This post is the fifty-seventh part of a ramble-rant about the software business. The current posts in this series can be found on the series landing page.
Once upon a time I was a manufacturing systems integrator. That’s a fancy description of a person who designs and builds machine control systems. I was asked to replace a control system and given a tight timeline to accomplish the work. My engineering spidey-senses were tingling, but there were bills to pay and the promise of a large follow-up gig with the same company if I succeeded. So I took the gig.
One of the managers decided to keep me company as I implemented the solution. The other people he supervised did manual labor, so I understood his desire to “keep an eye on me.” Have you ever watched someone program Programmable Logic Controllers (PLCs) using ladder logic? It’s the coding equivalent of watching paint peel off walls. More to our point; it’s nothing like watching people perform manual labor. After several long days, I asked this manager the question that is the title of this post and a rather blunt conversation ensued which identified trust as the root cause of his direct supervision – he’d had a bad experience with another manufacturing systems integrator and was determined to not repeat that experience. Although I implemented the new control system successfully, hindsight is 20/20. I now realize I managed that conversation poorly. One result was I did not get the large follow-up gig.
Another result was I learned some things; lessons learned which I now share with you for considerably less than they cost me.
Measuring Manufacturing Work
If you work in a factory, the manager can watch the you pack widgets from the end of a manufacturing line into shipping crates. The widgets can be in one of a small number of states:
- On the manufacturing line
- In transit from the manufacturing line to the shipping crate
- In the shipping crate
This work is easy to measure.
Measuring Intellectual Work (or OBM - One Big Metric)
It is possible to measure intellectual work, just not effectively. In 2013, one can effectively and affordably measure the outcome of intellectual work, not the inner workings of the mind itself. (Note: this will change one day – probably sooner than any of us want – and when it does, I believe it will redefine economics and culture).
Shipping, delivering, executing – this is the only metric that matters.
That is an excellent question and I want you to pay attention to the answer:
Please Pay Attention
Intellectual work is art.
Software development, for example, is the art of translating business requirements into logic, and then logic into machine language via third-, fourth-, or (rarely in 2013) fifth-generation languages that then translate the code (art) developed by the developer into machine language.
Divide and Conquer?
Modern project management methodologies purport art can be divided into smaller segments and that the segments can be estimated and tallied into a sum of parts. Let’s apply that assertion to the art of painting using an imaginary conversation about one of the most famous paintings of all time: the Mona Lisa.
Imagine you are the project manager hired by Francesco del Giocondo for delivering the painting of his wife, Lisa del Giocondo, which is one possible story behind the painting to which we refer as the Mona Lisa. Where do you start? You may begin by asking Leonardo for an estimate of how long it will take to complete the painting. After all, a popular theory is the painting was commissioned for a new home and as a celebration of the birth of the del Giocondo’s second child; one would assume a timely delivery to be part of the project’s commission.
“It’s 1503, Mr. da Vinci. How long will it take to create this painting?” you ask. “I don’t know,” he replies. “Mr. da Vinci, I do not understand. The reason you have been commissioned instead of your competition is because you are one of the best. This is not your first painting, sir. Surely you can base an estimate on how long you spent on paintings of similar size and complexity?” “All paintings are different,” da Vinci replies, “and the differences are not always apparent to people who do not paint.”
So you offer to help by applying principles gleaned from YOPMC (Ye Olde Project Management Certification): “There are phases, right? First you prepare the canvas, then draw an outline of the foreground, then paint the foreground, then outline the background, then paint the background, correct? You may not do it all in that order, but that’s what you do, isn’t it?” Da Vinci replies, “Those are the mechanics, yes. There is nuance that goes well beyond what you describe. I can do everything you stated and produce rubbish.” “Still, though; we can break the project into these pieces and guess at how long each will take, right? We won’t hold you to these estimates, of course. We’re just attempting to get a rough estimate so we’ll know the month we can plan a party to unveil your painting in our new home.”
The Mona Lisa was completed in 1517.
“Leonardo, later in his life, is said to have regretted ‘never having completed a single work’.” – from the WikiPedia article: Mona Lisa
There are several points:
- It is always possible to measure the outcome as a single point of reference.
- It is not always possible to achieve a goal by dividing a thing into its constituents and then achieving the pieces.
- Even when you have all the requirements, accurate estimation is difficult.
- “I don’t know” is the best thing to say when it is true.
The Primary Point
The primary point is you cannot see me think. Therefore you cannot directly measure the efficiency of my intellectual work. You are limited to measuring the outcome of my thinking – the delivered solution.
Therefore, the result is all you should measure.