Working Hard, or Hardly Working?

I first heard this joke way back when, at my first real job–I was a TV repairman when I was 14.  It may generate a polite chuckle when asked between peers, but it’s serious business when the boss asks the worker.  It’s also been a topic of conversation over on the Scrumdevelopment yahoogroup, where Graeme Matthew described the difficulty of determining this using velocity.

The unknown in all of this is that if a team have a velocity of 6 how do you tell if they should have a velocity of 8 i.e. they are underperforming. It gets complex. If they have a velocity of 16 are they doing well or have they estimated at the higher scale of story points.

I agree with Graeme that this is one of the difficulties with using velocity to measure performance.  I agree with Alistair Cockburn when he says

There is NO good measure of “programmer productivity”.

earlier in the same thread.  Yet when you work with people, you generally know who’s working hard and who isn’t.  It’s an interesting conundrum, isn’t it?

Alistair challenged me on this statement, asking

I guess I’m interested in the “who” in that sentence — what are your presuppositions about the “who” who is working with them. My son can’t tell, so there’s at least one constraint you are assuming.

and I came up with this list:

  1. Being close to the observed subject for enough time.
  2. The time when the subject is observed is time when the subject is doing the desired work, rather than time when the subject is engaged in creating a good impression on the observer.
  3. The observer knows enough about the work to be able to tell good work from bad.
  4. The observer knows enough about the work to be able to tell slow work or hasty work from an appropriate speed.

Is this list sufficient?  Or have I missed something?

Alistair points out that this list is fairly easy for a technical lead, but more difficult for managers.  A manager has less time to spend working with the person being evaluated, and generally has moved away from technical competence, if he indeed came from that background.

The fact is, though, that there are managers who seem to keep their bogosity meters working pretty well, even though they’re no longer technically competent to do the work. And there are others who immediately, or even sooner, buy every lie and distrust every truth.  Even though the vast majority are somewhere in between, it gives evidence that there is probably something that a manager can choose to do that will help them continue to make reasonably good value judgements.

I cannot articulate exactly how to determine who is wheat and who is chaff by observation, but I gave a list of some conditions I thought would be sufficient to enable one to do so. It’s almost certainly not the only set of sufficient conditions, because there exist very good managers who manage to make sufficiently accurate observation apparently without meeting the conditions I listed.

What advice might we give these managers?  For the project manager, I would suggest reading Johanna Rothman‘s and Esther Derby‘s excellent book, Behind Closed Doors.  What advice would you give?  How about for the upper manager, several levels removed from the software developer?

In any event, my point was that the determination of who’s working hard and who’s hardly working can be made without those troublesome productivity metrics.

10 Replies to “Working Hard, or Hardly Working?”

  1. Good day George,

    I read your blog all the time and enjoy what you write about. This blog entry caught my attention and I had to respond.

    The one problem I have with the judgment of “working hard or hardly working” is that is presumes that working hard is always good. A large issue in our industry is the “busy-ness” factor of all people involved in the organization from executives to managers to developers and operations. We all are too busy and therefore our hard work turns into adding more work than if we were to slow down and make better decisions about how to complete the work best.

    So, even if someone could tell if another person is “working hard” or “hardly working” I am not sure this is a good measure of anything. In the end I would rather understand if the organization or product team as a whole is getting faster in their delivery of valuable software. If this is the case then all people involved are improving their capabilities for the good of the whole.

  2. Hi, Chris, good to hear from you.

    Yes, I agree. It seems that if what we really want is to accomplish something (like the delivery of valuable software) then this business of making sure people are working hard is a red herring. It, like formal documents, are just a means to an end, and there may be better such means at our disposal.

  3. The first thing that strikes me is the assumptions behind the questions.

    The original question–the team has a velocity of 6, but should they be getting 8–assumes that people might be slacking off. But agile methods explicitly call for a sustainable pace. So I don’t want people to work as hard as they can. I want them to work at a pace where they aren’t making themselves more error prone, and aren’t exhausting themselves.

    “Who is working hard?” My experience is that some people will have to work harder to accomplish the same results that another person can accomplish easily. Some people look like they are working mighty hard, but are not accomplishing much.

    Thinking that we have to have everyone working equally hard doesn’t make sense to me…why punish the person who gets his work done quickly by piling more on?

    Further, there’s almost always someone how isn’t the best programmer, but things just go better when he/she is on the team.

    Perhaps some different questions:

    Are the conditions present for every member of the team to do his or her best? (Think MOIJ.)

    Have the managers put together people with the mix of skills and expertise needed to do the work the company needs done?

    Are individuals performing to the expectations of their pay level?

    If there’s a perception that people are working hard, what might the reasons for that be? (Systems, policies, procedures that dis-incent performance; work they don’t care for; disenchantment with direct managers?)

  4. Hi, George! Thanks for posting this; it inspired me to post my take on measuring developer productivity.

    As to your list, I think 3 and 4 can be replaced by working in a team context and at least a modest ability to read people. Or strong enough relationships that one can ask and get a reasonably truthful answer.

    I say this because I know a number of product managers who aren’t particularly technical, but they definitely know who’s who on their teams. I presume they get this by observing the interactions between the technical people. And they definitely supplement that with direct discussion when needed.

  5. Esther Derby wrote:

    Maybe because that’s the optimal solution? Well, actually, I’m assuming that the best absolute performer is also the most cost-effective.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Pablo. It’s unclear to me what “that” is that’s the optimal solution. Could you be more explicit?

    Also, how do you tell the “best absolute performer?”

    I always have trouble giving a strict ranking to people performing complex activities. I was just talking last night about how I could never make an ordered list of the 100 best guitarists. How do I compare Carlos Santana and John Lennon? Or Andre Segovia and Jimi Hendrix?

    The person with whom I was discussing this claimed to have no such problem. But he freely admitted that he didn’t consider any of these to be great guitarists. To him, they were successful, “establishment” musicians (except for Segovia, but he didn’t like classical music, either) and so they weren’t really in the running.

    I didn’t know enough younger musicians to test whether he might have difficulty ranking guitarists he did like, but I gained the insight that rankings seem to become easier if we use stereotypes rather than looking closely at the situation. He could easily downrank the guitarists I mentioned, not because of their guitar-playing skill, but because he didn’t listen to “that type” of music.

  7. Nice blog! In my opinion measuring how a person work is quite hard for the reason that there isn’t really a good standard on how to measure it. It is possible that what is working hard for you might not be for the other person. Each individual have its own capabilities thus it is only right that when judging a person it should be unique for every situation. However, I think what really should be put into consideartaion is the attitude of the worker. As a contribution please visit this site that I recently discovered.
    I always dreamed of being on top of our class, to be labeled as the NO. 1 student in our class. Although I am studying, it seems that all my effort is going in vain. I can’t seem to achieve my dream. However, everything changed after I watch the video of Dr. Alex about productivity. It opens my eyes on what I am doing wrong. It showed me the proper attitude in life so that I can achieve my dream. Thanks to the video I am now the best student not only in our class but for the entire school. My classmates were shocked on my drastic improvement. I highly recommend that you watch the video. Here is the site

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