Dear software manager, working in the open for the very first time? Challenges (I)

Warning: these two posts are a “Lessons Learnt” kind of post, so there is a grandpa kind of smell on it that I am not sure I am comfortable with so there is very little science.

I’ve got lately a few questions from managers about different aspects involved in the transition to working in the open when coming from a traditional corporate environment. This post and the next one are an attempt to answer some of those questions.

In this post I will focus on describing some of the challenges any manager will face and a second one will deal with how to face them.

I will constrain my comments to management aspects, ignoring as much as possible the leadership topic, although they are related. These two articles target what I call front line managers, not senior managers (managers of managers) nor executives. By front line managers I mean those that is in daily contact with developers and that represent, in a top down view of an organization chart, the lower management level. It is true though than many of the ideas you will read  might be valid to other profiles. You tell me.

Challenges

When moving from managing software projects/teams in classic corporate environments into Open Source  (FOSS) projects, there are several new challenges any front line manager will need to face. I group them here in four categories:

  • Challenges derived from the fact that Open Source projects are public and open.
  • Challenges related with the FOSS culture which has some unique characteristics.
  • Open Source has a project nature different in many aspects from the service/product nature most companies have.
  • Working in the open implies new challenges from a more personal point of view, involving values, motivations, etc.

Feel free to add more challenges that those named below. I would go over them.

Challenges: public and open

Some of the challenges corresponding to this category, in my opinion are:

  • In open environments like Open Source projects, no matter if they are community, company or consortium driven, technical leadership is as relevant (or even more relevant) than any other type of leadership, including business leadership.
  • Open Source development and delivery are all about distributed teams and, in most cases, about  multicultural teams.
  • Every aspect of the project needs to consider asynchrony by default. I find this challenge one of the most difficult to understand early on for those coming from corporate environments, even from big corporations, since managers tend to be familiar with concentrating specific roles and responsibilities per site/location, even when high availability is a business requirement.
  • When working in the open, you not just represent yourself, but also the organization you belong to. This is magnified when talking about managers because very frequently they are also perceived as the voice of the team they manage, which is not necessarily the case every time.
  • Front line managers are familiar with dealing with private and confidential information, but working in the open brings new challenges in this regard. This seems obvious. But what in my experience is not so obvious, because it is very often not part of front line manager’s responsibilities within their companies, is to deal with the preparation, communication and consequences of making corporate/internal information public, for instance. There are other interesting cases to consider in this regard.

Challenges: culture

  • In Open Source, openness is a given, although depending on the governance model of the project, there might be different degrees. The same applies to sharing.
  • One of the pillars that has made Open Source so successful is code ownership. If you develop it, you own it, which means that you are expected to maintain it. I have written several times before about how important this point is for the professional and personal growth of any developer. I know a few that, by the time they turned  20, they were already maintaining software used by thousands of people. That is something no college will teach them… nor most companies, sadly. There are still many so called senior engineers that haven’t dealt with the consequences of their own code or the one done by their teams for a few years. The agile movement, through promoting the micro-service architecture, has recognised how important this point is. Development teams are in charge of maintaining what they deploy in production. Still, Agile has not reached the level taken in this regard by Open Source.
  • Standardisation through adoption. This concept is significantly different in corporate environments. The success that Open Source is having though is slightly changing the approach to standardisation many corporations have. There is still a long way to go.
  • Consensus is as important as efficiency in Open Source projects. Some people talk about consensus driven development when referring to Open Source development to highlight how important this aspect is. Corporate managers and executives very often perceive Open Source development as significantly slower compared to developing in-house, which technically speaking might be true in some cases. They underestimate though the benefits that consensus has within a project overtime, specially when talking about the motivational aspects, when dealing with complex problems, interoperability, etc..
  • Documentation always beats meetings, always. I go even further. Meetings are so expensive and precious in highly distributed environments, that front line managers go through a lot of pain until they learn to focus meetings on discussing instead of reporting. This is a fundamental disagreement I have with the stand up concept, by the way. And I am not the only one. Reporting should not be part of any meeting. Period. Document and read reports up front.
  • Open Source is all about specialists (aka rock stars) instead of about teams. Front line managers have a particularly hard time dealing with “unique personalities” in the open. The tools they’ve learn to deal with them are very often not valid in the new environment. As I have written before, the team culture is one of the assets that corporations are bringing into Open Source.

Challenges: project nature

  • Open Source projects are mostly related with R&D, technology or tooling development and, in some cases, specially in company driven communities/projects, about pre-production (early productization stages). They are not about developing products or services which is what corporations are mostly about, even when dealing with R&D. This difference requires, for example, that front line managers pay constant attention to value-capture-and-return cycles between the project and the company.
  • Within Open Source projects, the relation among organizations is not common to many managers coming from corporate environments. Other organizations are treated as partners instead of customers, even if they are service providers or suppliers. In a similar way somebody you work with is a peer, even when talking about members of their teams (managee).
  • Looking at delivery, in Open Source is frequent to release features when ready, on a time based release cadence, which helps to coordinate many different parties. Within most organizations, not even R&D delivery is managed this way. Lately, rolling/continuous approaches are becoming popular among FOSS projects. This way of understanding delivery is very often tough for managers risen in the “deadline drama” culture.
  • When taking decisions in the open, front line managers need to adapt to the fact that developers think about the project as much as they think about the company they belong to. Sometimes even more. Who pays your salary and what for are common question among those managers who do not fully understand yet the environment they are working on. They get the perception that people tend to forget the corresponding  answers after a while working in the open.
  • I always ask managers working in the open about their definition of success for the teams they manage. By their answers I learn a lot about the transition stage they are in. Defining success, even in FOSS projects with a clear shared vision, might become tough. And it is so important to have an agreed definition by every team member…. In general, a definition of success for a team working in the open should consider at least these elements:
    • The project/community.
    • The company or organization that pays the check.
    • How is the value capture-return cycle defined for both, the company and the project.
    • Additional aspects that motivates the team.

Challenges: personal values

  • Front line managers, specially those with little exposure to customers, are not familiar with every aspect involved in professional reputation. It is a relevant concept when your work is public and can be directly associated to you. It is so powerful that it is easily mistaken with the most negative aspects of “ego”. Senior managers coming from corporate environments understand it better but still not fully. Reading or talking about it, listening to those who has been there, working with them, is not enough to get what is like to be on the other side. You need to cross the river to understand it.
  • Open Source was born out of strong ethical values. So strong that they are still relevant to many. FOSS is now mainstream so most think that those values are disappearing, being relevant only to the “senior geeks” working in some specific projects. I believe though that those ethical values still matter and, in my experience, the longer people is involved in Open Source, the more relevant they become for them, no matter where they come from. It takes time for anybody coming from corporate environments to fully understand the impact some of these values have and their implications in day to day activities. These values tend to to manifest vigorously when conflicts arise.
  • One of the things that everybody learn very soon when collaborating in Open Source projects is that people have “two different personalities” which in some cases diverge: the offline and the online personalities.

These challenges, and many others not mentioned above, will require different levels of attention at different stages of the adaptation/transition process to any manager. So in one way or the other, they will need to develop skills and accumulate experience to successfully face them.

A second post describes some ideas about how to approach these challenges when joining an Open Source project as a manager.

3 thoughts on “Dear software manager, working in the open for the very first time? Challenges (I)

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