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Rants of a Madman – Accepting Help and Learning from Experts

July 27, 2012

Once upon a time I had a neighbor, Bob, who was building a retaining wall in his backyard.  He was in way over his head.  The wall stretched across his entire back yard, was over four feet high, and he was weeks in to the project.  Almost every night and weekend Bob and his family (he had 3 strong teenage boys with energy to burn) would to take their pickaxes and shovels, working the hard ground to the point of exhaustion.  It was difficult work, but after several weeks he only had so much to show for his efforts.

One three day weekend his next door neighbor on the other side of his lot, Ralph, brought in some family and friends to work on his own retaining wall project.  Ralph wasn’t any smarter than Bob, but his friends had access to some cool tools, lived in the hills, and as a result had built a number of retaining walls in the past.  One knew how to operate a small skip loader and loved to both operate it and enjoyed showing others how to use it.  The other friend knew how to drive a forklift and could move rocks and boulders like nobody’s business.  They showed up to the project with some three day rentals.  The small team completed their project in record time and as part of the process Ralph learned how to both operate the skip loader and the forklift from his buddies.  I was quite impressed.

On Sunday night Ralph sat on his deck and admired not only his work, but what he had learned from his helpful friends.  As he sat there drinking cool lemonade he looked over the fence he shared with his neighbor Bob and they caught each other’s eyes.  Leaning on their shovels and pickaxes Bob and his three boys just stared in disbelief.  Ralph felt kind of bad and wanted to help.   What the heck?  He thought it was a three day project, it only took two days, and due to the three day weekend he couldn’t return the skip loader and forklift anyways.  Plus, he really wanted to help Bob and the boys succeed given how hard they had worked.

If you think you know how this story ends then I suggest you just keep reading…

The next morning Ralph showed up over Bob’s and enthusiastically offered to help.  With him were his two buddies from earlier that weekend.  They didn’t know Bob, but after sneaking some peeks at what Bob was doing while working on Ralph’s project they decided he could use the help and knew Ralph would repay them in their favorite beverage.

Now Bob was a little skeptical as Ralph hadn’t really come over to his place before.  Well, neither had ever gone to each other’s place to be precise; being that they lived in California, a place where one could go years and never make real eye contact with a neighbor, this was a little strange.  The fact that they had made eye contact late last evening was just a random mistake and seeing Ralph that next morning on his doorstep was almost akin to stalking. 

Bob was also really tired:  he had a lot more work to do and he didn’t exactly need to waste a bunch of time explaining to Ralph what it was he was trying to do with his own retaining wall.  Bob and his boys were ready to go to it again, they had a rhythm, knew what they had planned to achieve today, and Ralph, being a pretty small and skinny guy, wasn’t exactly the type of help he was looking for.  Ralph’s two friends had some muscle on them so Bob nervously welcomed Ralph and his buddies in to his yard anyways.  He promptly explained his project and then handed them some shovels to go work next to his boys.


Yep, that’s right.  Ralph knew what he wanted to do, had his plan in place, and had the help of his boys to do the work.  He took great pride in his work and figured that with the extra manpower to shovel for the day they wouldn’t make a huge impact on his project, but it might help a little.  The best way they could help was to augment what his boys were doing and start shoveling away.

Now Ralph and his buddies were beside themselves.  Didn’t Bob see what they had accomplished in just a couple of days in his own yard?  Didn’t Bob want them to bring over the skip loader and forklift and make short work of what was Bob’s labor intensive project?  Ralph pulled Bob aside and tried to explain to him how he thought he could best help, but Bob really didn’t have the time to listen—he had a wall to build and ground didn’t just move on its own with the new help flapping their lips.

Ralph and his friends ended up shoveling for a few hours but their hearts just were not in it.  Bob and his boys where not that happy with Ralph and company either—who were these guys to come over to their house and suggest a better way to do their project? And, given the low energy and enthusiasm being shown, it was obvious that they didn’t really want to help. To add insult to injury, Ralph and his guys didn’t seem to be too good with shovels.  By lunch the parties said their goodbyes and parted ways; each silently wondering why the other was crazy.

Have you ever done this on your own project?

I must admit that I personally have been Bob a couple of times in my career myself.  Perhaps we’ve all been there at one time or another.  In one case I was working really hard, my team was working even harder, and somebody with a “big idea” came in Johnny-come-lately thinking they could help.  After spending some time placating them I didn’t get it, became frustrated, looked at my watch, then decide that I’d been better off without them or that I should just assign them tasks and treat them as augmented staff.  All the time I was ignoring the value of the help they could have truly lent had I stepped back from the trees to see some of the forest, relinquished my own personal pride for just a moment, and really listened to what they had to offer.

And this relates to software projects and their quality how?

There are some folks out there in this industry who really know how to save time in a project by looking at how to build quality in to the solutions up front.  They know agile like the back of their hand and know how to make stories much clearer such that time isn’t wasted building the wrong thing well.  There are some who also really know how to get the most out of quality assurance automation frameworks for automated unit testing, continuous build validation, and system testing.   They are able to help create frameworks and test suites that are scalable, easy to maintain, and end up saving the team a whole lot of time in the long run.  They also have the knowledge and abilities to teach teams how to leverage these techniques and in the long run trim several weeks, if not even months, off of project schedules.  Even better they know how to teach your own teams how to be self-sufficient in these areas such that they are even more productive once these specialists leave.

Try not to be Bob…  Give it a try…

All I ask that when you meet a Ralph, give him a chance to explain that his buddies have a skip loader and a forklift before you start passing out more shovels.  In most cases they’ll even teach you how to drive; I know it’s a “guy thing”, but there is nothing cooler than driving one of these cool tools than watching somebody else do it.  Don’t lose sight of the goal: in the long run you really want to accelerate how long it takes to build that retaining wall…


From → Agile, Quality, Software

  1. Nadya permalink

    I really appreciate your story. I feel like a Ralph sometimes and am trying to figure out how to get over that fence to help with better results than your Ralph did! Your story does suggest one part of the answer: building a relationship with Bob _first_. I do already believe in that, but perhaps there’s always room do more.

  2. Dennis Drew permalink

    Story of my life, including at Symantec!

    • Dennis Drew permalink

      I think I need to elaborate… I worked on a year long project at Symantec in the mid 90’s called “NEF” – Norton Enterprise Framework. It had about 100 people on it and cost millions. At that time I had a lot of experience with centralized server based database systems like are common today – MS SQL server is an example. On this project, a myriad of PC’s (hundreds and thousands) were “inventoried” about all of their installed hardware and software and the results stored in a centralized repository for IT department review. The “Expert Architects” then working at Symantec chose a localized database system running on the PC that had to make file queries to the data and index files over on the central server. This is an incredibly unworkable solution as the network cannot handle all of the requests and file locking delays slow the system to a crawl. I raised my hand several time to complain but the managers decided to override my suggestions. When the product was installed at Standard Oil in El Segundo a year later with about 10,000 PC it froze the system in 10 minutes and this application had to be manually uninstalled from each PC by IT personnel which took a week to accomplish.

      I was dumb enough to say “I told you so!” – and got sidelined then eventually fired for my efforts. It turned out later that one of the top managers had a vested interest in the software company that was supplying the stand alone PC based ISAM database system that I was objecting to on this project. I think the comment I made that was the last straw was, I said in a meeting of about 50 managers “Our Managers have to change or we need to change our managers!”

      I have since learned to keep my mouth shut in corporate environments!

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