Is Your Gym Like Your Dev Team?

I recently managed to drag myself out of the office and into the gym, but unfortunately my mind was still on the office and my observations of what makes a dev team tick. In between sets I observed my fellow gym-goers and I witnessed similarities with my experiences of IT development teams. Parallels between your developer teams and the local gym can made both in terms of personas and in the approaches to gym training:  

Exercise Machines vs. Free Weights:

When the Nautilus training machines (variants of which now fill every Gym) appeared in the early image1970’s they facilitated a revolution in exercise training and professional gyms. In contrast to free-weights (barbells, dumbbells etc) exercise machines provide a convenient and safe way of training. They don’t require a watcher and force the user through the ‘correct’ range of motion to avoid injury, also enabling forced reps etc. Like software frameworks these machine are built by expert engineers using solid (but also opinionated) ideas. They both enable new starters to get started easily and safely but they also share the trade offs. Machines/frameworks can lack fluidity and shelter the user from needing to understand the underlying principles at work. If the machine is out of service the gym user may not appreciate that they can achieve the same results via other methods. Remove the abstraction that the framework provides to the software developer and it may expose their lack of underlying skills (e.g. an ASP.NET Web Forms developer not appreciating HTTP). Of course the ‘correct’ way of doing something is always debateable and may not suit your needs for every project. Interestingly some pure "Bodybuilders" refuse to use machines for snobby reasons even when it would prove useful, whilst the majority of other gym users only use machines. The same can be said for developers and frameworks. An experienced all-rounder will happily use machines/frameworks where they are useful for productivity but will also utilise free-weights/alternative methods to achieve specific requirements.  

Metrics:

Ask any professional athlete or Bodybuilder what calories they consume or the weights/reps/sets in their last gym session and they’ll tell you in detail. This is because they know the value of recording metrics and how to use them to track progress. The same principles can be applied to software development teams. What’s your current burn-down rate? What’s the average code churn figure for a nightly build? How many hours effort really went into building that MVC view compared to the estimate? A productive team that is continuously improving will be using these metrics to drive progress.

Agility:

Whilst solid athletes measure and plan they are also agile in their training – because they have to be. They have to adapt to changing training environments and to the subtle messages from their bodies to avoid injury and maintain productivity by focusing on the end goal. You wouldn’t expect them to stick rigidly to a plan defined months before despite changing circumstances (e.g: injuries, soreness), things change and so the journey towards the goal must be managed with flexibility.

Gym Buddies: image

The benefits of having a gym buddy are clearly documented in the fitness world and for obvious reasons (shared motivation towards goals etc) and these benefits are so often overlooked in the development team. Pair Programming is a step in the right direction and is one technique that springs to mind but it is also just as important to foster a shared vision within the team and promote discussions and peer learning. A performing team is usually greater than the sum of its parts because people’s performance feeds off the ideas and motivation of their peers.

The Miracle Widget:

For those who don’t want the sweat and pain there’s always the miracle widget that will yield amassing results with little effort. Whether it’s a new machine, wonder drug, electronic shock training, sofa gyms, or SOA, Cloud Computing and BPM they need to be viewed with some apprehension. That’s not to say they aren’t the next big thing, but more that they are not silver bullets and they are used best within a cohesive thought out strategy.

Doping:

Taking steroids can rapidly improve an athletes performance but that improvement comes at a cost of unwanted side effects. The end goal may be rapidly becoming achieved but at the cost of internal physical or mental damage. This is form of extreme technical debt, taking a short cut here and there may be acceptable to ship the product but reliance on that short cut can build making it harder to reverse that debt.

 

Below I’ve noted some general stereotypical personas from the Gym and how they mirror development team personas. Do you recognise these roles in your gym/dev team?  Warning: These are fun generalisations so don’t get upset or take it too seriously!

 

The Bodybuilder:

imageThis guy has one goal in mind, to get ‘big’. All his exercises are anaerobic aimed at building muscle and developing his physique. He doesn’t do aerobic training as it detracts energy from his primary goal. He shows a strong ‘engineer like’ expertise of one discipline and he probably has excellent in-depth knowledge of that area and is very focused on learning more about it. He can be slightly intimidating to approach but generally happy to share his knowledge and experience and enjoys being able to show off his skills.  This persona fits well with many traditional experienced software developers, who are experts in their chosen areas of discipline and increasingly seek to learn more about that technology area, often ignoring the benefits of others. They are dedicated and seen as experts in their field but outside their field they struggle and sometimes the imbalance with other disciplines has a negative effect.

The Endless Runner :

Similar to ‘the Bodybuilder’ above but this time in a different discipline. These guys want to run faster/longer and focus on aerobic exercises and building endurance. Again a solid, expert software engineer but this guy is not in it for the showy technology but more for building the plumbing infrastructure required to keep systems operation.

The All-Rounder :

He is not the biggest or fastest guy in the gym but he is the typical all rounder. He probably has experience of working in the various disciplines above (maybe mastering both) but prefers breath over depth. The All Rounder is able speak everyone’s language and can compete admirably with anyone else but has to submit to the overwhelming expertise of the guys listed above. Often this guy is a bridge between the different disciplines and chats in the corner with both. He gains the benefits that the variation and breadth of knowledge provides but is often at risk of not keeping up with the pace of change in either. His nearest IT persona is the architect due to his all round skills and his comfort liaising with all the required disciplines. He is happy to share his experiences when asked or when he sees someone really struggling, but is often less opinionated about one approach or another as he see’s all sides of the technology argument.

One Routine Guy:

A consistent gym attendee but does the same routine for years. We all know developers like this. They lack true ambition for the vocation and hence don’t build up a true understanding of the changing world around them. They are happy to use what they know and they feel works but the lack of willingness to learn new things puts them at risk of hitting a progress wall and finding themselves obsolete, eventually quitting.

Bored Stiff Guy :

imageThey have decided to go the gym but have no real desire to do the workout. He runs through the motions, moving from task to task with little effort or intensity. We have all no doubt worked with developers who are going through the motions without any passion for the art of software development. Similar to ‘One Routine Guy’ they know what they need to know and lack any enthusiasm to learn new skills etc. I often refer to these as ‘Part Time Programmers’ as they see the job as 9 to 5 and the thought of picking up a new skill without company sponsored training course is alien to them.  

The Biceps Only Guy:

Only focuses his energy on what can be shown off.  He is just playing with the flashy stuff but without building a strong foundation to balance it with. For this guy ‘Gloss is Boss’. Some developers are happy playing with new technologies and building hundreds of "Hello World" apps but yet actually rarely innovate for the team as they fail to see the bigger picture.

The Poor Form Guy:

Is energetic and enthusiastic about training with heavy weight but inadvertently uses dangerously bad form in his exercises. Sometimes developers/architects can become so absorbed in delivering big solutions that they fail to assess their actions. They design complicated solutions using patterns they often don’t understand regardless of the project risks and the potential long term problems around stability/maintainability etc. Like ‘Poor Form Guy’ this is often a case of poor teaching or poor controls. These guys needs a coach or community to check their form.   

The Personal Training Guru:

An expert in his field that takes in many disciples and guides people in their goals. Sort of a more senior experienced all rounder that is now dedicated to helping others. He has respect from his community and his advice is well respected. These are the guru’s in the tech world, experienced consultants/authors (e.g. Martin Fowler).  

The Impatient For Results Guy:

He wants results and fast! He’s usually the customer for the ‘Miracle Wonder Widget’ (see below). Happy to take the easy option and cut corners on quality if he can. No doubt we’ve all worked with some bad development/project managers like this.

The Newbie:

imageHe’s new to the gym and very intimidated. He’s still finding his feet with the machines and social etiquette. Just like new developers these are the live blood of the community as they bring enthusiasm and new ideas, but they need to be guided. They need assistance to get up the steep learning curve and be shown the right way to behave. If we make it hard for them to add value quickly then we risk them giving up and going elsewhere, or at least becoming a Bored Stiff Guy.

The Non-Conformist:

This guy is in the corner of the Gym doing his own thing. He’s probably using the equipment in a unique way, or using a less known training technique. He is innovative and might capable of producing amazing results using non standard approaches. He can be found in your development team too bashing out productivity tools and reviewing the latest open-source offerings. Regardless of his personal success he provides a fresh approach and generates new ways of working. He needs keeping in check though to ensure that his solutions are viable longer term.

The Non-Committed Local Gym Supervisor:

Whilst many gym supervisors are like the Personal Trainers some can be over focused on numbers (subscriptions, machine usage rules) more than real results. Once the new recruit is brought in they get given the user guide and then are left to it, with poor form being ignored as long as basic safety rules are adhered to. There can be a lack of evangelism of techniques, ideas etc., or of facilitating the creation of a real community in dev teams too which can lead them to fail. A lot of the success/failure of teams can result from the performance of the development manager / technical lead and their willingness to support the team to keep them productive.

Summary:

Of course the conclusion is that I should have been working out instead of ‘people watching’ but the fact remains that there are parallels that can be drawn between our work communities and many other walks of life. This opens up the ability for us to view situations from different perspectives which can then help us to improve our understanding.

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