Keep meetings short

We have all suffered through meetings. You know that meeting that seems to just go on and on and on without an end in sight. I you hate them as much as me, then this article might just be for you. In the following lines I will share some tips and tricks that helped me organize and partake in pleasant, useful meetings.

Meetings are a necessity

As the size of the team grows and there are multiple parties involved in bringing a project to an end, the overhead associated with coordinating these multiple armies of people become significant. Meetings are just one of the tools that helps to keep people focused and on the right track. Meetings are also a distraction. They take people away from their daily work, it breaks rhythm and whoever took part in the meeting needs a bit of time to get back in the zone, and be a productive little bee again. Given the high cost that meetings have, it’s worth doing them right so you can get the most value out of them.

Establish an agenda and stay on it!

Meetings should have a purpose! They should have a clear and precise purpose. If you are just sharing information, as in there is nothing to decide, you just want to let your team know something, that’s not a meeting, that’s a presentation and it’s a whole different story on what makes presentations useful. Meetings should be about deciding things. They are the much nicer alternative to huge email chain.

Getting back to the point. Before you start a meeting, you should know what needs to be decided. This way, if the discussion goes of track you can quickly spot it and steer it back on point and shave some minutes off there.

Let participants know what the agenda is.

The meeting will go a lot smoother if participants know what they are getting themselves into. They can do a bit of research beforehand, in the safety of their own desks. The more prepared participants are, the less time they need to learn what they need to know to reach a decision, the faster the meeting ends. Simple, right ? If you are a participant to meeting, feel free to ask what the meeting is about and get all the relevant information you need to prepare.

Get the right people in the room

This one is more for the person organizing the meeting. Everyone in the room should be there with a purpose: they either have the knowledge to answer a question, or the power to decide on a course of action. Everyone else can be briefed via email after the meeting ends. Getting only the relevant people in the room saves a lot of the debate that arise from either explaining a decision to someone without sufficient knowledge on a particular subject, or dealing with opinions from people that ultimately have no saying in the project. Remember less (people) is more (useful meetings)!

Take things outside (of the meeting room)

I’m definitely not suggesting fighting when you don’t agree in meeting. Keep things civil, we are professionals after all! This bit is more about the kind of discussions that are still in the scope of the meeting, but are at a high level of detail, so that only a couple of people care about it. If most people are not getting anything from what is being discussed, then you don’t have the right people in the room and you are wasting their time. When people get into such an argument the right thing to do is to call time out and suggest they (and only they) continue this chat in private and let you all know how it went.

That’s it! Try to do that so you get to enjoy the meeting you take part of, and, on top of that, feel like you’re actually doing something useful with your time while you are at it. Cheers!

 

 

Dealing with legacy code – the bane of our existence

Unless you are really, and I mean really, lucky, you are bound to be stuck on a legacy project with a thousand-year-old codebase. Maybe not a thousand years, but close enough. If it’s any like the code I have been working on, it’s big, really big, it’s complicated, no one really understands how it fully works, and it’s riddled with anti-patterns. What to do?

Burn it to the ground and start fresh

So, delete the codebase and re-write everything in a nicer language, with design patterns and all the bells and whistles.
Phew, that was easy, we didn’t we do that from the beginning?! Problem solved! Let’s get back to checking Reddit now!

Getting back to earth

OK, so burning everything might not be a sensible solution. More often than not the code took years upon years to write and is worth a small fortune. The client is not just going to let you throw that all away and sit tight while you are starting again from scratch. You’re in a bit of a pickle, you can’t live with the code and you cannot get rid of it. What to do ?!

The only sensible solution at this point is to slowly improve the codebase. It’s a slow and time-consuming process, so don’t expect your life to improve overnight. We now have a plan, let’s see how we go about putting it into action ?

Test it, test it, then test it some more

You will need to improve the code in the future, however, it’s really hard to do that when you’re unsure if you have broken it. This is where tests come in. Unit tests, integration tests, performance tests, you name it, you probably need it. The more tests you have, the more confidence you have that the changes you made are not breaking anything. In addition to that, writing tests help you better understand what the code is doing. Hooray for you!

Isolate and control access to the old world

The plan here is to control access to the old code as tightly as possible. You can do that with nicely designed interfaces and wrapper classes. Here where the tests we previously talked about come into place. Once you know you’re not breaking functionality, then you are in a position to do some serious refactoring. Every new functionality you add should use one of the nice interfaces. If there are none, add them! If it suits your project, you can turn the old world into a web interface that can be safely isolated from the shiny new code you are adding.

Slowly retire the old world

Since the legacy code is now contained and you can control access to that dusty old thing, as time goes by you can gradually remove the calls to it. Once there are no more calls, that is when you are ready to remove that chunk of code. Do that over time and the big monolith you begin with is starting to look smaller and smaller. You may not be able to fully retire the whole legacy piece of code, but you can at least save your team the trouble of always having to work with it.

Slow and steady wins the race

I must warn you, this is NOT a quick process. Depending the size of the legacy code it may very well take years to make a dent on the original codebase. You need to exercise patience. The motto for the whole process should be Leave the code better than you have found it. You may be tempted, especially when the deadlines are tight, to cut corners and go for the easy, messy solution. Do not do that!! I’m saying it again: Do. Not. Do. That. This is how we got that big mess we started with. You cannot solve a problem by doing the same thing that caused the damn thing in the first place!

 

A super short crash-course in negotiation

I’m sure that at some point in your career you will be in a situation where you need to negotiate. It can be a negotiation with your boss about that big promotion you were hoping for, with a client about the shiny new project you want or maybe with a colleague about the temperature of the AC. Well, whatever that situation might be, it’s better to go in prepared. Here are a few tips and useful advice you can use.

Know what you are negotiating for

The first thing you need to know when you are about to start a negotiation is what do you want. Sounds simple enough, however it’s an important part so DO NOT SKIP OVER THIS! You need to have a clear idea on what you want from the negotiation. Make a plan and stick to it. This is the ruler you evaluate the negotiation on. It’s pretty much the one thing you should not compromise on.

BATNA

Again on the preparation side of things: Batna stands for Best Alternative a Negotiated Agreement (some background on the term here).  In short, BATNA is your backup plan in case the negotiations break down. It’s the worst case scenario, if you are unable to reach an agreement. You need to have a plan on what to do if things go south, what will it cost you and how you plan to deal with it. You’ll use that in your negotiation to gauge the value of the agreed solution, and quickly dismiss solutions that are worse than your BATNA so you don’t waste time on them. Also it should help you keep calm if you know you’re covered (sort of speak) if things don’t work out. The better you BATNA is, the better the position you are negotiating from is, so pay attention to this!

Establish rules

Negotiations should be fair (or at least you should try to make them fair). Fairness is a relative term and people don’t often agree on what it means exactly. Before you start negotiating, you should first agree with the other party what fairness means. As a professional (and I assume you are one) you should always negotiate fairly (this means do not try to cheat, it’s bad form). If you cannot reach an agreement on what fair means, you can just defer that judgement to someone else. Basically ask a friend you all trust if he thinks you’re being fair. It’s not that hard is it ?

Lateral thinking

OK. So much about preparations! It’s time to start negotiating! Yay! Lots of people tend to think about negotiation as a zero-sum game, if one party wins, the other certainly loses. Spoiler alert: It’s not!  You should keep in mind the reason you are negotiating (see first part), but other than that, everything goes. Most often than not your main focus it’s not the other party’s main focus so it’s entirely possible for both of you to get what you want. Try to find things to sweeten the deal. Things that are cheap for you to offer, but have a big impact for the other party. For example, to make a project more appealing for a customer you can offer training sessions for the users, or provide some form of documentation. You get the idea!

Well, this is pretty much all I had to share about negotiations. Hope it helped! Cheers!

The tells of good feedback

So, what makes a good feedback ? I know there are a lot of articles out there about this, but that doesn’t stop me from giving my two cents, so bear with me.
Weather you’re giving feedback or receiving feedback, I find there are some attributes that make some feedback’s better than others.

Actionable

The purpose of feedback is to help someone improve. If the person receiving the feedback has no idea what they can do to improve themselves, then the feedback is like a bald hedgehog (pointless). If you want meaningful feedback, then it should refer to specific actions the person can take to improve themselves, which leads me to the second point:

Concrete

You’ve all hear it: You are doing perfect, keep it up! (followed by a warm pat on the back). This is useless! First of all: I have no questions that you are an overall great person, but, whoever you are, there is no chance that you cannot improve! And second (and this is more to the point): What am I supposed to to with that information ?! Where do I go from here ?! Certainly there are some things that I am doing better than others and I would like to keep doing more of those. Feedback should focus on concrete facts. Even if you are a superstar and you are good at everything you do, there must be some aspects of your work you could be great at, so try to focus on those.

Short

This one may sound a bit off at first, but feedback should be short. You do not want a laundry list of items on your feedback. We are not good at multitasking (regardless of what you might think), so focusing on a lot of things is just not going to work. For feedback to be truly useful you should find a few points that you can improve upon. I would recommend 3 or 4 key points so you can focus on those. If you tend to get a lot of items on your feedback list, it’s probably a sign you should have feedback chats more often.

Measurable

This one is sort-of dependent on the type of feedback you are getting, so it might not apply in some cases. It feels good to know you are making progress, and it’s useful to know when you are not, so why not have that information available for you to judge. This is easy if the feedback is accompanied by some kind of metric.

And now for the fun bit! Here are some examples of feedback that can be improved upon (granted there are a bit extreme examples, but I trust you’ll get the point)

  1. “I liked your presentation! It was wonderful! You should do more presentations like that! ” versus “I liked your presentation! It was the graphics that I liked the most! They really help get the point accros! Keep doing those!” 
  2. “That meeting went bad! The clients are not happy with us! We should change that on the next meeting!” versus “The meeting went bad! We went in there unprepared and we were not able to address their questions! On the next meeting we should make sure we fully understand the requirements before the next meeting.”
  3. You have been missing your deadlines lately. You should focus more on being on time.” versus “You have been missing your deadlines lately! Can you think of anything that takes time necessary so you can remove those ? “

 

 

How to deal with issues in production – the short version

Okay, imagine the following scenario: You’re happily going about your day, coding away, without a worry in the world, and then this hits you: “There is something wrong with the production app” (well, maybe not this exact message, but you get the idea). What do you do?! How do you go about fixing the problem and go back to your everyday life?

1. Calm down

Yes, things are bad at the moment. However, this is not the time to lose your head and run around with your hair on fire. You need to have a clear mind in order to focus on the problem and easily find the solution. Go to your happy place and come back when you are ready to get to work.

2. Calm down some more

If you are anything like me then you probably are not calm enough to think clearly. You should calm down some more.

3. Investigate the issue and understand it

OK, now we are ready to start doing something about the problem. The first step is to understand the root cause of the issue. Maybe someone deployed something they shouldn’t have, maybe the data became corrupted or maybe, and this only happens once in a blue moon, maybe there this is just a misunderstanding and there is no issue at all, in which case: Congratulations, you solved it.

At the end of this stage you should be able to at least answer the following question: When exactly does this happens ? 

4. Estimate the impact

Now that we know when the issue occurs, we can start thinking about who does this issue affect. A quick and dirty estimation should be enough. Some useful classifications are: critical (everyone is affected and everything is broken), medium (there is some impact, but the project will probably survive), low (this issue affects only a handful of clients/users), minimal (yes, there is an issue, but unless someone looks really, really hard they’re going to miss it).

Based on the impact of the issue you need to decide if you should fix this now, or later.

At the end of this stage you should be able to at least answer the following question: How bad is it ?

5. Calm down some more

OK, things are starting to clear up a bit now. You know what the problem is and how bad it is. Take a deep breath, decide when this needs to be fixed: either now or later.

6. Track down when the issue was introduced

If you use a versioning system (if you don’t you really, really should), use that to track down the commit that caused the issue. Look trough the code and use a sandbox environment (if any available) to figure that out.

At the end of this stage you should be able to answer the following question: What is the exact cause of the issue ?

7. Fix the issue

Now that you know what causes the issue you are in the best position to start fixing it, so go do it, be a hero and save the day.

Congratulations!! You fixed it!  You can go back to your happy life – crisis averted.