Wednesday, November 24, 2004

How many projects is too much?

Frank Patrick has an interesting question up about how many projects can a project manager handle? He's inviting comments from other people.

I know that there have been times in my career when I have reached that limit - and motored on past it. Some people reach that sooner than others, and everyone reacts differently when they get there.

Personally I found that I relied too much on my personal ability to stay on top of everything, keeping it all in my head so to speak. When I reached my limit, my projects started getting out of control, and I couldn't seem to get on top of them.

The answer (for me) lay in being completely disciplined in how I manage projects, whether handling one or many, mainly because you never know when you will reach your limit. That discipline meant that I never lost my way, and when I was overloaded, I could more easily share the workload with my team and other project managers.

Another key was learning when to 'push back', and let my boss know that I was sceptical of my ability to handle more work. That often helped, because then we could negotiate what I needed to do, and he could help me by re-prioritising internal projects or working out where a client could be accomodated differently, or handled by someone else's team.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Software Building Angst

It's funny how it doesn't take software developers long to find out that sometimes clients are a pain. I mean, they don't know what they want, but they do want something, they don't like the boundaries you put around their problems ... they just want you to solve their problems (cheaply, quickly and well).

Robert DW has two interesting articles about this phenomenon, the first is If Architects Had To Work Like Web Designers... and the second is Software is too expensive too build cheaply.

However, if you've ever hired an architect, or a designer (any sort) you quickly realise that it is really hard making up your mind about subjects outside your experience/skillset, but still important to you.

The closest most software developers get to this is when they get help designing their website, or their corporate logo/design. Now if you get someone who isn't really interested in doing a great job, then the process is easy, but the end result is a logo that looks amateurish, or a website that just doesn't bring in new business, or impress clients.

A good designer can be a pain to work with, because they make you think about what you want, educate you about what is good/bad and mostly seem to get you to do all the creative work for them. A great designer reads your mind and does this without hassling you by the sort of mental osmosis that has to be seen to be believed (or maybe they're just plain lucky). Bad designers just give you their best attempt at a design that they think looks 'kewl'.

Pay attention software developers, this is the mirror image of what our clients experience. They ask for a simple order tracking system, and we bombard them with questions about the datatype of an order ID, the scope of a business process and a dozen other questions that they feel (rightly or wrongly) we should already know the answers to (if you're claiming to be an industry expert, they may be right about these).

I think one of the keys to being a great software developer (other than being graceful in the face of difficult clients) is to learn how to help your clients find out what they really want.

Back when I was at uni, they called this needs analysis, and told us young aspiring developers how clients might know what they want, but we were supposed to tell them what they needed. Like a lot of academic advice, that is partly true (a client doesn't always want the right things) and partly bull-dung (the customer is paying you to do what they want). I've put my foot in it a couple of times, telling clients that they needed X when they had asked for Y ... it's bad for business, not to mention rude.

The customer is always right, even when they're wrong. A software developer should make sure that it's not their own incorrect assumptions and biases that are wrong, as often the problem is an ego issue rather than a dumb client.

So don't just client-bash when they don't seem to get it and be willing to take the blame for something you've done wrong, and you're on the road to becoming a better software developer.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Iraqi Soldiers - "We have been silent enough."

The Washington Post has an interesting article (registration required) interviewing some of the Iraqi soldiers fighting in Fallujah.

Here are some quotes from the article:
For Mustafa, one of 2,000 Iraqi soldiers fighting alongside U.S. troops for control of this insurgent-occupied city, the battle for Fallujah was personal. If the fighters continue to control Iraqi cities, there will be no future for him, his children or his wife of 10 weeks.

"She has to know I am doing this for her," Mustafa said Sunday from an Iraqi base camp near Fallujah. "I want my wife to go shopping without fear. This is the goal of this operation, to help the Iraqis get rid of fear. It is worth it to be away from home."
Fallujah is being destroyed (mainly because of the way the insurgents are fighting). It's interesting to see these soldiers say why they are there (emphasis mine):
After a week of fighting, Mustafa said, Fallujah was in ruins. Houses were destroyed, buildings burned and bodies of insurgents scattered in the streets.

"Nothing in this city is like it was before," he said.

"Don't look to the destruction," a soldier standing next to Mustafa said. "Look at the future of the city without terrorists."


"If we could control Fallujah and defeat the terrorists in the city, all Iraq will stabilize," Mustafa said. "I've seen nightmares for the last few days, all about the fighting in Fallujah, but when I think of the results, I feel better."


He said he would never think about giving up now, not when his country needed him. "If I don't try and others don't, those rats will spread with their diseases," he said. "We have been silent enough."

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Bloggers Cut Through the Fog of War

In YaleGlobal's Bloggers Cut Through the Fog of War, Mark Glase talks about the effect that blogs are having on the media industry, especially in countries without free press:
“...citizens trust weblogs more than any other medium.”
One of the pioneering Iranian bloggers, Hossein Derakhshan, estimates that there are more than 70,000 Persian-language blogs. In a repressive society such as Iran's, where the government controls most media outlets, one survey recently showed that citizens trust weblogs more than any other medium.
We are somewhat spoiled in the West, with our free press, but it's interesting to see how the web, and specifically blogging, is changing the way people source their news.

Monday, November 01, 2004

CSS Expressions

Did you know you can use Javascript in CSS? It's an IE 5+* item from MS that basically allows a CSS Expression to encapsulate Javascript. Geoff Appleby points out how to use it to make a TBODY tag scrollable, whilst the THEAD is stationary (look mum, no frames!). The actual example can be done more elegantly is you're just building for Firefox etc. (hint, use overflow:scroll), but the point is that it makes Javascript available for doing funky stuff ... now what else could we do with this?

* So it is probably only really useful in an intranet site.

Marxist Premise Behind Moore's F9/11?

So, like many bloggers I'm keeping my eye on the US election, especially as our own national election was so recent.

Somehow, I ended up looking at some very interesting German media commentary, and one thing leads to another, and I end up finding one of the most interesting, and truthful, Michael Moore criticisms around:
Lurking behind the glowing reviews of Fahrenheit 9/11 is an unadmitted Marxist premise -- the root idea of the left and the foundation necessary to justify propaganda. In the ideology of materialist Marxism, ideas are just a "superstructure," a "legitimating ideology" whose sole purpose is to advance the power of one group or class over another. The seizure of political power, in this view, is the only truly important goal -- and the marshalling of ideas and arguments is to be judge only by how it serves raw power politics. More than a decade after the fall of Soviet tyranny, that is the ugly totalitarian outlook that leers out at us from the left-leaning reviewers' reaction to Michael Moore.
I lifted that quote from the Cox & Forkum website. They have a rather fun picture there showing that behind Kerry is Moore, and behind him is Marx. The original source of the quote is a magazine called The Intellectual Activist that Cox & Forkum did the cover art for.

A lot of webspace has been spent showing how Moore lies and twists the truth in his documentaries (or rather docudramas), but the quote above is the first time I have seen a possible reason for this so clearly enunciated. Moore has profited from his movies, but that doesn't explain his continued pressuring of this issue. Gaining power, now that is something that a man like Moore would LOVE to have. I'm not sure how much Kerry supports Moore's ideals, but I am sure that it's a partnership born from a desire to change who is in power, NOT one born of idealism.