Writing by Peter Hilton

Legacy product development (part 2)

The converse of extreme product development 2024-05-27 #product #management

Nick Fewings

  1. Part 1
  2. Part 2 ←

This article continues exploring the legacy software development approaches that have outlived their usefulness, and have started to give way to extreme product development practices.

Feature factories

The Joel Test listed twelve criteria for identifying ineffective development teams. More recently, John Cutler’s 12 Signs You’re Working in a Feature Factory called out teams that expect product success to come from endlessly adding features. And in her book of the same name, Melissa Perri calls this the build trap:

The build trap is when organisations become stuck measuring their success by outputs rather than outcomes. It’s when they focus more on shipping and developing features rather than on the actual value those things produce.

Sadly, legacy feature factories remain the norm in professional software development, especially among what Scott Hanselman called Dark Matter Developers. Hanselman notes that they can teach us a thing or two about getting things done, but prioritising features wastes their productivity. As Cutler and Perri argue, they would deliver more value by prioritising problems and measuring outcomes, for example using quarterly OKRs.

Long backlogs

In an attempt to replicate manufacturing operational efficiency, feature factories copy manufacturing production planning by scheduling feature development for the coming months or even years. The resulting product backlog gives management the illusion of predictability, while dooming the team to a project death march. Sadly, these long backlogs remain the norm, while actual flexibility and agility require a short backlog.

Meeting culture

Product development organisations reveal their lack of innovation in the pointlessness, frequency, and length of their meetings. So many companies have no concept of newer collaboration techniques than brainstorming (1940s) using Post-it notes (1980s) on whiteboards (1990s).

Company cultures have always inhabited a spectrum from presentation-centric, where people talk over slides to captive audiences in meeting rooms, to writing-centric cultures, where people share ideas in writing, to read outside meeting rooms. Both work, but only writing cultures can further reduce their reliance on in-person meetings, by embracing asynchronous work.

Crunch mode

Poor planning on your part does not necessitate an emergency on mine

- Bob Carter

Bad managers have always used false urgency to pressure employees into working unpaid overtime, and cover up their bad planning. Sometimes this extends to an employer’s systematic assumption that they should own as much of their employees’ lives as possible.

Related abuses of power include attempts to position the company as ‘a family’, and restrictive employment contract clauses about what employees can do, create and own in their spare time. Unfortunately, instead of acting in their own interests, these employers deprive themselves of talent who cannot work full-time, or who otherwise prefer part-time employment.

Return to office

In the 1990s, before people working in tech started dressing casually, American companies had Casual Friday. This operated on the faintly ridiculous principle that people could work professionally in comfortable clothes, but only on Fridays.

Three decades later, the tech industry made a similar discovery. During the COVID-19 pandemic, employees worked from home (in comfortable clothes), and many figured out how to grow working relationships and collaborate effectively online. Post-lockdown, their CEOs started to implement return to office policies, rolling back working agreements and employment contracts for remote work. Apparently, people can work productively online in a remote-first organisation, but only during a pandemic.

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