Posted 02 May 2020

Review of Peopleware: Productive projects and teams by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister

Although this book is aimed primarily at managers of teams working on software construction projects, it could be useful to any manager of people. Although it was first published in 1987, it has been updated (3rd edition in 2013) and is still relevant. Although it may seem obvious now that projects may fail due to people-related problems rather than technological problems, it wasn’t obvious at the time this book was conceived. Indeed, it was this book that influenced many others in the software industry to think about the people side of software development.

In setting the scene, the authors say “The main reason we tend to focus on the technical rather than the human side of the work is not because it’s more crucial, but because it’s easier to do.” That’s the only claim in the book that strikes me as outdated. It was true in the days when managers had received education or training in software engineering or programming and had experience in technical roles. These days, there are pop-up software project managers who have only soft skills. But their skills are often too soft: they think of themselves as people persons, but they don’t understand even at a high level what the people on their teams actually do for a living and thus what motivates them and what would increase their productivity. So this book is still very much needed.

Topics covered include quality, the use and misuse of methodologies and e-mail, the cost and hidden costs of staff turnover, the physical office environment, the organizational environment, the function of middle management, hiring and retaining the right people, and team jelling. Many dysfunctions are identified, along with ideas for resolving them. A recurring theme is that the manager should get out of the way after facilitating team jelling and productivity.

There’s a long part on how bad office design can disturb workers, interrupt their flow, and reduce productivity. This includes a section on the Coding War Games, a series of public coding competitions that were conducted by the authors, involving over 600 developers from 92 companies. Participants worked in their own workplace during normal work hours. Good performance was correlated not with such things as years of experience and programming language but rather with workplace factors such as square feet of work space, noise level, and interruptions. Many project managers believe it’s not their job to push for a better office environment; that’s the job of the Facilities department. Here, it is argued that it is part of the job because it affects project work, and examples are given of how some managers have used creative tactics to bring about improvements in working environments.

Given that this sort of information about office environments has been available for many years, I find it sad that some organizations doing software development still have offices unsuited to it. What I have noticed in recent years is that while some organizations have redesigned their offices to accommodate the use of an Agile methodology, others have looked at the colorful furniture often used in such places and decided that just changing the color of the furniture will suffice. Still others have decided to retain the worn-out dull furniture and densely populated open-plan offices, in the belief that reducing expenses will increase profits even if productivity is reduced.

Back to the bigger picture, Peopleware is a well-written practical guide with a surprising feeling of freshness. If you’re a manager and you get this book, you will have a succinct and eloquent primer or refresher on people management. If you’re on the receiving end of project management, you may find it a good read but need good luck in getting assigned to a team where the manager has read it. Slack by Tom DeMarco complements this book well, covering such things as how treating humans as fungible resources affects efficiency.

Regarding the smaller picture, the one on the cover, well, it has an understated cleverness. At first, I deemed it nice enough but unremarkable. A closer look one day was rewarded by the realization that it can be seen in two different ways.

See also my discussion of this book’s take on Parkinson’s Law within my multi-book look at this topic.