John and Wally, Part 3

Wally: “That was fast.”
John: “I had cliff notes.”
Wally: “So, what did you think.”
John: “I was reminded why I didn’t rely on cliff notes in college.”
Wally: “Fine. You want the short version? OK. Basically, it’s that organization leaders make decisions based on the information available to them, and the more layers you get in an organization, the more sure you can be that the information made available to the upper management is blatant lies.”
John: “Wait, lies? Not just miscommunication?”
Wally: “It comes down to incentives. Leaders can’t understand everything in their organization, so they pick a metric. Their under-leaders optimize for that metric. And no one points out the dissonance between that metric and actual productivity, because if they were the type of person to say ‘No, boss, you’re completely on the wrong track with this.’ and not gently spin the metric into the least-harmful thing they could, they wouldn’t have gotten onto the management ladder in the first place.”
Wally: “Here, got a great example. You heard how we’re going to be an Agile software development shop now?”
John: “Yeah. I think it sounds exciting!”
Wally: “Great. Go Google Agile for me. Actually, let me be even more specific. First, Google ‘agile manifesto’. Then, Google ‘agile certification’.”
John: “I don’t trust certifications.”
Wally: “You’re learning, me boy! But go ahead.”


John: “I am confused.”
Wally: “It’s all lies and bullshit. Are you less confused?”
John: “No! How can…Agile software development springs from four principles! They fit on a page! They fit on a notecard! And the first one is ‘Individuals and interactions over processes and tools’. How can anyone try to create a certification to teach this? It’s inherently contradictory to the philosophy of the material in question?”
Wally: “Ever hear of the prosperity gospel?”
John: “Yes, but at least the Bible is long and complicated! It’s at least conceivable that someone snuck in something about wealth being virtuous in among the begats! This is four sentences! And literally all of them say that the people selling Agile as a service are doing it wrong!”
Wally: “Yes. You are starting to see.”
John: “Huh. OK, teaching moment, I guess. So, you didn’t bring up the prosperity gospel accidentally, I’m guessing. This is to make money, obviously. To make money, and to claim virtue in committing vice.”
Wally: “You do understand. But actually, go back to your initial confusion. You read the manifesto. How much of management pushing for agile methodologies did so as well, do you think?”
John: “Some did, at least.”
Wally: “Yeah. But the thing is, actual software quality isn’t legible (in the Seeing Like a State sense) to them. Most of management aren’t coders, and the management who do spend their time being development-centric might put out beautiful projects, but they won’t be focused on being visible in the right way to their bosses. And that’s what gets you promoted further.”
John: “So, Agile just becomes a buzzword? Something management decides on because other companies claim to be doing Agile and are doing well, so we go out and buy Agile as a product?”
Wally: “That’s how it starts, at least. But there are other benefits to management as well. See, Agile-as-a-product is full of metrics. You heard those lessons about dividing up work into small bite-sized stories that you could finish in a few days?”
John: “Yeah. And that makes sense.”
Wally: “It often does! But sometimes it doesn’t. And when we hit a case where the logical thing to do is put a big-ass two week development story up, what do you think we get from management? Push-back. It’s not supposed to be that way.”
John: “But the manifesto itself says you’re supposed to adapt Agile methods to the situation at hand!”
Wally: “Yeah. But the situation is that management wants metrics, and doesn’t care if they’re meaningless. Small stories and regular updates lets management pretend they know what’s going on. If stories are being closed at a regular rate and the charts that get generated show a smooth descent, then that proves that everything’s working. And if stuff isn’t working, well, management could look into that, or they could look at the charts and pretend everything’s fine. And by the time things break so badly that you can’t lie on the charts any more, you’ve been recording lies for so long that you’ve got someone for management to blame. And then the failure of the software project isn’t their fault, its the team’s for giving them bad metrics.”
John: “So, what, we be honest all the time?”
Wally: “Buddy, we won’t get the chance. One of middle management’s jobs is to massage the numbers upper management sees. You will not get the opportunity to reveal in metrics what middle management does not want you to reveal. Unless you try to go over their heads, but that usually doesn’t work out well for anyone.”
John: “So now you’re telling me to respect the hierarchy? Not what I expected from you, Wally.”
Wally: “Respect it? Never. But acknowledge it. Recognize how easy it is for your boss’s boss’s boss to find out exactly what it is you and me do, and how to tell if it makes any goddamn sense or not, and ask yourself how it is that this never really ends up happening. It’s not that they’re dumb. Bosses, at least the ones who aren’t playing the nepotism game, are not dumb. They may not be technically savvy – hell, a lot of ’em actively disdain technical savvy – but that’s because they’re playing a different game. And by their standards, they’re winning.”


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