How to Manage People in Software Projects

In a study published by the IEEE [CUR88], the engineering vice presidents of three major technology companies were asked the most important contributor to a successful software project. They answered in the following way:

VP 1: I guess if you had to pick one thing out that is most important in our environment, I'd say it's not the tools that we use, it's the people.

VP 2: The most important ingredient that was successful on this project was having smart people . . . very little else matters in my opinion. . . . The most important thing you do for a project is selecting the staff . . . The success of the software development organization is very, very much associated with the ability to recruit good people.

VP 3: The only rule I have in management is to ensure I have good people—real good people—and that I grow good people—and that I provide an environment in which good people can produce.

Indeed, this is a compelling testimonial on the importance of people in the software engineering process. And yet, all of us, from senior engineering vice presidents to the lowliest practitioner, often take people for granted. Managers argue (as the preceding group had) that people are primary, but their actions sometimes belie their words. In this section we examine the players who participate in the software process and the manner in which they are organized to perform effective software engineering.

The Players

The software process (and every software project) is populated by players who can be categorized into one of five constituencies:

1. Senior managers who define the business issues that often have significant influence on the project. 

2. Project (technical) managers who must plan, motivate, organize, and control the practitioners who do software work.

3. Practitioners who deliver the technical skills that are necessary to engineer a product or application.

4. Customers who specify the requirements for the software to be engineered and other stakeholders who have a peripheral interest in the outcome.

5. End-users who interact with the software once it is released for production use.

Every software project is populated by people who fall within this taxonomy. To be effective, the project team must be organized in a way that maximizes each person’s skills and abilities. And that’s the job of the team leader.

Team Leaders

Project management is a people-intensive activity, and for this reason, competent practitioners often make poor team leaders. They simply don’t have the right mix of people skills. And yet, as Edgemon states: “Unfortunately and all too frequently it seems, individuals just fall into a project manager role and become accidental project managers.” [EDG95]

In an excellent book of technical leadership, Jerry Weinberg [WEI86] suggests a MOI model of leadership:

Motivation. The ability to encourage (by “push or pull”) technical people to produce to their best ability.

Organization. The ability to mold existing processes (or invent new ones) that will enable the initial concept to be translated into a final product.

Ideas or innovation. The ability to encourage people to create and feel creative even when they must work within bounds established for a particular software product or application.

Weinberg suggests that successful project leaders apply a problem solving management style. That is, a software project manager should concentrate on understanding the problem to be solved, managing the flow of ideas, and at the same time, letting everyone on the team know (by words and, far more important, by actions) that quality counts and that it will not be compromised.

Another view [EDG95] of the characteristics that define an effective project manager emphasizes four key traits:

Problem solving. An effective software project manager can diagnose the technical and organizational issues that are most relevant, systematically structure a solution or properly motivate other practitioners to develop the solution, apply lessons learned from past projects to new situations, and remain flexible enough to change direction if initial attempts at problem solution are fruitless.

Managerial identity. A good project manager must take charge of the project. She must have the confidence to assume control when necessary and the assurance to allow good technical people to follow their instincts.

Achievement. To optimize the productivity of a project team, a manager must reward initiative and accomplishment and demonstrate through his own actions that controlled risk taking will not be punished.

Influence and team building. An effective project manager must be able to “read” people; she must be able to understand verbal and nonverbal signals and react to the needs of the people sending these signals. The manager must remain under control in high-stress situations.

The Software Team

There are almost as many human organizational structures for software development as there are organizations that develop software. For better or worse, organizational structure cannot be easily modified. Concern with the practical and political consequences of organizational change are not within the software project manager's scope of responsibility. However, the organization of the people directly involved in a new software project is within the project manager's purview.

The following options are available for applying human resources to a project that will require n people working for k years:

1. n individuals are assigned to m different functional tasks, relatively little combined work occurs; coordination is the responsibility of a software manager who may have six other projects to be concerned with.

2. n individuals are assigned to m different functional tasks ( m < n ) so that informal "teams" are established; an ad hoc team leader may be appointed; coordination among teams is the responsibility of a software manager.

3. n individuals are organized into t teams; each team is assigned one or more functional tasks; each team has a specific structure that is defined for all teams working on a project; coordination is controlled by both the team and a software project manager.

Although it is possible to voice arguments for and against each of these approaches, a growing body of evidence indicates that a formal team organization (option 3) is most productive.

The “best” team structure depends on the management style of your organization, the number of people who will populate the team and their skill levels, and the overall problem difficulty. Mantei [MAN81] suggests three generic team organizations: 

Democratic decentralized (DD). This software engineering team has no permanent leader. Rather, "task coordinators are appointed for short durations and then replaced by others who may coordinate different tasks." Decisions on problems and approach are made by group consensus. Communication among team members is horizontal.

Controlled decentralized (CD). This software engineering team has a defined leader who coordinates specific tasks and secondary leaders that have responsibility for subtasks. Problem solving remains a group activity, but implementation of solutions is partitioned among subgroups by the team leader. Communication among subgroups and individuals is horizontal. Vertical communication along the control hierarchy also occurs.

Controlled Centralized (CC). Top-level problem solving and internal team coordination are managed by a team leader. Communication between the leader and team members is vertical.

Mantei [MAN81] describes seven project factors that should be considered when planning the structure of software engineering teams:

• The difficulty of the problem to be solved.

• The size of the resultant program(s) in lines of code or function points .

• The time that the team will stay together (team lifetime).

• The degree to which the problem can be modularized.

• The required quality and reliability of the system to be built.

• The rigidity of the delivery date.

• The degree of sociability (communication) required for the project.

Because a centralized structure completes tasks faster, it is the most adept at handling simple problems. Decentralized teams generate more and better solutions than individuals. Therefore such teams have a greater probability of success when working on difficult problems. Since the CD team is centralized for problem solving, either a CD or CC team structure can be successfully applied to simple problems. A DD structure is best for difficult problems.

Because the performance of a team is inversely proportional to the amount of communication that must be conducted, very large projects are best addressed by teams with a CC or CD structures when subgrouping can be easily accommodated.

The length of time that the team will "live together" affects team morale. It has been found that DD team structures result in high morale and job satisfaction and are therefore good for teams that will be together for a long time.

The DD team structure is best applied to problems with relatively low modularity, because of the higher volume of communication needed. When high modularity is possible (and people can do their own thing), the CC or CD structure will work well. 

CC and CD teams have been found to produce fewer defects than DD teams, but these data have much to do with the specific quality assurance activities that are applied by the team. Decentralized teams generally require more time to complete a project than a centralized structure and at the same time are best when high sociability is required.

Constantine [CON93] suggests four “organizational paradigms” for software engineering teams:

1. A closed paradigm structures a team along a traditional hierarchy of authority (similar to a CC team). Such teams can work well when producing software that is quite similar to past efforts, but they will be less likely to be innovative when working within the closed paradigm.

2. The random paradigm structures a team loosely and depends on individual initiative of the team members. When innovation or technological breakthrough is required, teams following the random paradigm will excel. But such teams may struggle when “orderly performance” is required.

3. The open paradigm attempts to structure a team in a manner that achieves some of the controls associated with the closed paradigm but also much of the innovation that occurs when using the random paradigm. Work is performed collaboratively, with heavy communication and consensus-based decision making the trademarks of open paradigm teams. Open paradigm team structures are well suited to the solution of complex problems but may not perform as efficiently as other teams.

4. The synchronous paradigm relies on the natural compartmentalization of a problem and organizes team members to work on pieces of the problem with little active communication among themselves.

As an historical footnote, the earliest software team organization was a controlled centralized (CD) structure originally called the chief programmer team. This structure was first proposed by Harlan Mills and described by Baker [BAK72]. The nucleus of the team was composed of a senior engineer (the chief programmer), who plans, coordinates and reviews all technical activities of the team; technical staff (normally two to five people), who conduct analysis and development activities; and a backup engineer, who supports the senior engineer in his or her activities and can replace the senior engineer with minimum loss in project continuity.

The chief programmer may be served by one or more specialists (e.g., telecommunications expert, database designer), support staff (e.g., technical writers, clerical personnel), and a software librarian. The librarian serves many teams and performs the following functions: maintains and controls all elements of the software configuration (i.e., documentation, source listings, data, storage media); helps collect and format software productivity data; catalogs and indexes reusable software components; and assists the teams in research, evaluation, and document preparation. The importance of a librarian cannot be overemphasized. The librarian acts as a controller, coordinator, and potentially, an evaluator of the software configuration.

A variation on the democratic decentralized team has been proposed by Constantine [CON93], who advocates teams with creative independence whose approach to work might best be termed innovative anarchy. Although the free-spirited approach to software work has appeal, channeling creative energy into a high-performance team must be a central goal of a software engineering organization. To achieve a high-performance team:

• Team members must have trust in one another.

• The distribution of skills must be appropriate to the problem.

• Mavericks may have to be excluded from the team, if team cohesiveness is to be maintained.

Regardless of team organization, the objective for every project manager is to help create a team that exhibits cohesiveness. In their book, Peopleware, DeMarco and Lister [DEM98] discuss this issue:

We tend to use the word team fairly loosely in the business world, calling any group of people assigned to work together a "team." But many of these groups just don't seem like teams. They don't have a common definition of success or any identifiable team spirit. What is missing is a phenomenon that we call jell.

A jelled team is a group of people so strongly knit that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts . . .

Once a team begins to jell, the probability of success goes way up. The team can become unstoppable, a juggernaut for success . . . They don't need to be managed in the traditional way, and they certainly don't need to be motivated. They've got momentum.

DeMarco and Lister contend that members of jelled teams are significantly more productive and more motivated than average. They share a common goal, a common culture, and in many cases, a "sense of eliteness" that makes them unique.

But not all teams jell. In fact, many teams suffer from what Jackman calls “team toxicity” [JAC98]. She defines five factors that “foster a potentially toxic team environment”:

1. A frenzied work atmosphere in which team members waste energy and lose focus on the objectives of the work to be performed.

2. High frustration caused by personal, business, or technological factors that causes friction among team members.

3. “Fragmented or poorly coordinated procedures” or a poorly defined or improperly chosen process model that becomes a roadblock to accomplishment. 

4. Unclear definition of roles resulting in a lack of accountability and resultant finger-pointing.

5. “Continuous and repeated exposure to failure” that leads to a loss of confidence and a lowering of morale.

Jackman suggests a number of antitoxins that address these all-too-common problems.

To avoid a frenzied work environment, the project manager should be certain that the team has access to all information required to do the job and that major goals and objectives, once defined, should not be modified unless absolutely necessary. In addition, bad news should not be kept secret but rather, delivered to the team as early as possible (while there is still time to react in a rational and controlled manner).

Although frustration has many causes, software people often feel it when they lack the authority to control their situation. A software team can avoid frustration if it is given as much responsibility for decision making as possible. The more control over process and technical decisions given to the team, the less frustration the team members will feel.

An inappropriately chosen software process (e.g., unnecessary or burdensome work tasks or poorly chosen work products) can be avoided in two ways: (1) being certain that the characteristics of the software to be built conform to the rigor of the process that is chosen and (2) allowing the team to select the process (with full recognition that, once chosen, the team has the responsibility to deliver a high-quality product).

The software project manager, working together with the team, should clearly refine roles and responsibilities before the project begins. The team itself should establish its own mechanisms for accountability (formal technical reviews3 are an excellent way to accomplish this) and define a series of corrective approaches when a member of the team fails to perform.

Every software team experiences small failures. The key to avoiding an atmosphere of failure is to establish team-based techniques for feedback and problem solving. In addition, failure by any member of the team must be viewed as a failure by the team itself. This leads to a team-oriented approach to corrective action, rather than the finger-pointing and mistrust that grows rapidly on toxic teams.

In addition to the five toxins described by Jackman, a software team often struggles with the differing human traits of its members. Some team members are extroverts, others are introverted. Some people gather information intuitively, distilling broad concepts from disparate facts. Others process information linearly, collecting and organizing minute details from the data provided. Some team members are comfortable making decisions only when a logical, orderly argument is presented. Others are intuitive, willing to make a decision based on “feel.” Some practitioners want a detailed schedule populated by organized tasks that enable them to achieve closure for some element of a project. Others prefer a more spontaneous environment in which open issues are okay. Some work hard to get things done long before a milestone date, thereby avoiding stress as the date approaches, while others are energized by the rush to make a last minute deadline. A detailed discussion of the psychology of these traits and the ways in which a skilled team leader can help people with opposing traits to work together is beyond any scope. However, it is important to note that recognition of human differences is the first step toward creating teams that jell.

Coordination and Communication Issues

There are many reasons that software projects get into trouble. The scale of many development efforts is large, leading to complexity, confusion, and significant difficulties in coordinating team members. Uncertainty is common, resulting in a continuing stream of changes that ratchets the project team. Interoperability has become a key characteristic of many systems. New software must communicate with existing software and conform to predefined constraints imposed by the system or product.

These characteristics of modern software—scale, uncertainty, and interoperability—are facts of life. To deal with them effectively, a software engineering team must establish effective methods for coordinating the people who do the work. To accomplish this, mechanisms for formal and informal communication among team members and between multiple teams must be established. Formal communication is accomplished through “writing, structured meetings, and other relatively noninteractive and impersonal communication channels” [KRA95]. Informal communication is more personal. Members of a software team share ideas on an ad hoc basis, ask for help as problems arise, and interact with one another on a daily basis.

Kraul and Streeter [KRA95] examine a collection of project coordination techniques that are categorized in the following manner:

Formal, impersonal approaches include software engineering documents and deliverables (including source code), technical memos, project milestones, schedules, and project control tools, change requests and related documentation, error tracking reports, and repository data.

Formal, interpersonal procedures focus on quality assurance activities applied to software engineering work products. These include status review meetings and design and code inspections.

Informal, interpersonal procedures include group meetings for information dissemination and problem solving and “collocation of requirements and development staff.”


How to Manage People in Software Projects


Electronic communication encompasses electronic mail, electronic bulletin boards, and by extension, video-based conferencing systems.

Interpersonal networking includes informal discussions with team members and those outside the project who may have experience or insight that can assist team members.

To assess the efficacy of these techniques for project coordination, Kraul and Streeter studied 65 software projects involving hundreds of technical staff. Figure 3.1 (adapted from [KRA95]) expresses the value and use of the coordination techniques just noted. Referring to figure, the perceived value (rated on a seven point scale) of various coordination and communication techniques is plotted against their frequency of use on a project. Techniques that fall above the regression line were “judged to be relatively valuable, given the amount that they were used” [KRA95]. Techniques that fell below the line were perceived to have less value. It is interesting to note that interpersonal networking was rated the technique with highest coordination and communication value. It is also important to note that early software quality assurance mechanisms (requirements and design reviews) were perceived to have more value than later evaluations of source code (code inspections). 

Frequently Asked Questions

Ans: Effective software project management focuses on the four P’s: people, product, process, and project. The order is not arbitrary. The manager who forgets that software engineering work is an intensely human endeavor will never have success in project management view more..
Ans: If the process is weak, the end product will undoubtedly suffer, but an obsessive overreliance on process is also dangerous. In a brief essay, Margaret Davis [DAV95] comments on the duality of product and proces view more..
Ans: The term fourth generation techniques (4GT) encompasses a broad array of software tools that have one thing in common: each enables the software engineer to specify some characteristic of software at a high level. The tool then automatically generates source code based on the developer's specification view more..
Ans: In a study published by the IEEE [CUR88], the engineering vice presidents of three major technology companies were asked the most important contributor to a successful software project. They answered in the following way: view more..
Ans: A software project manager is confronted with a dilemma at the very beginning of a software engineering project. Quantitative estimates and an organized plan are required, but solid information is unavailable. A detailed analysis of software requirements would provide necessary information for estimates, view more..
Ans: The generic phases that characterize the software process—definition, development, and support—are applicable to all software. The problem is to select the process model that is appropriate for the software to be engineered by a project team.   view more..
Ans: In order to manage a successful software project, we must understand what can go wrong (so that problems can be avoided) and how to do it right. In an excellent paper on software projects, John Reel [REE99] defines ten signs that indicate that an information systems project is in jeopardy: view more..
Ans: In an excellent paper on software process and projects, Barry Boehm [BOE96] states: “you need an organizing principle that scales down to provide simple [project] plans for simple projects.” Boehm suggests an approach that addresses project objectives, milestones and schedules, responsibilities, management and technical approaches, and required resources view more..
Ans: The Airlie Council8 has developed a list of “critical software practices for performance-based management.” These practices are “consistently used by, and considered critical by, highly successful software projects and organizations whose ‘bottom line’ performance is consistently much better than industry averages” [AIR99]. view more..

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