Essay on fault-tolerant systems (part 2) – Bad organizations can kill your products


As I mentioned in part 1, large-complex SW can only be done in time by having tons of people concurrently working on it, which ends-up forming an organization of tasks and people. This is not exclusive to SW, but to any industrial product.

I’m pretty sure non-SW visitors will like this post as well, as there’s value that applies to all organizations regardless of their niche.

If your organization is very stable, you can skip this post and jump directly to part 3 (still under development).

Bad organizations can kill your products

“When an organization is unhealthy, no amount of heroism or technical expertise will make up for the politics and confusion that take root.” – Patrick Lencioni

The main organizational killer of any industrial product, such as enterprise software, is lack-of-stability. If your engineers are firefighting issues all the time, there’s never time to do the “right-thing right”.

If you overburden your employees with urgent tasks all the time, and you overwork them consistently, employees start getting stressed about not being able to meet deadlines, not making any progress and not even being able to do routine-things outside of work: engineers, like anyone else, have a personal life and have to pay bills, buy groceries, walk the dog, take the kids out, go to school meetings, sleep, eat, go to the doctor, workout, meet with friends, call their parents, buy shoes, etc.

If you remove all capacity from your employee to even do routine personal stuff, the stress levels will raise and the employee will become tired, sloppy, aggressive and, eventually, will quit.

If your organization have severe stability issues, there’s no point on moving forward with deeper technical changes, as any attempt to make complex refactors to fix the situation will be abandoned as soon as the next hot issue arrives.

You must first fix your organizational issues to stabilize the work-environment. After that, you can stabilize or improve your SW.

Symptoms of bad organizations

You must avoid at all costs enabling, endorsing or condoning a working atmosphere with sustained levels of stress or an unhealthy culture, since they will cause stability issues.

It doesn’t matter if your company advertises lots of “ethics and values” if they exist only on their brochure: the true ethics and values of a company are the ones the management-chain execute every day.

Here are some tips to help you recognize bad-org common symptoms and, hopefully, make something about them:

  1. High attrition levels.
    1. Attrition cause the remaining employees to get even more stressed due the workload being split among the survivors.
    2. Also, there’s always a domino effect: once an employee quits and spreads the word about greener fields, other employees start looking for jobs too. Other employees get anxious and start fearing that the job will not be stable since several persons are leaving the company, which makes them feel an urge to run before the company decides to shutdown the operation.
    3. Replacing an employee can take months, which makes you waste time reading resumes, performing interviews, negotiating salaries, etc.
    4. According to recent studies, it takes up to 9 months of salary just to replace a valuable team member (taking in account all implied costs such as impact on business, recruiters fees, hours invested in interviewing, etc.).
      1. If you split “9 months worth of salary” among 36, you can easily realize the employee could have gotten a 25% raise for 3 years for the exact same money the company would lose by letting the employee leave. Simple math.
    5. Attrition by itself can be caused by multiple reasons such as stress, long-working hours, bad salary, no promotions (or promoting the bad employees), seniors undermining juniors, etc.
      1. Some organizations decide to self-deny that they have high-attrition levels by comparing them to “the rest of the teams” or “to other similar industries” (as if attrition was a good thing if everyone is suffering it too) but, if not properly reversed, attrition is a top morale-killer.
  2. Treat everything as Priority 1, everyday.
    1. If everything in your organization is labeled or treated as “Priority 1”, it means the management just does not care about prioritization at the expense of burning out the teams.
    2. Even if tasks don’t get explicitly labeled as “Priority 1”, some phrases could be used in-lieu-of. Examples:
      1. “Expedite this task ASAP, but these other 15 tasks have to also be done before lunch no matter what”.
      2. “This project has high visibility. If you don’t close these 10 new tasks by today EOD, then upper-management will come and get it fixed for us”.
    3. When things are being correctly prioritized (i.e., priority 1, 2, 3…N), employees can focus on a single task at a time.
    4. However, when management decides to treat all incoming emails, tickets and petitions with the same equal level of importance, only the next-most-visible-urgent-task will be flushed (which is rarely the next most important task).
  3. Long learning-curves for newcomers (regardless of their total years of experience).
    1. If newcomers take a very long time to share the load with the team, the other employees still have to deal with the workload during all the learning phase.
    2. The manager must define an effective on-board process that helps newcomers to adapt quicker, before stress kills the remaining employees that support the operation.
  4. Having hard-dependencies on other teams or services to make your work.
    1. If your team cannot effectively do their work without having hard dependencies on other people, probably you should consider restructuring the teams or defining a black & white charter of responsibilities per team.
  5. Struggling if one single team member resigns.
    1. If it takes one single employee that quits to take your team down to its knees, you either have strong dependencies on individuals (which is a bad thing for an organization), lack of staff (also a bad thing, specially if you can afford more hiring), or you’ve just let your most valuable employee leave (probably for reasons such as “lack of recognition” or “no salary adjustment”).
  6. Lack of experienced people in the team and organization.
    1. Don’t be cheap with your staff: Provide them high-quality training, offer competitive salaries and challenge them with interesting technical projects.
    2. With that, employees will stick around you for longer, which means you’ll be able to utilize their experience in your products better.
    3. Also, don’t hesitate hiring senior engineers. Their experience will help to reduce the issues as time goes.
  7. Lots of meetings (as in “every another hour” or worst) or tons-of-emails (as in “if you don’t constantly check your email every 10-15 mins, something really bad could happen”).
    1. One thing is being collaborative, and other thing is needing to constantly communicate to avoid mayhem.
    2. If cross-team coordination must be constantly reviewed and discussed, then it means no process is being followed and that everything is being resolved on the fly.
    3. If everyone just knew exactly what to do, little communication would be needed.

Have you ever heard developers saying that their company has “poor management” or “too many internal politics” or is “very slow and bureaucratic“? Well, they literally refer all the symptoms described above (and, yes, those only 3 phrases are good-enough from a developer’s perspective to describe the entire situation).

Best practices to fix a broken organization

Set stabilization as a top-priority

Some organizations choose to pretend there’s nothing broken with them and keep assigning operations tasks on the top of more urgent issues.

  1. For example, they keep accepting new projects, instead of stabilizing the current ones.
  2. Whenever lack-of-stability is damaging your team, all work should be focused to reach a stability-level. For example, close all critical SW bugs, stop attending to non-important meetings, stop accepting new work, get more reliable HW, cancel parked projects, reprioritize projects by impact, etc.
  3. Remember that, even if you are making some changes to your SW and HW during this effort, this is still considered an organizational, not technical, task, since the goal is to stabilize the team.
  4. Changes doesn’t have to be perfect, but they have to dramatically reduce support and time-waste so that the team can have a deep breath and regain control.

Reject impossible deadlines

Impossible deadlines yield to progress-slowdown and kills creativity, which makes late-projects even later. Individuals starts taking bad decisions just to meet the deadline:

  1. Technical staff will start reducing quality in SW, skipping unit tests, coding just for the happy-path scenarios, hard-coding business logic, using libraries without appropriate license/legal/technical review, pushing changes directly to production, etc.
  2. Managers will start imposing terrible decisions, such as reducing or eliminating test phases, requesting to skip code-reviews, demanding to patch instead of fix, ignoring input from expert technical staff, ignoring security concerns, ignoring compliance policies, etc.

Avoid multitasking or assigning multiple projects at the same time

Individuals should focus only on one task of one project at a time. Context-switch often costs a lot more than allowing developers to flush one task at a time.

  1. Developers need to have a lot of “temporary data” in their heads while doing their work, from variables names to complex structures, environments they’re pointing to, design ideas, frequent file paths with log outputs, etc. If developers are frequently interrupted with other tasks, they must dump it all in order to load a completely new set of similar data for the new tasks, which can take hours just to regain full throttle.
  2. Context-switch still occurs with “quick tasks”, “5-minutes meetings” or “tasks in-between tasks”, such as being asked to “quickly review a document and send an OK-email while your totally-unrelated-code still compiles”. All those will still cause the developer to lose an hour just to recover full throttle.

Hire the correct staff for your team

  1. Experienced engineers make a difference.
    1. Have at least a couple of senior engineers and architects in your team, asides to other experienced members.
      1. Architects should have opportunity to validate design ideas with someone just as experienced, which helps catching design-faults on time.
      2. Architects must rely heavily on senior engineers to implement core-components. This practice both frees the architects from heavy tasks (allowing them to focus on more components design), and nurtures a learning-path for senior engineers to absorb knowledge from architects in an organic way.
      3. Senior Engineers will eventually be prepared to take other complex projects on their own, which is a gain to the company.
    2. Because of this staff redundancy, the system development can continue as usual (with minimum or zero impact) in case of medical leave, vacations or other absence situation, while still having experienced members looking out the conceptual integrity of the system.
  2. Hire professional QA members with system-test experience. They know better how to test system aggregations and partitions between components than regular developers.
    1. With dedicated QA members, tests can be started as soon as the code becomes present on the continuous-integration builds, which provides faster turnaround rates between developers and testers (a major gain on large-systems development).
    2. Just like with developers, there are many specializations for testers. Some testers specialize on web systems, others on APIs, others on infrastructure, etc. Get the right QA staff for your projects.
  3. Assign a dedicated Project Manager (or program manager, scrum master, etc.) to the development team.
    1. The project manager should remove blocking issues from the rest of the team members, so team members can focus on their tasks as opposed on metawork.
    2. Sounds obvious, but each metawork task causes context-switch, which has been discussed above.
    3. Project Manager should also be in frequent contact with other important organizations, such as Legal or IT-Security, so that all compliance questions from the team can be expedited ASAP.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” – Peter Drucker

Once you have reached a comfortable level of stability that makes work-days predictable, you can start applying SW patterns from part 3 (still under development).


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