One question that clients frequently ask: how do you effectively level up development teams? How do you take a group of engineers who have never written python and make them effective Python developers? How do you take a group who has never built distributed systems and have them build reliable, fault-tolerant microservices? What about a team who has never built anything in the cloud that is now tasked with building cloud software?
Some say training will level up teams. Bring in a firm who can teach us how to write effective Python or how to build cloud software. Run developers through a bootcamp; throw raw, undeveloped talent in one end and out pops prepared and productive engineers on the other.
My question to those who advocate this is: when do you know you’re ready ? Once you’ve completed a training course? Is the two-day training enough or should we opt for the three-day one? The six-month pair-coding boot camp? You might be more ready than you were before, but you also spent piles of cash on training programs, not to mention the opportunity cost of having a team of expensive engineers sit in multi-day or multi-week workshops. Are the trade-offs worth it? Perhaps, but it’s hard to say. And what happens when the next new thing comes along? We have to start the whole process over again.
Others say tools will help level up teams. A CI/CD pipeline will make developers more effective and able to ship higher quality software faster. Machine learning products will make our on-call experience more manageable. Serverless will make engineers more productive. Automation will improve our company’s slow and bureaucratic processes.
This one’s simple: tools are often band-aids for broken or inefficient policies, and policies are organizational scar tissue . Tools can be useful, but they will not fix your broken culture and they certainly will not level up your teams, only supplement them at best.
Yet others say developer practices will level up teams. Teams doing pair programming or test-driven development (TDD) will level up faster and be more effective―or scrum, or agile, or mob programming. Teams not following these practices just aren’t ready, and it will take them longer to become ready.
These things can help, but they don’t actually matter that much . If this sounds like blasphemy to you, you might want to stop and reflect on that dogma for a bit. I have seen teams that use scrum, pair programming, and TDD write terrible software. I have seen teams that don’t write unit tests write amazing software. I have seen teams implement DevOps on-prem, and I have seen teams completely silo ops and dev in the cloud. These are tools in the toolbox that teams can choose to leverage, but they will not magically make a team ready or more effective. The one exception to this is code reviews by non-authors.
Code reviews are the one practice that helps improve software quality, and there is empirical data to support this. Pair programming can be a great way to mentor junior engineers and ensure someone else understands the code, but it’s not a replacement for code reviews. It’s just as easy to come up with a bad idea working by yourself as it is working with another person, but when you bring in someone uninvolved with outside perspective, they’re more likely to realize it’s a bad idea.
Code reviews are an effective way to quickly level up teams provided you have a few pockets of knowledgeable reviewers to bootstrap the process (which, as a corollary, means high-performing teams should occasionally be broken up to seed the rest of the organization). They provide quick feedback to developers who will eventually internalize it and then instill it in their own code reviews. Thus, it quickly spreads expertise. Leveling up becomes contagious.
I experienced this firsthand when I started working at Workiva. Having never written a single line of Python and having never used Google App Engine before, I joined a company whose product was predominantly written in Python and running on Google App Engine. Within the span of a few months, I became a fairly proficient Python developer and quite knowledgeable of App Engine and distributed systems practices. I didn’t do any training. I didn’t read any books. I rarely pair-coded. It was through code reviews (and, in particular, group code reviews!) alone that I leveled up. And it’s why we were ruthless on code reviews , which often caught new hires off guard. Using this approach, Workiva effectively took a team of engineers with virtually no Python or cloud experience, shipped a cloud-based SaaS product written in Python, and then IPO’d in the span of a few years.
Code reviews promote a culture which separates ego from code. People are naturally threatened by criticism, but with a culture of code reviews, we critique code, not people. Code reviews are also a good way to share context within a team. When other people review your code, they get an idea of what you’re up to and where you’re at. Code reviews provide a pulse to your team, and that can help when a teammate needs to context switch to something you were working on.
They are also a powerful way to scale other functions of product development. For example, one area many companies struggle with is security. InfoSec teams are frequently a bottleneck for R&D organizations and often resource-constrained. By developing a security-reviewer program, we can better scale how we approach security and compliance. Require security-sensitive changes to undergo a security review. In order to become a security reviewer, engineers must go through a security training program which must be renewed annually. Google takes this idea even further , having certifications for different areas like “JS readability.”
This is why our consulting at Real Kinetic emphasizes mentorship and building a culture of continuous improvement. It’s also why we bring a bias to action. We talk to companies who want to start adopting new practices and technologies but feel their teams aren’t prepared enough. Here’s the reality: you will never feel fully prepared because you can never be fully prepared. As John Gall points out, the best an army can do is be fully prepared to fight the previous war. This is where being agile does matter, but agile only in the sense of reacting and pivoting quickly.
Nothing is a replacement for experience. You don’t become a professional athlete by watching professional sports on TV. You don’t build reliable cloud software by reading about it in books or going to trainings. To be clear, these things can help , but they aren’t strategies. Similarly, developer practices can help, but they aren’t prerequisites. And more often than not, they become emotional or philosophical debates rather than objective discussions. Teams need to be given the latitude to experiment and make mistakes in order to develop that experience. They need to start doing .
The one exception is code reviews. This is the single most effective way to level up development teams. Through rigorous code reviews, quick iterations, and doing , your teams will level up faster than any training curriculum could achieve. Invest in training or other resources if you think they will help, but mandate code reviews on changes before merging into master. Along with regular retros, this is a foundational component to building a culture of continuous improvement. Expertise will start to spread like wildfire within your organization.Follow @tyler_treat
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