Saturday, March 3, 2012

Every software project I’ve worked on has used the "Spanish Theory" of project management, and its likely yours have too

The "Spanish Theory" says that management's job is to extract the maximum resources (= developer effort)  from the smallest amount of money (= developer salary). In practice what this often means for the developer is unpaid overtime (also known as "crunch time"), something very familiar to game developers, and also common in traditional software development, as the project nears its deadline. But those unpaid hours are actually costing you, the developer, because you can't get them back. You've sacrificed time in your personal life with your family and instead have chosen to work on the company's project - something of large value has been sacrificed for something of lesser value. If this imbalance continues past a reasonable level and unpaid overtime becomes the norm, then many developers will become dissatisfied and leave the company, increasing the company's staff turnover (churn) rate.

The book describing these harmful effects in the software industry was first published back in 1987. So why are many software development managers and PMs still practicing this method, some 25 years later? The reason I believe is a lack of foresight, an unquestioning acceptance of previous methods, a short term project oriented view, a limited understanding of the harm that comes to a company from a high churn rate, and finally, developers that are willing to accept these conditions. In moderation, some unpaid overtime is probably ok, but when it becomes the norm, from week to week and is just expected of all developers, then maybe that's a sign something is wrong, and could even be considered a job smell.

The attitude of government and corporations around the world towards unpaid overtime is changing, as can be seen by some recent initiatives out of Britain (Work your proper hours day). Similarly in Australia, there's now a National go home on time day held every November. The US-based International Game Developers Association (IGDA) is also active in promoting quality of life in the workplace through various publications and events.


Below I've quoted the extracts from chapter 3 of the book which gave me the idea for this brief blog post - I highly recommend you have a read of this book, or if not, then at least read through this small extract here which I thought was outstanding ...


Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (Second Edition)
Amazon Link: here
Authors: Tom Demarco and Timothy Lister
"Historians long ago formed an abstraction about different theories of value: The Spanish Theory, for one, held that only a fixed amount of value existed on earth, and therefore the path to the accumulation of wealth was to learn to extract it more efficiently from the soil or from people's backs.  
Then there was the English Theory that held that value could be created through ingenuity and technology. So the English had an Industrial Revolution, while the Spanish spun their wheels trying to exploit the land and the Indians in the New World. They moved huge quantities of gold across the ocean, and all they got for their effort was enormous inflation (too much gold money chasing too few usable goods). 
The Spanish Theory of Value is alive and well among managers everywhere. You see that whenever they talk about productivity. Productivity ought to mean achieving more in an hour of work, but all too often it has come to mean extracting more for an hour of pay. There is a large difference. The Spanish Theory managers  dream of attaining new productivity levels through the simple mechanism of unpaid overtime. They divide whatever work is done in a week by forty hours, not by the eighty or ninety hours that the worker actually put in. 
That's not exactly productivity — it's more like fraud — but it's the state of the art for many American managers. They bully and cajole their people into long hours. They impress upon them how important the delivery date is (even though it may be totally arbitrary; the world isn't going to stop  just because a project completes a month late). They trick them into accepting hopelessly tight schedules, shame them into sacrificing any and all to meet the deadline, and do anything to get them to work longer and harder. 
Overtime for salaried workers is a figment of the naive manager's imagination. Oh, there might be some benefit in a few extra hours worked on Saturday to meet a Monday deadline, but that's almost always followed by an equal  period of compensatory "undertime" while the workers catch up with their lives. Throughout the effort there will be more or less an hour of undertime for every hour of overtime. The trade-off might work to your advantage for the short term, but for the long term it will cancel out. 
Just as the unpaid overtime was largely invisible to the Spanish Theory manager  (who always counts the week as  forty  hours regardless of how much time the people put in), so too is the undertime invisible. You never see it on anybody's time sheet.  It's time spent on the phone or in bull sessions or just resting.  Nobody can really work much more than forty hours, at least not continually and with the level of  intensity required for creative work. Overtime is  like sprinting: It makes some  sense for the last hundred yards of the marathon for  those with any energy left, but if you start sprinting in the first mile, you're just wasting time. Trying to get people to sprint too much can only result in loss of respect for the manager. The best workers have been through it all before; they know enough to keep silent and roll their eyes while the manager raves on that the job has got to get done by April. Then they take their compensatory undertime when they can, and end up putting in forty hours of real work each week. The best workers react  that way; the others are workaholics. 
People under time pressure don't work better; they just work faster. 
In order to work faster, they may have to sacrifice the quality of the product and their own job satisfaction."

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19 comments:

  1. Me (and, for sure, many people around me) absolutely agree with your post. But i can give you an add-on/question: why do you limit this "cancer" to development jobs? That's not true, really. This is the way spanish do their jobs. There's always pression and no-no deadlines. Everything is urgent and... you know, "job is a rare privilege today in our country, so...". People is afraid, they don't want to help growing the already incredible unemployment numbers. So, fuel and arguments for these "managers", in the best roman galley style.
    A country with almost no entrepeneurs, empty of ideas, must exploit (with the least cost) those business that still remains. Bread today, hunger tomorrow. Time will say.
    Congratulations.

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    1. Thanks for your comments, I didn't talk about other jobs because my experience is only in software development, but like you say, it can apply to other positions, especially white collar jobs on a fixed salary. Also I've seen a lot of unpaid overtime being expected in relatively well off countries such as Australia and the US, where there is currently a shortage of skilled developers.

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    2. I think there are a shortage of people who can write requirements.

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  2. Interesting that it's called Spanish, the country who spawned the expression "manjana" in response to "when will it be done?".

    And now one of the highest unemployment rates in Europe.

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    1. Not in softdev. As long as you're willing to get paid less than a housemaid and ready for a 50 hours week you're fine.

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    2. Also, it is difficult to finish a project when management's estimated dev time and budget is half what it'll really be, because they want it to get greenlighted here instead of in a legit place in UK or the Indian code sweatshop.

      People getting laid-off mid-project, mobbing, "broken" people making 16 hours shifts, management running around your PC criticizing every piece of work, "golden boys"...it is just development hell in most consultant companies.

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  4. Well,I'm aware of what you mean and I can not negate that at least in Spain you describe with true words the situation. Even thought on last years I'm finding a little change on that trend specially on small companies. Now it is possble to find jobs with less non-paid overtime hours. Specially those managed by entrepenours which are trying different styles of management more focused on the people than in the results. Just because they understand that at the end of the day in that way they obtain a positive impact on the results just because they get more involment from their employees. In fact, it is their only way of competing with big companies for retaining talented professionals.

    Regarding the comment from Mcgyvrr, I agree that our rate of entrepreneurs has been near 0. Even thought on last months we have seen this rate increased very quickly. I think main reason simply has been the increase of unemployment that is producing lots of entrepreneurs by necessity.

    Let's see how is the future. I still hope that this crisis will be a cruel lesson which will remove from the map old school companies and will maintain alive those new ones with different philosophy and with international focus

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  5. Interesting read, but I dislike the comparison with the so called "English Theory". I'm not sure the working conditions in a factory or mill during the Industrial revolution were particularly comfortable for the worker either.

    The assertion that management will try to deliver results on the basis of extracting extra (free) effort from workers is familiar. However, I also think in a competitive environment this will always be the case and businesses will always being willing to push the boundaries of what employees will tolerate.

    What should be challenged is unpaid overtime as the predominant tool to successfully complete projects and products. Unfortunately, I believe a common cause of this is that middle managers are often judged on the amount of pure effort they are seen to put in for e.g. the late night emails, always being on call etc.

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    1. Thanks for your comments. I agree that the comparison to the "English Theory" doesn't really hold true when comparing to the menial jobs of the industrial revolution. I think it is mainly used by the authors of the book to compare the fortunes of the british empire, who used machinery and technology to gain an advantage over other countries who were still stuck with the middle ages mindset.

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  6. In Italy, the situation is the same...

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  7. Well, the spanish theory seems to hit the bulls eye directly. Here in india, this is an default assumption, you can find people in any IT Company saying "On a honeymoon" or "leaving at half time" it you were about to leave at 6 PM, after working for painlessely 9 hours, and the **king thing is all this is being counted in your silly 45 hours. Because that is what our beloved customer is being shown only 40 hours and Appraisal is only based upon this.
    I think its time to wake up & revise the laws to do something for humanity at least. A Tit-for-Tat approach. If the employer wants more work, hire more staff or better why can't he stay with us for all that time. This is the reason we are growing here in services Industry here in india with a PURE ZERO Innovation. because at every big IT firm you can find employees sipping coffee at 11 in night, just because his/her manager will not give the correct appraisal and some funky/virtual deadline is gonna given by your merciless manager.
    Do something guys, the day is not far, when the Passion for programming is gonna die very soon because of this approach.

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    1. Thanks for your comments. You might be surprised to hear that this sort of attitude is equally prevalent in well off countries as well ... unpaid overtime becomes expected and younger workers just think it is the norm to do it from week to week.

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  8. Software developers have trained the project managers we will work this way. We should be billing like lawyers. How do I account for solving the problem on my drive to work after thinking about at dinner last night while my wife was trying to talk to me. Then in the aha moment on the drive it all falls into place. Then you get to work and code it in a hour. A lawyer would charge for every bit of the thinking time.

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  9. Hey, nice site you have here! Keep up the excellent work!


    Software Development in India

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  11. This is because effort and delivery time estimation in software development is not easy. Managers have no problem letting their employees work a specific constant number of hours if they are sure that the work will be finished on time. But the reality is that currently estimation in software development does not work well. This means that managers have the choice of either burning out their employees or loosening their tight deadlines. Burning employees would increase employee churn. Loosening tight deadlines will require paying the real cost of the project versus the estimated cost. It is a trade-off. Some managers choose to avoid paying the real cost of a project by stealing time from their employees

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  12. If we try to be good project managers and organize our actions into these four stages we run into all sorts of difficulties. For example, out of the thousands of project managers, I rarely found two who could agree on the difference between Startup and Planning. Most thought that there is a tremendous amount of overlap, that Startup is really preliminary Planning with some Doing thrown in. They agreed that almost everything that they would categorize as a Startup activity could also be part of one of the other stages, check it out.

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  13. Some of the factors are usually same and we do see a chart with the term of growth which finally lets us do better, agile business is how it all is and there is a betterment for sure especially with most of the things.

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