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InfoQ Homepage Interviews Tim Lister on Risk, Arbitration and Changing Realities of Software Development

Tim Lister on Risk, Arbitration and Changing Realities of Software Development


1. Good afternoon, folks, this is Shane Hastie, we’re here at QCon London 2014 with Tim Lister. Tim, you and I know each other pretty well. But some of our audience won’t actually know you. Would you mind briefly introducing yourself?

Sure. My name is Tim Lister and I work out of New York City and I work with five colleagues at a company called the Atlantic Systems Guild and we formed our Guild all the way back in 1983, if you can believe that, and we are a form of partnership, there are three people in US and three in Europe, that’s why we call ourselves Atlantic. So, we have two people here in London and one in Aachen, in Germany and in the States there used to be all three of us in New York, but now my partner Tom DeMarco who lives up in a little village in Maine and my partner Steve McMenamin has taken on the job of being a Hawaiian Electric CIO for a couple of years at the request of the CEO who he used to work with, so he is in Honolulu.

Shane: Nice spread. Now, the Guild are not just any group of people, you’re all authors, in fact you’ve authored a couple of books together, as well.

When we formed the Guild in 1983, we tried to make it a real partnership, and so one of the things we did was we said that no member of the guild could be forced to do work they didn’t want to do, so the way the Guild works is the Guild will bill for work, for consulting let’s say, and if I did all that consulting, I will bill the Guild for 100% of that money, that’s my money. What we do is we have what we call dues, we pay dues quarterly in to cover the running costs, everything from the website to the accounting and some ongoing legal fees because we are incorporated in the United States, but then we also each pro-bono do work. So, I am technically the president of the Guild because I get to do all the boring stuff with taxes and lawyers and things like that, Tom DeMarco and James Robertson basically built our website and maintain our website, so we all work together that way and it’s worked out wonderfully in the sense that everybody’s had enough work and we can keep our dues low and we try desperately to find work for each other. So, we will work in twos or threes depending on the kind of job, we all have different specialties, but we are all basically in the systems world, in one form or another.

Shane: Now, you adroitly avoided this, tell us some of the books.

We’ve all written, so I guess the most famous book is called Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, Tom DeMarco and I wrote that, Lord help me, literally over 25 years ago, I think maybe over 30 now, and we wrote this book with one of our goals (that I don’t think a lot of people knew) was, that people would actually finish the book, most people would actually read to the final chapter. And we didn’t want to sound like we were experts, these were observations by people, not by social scientists. So, we wrote it in very conversational American and it was about why are team’s sometimes incredibly powerful and productive, they gel, and why sometimes teams never get their act together. And we wrote this book, we thought it was a good book, but it went crazy on us, it was viral before we had that phrase and the book is now three editions into it, what we did is we add to editions; for edition two we kept edition one perfectly there and we added nine sections; for edition three which came out last year, it got old, so we cleaned out one and two, took things out that were no longer relevant, changed some things in there and then added another eight or nine chapters of things that we’ve seen coming. And last I know from our publishers, it’s in 18 languages, and with version three, it’s now an eBook, so you can load it onto your Kindle and enjoy yourself.

Shane: I have it online and we will shortly have an author Q&A coming out on the InfoQ site about the book, as well.

Great. Actually, my favorite book, between you and me, is a book called Waltzing with Bears: Managing Risk on Software Projects, Tom and I, again. And I am a huge software risk management advocate and I was really happy about that book and I felt very naively that Tom and I are going to get this done, again logical minds everybody will go “of course”, and that hasn’t happened, but it has happened in enough organizations, it’s fine, but I always say read the first 70 pages of that, the first 70 pages I think are wonderful, I’m very proud of that.

Shane: I’ve read it and it’s a great book, I encourage anyone who wants to read about risk.

The other one, I think my team mates still remember the pain as much as I do, is a book called Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies, about patterns of projects and project performance, good and bad obviously. There are six authors in that, coauthoring takes a really good partnership and Tom and I have been colleagues for years and we get along really well in the writing process; try to get six egos into one book, but it was fine and it’s doing well.

Shane: One of the things you do as well is arbitration, and this is a really interesting field because IT is full of pretty scary stories.

In the United States, I won’t go through all the stories, but a fellow who is a lawyer came to me and said “Tim, you’re a systems guy” and I said “yes, I am”, he said “I do arbitration part of the time for the American Arbitration Association and we are getting in all these cases of software applications and systems issues, and most of us are lawyers, we don’t know anything about the craft or the norms of the industry, and we are desperately looking for people who’ve got the background to become arbitrators”. And so, the short of it is you have to get certified and re-certified, I only do software and system disputes. If you’re doing an insurance claim, I’m not there. Actually, arbitration has been done by the trades, the earliest American Arbitration Association was for the garment trade of New York, where you’d have a retired person come in and say “you’re saying it’s $5 a yard for this cloth and you say it’s $2 a yard, I’ll feel the cloth, it’s $2.50, now go back to work”. So, it’s a wonderful experience, very frightening at the beginning because you’re the arbitrator, you’re the judge and the jury and usually, as we say in America, both sides are lawyered up with lawyers that you are dealing with, and I only do it 5- 10% of my time, I think doing it full time I would just get depressed because it’s disputes that couldn’t be resolved by parties themselves and they come to the arbitration because it’s faster, less expensive and more private. And it’s a replacement for the courts, usually in the contracts, there is an arbitration clause and it says “both parties agree without duress that if there is a dispute under this contract they will go to arbitration and arbitration will be final”. It’s been an eye-opener because in our world we want to think of good guys and bad guys and you never find them in arbitration. I usually come home to my wife and say “A pox on both of their houses, both sides misbehaved and it got down to a stranger deciding a multimillion dollar decision that they couldn’t figure out themselves”. But, I’ve met some wonderful people that are arbitrators and you sure get to see the dark side.


2. Was that what inspired you for Waltzing with Bears, for instance, or were the two unrelated?

I think the arbitration gave me a lot of ammunition because I would look at these things and in just about every case you could see it coming miles away, it wasn’t like lightning hit out of a clear blue sky, it’s never that way, the relationship never linked between the customer and the contractor or whoever it is, something was always diseased and it went on and on and on, usually all the way till delivery of something, it was refused because it was unsuitable in many ways or whatever. And you look at it and just go “wow, this is not like being struck by lightning”, you can see this coming a mile away. As I like to say, you are out in the middle of the United States, in Kansas where it’s flat, you can see the curvature of the Earth, and you’re standing on railroad tracks discussing trains until the train hits you. This is what happens and it’s kind of infuriating. But then in my consulting I’ve always had, I don’t know, maybe I got it from my parents, but tell the truth is kind of a good thing and having all these little rosy plans is not the truth, things always happen on projects, we don’t know what it’s going to be, but the idea that a project is going to run exactly to plan, as I like to say, yes, somebody always wins the lotto, but it’s never you, somewhere there is a project that is going to run exactly the plan, but don’t count on it in your lifetime. So, it just makes enormous sense to say there are uncertainties, there are unknowns, there are variables with wide boundaries, let’s admit it at the front of the project, and as time goes on the truth will be revealed and let’s act in, as I always say, an adult manner. That’s what adults do with risk, as against children. And I don’t understand in many cases why organizations can’t talk about the downside, that’s why I get frustrated.


3. Are there some patterns that you’ve seen?

My favorite pattern, I guess, is the pattern of shock and sorrow, where you report on time, on time, on time and as you approach the deadline there is this moment of shock and sorrow when you now go to the upper people and go, as though you had an epiphany in the shower, “oh, my god, I’m not going to deliver next month, it’s going to be four or five months until I deliver, I’m amazed, I’m so upset”. Come on, if you’ve been in our business, somebody knew from the get go that it was very likely we were going to deliver by month nine. Usually everybody’s been around the block on a project or two, and the team is looking at, no matter what language it is, somebody is saying “this is not a nine-month project, in our company, you know this is at least a year”, and no one wants to hear that. And it’s almost like, do you remember the old quiz show Name That Tune where they would play a tune and you’d say “I can name it in eight notes” and the opposing person can either say “name that tune” – call you bluff and see if they can- or they can say “I can name that tune in seven notes”, and so to me is “I can do this project in nine months”, it’s optimist, “I can do it in eight”, “I can do it in seven” and someone says “do that project”.

Shane: Call you bluff.

It doesn’t get anybody anywhere. I look at all sorts of other places in the world where there are all sorts of assumptions and incomplete information and the world gets by with it. My favorite is weather forecasting and a week ago I was very worried because they were talking about over a foot of snow in New York the day I was going to fly to London, it snowed in New York 0.1 of an inch, eight days out there are a lot of variables in winter storms in North America that meteorologists even with all the tools they have now; but they admit it, they’ll say there is a 40% chance we’re going to get a huge hit of snow, there is a good chance we’re going to get only 2-5, and there is chance it might go south of us. And the world doesn’t go “I need to know what the weather is going to be in New York next week, I must know exactly”, the world says “ok, unknown, but here are the tolerances”, and at the beginning of a project, there are so many assumptions being made, it’s not clear what we’re building in many cases, so it’s false precision to say “I’ll be done in 8.5 months”, or you can say “I’ll be done in 8.5 months, but give me the freedom of declaring what it is I’m going to build”. You can’t fix functionality and just say “pick a number and go do this”, we all know that.

Shane: Project management by decree.

One of the crazy thing is managers don’t want information, they want happiness. I will be very happy to deliver in eight months and somehow that becomes the estimate, I don’t even care if they call it the deadline or the goal, one of our goals is delivering by the end of the year. Ok, it’s not really a goal, it’s a constraint, but it could be one of your goals, but don’t call it the estimate, the goal is eight and a half months, the current estimate it’s going to take us twelve and we are going to have to perform above our norm to make it, it’s not impossible, but don’t bet the farm. Now that’s rational adult behavior. And we start to work and we see if we’re tending towards twelve or eight and a half and we report as we go, none of this epiphany in the shower at the 90% done point, that’s nonsense, we have to stop that.

Shane: 90% done and there is still 90% to do.

Yes, exactly.

Shane: Another thing you mentioned you’ve been working in and involved in lately is organizational change.

Yes, the world is changing a lot as we all know, we’re getting white hairs and the thing that I notice and Tom and I were talking about the other day was in the last ten years the distribution now is amazing. You go twenty years ago it was odd duck that you found a project that wasn’t in one site and then you started to see, maybe in bigger companies, there would be a group of ten doing one part of the system and a group of other doing another, that kind of things and now you have “virtual teams”, six people in six locations or small clusters and an organization has to change shape depending on how you’re doing this. So, right now I am working with a not-for-profit where basically their systems folks who are in different locations serving different customers. So, for instance, a typical developer would be working with one company, one client, full time, and now because of the distribution and everything else they’re saying “no, we can’t dedicate a resource on one side to one of our customers, we need to be much more fluid in using our human expertise, our skills”. You and I have the same thing, we hate resources as a term [for people], so we want to able to be in a liquid state with our staff, if we need five people, we are going to select the best five people who are available no matter where they are and we are going to use them for this project and when they are done they are basically, probably, at least some of them, disband and reconfigure. So, they are looking for that dynamic, once you start pulling that string, it’s a very different world, when you are working in an organization where in a sense they are saying it only marginally matters where you are physically on this planet as against you’re in this site, serving this customer, 100% of the time. So, shifting that company and getting people to understand what is that like is a very emotional thing. I mean people, many developers, feel more a part of their customer than a part of the computing center and that’s a big shift and I see that a lot. It comes in many flavors, but the world in the last ten months, people talk about, it’s not just “we’ve got two sites in London”, it’s “we’ve got a site in Indonesia, a site in Turkey, a site in Silicon Valley”, that kind of thing.

Shane: Tim, that was really interesting, great to catch up with you.

Great to see you.

Shane: Thank you so much for coming along to QCon and for talking to us today.

It’s been a delight to be here, trust me; when you’re looking out at Westminster Abbey and Big Ben right in the heart of London at QCon, life is pretty darn good.

May 01, 2014