Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Emperor's new objects: a two-year failed project

It’s a sad thing when people you admire turn out not to be what you thought they were, when you find out your heroes have feet of clay. I had an experience like that a few years ago and it taught me a lot.
(Image credit: Old Book Illustrations)

I worked for a company that decided to go for object-oriented technology in a big way. They hired a team of people to design and build components that the lesser people (e.g. me and my colleagues) would snap together to build systems more quickly. Let’s call this team Team X and the team leader Mr. Y. Team X was to be a team of superstars leading the company forward.

I admired Team X and Mr. Y greatly. They had all the skills I wanted and every time I walked past them, they were diligently designing systems; I was impressed by their energy. I used to chat to them once a week and they used to like it because I was so clearly in awe of what they were doing. Mr. Y was at great pains to show me their work, though it was plain I didn’t understand it.

Some time passed and I had the opportunity to learn object-oriented programming. I did a design course on UML, and I learned C++, and became familiar with all the key tools. I put a huge amount of effort in and went from knowing nothing to knowing a lot in a short space of time.

It had been a while since I dropped in on Team X and Mr. Y, so I said hello. As before, Mr. Y showed me their designs and work. This time, I knew about object-oriented design. Unfortunately, I immediately spotted several mistakes in their design and several places where their approach would have been very inefficient. I was foolish enough to point them out. At first, Mr. Y conceded I was right, but as I pointed out more problems, he got irritated. Eventually, I realized I wasn’t welcome anymore and left. I didn’t stop by and chat again.

After this, Team X locked down their designs and prevented anyone from viewing them, they even angled their screens away from people passing-by so no-one could see their work. They stopped communicating. In the meantime, after chatting to my boss, I realized Team X didn’t know what they were doing. My boss counseled me to keep quiet and say nothing, which I did after some moaning. He told me my chances of getting real change were zero and I would just damage my reputation by speaking out.

About six months later, Team X were all laid off. The company gossip was, they’d been employed for two years and produced absolutely nothing of value, not a single piece of executable code. The company got nothing for several people’s efforts over the entire time.

Ironically, the only group that actually produced an object-oriented system was the group I was in. We used C++ to create useful systems that actually did something, and we produced the systems in a few months with just a handful of people, none of whom claimed to be a superstar. We didn't do the huge analysis Team X did, we just built systems to meet our customers' needs.

What were my takeaways from all of this?
  • Results are what counts.
  • If you have a team working for you using a technology, make sure you understand it well enough to measure their progress.
  • Deliverables are important and you should manage projects to have some results at checkpoints throughout the project. This is the soundest way of measuring progress. Never, ever leave long gaps between deliverables.
  • A team that hides its work is a major red flag.
  • Choose your battles and only choose ones you can win or that are important. Companies do silly things all the time, but eventually they get corrected, whether you intervene or not.

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