Friday, November 30, 2012

Lesson from the flaming BBQ - people who just get it

I was hosting a BBQ over the summer, giving me a chance to use my very rusty "grill master" skills. Stepping away from the grill for just a few moments, I looked back to see huge flames spilling out of the grill. Luckily for me, one of the guys nearby just stepped in and quickly turned down the heat. He didn't track me down and notify me of the flames, ask me if it was okay, or delay in any way – he just did it. By the time I got back to the grill and all was calm, he casually mentioned turning down the heat. He had done many BBQs before, and he just "got it".
That's what a good team wants from its developers – people who just get it. They see a fire, and deal with it. Sure they keep management informed, but they don't make management a bottleneck with and endless stream of questions. These are developers who write that extra null-check, create the defensive code that defaults to a safe value if a param is missing, make a safe business assumption for a validation rule, upload a tool or patch to a shared drive so the next guy can easily get it, you get the idea… In each case, they could do it the "wrong" way, but they risk that and do it anyway.
I think this ultimately stems from management. First, management needs an atmosphere that encourages common-sense risk. Micro-management creates an aura where developers are scared to do the slightest action without multiple levels of approval for fear that no matter how obvious it may seem, it was the wrong thing. If you see the hamburgers burning, but you're not "allowed" to touch the grill, you'll just sit and watch dinner burn, and no one wins. Second, management needs to delegate and encourage and build up developers to take such "risks".  Start small. It's much like a parent training their kids. Sure eventually someone guesses wrong (say they pick the wrong default validation rule and hence need to re-code it), but if they got the previous nine right, then your team comes out ahead. It sure beats eating charcoaled burgers because the team has been trained to only allow managers to turn down the grill.

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