A word about project gardening

In the last 2 companies where I worked, there was this recurring issue. Actually I noticed it for a while but for some reasons it became more obvious to me with time passing. The project management role is usually badly fulfilled.

But at some point, and even from the point of view of a developer, there is in projects the need for a dedicated person for doing some gardening. Yeah it’s all about daily ungrateful clearing the bad weeds, making sure the soil is rich enough, and that the seeds are all planted where they should be planted, that soil pH is adequate for this or that variety. Having someone that is just doing moderation on projects also frees the productive people from lengthly and sometimes non technical meetings. It is the occasion to have someone that keeps track of specs, sometimes gather them or (re)write them down in a central place.

The problem in the transition from waterfall to agile, is that in the waterfall model there is a hierarchic feeling in the role of the project manager. The Management word into it is misleading. It leads the developers to frown upon it. I have the impression that in agile teams, project management is supposed to be taken care of organically by the dev teams, sometimes by the scrum master or whatever facilitator is there for enforcing the agile process. Or the product owner will be technical enough to fill up that role. More or less.

But the reality is that project grooming is a full time job that may have to be re-invented. It certainly should take in account developers creativity and pertinence in the match of the objectives with the technical realities. But it’s necessary to have a person that is the reference on keeping track of the need and follow the quality process at all the stages. Well, at least when you begin to get many developers and many projects, and developers that work on many projects.

I think it’s a question of scale. Companies with less than 30 people may never face that need because there is a natural fluidity internally and not that many projects. But when you get to 100 and you still don’t have people dedicated to projects, then you can see developers burning out. Projects become lousy because nobody has time to write specs. You also can see emergence of hero coders that can by miracle make it all happen. But you will postpone the problem because heroes are not scalable and can even be toxic on the long run (as any experienced practitioner already knows).

Personally in my technical career I never liked the project managers that I met. But that is a long time I didn’t meet any. It dates from an age where agile was not there yet. But now that I don’t see them anymore, I feel that something is missing. It certainly exists in various places. And I can bet that many of them are as bad as they were in the last century. But maybe there is a new species of project curators out there that I didn’t meet yet. I read about those in various places, but in my (small) world, this is still a mythical beast.


The side effects of recruitment

Recently I had to look for a new devops for our team. I have been handling technical recruitment at many occasions, and each time I have to explain my colleagues that I have a special process. The fact is, the technical sphere is a small one, we are all linked, more or less, to a community. Well, in my case, I always have had to recruit people in companies that were hiring the kind of people that commit on github, have some kind of community activity, at least. I guess that in huge companies where people are just a set of checkboxes, things go a bit differently.

But anyways, in my case, and probably in the case of all recruiters in modern and small businesses, it’s not all about checkboxes and profiles. It’s about personality, compatibility, and mindset. So when I first get a contact with a candidate, I invite him (or much more rarely, her), to a chat online, preferably on irc or whatever real-time discussion media is more fit (for a linux geek, if you can’t go on irc, then there is a problem).

I noticed that during my past sessions of recruitment, I established contacts with very interesting people. By having an unformal discussion online, just chit-chating of what work we do and what we did before, it’s kind of easy to get an idea of what is the kind of relationship you will have with your potential future colleague. But beyond that, it’s all about making things personal. We are all unique. It cannot be computed, scripted, engineered in a way that non-technical people would be successful conducting that process. It takes a geek to recognize another geek.

At Gandi of course we have a HR person. But she usually appears at the very end of the process and not at the beginning. The peers are going to evaluate candidates, make their mind to see if they want to spend days and days collaborating with them. It matches with my way to do things, fortunately. If I have any doubt of the technical abilities on someone, I don’t do stupid technical tests, I try to find other people that know the candidate and get third party feedback. If not, then I try to use a meetup in a community related to the speciality in question, so we can discuss and be around other people where some tangent discussion can happen.

At the end, if all goes well, then the candidate is going to enter the more formal whatever the company uses as a recruitment flow. But that’s merely a formality. And after 20 years building up teams and recruiting people, I can affirm that instinct always wins, in my case. If I smell anything fishy in an unformal context, there is going to be problems. Well, the process is never perfect, it also can smell ok but stink after 3 months, too.

But the thing is that having those chats online with peers is pretty interesting. I learn a lot about how other companies work, how they handle their management, what kind of work conditions they have. Just because it’s part of the contact process. So I’m not really in hurry to make a final decision because, to be honest, I just enjoy those contacts.

It certainly takes some time, I can’t be in constant recruitment, but from time to time, it’s very valuable. And not only for the effect of recruiting someone. It creates bonds with the industry, with people, with communities.