Oldies but goodies – Joel on Software

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The dog having gotten me up twice to go outside between 3:30 and 5:00 this morning (a Sunday, no less) I’ve been up for hours.

Somehow, in trying to catch up on various readings in that time I got started reading old entries from Joel on Software that I never read before – and there is some terrific reading there!

Some favorites:

The Joel Test

I’ve come up with my own, highly irresponsible, sloppy test to rate the quality of a software team. The great part about it is that it takes about 3 minutes. With all the time you save, you can go to medical school.

Painless Software Scheduling

When you start with a schedule with rough tasks and then break it down into smaller tasks, you will find that you get a different result, not just a more precise one. It is a completely different number. Why does this happen?

When you have to pick fine grained tasks, you are forcing yourself to actually figure out what steps you are going to have to take. Write subroutine foo. Create dialog such and such. Read the wawa file. These steps are easy to estimate, because you’ve written subroutines, created dialogs, and read wawa files before.

If you are sloppy, and pick big “chunky” tasks (“implement grammar correction”), then you haven’t really thought about what you are going to do. And when you haven’t thought about what you’re going to do, you just can’t know how long it will take.

Painless Functional Specifications – Part 1: Why Bother?

Programmers and software engineers who dive into code without writing a spec tend to think they’re cool gunslingers, shooting from the hip. They’re not. They are terribly unproductive. They write bad code and produce shoddy software, and they threaten their projects by taking giant risks which are completely uncalled for.

When you write a spec, you only have to communicate how the program is supposed to work once. Everybody on the team can just read the spec. The QA people read it so that they know how the program is supposed to work and they know what to test for. The marketing people use it to write their vague vaporware white papers to throw up on the web site about products that haven’t been created yet. The business development people misread it to spin weird fantasies about how the product will cure baldness and warts and stuff, but it gets investors, so that’s OK. The developers read it so that they know what code to write. The customers read it to make sure the developers are building a product that they would want to pay for. The technical writers read it and write a nice manual (that gets lost or thrown away, but that’s a different story). The managers read it so that they can look like they know what’s going on in management meetings. And so on.

Writing a spec is a great way to nail down all those irritating design decisions, large and small, that get covered up if you don’t have a spec.

Painless Functional Specifications – Part 2: What’s a Spec?

Nongoals. When you’re building a product with a team, everybody tends to have their favorite, real or imagined pet features that they just can’t live without. If you do them all, it will take infinite time and cost too much money. You have to start culling features right away, and the best way to do this is with a “nongoals” section of the spec. Things we are just not going to do. A nongoal might be a feature you won’t have (“no telepathic user interface!”) or it might be something more general (“We don’t care about performance in this release. The product can be slow, as long as it works. If we have time in version 2, we’ll optimize the slow bits.”) These nongoals are likely to cause some debate, but it’s important to get it out in the open as soon as possible.

Painless Functional Specifications – Part 3: But… How?

program managers at Microsoft gather requirements, figure out what the code is supposed to do, and write the specs. There are usually about 5 programmers for every program manager; these programmers are responsible for implementing in code what the program manager has implemented in the form of a spec. A program manager also needs to coordinate marketing, documentation, testing, localization, and all the other annoying details that programmers shouldn’t spend time on. Finally, program managers at Microsoft are supposed to have the “big picture” of the company in mind, while programmers are free to concentrate on getting their bits of code exactly right.

Program managers are invaluable. If you’ve ever complained about how programmers are more concerned with technical elegance than with marketability, you need a program manager. If you’ve ever complained about how people who can write good code never do a good job of writing good English, you need a program manager. If you’ve ever complained about how your product seems to drift without any clear direction, you need a program manager.

Painless Functional Specifications – Part 4: Tips

Rule 1: Be Funny

Yep, rule number one in tricking people into reading your spec is to make the experience enjoyable.

Every time you need to tell a story about how a feature works, instead of saying:

• The user types Ctrl+N to create a new Employee table and starts entering the names of the employees.

write something like:

• Miss Piggy, poking at the keyboard with a eyeliner stick because her chubby little fingers are too fat to press individual keys, types Ctrl+N to create a new Boyfriend table and types in the single record “Kermit.”

Top Five (Wrong) Reasons You Don’t Have Testers

Software has bugs. CPUs are outrageously finicky. They absolutely refuse to deal with things that they weren’t taught to deal with explicitly, and they tend to refuse in the most childish of ways. When my laptop is away from home, it tends to crash a lot because it can’t find the network printer it’s used to finding. What a baby. It probably comes down to a single line of code somewhere with a teensy tiny almost insignificant bug in it.

Which is why you positively, absolutely, need to have a QA department. You are going to need 1 tester for every 2 programmers (more if your software needs to work under a lot of complicated configurations or operating systems). Each programmer should work closely with a single tester, throwing them private builds as often as necessary.  

The QA department should be independent and powerful, it must not report to the development team, in fact, the head of QA should have veto power over releasing any software that doesn’t meet muster.

The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing

First of all, the #1 cardinal criteria for getting hired at Fog Creek:

Smart, and
Gets Things Done.

That’s it. That’s all we’re looking for. Memorize that. Recite it to yourself before you go to bed every night. Our goal is to hire people with aptitude, not a particular skill set. Any skill set that people can bring to the job will be technologically obsolete in a couple of years, anyway, so it’s better to hire people that are going to be able to learn any new technology rather than people who happen to know SQL programming right this minute.

At the conclusion of the interview, you have to be ready to make a sharp decision about the candidate. There are only two possible outcomes to this decision: Hire or No Hire. Turn to your computer and send immediate feedback to the recruiter. The subject line should be the name of the candidate. The first line of the email should be Hire or No Hire. Then you should spend about 2 paragraphs backing up your decision.

There is no other possible answer. Never say, “Hire, but not in my group.” This is rude and implies that the candidate is not smart enough to work with you, but maybe he’s smart enough for those losers over in that other group. If you find yourself tempted to say “Hire, but not in my group,” simply translate that mechanically to “No Hire” and you’ll be OK. Even if you have a candidate that would be brilliant at doing 1 particular thing, but wouldn’t be very good in another group, that’s a No Hire. Things change so often and so rapidly that we need people that can succeed anywhere. If for some reason you find an idiot savant that is really, really, really good at SQL but completely incapable of ever learning any other topic, No Hire. They don’t have a future at Fog Creek.
Never say “Maybe, I can’t tell.” If you can’t tell, that means No Hire. It’s really easier than you’d think. Can’t tell? Just say no! Similarly, if you are on the fence, that means No Hire. Never say, “Well, Hire, I guess, but I’m a little bit concerned about…” That’s a No Hire as well.

An important thing to remember about interviewing is this: it is much better to reject a good candidate than to accept a bad candidate. A bad candidate will cost a lot of money and effort and waste other people’s time fixing all their bugs. If you have any doubts whatsoever, No Hire.

This is great stuff – I also look forward to reading Joel’s book on UI design.

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