Clayton Lengel-Zigich, Roy van de Water, Drew LeSueur and Derek Neighbors discuss an article by Esther Derby entitled But Are They Working Hard?
- How can you tell if a senior developers is acting in a way that befits their title?
- Should we reward the hardest worker for working hardest?
- What makes a senior developer better than other developers?
- Should we ever care if the developers are working hard?
Clayton Lengel‑Zigich: Welcome to another episode of the Agile Weekly Podcast. I’m Clayton Lengel‑Zigich.
Roy van de Water: I’m Roy van de Water.
Drew LeSueur: I’m Drew LeSueur.
Derek Neighbors: I’m Derek Neighbors.
Clayton: Today, we’re going to talk about an article that we found from Esther Derby. It’s titled, “But are they working hard?”
It’s a story about some managers in an organization that’s adopting Agile and they’re wondering to themselves, “OK, everything seems like it’s going well, but there’s this guy over here and he’s got that “senior” word in front of his title. He’s a senior developer. I’m wondering, is that guy really doing senior level work? His team is this cross‑functional thing. Everyone’s doing a bunch of stuff all together.”
How do I know that this guy is really pulling his weight?
Drew: Why do you care?
Clayton: As the host of the podcast, I’m not sure.
Roy: Maybe you care because you’re paying him a lot more than everyone else.
Drew: That’s a good example.
Clayton: Maybe I’m paying this guy more or he’s got more seniority or he’s my buddy and when special assignments come up, in the past, I’ve always picked him. But now, I’m just kind of wondering, is he kind of just goofing off now because he doesn’t really have to work as hard?
I don’t know.
Drew: Is that a legitimate concern of mine?
Roy: I think that’s true. I didn’t think about like that, but yeah, if this guy is not pulling his weight, then maybe you can cut his pay, right?
Derek: I think the other way we see this manifest is, you know, good people have to be pushed really hard. If I can’t tell if that individual is really working hard or not, how do I know to whip him harder?
In the old school management style, if somebody is not working, you whip them and you continue to whip them until they are performing to their “stretch goal”. But if you don’t know if the person is being stretched or not, how do you know to whip them?
Can a team only reach its maximum potential if every individual on the team is reaching their individual maximum potential and are putting in the maximum amount of effort?
Drew: I think, that’s what Management 1.0 believes.
Derek: How do measure effort, too? If you’re talking about laying bricks or shoveling something, yeah, sure you can be maxed out and shovel as fast as your physical body can shovel.
But if you’re on something that’s creative like software or something else, how do you physically think harder or think faster? How do you judge that even?
Drew: I think it goes back to the “work smarter not harder”.
Drew: So if you go to your snow shovel example, if I give you a tablespoon and I go ask you to shovel snow and you are putting every ounce of your body into it and working so hard that there is no question that you are ready to be on the brink of death you are shoveling snow so hard.
Then I turn around and give you a two foot by one foot snow shovel and you are working half as hard but you’re getting twice as much snow shoveled, should I be pissed that you are not working hard enough?
Derek: Let’s say, I am on a senior development product team and I see that this team is not going to hit their commitment. Let’s say, it’s a longer term commitment. They’re missing their release.
I could see that in an organization, especially one that even has the concept of senior developers like me, right?
Roy: You’re not that old.
Derek: Well, I am a senior developer.
Drew: Do you get the discount at Denny’s?
Derek: Yeah, the over 65’s discount? I think, I might still qualify for the student discount. I could see what I would so as a senior developer is not help my team out.
Let them fail so it look’s like shit is going to hit the fan and I am not helping them. I knew from the beginning that they weren’t going to make it without my help.
Then what I do, is at the last moment, when it looks like all is lost, I work my ass off for two days straight. I just kick ass and, now, I’m the star. I mean, that’s how I got the senior title in the first place.
Why wouldn’t I keep doing that?
Clayton: I was going to ask, what is it about the senior developer that makes them the senior developer? I think, in this example in the article, a lot of it comes down to you have been there longer or, maybe, you have exhibited some hero coding specialties where you burned the midnight oil a few times. Then, all of a sudden, you are loved by the manager.
What is it really? I think that’s the question. Why is this person the senior developer and how do I really know that they are the senior developer, especially if they’re working in this environment where everyone is supposed to be equal?
Derek: I think this is kind of a mind set shift that management has not gone through. Today, the mindset is the person that works the hardest is the leader, right?
If you come in early and you stay late, you write more code and you’re more knowledgeable about the code, then, clearly, you are the code leader. You’re the senior developer.
That becomes what they look for, so who is going to burn the most midnight oil for me? When that person steps up they will become the leader. I think that on Agile teams, specifically, or self organizing teams, it really is all about continuous learning. It’s about learning how to adapt to situations and learning new things.
I think, the concept of leadership fundamentally changes. It’s not the person who works the hardest. It’s the person who gets the most out of the people or makes the people around them the best.
That’s who the real leader is on an Agile team, it’s the person that people say, “This person makes me better at what I do.”
Drew: Is it really the person who works the hardest or is it perhaps the person who sacrifices the most because I think we’ve seen even internally where we have issues with team members that have a martyr complex and they seem to rise to the position of leader because they earn respect through sacrifice.
Derek: I definitely think, that’s just a form of working harder, right?
Derek: I think, when you say, “Woe is me. Look at what I had to give up to get this.” That largely becomes a, “Wow, you know that person’s really taken one for the team. They’re really working out,” you know what I mean?
I don’t want to say those are interchangeable pieces, but yeah, I definitely would say that sacrifice, commitment, working hard, you name it, like all of the kind of Management 1.0 or 2.0 concepts.
“I don’t have to crack the whip hard on that guy. I know he’s going to work hard. I know he’s going to sacrifice for me.”
Roy: Some of the things that were mentioned in the article, that senior level things “are like pairing and mentoring”, code kata, examining the team’s practices, looking for ways to improve, those are all things I think that speak to Derek’s point of helping the people that are around you improve.
I think, the real sticky situation that comes up a lot especially in an organization that’s transforming itself, from an HR perspective, if you have people on the payroll or that they’re in this position in the pecking order as a senior person, but these attributes aren’t things that only they can do.
They might be doing something like this in some aspect of the team for some period of time and then someone else might get jazzed up about it and they start doing it. You have this floating role in leadership position where everybody can be some leader in some aspect and now that senior thing kind of disappears, right?
Derek: Right, I think you start to have senior people with different things. It kind of becomes who’s initiating that particular thing and that person might rise to the leader of the team or the senior person on the team for that particular type of thing.
Whether it’d be a technology or whether it be a process or whether it’d be whatever, the teams start to say like, “So‑and‑so is kind of our go to person. They’re the champion for whatever that is.”
They’re the database champion or they’re the Java script champion or they’re the Agile champion or they’re the Kanban champion or they’re the training or teacher champion.
Drew: What if the entire team is kind of slacking off?
I remember we were reading about the article and briefly talking about it. It mentions the concept of something called social loafing. I think, Derek, your eyes lit up when that was mentioned. I’m not really familiar with it. Can you explain what it is?
Derek: I’m not too familiar with it. I talked about it a bit this last week with a number of other coaches. I think, the term goes something to the fact of this concept of when you get in groups, people start to defer responsibility and it becomes somebody else will pick up that slack.
There’s this loafing around concept the more social something gets. I think, there were some studies done by some people doing a tug‑of‑war type of thing that if you measured people’s exertion of force when it’s one person’s tug of war against another person, they give a much higher effort than when it’s 10 people tugging war against 10 other people.
I think, there’s some kind of concepts out there around. Can that be contagious as well, where you start to see one person kind of loafing? Does that start to get contagious within a group? I think, that this is something that managers fear.
Drew: Is it something that we can prevent? It seems to me like if we are being accountable to our effort and somehow broadcasting that to our team members, we can hold each other accountable.
Is that something we even want to do or is maybe that measuring something we want to do not that we ensure that everybody is spending maximum effort? But if we notice that everybody is spending maximum effort, it means we’re doing something wrong and we need to change the way that we’re doing something.
Derek: Yeah. I think maybe the way that I look at it is if you’re looking at the tug of war sample, maybe I’m not pulling my absolute hardest, but if my team starts to lose, I do pull harder. If you’re setting clear vision for people and you’re putting goals out there for them to hit, can you put motivations out there?
I’m not talking about more money, more whatever. But can you put some intrinsic motivations out there that get them to want to pull harder because you’re challenging them? I think that, to me, human beings have an innate desire to learn and grow.
I think, sometimes people get a beat out of them or they got out of touch with it. But I think ultimately, if you’re challenging people to go deeper and harder than they’re used to, they tend to engage more.
When I’ve sees social loafing, it’s usually when the team or the organization is not providing much of a challenge for somebody. They go like, “Well, I don’t have to pull that hard because we’re OK,” with regards to the power of the pull.
Drew: I don’t know if this is where the metaphor is breaking down, but it seems to me like, if the goal is to win in tug of war, then it sounds to me that the minimum amount of effort required in order to win is the best strategy and the most sustainable strategy for a team to take. Is that true in all cases?
Derek: I think that sounds fairly true to me.
Clayton: One of the examples that she mentions in the article, the question she asked is, “Let’s say, we’ve got a few teams, and we’ve got them formed. They got a foundation. They start going. They’re producing software, delivering results, and things are going well. As a manager, do you care if they’re giving a hundred percent of the work all the time?”
I think that’s the core question. Are they working hard? Is that even a valid question? Should I even be worrying about that if they’re still producing results? Am I just measuring the results? Am I only measuring effort?
Then you get back to that concept that Derek has mentioned of, “Do I get mad at Drew for exerting less physical effort to shovel that snow because he’s got a better tool for the job?” Am I supposed to be mad at him about that? But if he’s delivering results, I don’t care if he’s working half as hard because it’s still working, right?
Derek: You’re right. I think, that teams should get to the point where they’re only exerting as much effort as it takes to basically pull past the goal. But the second thing, I would clarify, is that if you win, you should constantly be looking for better competition.
If I’m playing tug‑of‑war and if everybody on the team only has to give 10 percent to beat an opponent, we should be looking for a tougher opponent next time, until we get to the point where we are having to put more and more effort into making that victory.
If we get to the challenge where we can’t win, then we need to start looking at, “What do we need to do? Do we need to go lift some weights so that we don’t have to pull as hard to win the next time?” I think that that’s, to me, the whole concept of a healthy team.
Challenge yourself just enough that you’re in a sustainable effort level because I think a hundred percent effort all the time is not sustainable, so whatever that level is. It’s probably different for everybody on the team.
Get them to that point. See what victories you can have. Then challenge yourself, “What do we need to do independently and as a team to grow so that we can go against harder and harder competition while still being sustainable?”
Drew: It is still a smell if the team is exerting almost no effort and not because you aren’t getting any results you want, but because it might be reasonable to be concerned that your team is going to lose motivation if they continue to have to put almost no effort into their job on a daily basis.
Clayton: I guess as a manager, if I am committed to the idea that I don’t really care if my team’s working hard so much as I hope they’re delivering results and improving, like you’re mentioning Derek, should I be responsible for trying to find or uncover ways that they could be improving? Or should I just focus on enabling them and giving them some culture or some guidelines for that kind of continuous improvement mentality?
Roy: The same as inside the team, I think, as I mentioned in this bullet points, the leader or the senior person, as Derek said, is the person who is going to spread his knowledge or empower or enable the rest of the people on the team. I think, maybe, somebody outside looking in can do the same thing.
They’re a senior, or whatever, for whatever reason. Hopefully, it’s because of one of the bullet points on this list. How can they use their mentoring skills, or their coaching skills, or whatever skills they have, to empower the team to be better? Because we can all be better. You just have to balance that sustainability versus effort.
Drew: So do you need to be a senior developer in order to practice the things on this list?
Roy: I don’t think so. A senior developer, no.
Drew: Do we even have a need for senior developers or that title?
Derek: Probably not. Maybe hitting your question a little too, Clayton, I think, that it is valid for leadership or managers to understand how hard a team is challenging themselves. Not necessarily working hard, but are they going up against tough opponents or not?
I think, if they’re going up against opponents that are complete softballs, I think, that it’s OK for management to say, “I think, we should be trying to solve harder problems, or basically push harder.” But that’s not necessarily work harder. The team needs a tougher challenge.
In the same way that, I think, if they’re being over challenged, the management needs to be able to pull back and say, “Hey, we need some potentially easier opponents to go against.”
To me, the difference is you’re measuring or you’re looking at the team not the individual, and let the team decide what to do with the individuals. If it’s, “Hey, this is too hard,” let the team figure out who needs to improve on the team and how they’re going to improve.
Don’t dictate that to them. Don’t say, “Well, if Roy would just work harder, then we would be able to beat this guy.”
Clayton: One last question, I’ll ask around, and you can give me a yes or no answer. If you were on an Agile team as a senior developer, do you think it would be meaningful for the progress and improvement of the team for you to publicly rescind or give up your senior developer title?
Roy: That sounds cool.
Drew: Yes, without being a martyr.
Derek: It doesn’t really matter.
Clayton: I’m no longer a senior developer. I’m a developer committed to the team.
Derek: I don’t think that matters.
Roy: I feel your pain.
Clayton: Just symbolic, OK. Derek?
Derek: In principle, I absolutely love it. I actually saw a team the other day where somebody pretty much did that and said, “We’re all developers here. There is no better or no worse.” Because somebody was talking about a better developer or worse developer, and their response was pretty much like, “We’re all developers here. There’s not better and worse.”
This was somebody who’s seen as the senior person. But I don’t know if that necessarily change things either. While, I think, it’s noble and the right thing to do, I’m not sure that it necessarily helps.
Drew: Do I lose my paycheck when I give up? Because I want to keep that.
Clayton: All right. If you are a senior developer and you would like to come yell at us, we invite you to the Agile Weekly Facebook fan page at facebook.com/agileweekly. You can give us an earful about why we’re wrong about your senior developer title. Or if you’d like to just join the conversation in any other aspect, we’d love to have you, too. Thanks!
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