Saturday, October 25, 2008

The best project specs I've seen so far -- by Dunkin Hines

I'm lousy when it comes to cooking & baking. I won't go into the stories of muffins gone wrong, chicken not cooked right, even hard boiled eggs not really hard. Thankfully my husband does the cooking and he's great at it. I'm the one who builds the furniture, deals with home repairs/renovations (not always so well), and smashes front 'yard' concrete with a sledgehammer so that we can make way for a little garden (should have seen the neighbors galk when I was pregnant and working the hammer!).

But anyway, I'm not much of a cook. But, when it came to making cupcakes for my daughters little party, I felt like it was my duty as a mom to make them for her. We bought the Dunkin Hines Devil's Food mix and with the instructions from the back of the box right in front of me, I nervously get started. I always get tripped up with the variations between baking temperatures for glass & metal vs dark or coated pans. But, since this time I was making cupcakes my situation was a little different.

Since these days I often find myself relating something I'm doing to something about managing software projects, I suddenly was thinking of project specifications. I was the lone programmer working on part of an application, and there was no project manager or information architect to answer my questions that came up...

- How do I treat the pan if its a cupcake pan and not a cake pan? Do I grease it, just put the little paper cups in, or put grease in the paper cups?

- How much batter do I put in each little cup? How many cupcakes should this make?

- What if I don't have vegetable oil, will another type of oil do?

Those of you bakers out there are probably laughing at my silly questions, but because of my bad history I really am a very timid baker. Fortunately, I had wonderful specs to work with. The back of the cake mix box had very clear instructions and color pictures showing exactly what I needed to do. There were accurate illustrations of each of the ingredients needed in addition to the mix, and each of the three main steps were broken into smaller steps with clear bold red headings. There was a little table at the bottom that showed what baking time is needed for different size pan and even my own (yes!) 24 cupcakes. If I had a question about something that seemed to be outside the realm of the normal baking process, in most cases the answer was there on the box.

I'm reading "Rapid Development: Taming Wild Software Schedules" by Steve McConnell right now, and am always impressed when I see the charts plotting out recommended times to be spent on each area of the project. In this and all other books I've been reading lately, there is always more time devoted to design and specification for the project than on coding. This seems consistent regardless of the Lifecycle model used (unless its the "Code and Fix" lifecycle). The general theme is that when enough time is put 'upstream' into planning through how things should work, both with interface, technical functionality, etc...then less time will be spent later 'downstream' with rework, bug fixing, or worse...cancelling the project all-together.

Did I have to cancel my cupcake project? Definitely not, they came out fine...a little lumpy but definitely edible.

Did I have to do any rework later on? A bit, I was a little too conservative with my batter amounts in the beginning so I had to go back and add more to the small cups at the end.

Was there any bug-fixing? Nope, I had all the right ingredients in there and the correct amounts of them.

All thanks to an excellent specifications document.. thank you Dunkan Hines!

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Life in the slow lane... (for toddlers and team members)

Last week I was taking my younger daughter to daycare and decided that since I had extra time that I would let my younger daughter walk on her own rather than strap her into my back carrier. She'll be 2 in December and seems like all she wants to do these days is walk (she was a late walker so she must be making up for lost time). She was thrilled that I let her walk and loved the morning stroll. I got a kick out of watching her walk to the subway, she stopped at all of the flowers and touched them, picked up leaves and dropped them to find new ones, tried opening gates and going up steps. It was a true pleasure to take a slower walk with her, and not only was it great for her to get more practice walking (she's a cross between a zombie and a drunken sailer when she walks and even more when she tries to run) but also for her to get a chance to take in her surroundings and not be rushed off to daycare.

This reminded me of something that seems so crucially important with software developers, designers, QA, anyone involved with the project...which is getting the opportunity to 'slow down' and learn something new. Seems like everyone in this industry is getting pushed along and constantly pressured to get as much work done in as little time as possible, since that is what appears to be the most 'productive' way. After reading Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams and Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency I completely see and understand how pushing people to their limits can have the reverse effect on productivity and actually cause more harm then good. Not to say that it didn't seem obvious before, but those books helped put some numbers behond the theories.

I've heard that Google programmers are all encouraged to pick up a side code project, try something new, research something, or build something that's never been built before. Sometimes the end result becomes part of one of their applications, sometimes it doesn't. But, even if it doesn't directly contribute to one of their applications, it can have an incredibly positive effect on programmers morale, creativity, loyalty to the company and productivity while they are doing their other work.

If we get past the idea that we need to make sure people are working 100% of the time and give them some time slow down and learn something new, I'm sure the payback will be totally worth it!

Monday, October 6, 2008

The last step in dropping the "a"...

So, without going into too much of the details, my husband and I knew that we liked the name "Lila Ruth" for our daughter who was born in December 2006. So, when it came time to fill out the paperwork in the hospital, I realized we never discussed how we wanted to spell her name. I liked "Lilah", but I figured since my husband wasn't in the room at the time I should give him a call and see if he had any opinions. He said he really liked "Laila" because he had seen it in a book somewhere and thought it was a pretty spelling. I figured I'd go with his suggestion, he is the english teacher after all and I'm just a software project manager...what do I know of names?!

When we announced the name to our friends most people said "Layla! What a beautiful name!" (think the Eric Clapton song). So, immediately we realized we had a problem. We didn't want our daughter going through life having people mispronounce her name all of the time. My husband was especially sensitive to this, since he was one of very few Garfinkels in Indiana and people always got his name wrong!

As time went by, I decided I didn't think it was such a big deal, but my husband still insisted on getting the name spelling changed. I told him that if he wanted to do it then he needs to do it soon, the older she gets the more documents are in her name (she already has a facebook account, a gmail address, etc.). Seriously though, I wanted to make sure the change was done before it came time to fill out preschool applications, which would be this year.

So, my husband committed to getting the process done this past summer. He downloaded the application, filled it out and got it notorized, then went to the civil court and waited in line to get it accepted. He then was given a date to go back and appear before a judge.

The last part of the process is to 'publicize' the name change, and this is where it gets funny. We must pay for an ad in the "Irish Echo" newspaper (apparently is has a circulation of 26,000 which qualifies it as a large enough audience) and announce that our almost 2-year old daughter is now "Lila Ruth" and not "Laila Ruth". I know that all of her friends who read the Irish Echo will appreciate that we reached out to them. Nothing against the Irish readers of the paper, but I don't understand how this will help us get the word out to the people it matters to.

In these days of super high technology and super fast communications, it seems so silly to put an add in a newspaper about a toddler's name change. There's so many other much more interesting and effective ways to spread the word. I see people announce their pregnancy on facebook, or watch their status changed from 'dating' to 'single' (hopefully not the same person who announced their pregnancy). I learned of someone's divorce through my newsfeed....that was wierd. I can easily post a question to tens of thousands of project managers on any number of social networking websites. I'm on a Brooklyn parents listserv of several thousand that's so active that I don't have the time to sift through even the daily digest version of the notices. Lately I've been pretty hooked on Twittermoms, what a wonderful way to connect with people!

So, how else could I tell the world that Laila is now Lila? Well, I could post on my facebook status ( I don't have 26,000 friends, but if I made my profile public for the day then more people might see the news). I could send an email with the news to everyone I know and ask them to forward the email to 20 of their friends. I could post the note to the neighborhood listserv, and easily get 7000 and probably some people who might actually know Lila! I could tell all the project managers in my networking group or all the mommies on Twittermoms, and add a note to twitter just to top it off. All of these things would not only get the word out faster, but to more people who might have an interest in our news.

Oh yes, and of blog!