When everything’s an issue

Years ago, I read the novel “Manna” by Marshall Brain. It’s a science fiction story about the robotic takeover and it features “Manna”, an (artificially) intelligent work management software that replaces human managers and runs the shop. The story starts with “Manna” and goes on to explore the implications of such a system on mankind. It’s a good read and contains a lot of thoughts about what kind of labor we want to do.

The idea that really captivated me was the company that runs itself. Don’t get me wrong: Most organizations are so big that the individual employee cannot see the big picture anymore. Those organizations seem to “run itself” to the untrained eye, but it is still humans that manage the workload. And like all humans, they make mistakes and, perhaps very subtle, infuse their own selfish goals into the process. But an organization that has its goals and instructs its workers (humans and machines alike) directly is an interesting thought for me.

It also is totally unrealistic with today’s technology and probably contains some risks that should be explored carefully before implementing such a system in the wild.

But what about a more down-to-earth approach that achieves the core advancement of “Manna” without many or all of the risks? What if the organization doesn’t instruct, but makes its needs visible and relies on humans to interpret and schedule those needs and fulfill them? In essence, a “Manna” system without the sensors and decision-making and certainly without the creepy snooping tendencies. Built with today’s technology, that’s called an automated work scheduler.

And that is what we’ve built at our company. We use an issue tracking system to manage and schedule our project work already. We extended its usage to manage and schedule our administrative work, too. Now, every work unit in the company is (or could be) accompanied by an issue in the issue tracker. And just like software developers don’t change code without an issue, we don’t change our company’s data or decisions without an issue that also provides a place for documentation related to the process. We’ve come to the conclusion that most of those administrative issues are recurring. So we automated their creation.

Our very early stage “Manna” system is called “issue scheduler”, a highly creative name on its own. It is a system that basically contains a lot of glorified cron expressions and just enough data to create a meaningful issue in the issue tracker, should a cron expression fire. So basically, our company creates issues for us on a fixed schedule. Let’s look at some examples:

  • We add a new article to our developer blog (you’re reading it right now) every week. This means that every week, our “issue scheduler” creates a blog issue and assigns it to the next author in line. This is done some time in advance to give the author enough time to prepare and possibly trade with other authors. Our developer blog has the “need” for one article each week, but it doesn’t require a particular topic or author. This need is made visible by the automatic blog issues and it is our duty to fulfill this need. On a side note: Maybe you’ve noticed that I wrote two blog articles in direct succession. There is definitely some issue trading going on behind the scenes right now!
  • We tend to have many plants in our office. To look at something green and living adds to our comfort. But those plants have needs, too. They probably make their needs pretty visible, but we aren’t expert plant caregivers. So we gave the “issue scheduler” some entries to inform us about the regular watering and fertilization duties for our office plants. A detailed description of the actual work exists in our company wiki and a link to it gives the caregiver of the week all the information that’s needed.
  • Every month, we are required to file a sales tax summary report. This is a need of the german government agencies that we incorporate into our company’s needs. To work on this issue, you need to have more information and security clearances than fits on a wiki page, but to process is documented nonetheless. So once a month, our company automatically creates an issue that says “do your taxes now!” and assigns it to our administrative employees.

These are three examples of recurring tasks that are covered by our poor man’s “Manna” system. To give you a perspective on the scale of this system for a small company like ours, we currently have about 140 distinct rules for recurring issues. Some of them fire almost every day, some of them sleep for years and wake up just in time to express a certain need of the company that otherwise would surerly be forgotten or rediscovered after the fact.

This approach relieves us from the burden to remember all the tasks and their schedules and lets us concentrate on completing them. And our system, in contrast to “Manna” in the story, isn’t judging or controlling. If you don’t think the plants need any more water, just resolve the issue with “won’t fix”. Perhaps you can explain your decision in a short comment for other humans, but our “issue scheduler” won’t notice.

This isn’t the robotic takeover, after all. It’s just automated scheduling of recurring work. And it works great.

Got issues? Treat them like micro-projects

Waterfall_modelEvery professional software developer organizes his work in some separable work tasks. These tasks are called issues and often managed in an issue tracker like Bugzilla or JIRA. In bigger teams, there is a separate project role for assigning and supervising work on the issue level, namely the project manager. But below the level of a single issue, external interference would be micro-management, a state that every sane manager tries to avoid at all costs.

Underneath the radar

But what if a developer isn’t that proficient with self-management? He will struggle on a daily basis, but underneath the radar of good project management. And there is nearly no good literature that deals specifically with this short-range management habits. A good developer will naturally exhibit all traits of a good project manager and apply these traits to every aspect of his work. But to become a good developer, most people (myself included!) need to go through a phase of bad project management and learn from their mistakes (provided they are able to recognize and reflect on them).

An exhaustive framework for issue processing

This blog entry outlines a complete set of rules to handle an work task (issue) like a little project. The resulting process is meant for the novice developer who hasn’t established his successful work routine yet. It is exhaustive, in the sense that it will cover all the relevant aspects and in the sense that it contains too much management overhead to be efficient in the long run. It should serve as a starting point to adopt the habits. After a while, you will probably adjust and improve it on your own.

A set of core values

The Schneide standard issue process was designed to promote a set of core values that our developers should adhere to. The philosophy of the value set itself contains enough details to provide another blog entry, so here are the values in descending order without further discussion:

  • Reliability: Your commitments need to be trustworthy
  • Communication: You should notify openly of changes and problems
  • Efficiency: Your work needs to make progress after all

As self-evident as these three values seem to be, we often discuss problems that are directly linked to these values.

The standard issue process

The aforementioned rules consist of five steps in a process that need to be worked on in their given order. Lets have a look:

  1. Orientation
  2. Assessment
  3. Development
  4. Feedback
  5. Termination

Steps three and four (development and feedback) actually happen in a loop with fixed iteration time.

Step 1: Orientation phase

In this phase, you need to get accustomed to the issue at hand as quickly as possible. Read all information carefully and try to build a mental model of what’s asked of you. Try to answer the following questions:

  • Do I understand the requirements?
  • Does my mental model make sense? Can I explain why the requirements are necessary?
  • Are there aspects missing or not sufficiently specified?

The result of this phase should be the assignment of the issue to you. If you don’t feel up to the task or unfamiliar with the requirements (e.g. they don’t make sense in your eyes), don’t accept the issue. This is your first and last chance to bail out without breaking a commitment.

Step 2: Assessment phase

You have been assigned to work on the issue, so now you need a plan. Evaluate your mental model and research the existing code for provisions and obstacles. Try to answer the following questions:

  • Where are the risks?
  • How can I partition the work into intermediate steps?

The result of this phase should be a series of observable milestones and a personal estimate of work effort. If you can’t divide the issue and your estimate exceeds a few hours of work, you should ask for help. Communicate your milestones and estimates by writing them down in the issue tracker.

Step 3: Development phase

You have a series of milestones and their estimates. Now it’s time to dive into programming. This is the moment when most self-management effort ends, because the developer never “zooms out” again until he is done or hopelessly stuck. You need periodic breaks to assess your progress and reflect on your work so far. Try to work for an hour (set up an alarm!) and continue with the next step (you will come back here!). Try to answer the following questions:

  • What is the most risky milestone/detail?
  • How long will the milestone take?

The result of this phase should be a milestone list constantly reordered for risk. We suggest a “cover your ass” strategy for novices by tackling the riskiest aspects first. After each period of work (when your alarm clock sets off), you should make a commit to the repository and run all the tests.

Step 4: Feedback phase

After you’ve done an hour of work, it’s time to back off and reflect. You should evaluate the new information you’ve gathered. Try to answer the following questions:

  • Is my estimate still accurate?
  • Have I encountered unforeseen problems or game-changing information?
  • What crucial details were discovered just yet?

The result of this phase should be an interim report to your manager and to your future self. A comment in the issue tracker is sufficient if everything is still on track. Your manager wants to know about your problems. Call him directly and tell him honestly. The documentation for your future self should be in the issue tracker, the project wiki or the source code. Imagine you have to repeat the work in a year. Write down everything you would want written down.
If your issue isn’t done yet, return to step three and begin another development iteration.

Step 5: Termination phase

Congratulations! You’ve done it. Your work is finished and your estimation probably holds true (otherwise, you would have reported problems in the feedback phases). But you aren’t done yet! Take your time to produce proper closure. Try to answer the following questions:

  • Is the documentation complete and comprehensible?
  • Have you thought about all necessary integration work like update scripts or user manual changes?

The result of this phase should be a merge to the master branch in the repository and complete documentation. When you leave this step, there should be no necessity to ever return to the task. Assume that your changes are immediately published to production. We are talking “going gold” here.

Recapitulation

That’s the whole process. Five steps with typical questions and “artifacts”. It’s a lot of overhead for a change that takes just a few minutes, but can be a lifesaver for any task that exceeds an hour (the timebox of step three). The main differences to “direct action” processes are the assessment and feedback phases. Both are mainly about self-observation and introspection, the most important ingredient of efficient learning. You might not appreciate at first what these phases reveal about yourself, but try to see it this way: The revelations set a low bar that you won’t fall short of ever again – guaranteed.