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Posted on: Monday, November 3, 2008 by Rajiv Popat

The Perils Of Multitasking In Software Development And Life.

One of my seniors told me something on the lines of - "Senior engineers are supposed to wear multiple hats and juggle multiple tasks at the same time"; the issue at hand was that I was not 'utilizing' the senior most members in my team to their fullest extent by not giving them multiple tasks to work on all at once. According to him, even though I had promoted these individuals I wasn't tapping into their full potential by pushing them to undertake multiple tasks at once.

This particular senior of mine believed that all senior members in all teams should multitask and if they couldn't, they weren't senior enough to be promoted to the position of senior programmers. He wanted, expected and demanded that anyone who was to be promoted as a senior programmer had to be a serious, mind-blowing, kick ass juggler when it came to handling multiple tasks as once before he was lifted to the position of a senior programmer or promoted.

During the early parts of my career I had been a ruthless multitasking guy myself. The obvious expectation from someone like me was that I would push multiple members in my team towards multitask as well, but then something creepy happened. All the multitasking that I was doing was starting to have it's toll on me.

There would be days at a stretch when I would stare at the monitor losing a track of what it is that I was doing and what I was supposed to be doing next. I had taken multitasking to the next level and was suffering through what can be, most aptly, defined as the ALT-Tab-Syndrome. That is when I started realizing how expensive a human context or task switch was.

In his article on human task switch Joel Spolsky explains how harmful human multitasking is by comparing it with multitasking on computers. He argues that both are expensive and the only thing they do is provide is a perception of speed, not actual increase in speed or productivity. He explains:

OK, back to the more interesting topic of managing humans, not CPUs. The trick here is that when you manage programmers, specifically, task switches take a really, really, really long time. That's because programming is the kind of task where you have to keep a lot of things in your head at once. The more things you remember at once, the more productive you are at programming. A programmer coding at full throttle is keeping zillions of things in their head at once: everything from names of variables, data structures, important APIs, the names of utility functions that they wrote and call a lot, even the name of the subdirectory where they store their source code. If you send that programmer to Crete for a three week vacation, they will forget it all. The human brain seems to move it out of short-term RAM and swaps it out onto a backup tape where it takes forever to retrieve.

In his post, Joel basically pushes the idea that human multitasking in all it's form is not as productive as working on one-thing-at-a-time. In fact Joel feels it's harmful.  

G. Wade Johnson argues that what Joel is talking about can be described as preemptive programming. Wade on the other hand, introduces another form of multitasking where he talks about utilizing multitasking to utilize idle time:

An interrupt forces a task-switch. You incur all of the overhead of changing state, just like in the time-slice case. In fact interrupts are worse for humans than for computers. If you know you will be changing tasks after lunch, you can generally aim for a good place to stop. With an interrupt, you have no choice of when it occurs.

On the other hand, I try to keep one major task and two or three minor tasks on my plate at all times. This way, when something causes me to block on the major task, (waiting on technical or business input, lack of some resource, a design problem that I just can't seem to beat right now) I can spend some time on the minor tasks. Every minor task I complete, is one more thing that actually gets finished. That way I don't spend the blocked time busy waiting (browsing the web, reading slashdot, etc <grin>).

As valid as Wade's point seems, I've been a first hand example of what happens when you try to utilize and squeeze out every second of your idle item. Human RAM's are relatively limited in size, writing a few functions, firing a build that is going to take a minute to fire, reading a blog-post in that one minute and coming back to the code when the build is complete with all the variable names, function names and class names you were working with fresh in your head doesn't sound real life as well.

Kathy Sierra believes that the perils of multitasking aren't just limited to lowering the quality of the tasks that you are multitasking. According to her multitasking may have perils which are much more profound. She explains:

Where I once believed that the myth of multitasking was about time (that doing four things simultaneously takes much longer than to do those same four things in sequence), scientists now know it's also about quality. And it gets worse... it's not just that the quality of those four things in parallel will suffer, it's that your ability to think and learn may suffer. Some researchers believe that all this constant, warp-speed, always-on multitasking is causing young people, especially, to become less able to follow any topic deeply.

Kathy has indeed done her research on the topic really well. Go ahead, browse through her post and you'll get everyone from The Time Magazine to Jordan Grafman, chief of the cognitive neuroscience section at the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, telling you that multitasking and being involved in too many things at once is harmful.

While I see countless young and ambitious engineers wanting to take on more and more projects, bigger and better challenges, grow in life and go places all at once, Kathy's post does a good job at reminding them their physical and mental limitations:

Whenever I talk about the big myth of multitasking, people always come up to tell me how they themselves just "have the kind of brain that can do this." Riiiiiight. They don't. I don't. You don't. And maybe you'd realize it if you turn off your cell phone, disable IM, mute the little "ding" alarm that says you've got email, and just sit there for a few moments.

The big problem for most young people, it seems, is that they don't know how to "just sit there." They get the shakes after just a few minutes without media stimulation.

What ever be the form of multitasking that you're doing; chances are that it is doing you or your work more harm than it is doing you or your work good; and that includes the kind of multitasking Wade explained in his post. As developers we tend to believe it's beneficial and we like to think we can handle it really well; but the truth of life is we can't. Kathy explains:

One of the most interesting things discussed in the Time article is that neuroscientists have established the specific area of the brain responsible for context switching. And unfortunately for some of us, it appears that this part of the brain performs less well as our brain ages. In a nutshell, the older we get, the less quickly and effectively we can multitask. But... most parents of teenagers already know that we have no frickin' idea how our kids manage to do what they do simultaneously. The key issue, though, is that while we now know they're better at it than we (the parents) are, they aren't half as good at it as they think they are.

And chances are, you aren't as good at it as you think you are.

The next time you fire a build and you feel this yearning temptation to read a blog post or reply to an email, ask yourself if you can handle the task-switch and come back to the build elegantly and completely when it's complete? If not, maybe you're just better off sitting there, admiring the build getting fired and slowing down a bit as you think about the next few lines of code you are going to write. After all you'll hardly get anywhere with just random multitasked speed.

If you're leading a team, if there is one lesson you can take back from this post, Joel describes it rather articulately:

As it turns out, if you give somebody two things to work on, you should be grateful if they "starve" one task and only work on one, because they're going to get more stuff done and finish the average task sooner. In fact, the real lesson from all this is that you should never let people work on more than one thing at once. Make sure they know what it is. Good managers see their responsibility as removing obstacles so that people can focus on one thing and really get it done. When emergencies come up, think about whether you can handle it yourself before you delegate it to a programmer who is deeply submersed in a project.

Are you still expecting your team members to multitask before you promote them? Are you only promoting your team members based on their multitasking abilities? Here's my advice to you: Don't use multitasking abilities as a measure for promotion.

Are you knitting your brows and telling yourself what a moron I am because you think that as you climb up the corporate ladder you have to multitask? Well, Multitasking is a real need in my job profile as well. I tend to give a very strong perception of multitasking when I work on multiple projects at once; but that's exactly what it is - a perception. Behind the curtains; I try my best not to multitask as long as possible.

A colleague recently told me that he was planning on picking up Ruby on Rails in the next three months while he also worked on something learning something else during those three months. My immediate response and suggestion to him had been that he should buy a Ruby On Rails book, stop learning the other thing that he was planning on learning and just focus on Ruby On Rails and finish it off in the next one and half month instead of three. Then he should consider moving to something else.

This is but, one simple example of avoiding the perils on multitasking. All situations in your life may not be as simple as this and I clearly don't have all the answers, but the biggest favor that you can do yourself is by starting to realize that human task switching is expensive and that multitasking in a real problem in our lives. Once you realize that, work consciously towards finding ways and means to avoid multitasking every time you can see an opportunity to avoid it.

Bottom line; whenever you have an option to avoid multitasking, avoid it.

The trick is to blind out everything else when you start with a task at hand and not look at anything other than the task as had till the task comes to a logical end where it's safe to switch to something else without having to keep too much about your first task in your head. Till you reach that point, don't open your outlook; close your browsers and if that stupid phone is ringing continuously switch it off too. Once you reach a logical end where you know it's ok to switch to another task, then by all means do; but random aimless multitasking in attempt to do too much in too little time gets you nowhere. Absolutely nowhere.

The Perils of multitasking are huge; both in software development and life in general. Multitasking is truly impacting and preventing us from being successful and happy; but you don't have to take my word for it; see Scott Berkun talk about attention and sex to help you decide for yourself.

posted on Monday, November 3, 2008 4:52:17 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [3]
Posted on: Thursday, October 30, 2008 by Rajiv Popat

Martial Arts And Computers - Are You One With Your Computer?

During my school life, I quit my karate lessons within a couple of years or learning and practice. Today if I got into an award confrontation requiring self defense here's how I would defend myself: I would run, as fast as I could. I would run so freaking fast that I wouldn't even look behind. That's how much karate I remember.

On the serious side of life, my reasons for my early interest in martial arts, besides being physical, were also philosophical. Martial Arts, in all it's forms has ideas and concepts which can be borrowed and used for life and software development. This post is about one such concept and if you are a programmer, this post is also about asking a very important question: are you a code samurai?

Martial Art gurus believe that a perfect weapon is one which becomes a seamless extension of the warrior's body and brings him greater reach, humility and grace. On the same line of thought, a perfect warrior is one who can blend himself with the perfect weapon. In other words, in the world of martial arts it is believed that to become a great at a warrior you must pick the great weapon and then reach a stage where the warrior and the weapon become one.

I've often announced that software developers need to turn themselves into warriors and one man armies. If you look at it, your machine is your only weapon against the countless enemies of software development. Yet, I rarely find programmers who are one with their machines. A huge number of programmers on the other hand, are hunting and pecking for keys on their keyboards as they type and fumbling with the mouse as they hunt for points on the screen to click.

I've always said that hitting the window key and typing iexplore is fast. It's faster than reaching out for the mouse and clicking that Internet explorer icon but Jeff Atwood provides a much more compelling example:

Let's assume that we're typing some text into a document of some kind, and we wish to save the document we're working on. (I could argue that the user should never have to explicitly save anything, but humor me.) If it seems ridiculous that the mouse method:

  1. Take your right hand off the keyboard
  2. Place your right hand on the mouse
  3. Mouse over to the File menu
  4. Click File
  5. Click Save
  6. Place your right hand back on the keyboard

Could be measurably faster than the keyboard method:

  1. Use your left hand to press Control+S

I assure you that you are not alone. Please defer all your righteous indignation for just a moment.

David Allen in his book Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, describes his frustration with even the veteran professionals hunting and pecking for keys as they work:

If you're  in  a  large-volume  e-mail  environment,  you'll greatly improve your productivity by increasing your typing speed and  using  the  shortcut  keyboard  commands  for  your  operating system and your common e-mail  software. Too many  sophisticated professionals are seriously hamstrung because they still hunt and peck and try to use their mouse too much.

Steve Yegge feels passionately about touch typing so much so that he believes that those who don't touch type might be scarifying a big number of things:

Programmers who don't touch-type fit a profile.

If you're a touch-typist, you know the profile I'm talking about. It's dirty. People don't talk about dirty secrets in polite company. Illtyperacy is the bastard incest child hiding in the industry's basement. I swear, people get really uncomfortable talking about it. We programmers act all enlightened on Reddit, but we can't face our own biggest socio-cultural dirty secret.

Well, see, here's how it is: I'm gonna air out the laundry, whether you like the smell or not.

What's the profile? The profile is this: non-touch-typists have to make sacrifices in order to sustain their productivity.

It's just simple arithmetic. If you spend more time hammering out code, then in order to keep up, you need to spend less time doing something else.

But when it comes to programming, there are only so many things you can sacrifice! You can cut down on your documentation. You can cut down on commenting your code. You can cut down on email conversations and participation in online discussions, preferring group discussions and hallway conversations.

And... well, that's about it.

So guess what non-touch-typists sacrifice? All of it, man. They sacrifice all of it.

Touch typists can spot an illtyperate programmer from a mile away. They don't even have to be in the same room.

For starters, non-typists are almost invisible. They don't leave a footprint in our online community.

When you talk to them 1-on-1, sure, they seem smart. They usually are smart. But non-typists only ever contribute a sentence or two to any online design discussion, or style-guide thread, or outright flamewar, so their online presence is limited.

Heck, it almost seems like they're standoffish, not interested in helping develop the engineering culture.

While everyone seems to give a great amount of importance to the keyboard as a powerful way to interface with your machine, Bruce Tognazzini has a different take on the topic:

We’ve done a cool $50 million of R & D on the Apple Human Interface. We discovered, among other things, two pertinent facts:

  1. Test subjects consistently report that keyboarding is faster than mousing.
  2. The stopwatch consistently proves mousing is faster than keyboarding.

This contradiction between user-experience and reality apparently forms the basis for many user/developers’ belief that the keyboard is faster.

People new to the mouse find the process of acquiring it every time they want to do anything other than type to be incredibly time-wasting. And therein lies the very advantage of the mouse: it is boring to find it because the two-second search does not require high-level cognitive engagement.

It takes two seconds to decide upon which special-function key to press. Deciding among abstract symbols is a high-level cognitive function. Not only is this decision not boring, the user actually experiences amnesia! Real amnesia! The time-slice spent making the decision simply ceases to exist.

While the keyboard users in this case feels as though they have gained two seconds over the mouse users, the opposite is really the case. Because while the keyboard users have been engaged in a process so fascinating that they have experienced amnesia, the mouse users have been so disengaged that they have been able to continue thinking about the task they are trying to accomplish. They have not had to set their task aside to think about or remember abstract symbols.

Maybe it's not just about the rather controversial the mouse vs. the keyboard argument; or the search of which one is the perfect way to interface with your machine. Maybe it's about using the combined use of the keyboard and the mouse in a way that makes you one with your machine. Irrespective of the input device you are more comfortable with, if you are not completely comfortable with your machine and not moving blazing fast, it shows.

In the world of music and martial arts, they would hardly let you get on the stage before you develop a sense of comfort with the instrument or the weapon. Touch typing and your at speed defines your comfort level at the keyboard and eventually with the machine; if nothing else, it provides a perception of being a power-user to both yourself and the external world.

Nolan Larsen, comments on how powerful perception is in the world of computing:

I came across an interesting example of perception vs. reality while designing a small text editor: When scrolling the text horizontally in a window we would refresh the text by redisplaying each line starting at the top. This resulted in a wave of text rippling down the screen, and many complaints that the screen refresh was too slow. The remedy was to scroll the bits already on screen and then redisplay each line from the top. The second implementation was actually slower than the first because we incurred the overhead of scrolling the bits before we even started to display the new text on the screen. However, the perception was that there was an immense increase in speed. We stuck with the second implementation because it increased the overall satisfaction of the user even though it actually decreased the throughput of the product.

I didn't learn typing formally in a typing class or at school. Computers and software development was love at fist sight for me. Out of my deep passion and love for computers and software development, I spent countless hours at the keyboard which may have brought up my typing speed to a decently high words per minute count without me even having to work consciously for it.

As a matter of fact I had hardly ever measured my typing speed until a few days ago, but my comfort level with the keyboard is high enough to let me touch typing blazing fast with my eyes literally blind folded. If nothing else, it makes me feel good about being able to connect to my laptop and turning it into an extension of myself.

I never thought about any of this cautiously before. I never realized consciously how important being fully comfortable with the input devices was till I happened to work with a gentleman who was fumbling in a confused state of mind between the keyboard and the mouse when we needed to push the prototype-build out really fast with some of the bosses waiting for the build to be pushed out eagerly. To be fair to him his lack of speed didn't delay the build push by more than a few minutes; but having said that, as I watched him hunting, pecking and fumbling, it definitely lowered my confidence and perception of whether he knew what he was doing. That's how important perception is.

Whether you do it for increased productivity or for perception and feel good factor, if you are hunting for keys on the keyboard and fumbling with the mouse you need to do something about it. You might be sending out the perception of being a newbie when you are really a veteran. If you are not one with the weapon do you really expect the world to consider you a good warrior? If you're not one with your computer when you code and work do you expect the world to consider you a good programmer or a code samurai?

Go ahead, blindfold yourself and try typing a couple of pages about your life or your favorite topic in any editor of your choice. If the idea doesn't freak you out and you can actually do that successfully, at a decently acceptable speed that's very close to what you would have achieved with your eyes open, chances are that you're on the track of becoming one with your machine. If not, the sooner you start taking your first steps at becoming really comfortable and fast with your machine, the higher your chances of having a productive life will be. Looking for your mouse? Pecking for they ALT+F4 keys? Or are you one with your machine? I leave you dear reader, with a reality check and wish you best of luck at getting faster and better anyway.

posted on Thursday, October 30, 2008 2:27:45 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Monday, October 27, 2008 by Rajiv Popat

Catalysts In The Software Development World - Are You Giving Them The Credit They Deserve?

In one of my earlier posts I claimed that project management had a lot to do with understanding the human mind. In the same post I also went ahead and admitted that I'm no expert at it. Having admitted that, the amount of time and effort I have been dedicating and still dedicate to understanding the human mind and people issues is as much as the time and effort I dedicate to understanding code.

As a matter of fact, the time I spend to understand human beings in teams is sometimes even more than the time I spend trying to read and understand code. Studying programmers and how they function in a team fascinate me; as much as programming does. After all, I love everything about software development and team dynamics form a huge part of it.

I've seen countless college interns, fresher's and even regular employees being recruited by companies based on their 'analytical skills', 'mathematical skills', 'academic qualifications', 'educational background' and 'grades'.


I've also seen a huge number of those decisions turn out to be complete disasters. I've seen a few top notch graduates from top grade colleges who have toped three rounds of technical interview turn out to be complete pricks and in-compatible when it comes to working in a team. I've also seen programmers with humble starts out perform, get the team together and drive projects through the doors of success.  

Some of these experiences have made me to think that maybe, just maybe, organizations that evaluate candidates simply by using these black-and-white-approaches of judging them simply based on their 'academic background', analytical skills' or even 'technical skills', might be missing out big time on opportunities of recruiting a completely different breed of employees with qualities which are just as, and sometimes even more important for successful implementations, rather than just having 'technically-kick-ass programmers' on the projects.

'Catalysts' form a part of these different breed of employees. DeMarco and Lister, in their book, Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams (Second Edition), describes Catalysts and their contribution towards making a project successful:

I was teaching an in-house design course some years ago, when one of the upper managers buttonholed me  to request that I assess some of the people  in  the course (his project staff).  He was particularly curious about one woman. It was obvious he had his doubts about her:

"I don't quite see what she adds to a project she's not a great developer or tester or much of anything." With a little investigation,  I turned up this intriguing fact: During her twelve years at the company,  the woman in question had never worked on a project that had been anything other than a huge success.  It wasn't obvious what she was adding, but projects always succeeded when she was around.  After watching her in class for a week and talking to some of her co-workers,  I came to the conclusion that she was a superb catalyst. Teams naturally jelled better when she was there.  She helped people communicate with each other and get along.

Projects were more fun when she was part of them. When I tried to explain this idea to the manager, I struck out.  He just didn't recognize the role of catalyst as essential to a project.

I've worked with a couple of really awesome catalysts myself in my professional career. After having realized the importance of having catalysts in each team, I've also learnt that there is no one-step-formula for finding and hiring this breed.

These are candidates who will show up in your interview, will perform very averagely in them at the same time send you a very good vibe by connecting to you, their enthusiasm, passion for learning and connecting to other individuals resonating very strongly, leaving you completely confused on whether you should hire them for their potential and attitude or let them go because of their average scores in the technical rounds.

Just like hiring any awesome individual, in order to hire a good catalyst, you have to go with the facts, your experience, gut-feeling and then finally get lucky.

These are candidates who may not be able to solve those puzzles your organization wants you to ask them or answer all of those interview questions that good .NET developer aught to know but one of the biggest blunder managers and organizations can do is undermine their contributions.

I've personally witnessed countless occasions of failing projects starting to become successful over a period of time after a catalyst is introduced in the team. I've also seen successful projects starting to stumble when a catalyst leaves or is removed from those projects; and in all these cases the catalysts weren't contributing anything that can be described as majorly critical when it came to code or tasks in.

If you're building a team, leading a team, or working for a team, remember that the role of a catalyst in a team is as important as the role of the best programmer who is shipping the most complex and critical modules. Go ahead, look around you; or think of the people you work with. Is there a catalyst holding your team together? If yes, are you giving him due credit and appreciation for his contributions?

posted on Monday, October 27, 2008 3:07:33 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Thursday, October 23, 2008 by Rajiv Popat

Optimism And Wishful Thinking. Two Biggest Curses In Software Development.

I've often been accused of being a pessimist. My pessimism comes back from the school days where I would announce, almost ceremoniously, how bad I had written my exam papers and how I might barely pass only to hit a 80+ or a A+ when the final results were announced.

My biggest strength at pessimism was that I was convincing at it. I could carry my pessimism tugged along with my depression using a very glum face; and I genuinely believed it too. If you were to put me on a lie detector and asked me how much I would score in that exam I probably would pass the lie detection test comfortably when I said I would just about scrap through or just about pass the exam. I would say that with a very serious and glum face.


Then I would go ahead and score a 80+ or an A+ when the results came out and you'd be wondering what just happened.

Acquaintances, teachers and most people who knew me considered pessimism to be one of my biggest weakness. They thought I was underestimating myself when all I was effectively doing with them was simple: I was lowering expectations.

When I entered the world of software development as a young an budding programmer and then a young and budding team lead, I realized that a little bit of optimism can make you your manager's pet and take you way ahead in your path to countless promotions and so-called-successful projects. I tried optimism and it sort of worked. I was successful but the success wasn't quite nearly as satisfying as I had expected.

I was frustrated; only to revert back to my true nature of a thick skinned pessimist who hopelessly under-promises, sells you the deal and then works his ass off to over deliver because he is freaking scared of failing in the end.

At work, I've been accused of being a pessimist by many. In past, I've been approached by Finance and Marketing people telling me that the organization had a long-pipeline of projects only to get my response that we should think about those projects only when the pipe line materializes and becomes real.

When it comes to recruitment and retention I'm continuously worried about my entire team quitting and on my feet to keep them happy; even when everything is perfectly fine. When it comes to projects I am constantly looking out for details which will cause the project to fail even when it's running comfortably well and three weeks ahead of time.

In an earlier post, I've already discussed my frustrations over being 90% done and have gone ahead and said that 90% done is as good as not done.

Pessimism is something that was always a deep rooted part of my character. However, I no longer consider it a weakens or something I need to work on changing.

If you're a programmer or connected to software development, Optimism and Wishful thinking are probably the two biggest vices you can be cursed with. Frederick P. Brooks in the classical legendary book, The Mythical Man-Month Essays on Software Engineering, explains:

All programmers are optimists. Perhaps this modern sorcery especially attracts  those who believe in happy endings and fairy god-mothers. Perhaps the hundreds of nitty frustrations drive away all but those who habitually focus on the end  goal.  Perhaps it is merely that computers are young, programmers are younger, and the young are always optimists. But however the selection process works, the result is indisputable: "This time it will surely run," or "I just found the last bug."

So the first false assumption that underlies the scheduling of systems programming is that all will go well, i.e.,  that each task will hike only as long as it  "ought" to take.

Steve McConnell in his book Rapid Application Development - Taming Wild Software Schedules believes that optimism taken at the next level of wishful thinking may be at the root of more software problems than all other causes combined:

I am amazed at how many problems in  software development boil down to wishful thinking. How many times have you heard statements like these from different people:

"None of the team members really believed  that they could complete the project according to the schedule they were given, but they thought that maybe if everyone worked hard, and nothing went wrong, and they got a few lucky breaks, they just might be able to pull it off."

"Our team  hasn't  done very much work to coordinate the  interfaces among the different parts of the product, but we've all been in good communication about  other  things, and the  interfaces are  relatively simple, so it'll probably take only a day or two to shake out the bugs."

"We know that we went with  the low-ball contractor on the database subsystem, and it was hard to see how they were going to  complete the work with the staffing levels they specified in their proposal. They didn't have as much experience as  some of the other contractors,  but maybe they can make up in energy what they lack in experience. They'll probably deliver on time."

"We don't need to show the final round of changes to the prototype to the customer. I'm sure we know what they want by now."

"The team is saying that it will take an extraordinary effort to meet the deadline, and they missed their first milestone by a few days, but I think they can bring this one in on time."

Wishful thinking isn't just optimism. It's closing your eyes and hoping something works when you have no reasonable basis for thinking it will. Wishful thinking at the beginning of a project leads to big blowups at the end of a project. It undermines meaningful planning and may be at the root of more software problems than all other causes combined.

Even after people with reputations as high as Steve and Frederick describe optimism and wishful thinking as one of the biggest problems of our industry I continue to be surprised by just how wishful people still exist in our industry.

I've seen companies continue on projects where the entire teams knew months in advance that the project would fail without doubt. I've seen teams continuing work on the project without uttering a word even when they were completely aware of the ultimate destiny of the project.

The decision to continue silently was clearly taken under the hope that something magical will happen whisking the project away on the path of heroic success.

I've worked at multiple client places. During my work at some of the clients, I've witnessed business deals being struck, companies being acquired and projects been extended all under the curse of wishful thinking when every single individual directly involved with the deal, the companies or the projects that I talk about, would have told you hands down that there was no way things could have "worked out".

Yet, the teams decided to continue; closing their eyes to the hardcore realities of failure. What they were doing was ignoring the possibilities of disaster outright blatantly.

Optimism and Wishful thinking are by far the Biggest Curse of Software Development and to a large extent and if you're working on a project where nothing seems to be going right and yet you find yourself continuing without uttering a word you're probably cursed too with these vices. Your only glimmer of hope is a touch of pessimism and every once in a while a splash of a cold water on your face to wake you up and show you the reality.

Remember, optimism and wishful thinking are the biggest curses in our industry. The next time you tell yourself that things will 'work out' ask yourself if you've genuinely evaluated the situation or are you just turning a blind eye to the inevitable?

posted on Thursday, October 23, 2008 10:19:32 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Monday, October 20, 2008 by Rajiv Popat

Project Managers Not-To-Do List And Most it's Most Important Not-To-Do Item

Every now and then I’ll have one or two young and budding colleagues walk up to me and ask me what they can do to become what they refer to as 'project managers' or 'team leads leading their own teams'.

Project Management or for that matter any form of management is about understanding people’s mind and I’m not sure what makes people believe I have all the answers when clearly I am as clueless as anyone else when it comes to understanding the human mind. It's not as simple taking a few lines of code and looking at them really closely to analyze or debug them.   


I suspect it’s either my very-serious-sounding-designation or depending on the definition of success, a lot of successful projects and a few not so successful ones that I’ve been a part of that makes people think that I might have a clue.

To be honest however, here’s the secret: I don’t have a freaking clue about how the human mind works. Yes, I spend countless hours reader about this stuff and putting some of the principals and theories into practice but the reality of life is that I have very few answers. 

I’ve attempted to answer how young and budding engineers can start leading their own teams by not being a leader but the ‘what-can-I-do-to-become-a-project-manager’ remains largely unanswered.

There are actually two answers to the question depending on how you phrase the question. If the question is ‘what-can-I-do-to-become-a-project-manager’ the answer is simple:

Join an organization where you can butter your way up the corporate ladder and turn yourself into a budding politician.

On the other hand if the question is ‘what-can-I-do-to-become-a-good-project-manager’ that's a completely different ball-game.

My personal experience is that anyone who asks the ‘what-can-I-do-to-become-a-project-manager’ question hardly ever asks the ‘what-can-I-do-to-become-a-good-project-manager’ question.

Yes, they manage to drive their way through their company politics and become leads and project managers but they never quite get good at it. During my career I've also noticed one common problem with this crowd of desperately-want-to-become-project-managers who want to rise above code and climb the golden ladder of 'management' and leadership.

The problem: They start doing too much to make their project successful as soon as they becomes what can be technically called a ‘manager’.

Give any of these guys a small project to manage and before you know it, they will start:

  1. Making Gantt Chats and Project Plans.
  2. Writing up a communication plan.
  3. Following Up on Programmers to find out what the status is.
  4. Sending Status Reports depicting progress in percentages.
  5. Having a huge number of meetings every day.
  6. Sucking up on their bosses.
  7. Writing a lot of documents and making others write a lot of documents.
  8. Going out of their way to slow down their team and make their life miserable by decreasing the general 'happiness factor' within the team.
  9. Writing And Maintaining To-Do Lists for not just themselves but everyone else in the team.
  10. Doing a whole lot of additional crap to pamper their own egos and justify their own existence.

If there’s anything I’ve personally learnt by being a part of a few successful failures and a lot of other successful projects it is that if there’s any list that you possibly need as a manager, it is not a To-Do List.

What you need is in-fact, is something that can be described as a “Not To-Do List”.

There you go; If you are a budding young manager, I just gave you a little trade secret. Seriously. You need a big fat list of things which you will 'not' do as a manager; If you are serious about this becoming-a-good-project-manager thing, start writing one; right now.

Here’s how you write a Not To-Do-List:

  1. You take A Piece of Paper and something that you can write with like a pen or a pencil.
    (Or your could just open up a new blank Text File using Notepad)
  2. You write down every single thing that you promise yourself you will try your best to “not do” as a manager.
  3. You maintain the list religiously and stick to it as you move forward.

The best way to add items to this list is to look back on your days as a Junior engineer and try and recollect as many things you can about your managers back then that you hated. Other than that you can also watch every single thing you screw-up and every single screw-up that happens around you very closely.

Dissect each of these failures in your head and analyze them. Take every failed project and endeavor in your organization and analyze those, just like people listen to the black box after a plane crash. A wise man I worked with once told me that every failure is different. It has a story and that there’s usually something new to be learnt from each one of them. If you keep your eyes open you’ll realize that all projects failing can be broadly classified into two categories:

  1. Incompetency of team members – which is why I’ve always said that it’s kick ass programmers who build projects; not Gantt charts.
  2. A prick in the project team – if you investigate further, most investigations will reveal that this prick is often whom we glamorously proclaim and refer to as the Leader or The Project Manager.

This brings us to the soul of this post.

It's actually been a rather wordy post; and we're barely starting to touch the point I'm trying to make. If you've read so far, I saute you. If you haven't; all I’ve done with all these words is propose two simple ideas:

  1. If you’re a manager you need a “not to-do list” which you list out things which you should not do as a manager.
  2. Not Being a Prick is something that should top the list.

Not being a prick is so important; Michael Lopp uses the idea as an awesome starting point for his book Managing Humans. The book begins by describing how a single prick can destroy not just a project but an entire organization:

Flash back to the middle of the dot-com implosion. We, the merry crew of the failing startup, are drinking... a lot. There are various bars around corporate headquarters, and each has a distinct purpose. There’s the dive bar that’s great for post-layoff parties. The booze is cheap, and if you’re looking to blow off some I’m-really-not-worthless steam, you can pick a fight with the toothless sailor slung over the bar or the guy who just laid you off.

Down the street is the English pub. The beer is better, they have a selection of whiskey, and they have edible food. This is where we get philosophical about the current organizational seizure we’re experiencing in our three-year slide toward irrelevancy.

We’re there now. We’re drinking heavily because the company has just been sold to a no-name public company who will quickly dismantle the one for which we’ve bled. Everyone knew we’d be here at some point, but no one expected to be the last one standing. And no one expected the CEO to show up.

This isn’t the CEO that built the company. He’s been gone for over a year. This is the guy the board of directors brought in to sell the startup. Sure, he tried to turn us around, but remember, we’re in the middle of a financial nuclear winter here. Money is no longer free.

Those who got a glimpse of the CEO’s resume before he arrived knew the gig was up. His last four jobs ended in the company being finely sliced into nothingness. It’s called “maximizing shareholder value.”

And here we are. Hammered on tequila, the last four from engineering, two guys from tech support... and the CEO. Even though we’re dizzy with booze, we’re fundamentally uncomfortable with the presence of our CEO because we consider him to be an unfeeling prick.

And that’s it.

That’s the title of my management book.

Don’t Be a Prick.

Steve Yegge in his post on (Not) Managing Software Developers describes the one simple quality that differentiates a great manager from one that sucks:

However, I'll offer you one almost magical tip that can help you smooth over nearly any mistake, a tip that can get you through just about any bad situation. I'll tell you the tip right now, with no fanfare or ado. This hint is the most important one I'll offer you today. It's the secret ingredient to Great Manager Sauce. Unfortunately, it's not easy to learn. You either already understand it, down in your bones, or you have years of head-scratching ahead of you. The tip is just one word: Empathy.

If you have true empathy for your engineers, they can forgive almost anything. Which is good, because you will make mistakes. We all do.

Recently an individual who is also a colleague and a close friend approached me informing me that he wanted to be a Manager because he was sick of coding and he thought it was time to grow professionally and stop being what he referred to as just-another-developer. He was thinking of moving over to project management and was thinking of becoming what he referred to as a project manager. My instant spontaneous reaction, in jest of course, had been that he'll never become a project manager. Even though it was a joke, It sounded like a really mean thing to say after I had said it; I wasn't politely articulate in explaining what I meant. Steve's post on the other hand, does a pretty good job at describing exactly what I meant:

If you want to manage badly enough, then you will manage, badly enough. Hence, before you jump in, stop and think about why you want it. Are you tired of engineering, or were you perhaps never very good at it? If so, technical management isn't much of an escape, because your engineers will know, and they won't respect you. Do you want to manage because you want authority? If so, it's a trap: you'll still be on a leash held by the folks above you.

Or maybe you just want to be a little higher in the pecking order, so you can peck downhill? If so, then you're what we call, colloquially speaking, a "pecker".

Think hard about why you want to be a manager.

If you haven’t clicked on the link to Steve’s post, click on it and read it word by word. I don’t care how long it is, do yourself a favor and read it. I'll post a link again so that you don't have to hurt your eyeballs looking for it - here you go - go ahead, click the link and read it. It's a great read. Honest.

Yes, after have worked your ass off to get promoted papering your ego feels like a natural thing to do now. In fact, chances are, that you may have already started or will soon start taking your first steps on the path of Prickdom but here’s my advice: Turn back; now; before it’s too late and the Prickdom gets embedded in your personality.

Resisting the temptation and disassociating yourself from it is what sets a veteran project manager apart from a want-to-be-never-going-to-be manager.

Of course, if you’re a manager, chances are that you’re making mistakes all the time. You’re probably making more mistakes than you can possibly think.  Really stupid ones. Your only glimmer of hope is that your team forgives your stupid mistakes and moves forward with you. Being a prick that they hate, doesn’t really help them in getting over every stupid mistake you have made in the past and moving ahead; with you. 

Going Forward, I’ll be posting more items for the Manager’s Not-To-Do List but Not Being a Prick is so important that it undoubtedly tops the list. In all probabilities it is also the most violated rule of project management.

Let's do a little exercise, shall we? List down all your bosses on a whiteboard or a piece of paper. Now stand back and take a long hard look and tell me; how many of them have acted like a prick during one or more occasions with you where if you had the power to fire them, the thought would have at-least cross your mind. Quite a few of them; right? Life sucks, doesn't it? But wait; there's hope.

Now look back at the names and realize how many of them have rarely done it and how many of them do it all the time.

The really good ones are the ones who realize they are being pricks, stop it, turn around and apologize. Very few, right? And chances are these are the ones you really respect. The kind you can hardly hear bad things about in a discussion with your co-workers and colleagues. For everyone else, you'll probably join in and take a kick out of the discussion.

The honest reality of life is that you'll find more managers with Prickdom infused in their personalities than you'll find managers who very rarely act like pricks. It goes without saying of-course that it would be really hard to find managers who never act like a prick.

That’s it my young-budding-baby-project-managers; that’s all I’ve got for you today. It’s been a rather wordy post but all I’m saying is that if you’re Managing Projects and working with (not managing) people, you need:

A Manager’s Not-To-Do List where Item one reads: Don’t Be a Prick.

If you still don’t get it, you’ll never be a manager; at-least not a good one; and not till the time you get a couple of tight symbolic slap on your face that makes you realize what we're talking about here. If you don't get it even when that happens, take the hint and stick to being a Know-Nothing Technical Director, an Arrogant Programmer, an Egoistic Business Analyst, a Bitchy QA Lead or whatever-it-is-you-are-good-at-being and spare us having to deal with another Pompous Manager who is basically a Prick.

On the other hand if you learn this lesson (even if you do it the hard way, by taking a few punches), try your best not to be a prick, and have first Not-To-do item in your manager's Not-To-Do list, implanted deep down in your head, your team will teach you everything else you ever need to know as you proceed, fail, stumble and make some really stupid mistakes while you lead them collectively through a highly successful projects or a highly successful organization. They'll stand by you through the thick and thin; as long as they know for sure that you're an not arrogant prick.

Start a Not-To-Do-List where the first item reads; Don't be a Prick. If this is one lesson you can learn like your life as a manager depends on it You’ll do good Mr. Manager; I wish you good luck.

posted on Monday, October 20, 2008 8:41:13 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Monday, October 13, 2008 by Rajiv Popat

Meetings - The Heroin Of Software Development World.

When a very capable engineer and a great colleague, approached me in a project party and told me that I was turning into a meeting-man, I stopped and took a long hard look at myself. Even though he meant it as a harmless joke, it was really important for me to stop all meetings I was organizing and do some serious soul searching; instantly. From recruitment to project issues we were having too many random problems back then and every one of those seemed to warrant the need for a meeting. 

Even though that does sound like a convenient excuse to be organizing and attending a lot of meetings, the fact remains that attending and conducting too many meetings can turn you into 'the meeting man' who chatters away as others catch their zzzzz's during a meeting.


The folks at 37Signals have an interesting take on Meetings and refer to them as things which are toxic to productivity:

Do you really need a meeting? Meetings usually arise when a concept isn't clear enough. Instead of resorting to a meeting, try to simplify the concept so you can discuss it quickly via email or IM or Campfire. The goal is to avoid meetings. Every minute you avoid spending in a meeting is a minute you can get real work done instead.

There's nothing more toxic to productivity than a meeting. Here's a few reasons why:

  1. They break your work day into small, incoherent pieces that disrupt your natural workflow
  2. They're usually about words and abstract concepts, not real things (like a piece of code or some interface design)
  3. They usually convey an abysmally small amount of information per minute
  4. They often contain at least one moron that inevitably gets his turn to waste everyone's time with nonsense
  5. They drift off-subject easier than a Chicago cab in heavy snow
  6. They frequently have agendas so vague nobody is really sure what they are about
  7. They require thorough preparation that people rarely do anyway 

Whether you're responsible for recruitment, retention, company strategy or just running multiple projects and products; arranging, conducting and being a part of a lot of meetings and calls seems natural. After all, we as humans beings are social animals. We like to connect to and interact with others. But then, as you start conducting and attending more and more meetings something creepy happens: You Get Addicted.

The idea of being a part of something grand by comfortably sitting in a chair and talking sounds much more appealing than working your ass off while trying to solve real problems. Meetings tend to give you an illusion of being in control and everything working as per plan when in reality nothing is getting done.

Try to push yourself and focus on getting things done instead of attending countless meetings where plans of saving the world or your projects are discussed. If you are getting bogged down by meetings or are leaning towards organizing too many of them, you can start by taking really simple steps:

  1. Turn Meetings Into E-Mail Trails: If you're going to be discussing controversial topic like recruitment or company strategy don't get into a meeting. Start mail threads instead. Mail is asynchronous; it gives you time to think, formalize your thoughts and put then down in a coherent, written down stream of ideas. Mail threads prevent you from getting into arguments and un-necessary confrontation during meetings. Whenever possible, replace meetings with mail trails. Specially for topics which are controversial in nature.
  2. When given a choice, lean towards one on one discussions: At an organization level it definitely makes sense to have lots of meetings and involve as many people as possible but from a productivity perspective, everyone's business is no-one's business. When picking people who are invited in a meeting less is better. What can be solved by quick face-to-face one-on-one discussion with an individual should not be turned into a meeting containing two participants. 
  3. Pull The Plug: Irrespective of what the topic is, The Folks at 37 Signals have a rather innovative answer to the problem: 'Set a 30 minute timer. When it rings, meeting's over. Period'. I would go so far as suggesting that you have a running timer flashed on a screen so everyone is well aware of the fact that time is running out and when you do run out of the pre-decided duration, pull the plug and end the meeting.

Meetings are truly like heroin of Software Development World. The more you indulge in them, the more you get addicted; even when you clearly know that they are injurious to your professional health. Don't get addicted by meetings and if you already are, try to stop attending them, now. When you do, initial withdrawal symptoms are bound to appear and the fear of having to sit down on your desk, figuring out innovative ways of finding out the status, doing some real work in a concentrated fashion might sound daunting and harder than simply going out there and talking to people, but remember, sitting down and working with a focused thought process is the only way to get things done.

Get together for a quick five minute stand up discussion with your team if you must, but next time you attend a long formal meeting ask yourself if it's really necessary or are you, in the name of good communication, just indulging yourself in an addiction which does nothing other than make you feel good about yourself and give you an illusion of being a part of something important when in reality all you are doing is wasting everyone else's and your own precious time.

posted on Monday, October 13, 2008 7:29:26 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Monday, September 22, 2008 by Rajiv Popat

Complexity Happens - That Complex Project Or Product You Might Be Working On.

This post is about a complex set of programming topics.

If you read the first sentence and deep down, behind the locked doors of your mind, liked the fact that you were going to do read something 'really important' this post is about you. Notice however, that I didn't mention the word 'important' in the first sentence. I just said I was going to talk about a few complex programming topics.

Complexity is deceptive.

We, as human beings in general and programmers in particular, tend to associate the word complex to words like important, accurate or correct almost implicitly when in reality complexity has no direct connection with these words.

Steve McConnell in his book Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art describes this human trait with the example of this effort calculation formula:

He explains why the human brain inherently tends to fall for things which sound complex:

Our natural tendency is to believe that complex formulas like this (the one above) will always produce more accurate results than simple formulas like this: Effort = Number Of Requirements * Average Effort Per Requirement

If you're at work, look around. Chances are that you'll easily find a colleague or a team working on a project which is a confused mesh of a Gazillion technologies all of which are collectively doing nothing but boosting up the ego of the programmers who work in that team.

I’ve talked to countless programmers, have witnessed multiple such projects and tried to figure out why we as developers keep making the same freaking mistakes, including the one of confusing complexity with correctness or accuracy.

As programmers, the inherent feeling of being involved in something ‘complex’ seems to give us a sense of pride and an ability to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world which we seem to look down upon as ‘stupidly simple’. This is also probably why most consultants out there use unnecessarily complex Jargons.

Somewhere deep down inside, we believe complexity is good and we associate words like correctness or even accuracy to complexity.

Liking complexity seems to be an inherent part of human nature; which is probably why we like relationships in our personal life and complex processes in our professional life instead of focusing on the simple things in life and even simpler facts of software development.

We love complex; but only till the time we have had enough and things begin to get out of hands. It’s then that we start making desperate attempts to simplify things.

Besides our inherent love for it, complexity has another rather interesting feature. It happens.

It is in fact, to a large extent, this feature, that describes why we inherently love complexity.

Building something complex is easy. Building something simple, well, that requires a lot of hard work and is a whole new ball game; and that, I believe, is why we humans, lean towards complexity when it comes software and life.

Humor me and I'll do my best to prove my point. I promise.

Jeff Atwood sights an example of a complex piece of User Interface built by a software programmer:

How do you think the UI came about? I wasn’t exactly there peeping over the programmers shoulder but here’s my best guess on something like this comes about:

  1. Mr. Developer throws some controls on forms.
  2. Mr. Developer realizes that the application needs some more features.
  3. Mr. Developer throws some more controls on the forms.

It's easy. See? No Thought Process, No White boarding, No worries or thinking about usability. Simply put, something as complex as the user interface about 'just happens'.

Simplicity, on the other hand involves a lot of a lot hard work. Thinking, re-thinking and a lot of discipline.

The folks at Tortoise CVS and Tortoise SVN are a classic example of how much thought process goes into it before you can just right click a file and check-it-in.


During the Project of the month interview the folks at Tortoise CVS, Torsten and Francis describe their ongoing challenge of keeping it simple to use, through remarks like:

What are a couple of notable examples of how people are using your software?
There are some CEOs who use it to manage word documents and spreadsheets, something I don't think CVS had much use for before.

Why do you think your project has been so well received?
Francis: Because people like right-clicking. (Seriously!).
Torsten: Because users feel that they don't have to learn a new application - they just use their old trusty Explorer or Total Commander with a few extensions.

What's on your project wish list?
Torsten: Getting rid of even more preference settings

What are you most proud of?
Torsten: Each time I have resisted the temptation to add another preference setting, and instead made the code smarter.

How do you coordinate the project?
We have a pretty small core development team: Hartmut and myself (several other people also contribute, but not on a regular basis). I handle everything related to releases, as well as the documentation and web site stuff. Apart from those things, there is no strict division of responsibility - we both work on the new features we find cool, and we both handle bug reports etc. via the trackers and the mailing list.

Tortoise is a classic example of how you can take something complex like version control and simplify it. If you've used Tortoise to work with CVS or SVN, the hard work that has gone into simplicity clearly shows in the form on elegance of implementation; and WGetUI? Well, one look at that user interface and anyone with any fundamentals of how software development works can tell you that the WGetUI is a software that 'just happened'. It is an example of how you can take a simple problem like file-download and solve it without any thought on usability or user interface; letting the development 'happen' as things pretty much evolve by themselves.  

The next time you reach out and proudly announce to your friend, colleague, relatives, family or acquaintances that you’re working on a system that’s very complex, it’s time to do some soul searching. Maybe your so-called-highly-complex-system that you are working on is something that is 'just happening' without any effort on your part to keep it simple; and that, I’m not so sure, is something to feel particularly proud about.

posted on Monday, September 22, 2008 6:11:17 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Tuesday, September 16, 2008 by Rajiv Popat

Throwing The (In)Frequently Asked Questions Out Of The Window.

When was the last time you read a FAQ?

No, Seriously. When was the last time you 'actually' read a FAQ?

When was the last time you found a FAQ useful?

Thought So.

Kevin Kelly refers to Most FAQ’s on the web out there as “NAQ" or as he prefers to call them, "Never Asked Questions”:

That's what most company FAQs really are. Easily answered questions that no one has ever asked.

These fake FAQs are useless. They are a turnoff to potential customers looking for reasons to buy, and an insult to existing customers troubleshooting. I now judge companies while shopping on how competent their FAQs are.

I've hardly ever found a FAQ section of any web-site useful. FAQs, over their long history have turned from something that was supposed to provide genuine help, to something that no-one reads and a rather elegant wall or facade behind which most support folks hide.


The idea of having FAQs wasn't always such a bad idea. The whole idea of documenting FAQs in-fact started with an intent that was good:

FAQ's started as lists of answers to common questions in Usenet newsgroups. Mark Horton wrote the first FAQ, which he regularly posted to the Usenet newsgroups with the answers to eighteen common questions, such as "What does 'foo-bar' mean?", and "What does 'Unix' stand for?".

 History has it that FAQ’s were written primarily because the same questions were being asked too many times:

On 15 September 1983, Jerry Schwarz announced on net.general that he was going to publish a list of "questions not to ask". On 1 November, he published the first Usenet FAQ under the title "Frequently Submitted Items".

They were, as their name suggest, supposed to be 'Frequently Asked'. They were supposed to help; back in the old days; when we didn't have this thing that we all love and call 'Google', FAQ's as a matter of fact, did help.

Today, I have multiple gripes with FAQ's.

The biggest of my gripes is that they are not written with a genuine intent of helping end users. Go to any web-site that has a FAQ section glance through them. Chances are, that you'll find the following whole set of issues with the the made up questions and their plastic answers. You'll notice that the question and answers are:

  1. Written by Non Technical Staff who usually come from backgrounds like marketing or content writing.
  2. Written by folks who are usually overly aware and cautious of the organization's image in front of it's customers or potential customers.
  3. Written to spoon-feed the users with questions the organization wants them to ask, not the questions the customers want to ask the product developers.

What historically started as a means for the technical folks to avoid repetitive answers in the community and support DRY communication, has gradually turned into a wall preventing customers from reaching the technical staff in a desperate attempt to lower the cost of support; or a place where a bunch of desperate marketers try to convince the 'potential' customers that their product works.

With all due respect to the marketing and PR folks, FAQ is supposed to be a support tool, not a marketing tool. Neither is it supposed to be a wall behind which the support staff hides.

The folks at 37Signals have a slightly different take on the whole support thing:

Avoid building walls between your customers and the development/design team. Don't outsource customer support to a call center or third party. Do it yourself. You, and your whole team, should know what your customers are saying. When your customers are annoyed, you need to know about it. You need to hear their complaints. You need to get annoyed too.

At 37signals, all of our support emails are answered personally by the people who actually build the product. Why? First off, it provides better support for customers. They're getting a response straight from the brain of someone who built the app. Also, it keeps us in touch with the people who use our products and the problems they're encountering. When they're frustrated, we're frustrated. We can say, "I feel your pain" and actually mean it.

Kevin explains in his post also why real providing answers to real FAQ’s which can solve real problems and genuinely help customers are very difficult to write:

Real FAQs will often be difficult to answer. An answer may mean admitting mistakes, or acknowledge a weakness, or explaining something very complicated. It's okay. Take all the room and time you want. People will read it.

Let's face it. If your Web-site has a FAQs section it's probably going to suck. It's that Simple.

Don't have a FAQ. Throw them out of the window. Delete that FAQ page from your web-site. Right now.


  1. Have product blogs with comments turned on so that product team can directly answer and respond to the questions. Let the search engines index those and help customers who have similar problems in future.
  2. Have forums. Get your technical team to answer questions there. Undermining the power of the community and trying to replace it with a ‘one-way-communication’ like a static FAQ list is stupidity.
  3. Provide email addresses and support numbers clearly and liberally on your web-site. If your customers have a problem with your product, your product team needs to take the responsibility and answer them. After all supporting what you write and being their for your customers is as important as writing the product itself.

If the same questions keep popping up again and again (and if you must), then, by all means, use a FAQ. But remember what a FAQ is supposed to mean in the first place.

Does your web-site have a FAQ section?

Is it written by your technical team or your Vice President of marketing?

Maybe it's time to give your FAQs a good hard reality check.

If they are not genuinely helping your customers consider throwing those stupid (In)Frequently Asked Questions out of the window.

posted on Tuesday, September 16, 2008 6:06:23 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]