Sunday, July 17, 2011

Becoming generalist - dealing with constraints in software development

Recently I read the fascinating book - the goal, it is really an eye opener for me. I learned the theory of constraints from the book. Everything of TOC looks like common sense, but the conclusion is really striking.

TOC tells us the importance of bottle neck (constraint). We need to identify it, and protect it. In the example of manufacturing assembly line, to make sure the task in bottle neck is the highest priority, other jobs even have to be idle instead of working, otherwise it will make the whole productivity even worse!

I believe TOC can apply to software development as well: because the software developing also needs a series dependent activities. And similar to manufacturing, software development also has constraints(bottlenecks), it might be in: test,coding,deploy,maintenance. On the other side, compared to manufacturing, software development is people centered vs. machine centered; most of the constraints is about people; software process is lot easier to change compare to assembly line.
In software industry, we could have a big advantage over manufacturing: to deal with bottleneck, we don't need put other people to sit in idle, we can put more people working on the bottle neck! But this advantage depends on a requirement - if our developers are generalists.

If every developer in a team is a generalist, which would be a great help to maintain a high productivity, then we can deal with almost any constraint, since when there is a bottleneck, we can put more people on it. So the developing flow will be well controlled in a high productivity speed.

Becoming a generalist raise the bar for developers: we are not just a geek who focus on a single area, we are not only J2EE developers, but we also need to fix the bug of a J2ME application; we might need to mange data base as DBA; or improve the build system by writing Ant or shell script.

Becoming a generalist is really challenging, and much harder than focusing on one single area. But based on my experience, software developing job is not a rocket science, every technology can be learned if given an enough time. Technology is not a problem for becoming a generalist, the problem is attitude and mindset. We need to be open minded, be flexible, and ready to wear different hat at different context.

A generalist has following benefits:
  • Doing different jobs, give developer a chance to learn different new technology and tools, learn by doing will make you learn faster.
  • Have chance to know the big picture of your work.
  • Better for team work and collaboration
  • Improve your competence and marketability, since you can put more stuff on your resume.
  • More changes to become linchpin and less likely being laid off, who wants to fire a developer who can do multiple jobs?
I will suggest our managers should encourage developers to become generalist. For example, he can deliberately assign different jobs for one developer; rotate developer to another team; foster pair programming and mentoring, etc.

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