership, and I’m Not God, I’m Just a Project Manager; editor of Better Software magazine; and creator of PM University™ (pmuniversity.com) and PM Chalkboard® (pmchalkboard.com).

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