Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Productive Tension, Checks and Balances

Many software houses have caught on to using separate teams for writing and testing code. This is a great example of building productive tension: developers take pride in writing code with no bugs, and testers take pride in catching bugs the developers missed. This is one of the checks and balances that leads to better software.

Recently, I've been thinking about how one beauty of the program manager role is that it adds its own dimension to this productive tension. The key is that PMs champion the customer when designing functionality, yet have no authority over developers and testers. I've seen this build productive tension in two ways.

The first is a tension over design. Part of a PM's job is to empathize with customers. We want to listen to their asks, anticipate what they need, and design conceptually clean and complete features. In other words, we worry first about customer functionality, then about implementation. However, developers worry first about tractable features, then about "ideal" functionality. This difference in primary goals builds productive tension. But the overall overlap in goals means the design iterates until the PM feels pretty good about the customer functionality, and the developers feel pretty good about tractability. Since each role champions a different goal, both desirable, the result tends to be good compromises.

The second is a tension between influence and authority. While the PM is responsible for designing features, he cannot tell developers and testers "do it or leave". He's not their manager. At the same time, their manager does not design functionality (though he or she typically has valuable input). The result is that no functional design is by mandate: if the PM has an idea, he has to convince the developers, testers, and their managers; if the manager has an idea, he or she has to convince the PM. Having to convince several other smart people, over whom you have no authority, is a great way to select for good ideas.

These are the ways I've noticed PMs contributing to productive tension, and to the checks and balances that make for good software. Anything else I should look for?


Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Being a Mentee

A good mentor is one of those things that's often listed as a key ingredient in success. It can let you shortcut long and potentially painful learning by teaching you the lessons of someone who, since they're successful, has presumably learned the right lessons. Observing a mentor, and asking the right questions, gives you potently distilled experience.

I've learned from a lot of people, but I've only had a true mentor/mentee relationship with a few. It's not always a relationship that comes naturally, and I've had to learn to be a better mentee. I've just started with a new PM mentor, and it's gotten me thinking about things I wish I had known since my first:

Know what you want to learn: be specific. Don't look for a "life mentor", or even a "business mentor". Know that you want to learn leadership and influence, or to write and communicate clearly, or how to manage a group, or how to differentiate against competitors. But keep an open mind: one thing your mentor may teach you is what you really ought to be learning.

Pick the right mentor: look for a few key characteristics. They should be successful, meaning they've gotten where you want to go, using what you want to learn. They should also be willing to answer questions. Ideally, look for someone you can observe, rather than only meeting at set times. And, while not necessary, it certainly helps if you get along.

Drive the relationship: learn actively, not passively. Ask questions, and invite feedback. Always look for what you can do or ask that will tease out important lessons from your mentor's actions and experience.

Assume they're right: at least initially, anyway. This was a hard-earned lesson for me. If your mentor does something that seems odd, don't assume they're wrong. Instead, assume they know what they're doing, and try to figure out what you're missing. Remember that you chose this person precisely because they're successful, so don't assume you know better.

My Ph.D. advisor really drove this lesson home. He is a great researcher, and I was learning to do research. Sometimes, he would suggest ideas I just knew were wrong. Being strong-willed, I would push back. Tensions often rose. Yet time after time, in retrospect, I found his ideas worked better in our papers. I finally realized that while I measured ideas only on technical merit, he also considered their conceptual cleanliness, how well they would sell in a paper, current trends in the field, conversations with other professors, etc, etc. Instead of assuming I was right, I should have assumed he was right, and tried to figure out why.

Any other lessons I should take into this new mentorship?