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?

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