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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Tim Lister on 40 Years of Playing Well with Others

Tim Lister on 40 Years of Playing Well with Others


1. Good morning, folks. This is Shane Hastie. We're here at Agile 2013, and I'm privileged to talk to Tim Lister today. Tim, welcome. Thank you so much for coming along.

It's good to see you again. It's been a while.

Shane: It's good to see you again. It has. You've come along to the conference. You're one of the keynote speakers. Your keynote: Forty Years of Learning to Play Well with Others. Tell us a little bit about that.

I guess this is the fourth Agile Conference I've spoken at, and I was looking at this and thinking, "You don't talk Agile to Agile." In a sense, the great Agile conversations at this conference all happen at coffee break, at breakfast, between groups of people that kind of hover around and people start going. It's a wonderfully gregarious conference, I think. You can talk to strangers at the coffee bar and everybody wants to talk. And so, I thought I would come from a different angle, as I like to do. I'm the Wednesday afternoon, end of the day, late afternoon speaker and I thought, "Oh, boy." I don't know if it's in New Zealand. Wednesday is called hump day in the United States, getting over the hump. I just thought, "Oh, boy. These people are going to be really tired of people talking at them."

So I tried to come up with a very gentle talk, and it basically is about my journey professionally and I hope it's not taken egotistically. But from the start, literally the first time I ever put my hand on a computer to today and the people I've met and the learning that happens from your colleagues, from your mentors, from the occasional genius you meet and how many people - I mean, as I like to say, I realize now that in my career I've lived through the renaissance of software development.

I started in 1972. I was 22 years old and that was the first paycheck I ever got as an assembly language programmer. The metamorphosis has been amazing. There are a lot of people out there that - it's story time to me. I want to tell stories. I want to explain why I think the story is important, and I just happen to be the traveler through the story.


2. So where is Agile in this story?

It definitely appears. It appears in 2001 and it appears in a bunch of different thing in different ways. The Agile movement to me, as a risk management guy, as you know, Tom DeMarco and I wrote a book called Waltzing with Bears. Between you and me, privately, that's my favorite book, the one I'm most proud of. I tell my friends who are not in our business, read the first 50, 60 pages. You'll totally get it. It has nothing to do with software, the first 60 pages.

I look at Agile as fresh air. It was a group of people who went, "This is not working. Let's just all say this. It's not working. We're living a kind of a lie in the way we do software work." And what they attacked were the most common day in, day out deflating problems of projects. I think definitely Agile is, if you look at software development, it's the name of the game from 2001 on. All the interesting thing, all the interesting folks, all the great debate centers around that term. I have a kind of a hard problem with Agile. It's a whole family of ideas. It's got some fuzzy boundaries. I'm cool with that. But people say, "I'm Agile." "What do you do? Don't tell me you're Agile. How do you run your projects? How do you do that?" That kind of thing.

It's just like, "We do extreme programming." And I say, "How's the pair programming going on?" "Oh, well, we don't do that."


3. [...] What's wrong with risk management today? I believe that we know a lot about how to fix that but we don't do it. What's happening?

Shane's full question: The scrum-buts. We do scrum … but we don't do that. I know that risk management is a particular focus and area of passion for you. When we were chatting earlier, you were also highlighting this. What's wrong with risk management today? I believe that we know a lot about how to fix that but we don't do it. What's happening?

I'm not sure. I'm not smart enough to figure this out. As I was saying to you, Shane, I kind of reconciled myself that this is going to be in my career, in my lifetime, it will be islands of very good risk management practice. It's going to take a long time I think because of the cultures. And I kind of hate to say this with my own country, United States is the worst at risk management as far as I can see.

We're cowboys. It's true. “We could put a man the moon. We can do this project. I don't want to hear anything about anything going wrong”. There's just so much emotion around admitting uncertainty and risk in some cultures that it has become really heroic to say, there is a nonzero probability we could have a massive failure here. Yet I understand why we're investing the money, and I think we should proceed but let's not kid ourselves. We have things to deal with. We have uncertainties.

Uncertainty means it's something that I don't know enough about to be able to quantify it. I know there's going to be testing, but I have no idea whether it's going to take us one month or six months of testing before we can release as against risk where I have a potential problem, it may happen or not happen. So that's how I differentiate them.

But it's just - I think it's even financial if you look at it. People want to say, "How much money? How much time?" The CFO wants to say, "So budget, how much do you need this year?" or whatever. And if you say, "Well, I could use $200,000 to $1.2 million." He's, "No, no, no, give me a number," and in many organizations, they capitulate. The number has no credentials.

Shane: We just take the $1.2 million.



4. The other thing that you've recently done is you and Tom DeMarco have released the third edition of Peopleware. Now, what's new?

I think there's tons new. A couple interesting things is when we did edition two, we added chapters and we left edition one there and we added more. In this, we went back and looked at edition one-two and we cleaned it out because the world has changed. So not only is it new stuff in but there's some old stuff out for interesting reasons.

The easiest example was edition one had a rant - as only Tom and I can do - about Big M methodology because at that time (edition one is 1987) people were looking for the one righteous way to build it. Edition two ends up with a big rant on what we call Big-P Process. Remember CMM and those guys, the five steps to nirvana, that kind of thing. We just had a visceral hatred of that stuff. And now it's gone away, I mean, partially thanks to Agile. Those balloons have been popped. So we toned it way back in three. And then we added some other things that we - I guess we're just commentators, old white-haired commentators now. We added things that stick into our craw a little bit and things that I think some organizations do really well and others don't do well.

We wrote a new chapter on leadership, which I must admit I really enjoyed writing with Tom because people - I don't know again. It's around the world, but people in the States talk about leadership. It's a big hot term now, and most of it is crap. It's, "Follow me. I'm the leader," and it's not really about leadership when you really look at a team and how leadership evolves and different people take different roles and leadership. The real world is much more interesting and much more complex than the advertised leadership stuff, and so we wanted to rub people's noses in that and say life is much more fun that what these people are talking about. Whatever they're saying, this is not the leadership you see on successful projects.

Now it's eight new chapters and a massive cleanup. I think Tom wouldn't be upset if I said I think this is the last edition. I don't know if you got a fourth edition in this. Tom is leading the way. He's writing fiction a lot now. I don't know if you knew this, but he has a great book out. God bless him. When we work together we work really tightly together. When he works alone, he doesn't tell anybody until he's done because I guess he - I don't know if you write that much but you have false starts.

Tom and I had false starts on three or four books together where we realized at one point we don't agree or we don't have anything really that worthwhile to say. It's really a couple of articles. But he has a science fiction novel out now that you buy. It's an eBook. It costs $2.99, Andronescu's Paradox. And I didn't even know about it until all of a sudden he sends it to me and he said, "I'd really like it if you read this." I'm like, "My God. What is this?" And it's wonderful. I mean, I would - It's not even science fiction. It's fictional science and it's a great summer page-turner book.

So he's going that way. He's also teaching ethics at a university up in Maine. So, I don't think Peopleware 4 is going to happen. I think we're going to do different things.


5. What are some of the core messages, going right back to Peopleware 1 that people just haven't got yet? What's there that you've written about that, "Hey guys! Take this."?

I think some people have gotten it; other people don't. People read that book. There's so many different subtopics. They take different things. I think the deep underlying message is that project teams really can't be managed. They can be directed. It's like teenage kids. At some point you got to trust them even though they haven't earned your trust. You give these people a target. You give them the resources they need to do the work and they’ve got to do it. You can't force them into it. You can't crack the whip. You can't do any of that sort of stuff. You've got to believe that they have the skills, et cetera at the deepest level of peopleware.

I think the software industry is one of the most intellectual industries, and I think that's why I've loved it for all these years. It doesn't matter who you are, what color you are, what sex you are, whether you're "handicapped" or not. It's all here. That's all that matters and you know the promise is so big you can never do it yourself. So you need your mates. You need your colleagues. You got to work together to build it.

Yes, you have a boss but your boss can't sit in your seat and do your job if you go away. It's not the hierarchical model at all. I think some people have gotten that really well, but there's just so many things going on now that also defeated; like all these distributed things nowadays.

Literally, I have a client these days where there will be five people on the project and every person is at a different country. It's like, "Oh!" And you say you're paying a penalty and they kind of look at you. So you just got to admit, five people together versus five people in five countries. You have a taxation here that is nontrivial. If you're willing to pay the cost, you're paying the cost. But you’ve got to think about those things and what could you do to make it a little bit better? Bring them together every once in a while for a week of intense work together and then they kind of understand each other a little bit more.

To me, I think the most organization is turned around when people realized that this is a true, intellectually serious profession. It needs real skills, not only the hard skills but the soft skills, the people skills and that teams are really complex organisms when you look at the individuals. I mean, everybody in the software industry I think is quirky. We all are, right? So you take seven quirky people together, nine quirky people together and they're on a mission. When it works, it's joy to me. It's just wonderful to watch a team that has taken the challenge and off they go.

Shane: Tim, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today.

My pleasure. Great to see you, Shane. Hello, New Zealand! Hello, Australia! I want to get back there soon.

Shane: Talk to you soon. Thanks so much.

My pleasure.

Dec 04, 2013