5 Easy Questions for Johanna Rothman

The easier the question, the harder the answer.

It that correct? Probably not. But if it is, then I will be giving some authors and experts a hard time in the next couple of months!

Last week I had the idea of asking a number of people in our industry the same five questions. 5 questions that are easy to ask. 5 questions that are important for software development managers like me. 5 questions that are probably a little hard to answer…

So I emailed this idea to three celebrities and I asked them if they were willing to participate. Within two days both Alistair Cockburn and Johanna Rothman sent me an email with lengthy and personal replies to my questions. I was thrilled! And I am very grateful for their contributions. I am also sure this will make it easy for me to twist other people's arms (in a caring and gentle way) to convince them to throw in their own weight and answer the same questions. It's going to be very interesting to see how this series is going turn out, and how all the answers to the same five easy questions will compare…

Johanna Rothman is the author of Manage It!, the book that finished at #67 in the Top 100 Best Software Engineering Books, Ever. She also co-authored several other books, including Behind Closed Doors (with Esther Derby). Johanna is a management consultant for software managers and leaders. She has her own site at jrothman.com, which includes not just one but two blogs! (And here I am thinking that keeping one blog alive is already a tough job.)

These are the five questions I asked Johanna, and the answers that she gave me…

1. What has been the toughest challenge in your past?

Making myself slow down to think through a problem fully. Like many people in this field, I'm a good problem solver. And like many people, I jump the gun, deciding on my first solution rather than considering other options. I've learned to try a few examples. I just did this with the book I'm writing now. I thought I had an outline, but as soon as I got past the initial writing, it didn't hang together: I had to reference things everywhere, you couldn't just read from the front to the back, the wording was awkward. When I realized I'd written enough to redesign it, I could see the emergent design. If I'd tried to define the full design for the book at the beginning, it would have been wrong (it was wrong!). Now, I have enough to see how it could work, and my new design is working for now. Who knows, I might have to redesign again. But I know the pieces I have to fit in now.

Developing more options, or at least, not corralling myself into the first option has been helpful, and is still something I work on.

2. What is the main source of inspiration for what you do?

I have a passion for helping managers and teams work better. I firmly believe that if the people in the organization work better, they will develop better products, which will make our lives better.

3. What activity should be on every manager's daily list?

There should actually be three:

  • Making sure you've made time for one-on-ones, so you can continue to develop trusting relationships with your staff and peers;
  • Thinking about the work that's on your list and your team's list: is it still necessary to be done, and should it be done by you and your team?
  • Is there waste you see in your work or the work of people on your team? What can you do about that?

When you have one-on-ones and build relationships, you are a great manager. When you reassess the work you are doing, you are being a more effective leader. When you look for and eliminate waste, you take a more strategic leadership position. That allows you to really see what's going on instead of being stuck in the vortex of management, where all you do is run from meeting to meeting, email to email, vmail to vmail.

4. What can we learn from you in the near future?

Well, that no one has a crystal ball 🙂 Seriously, my next book is about project portfolio management because multitasking is rampant in organizations, and slows everyone down. But most managers and leaders don't have any idea what to do about it. By leader here, I mean technical leader, not just senior managers. In my experience, many managers direct their technical leaders in organizations to "do it 
all." But you can't. No one can. So this book has a bunch of ways to say no, a bunch of ways to make decisions, and a bunch of ways to show your manager just what you are doing.

5. What is more interesting than software development?

To be honest, two things. Testing is really interesting, because it's so hard to do. You need creative, curious, nasty-thinking people to test a complex system well. Those people are hard to find.

The other thing that's more interesting to me is the management of software development, because it's so hard. If creating software is the hardest endeavor known to man, how is managing it not hard? It is, and simplistic answers, such as "just do it" are not a useful answer. Developers don't need babysitters. They need managers to make the hard decisions about which projects are most important, where to invest 
time and money into infrastructure, to make the strategic decisions about the work. Too many managers think they need to micromanage and make decisions about what people do. Nope. Managers need to give direction and help people stay on track, sure. But what managers really need to do is create an environment in which people can do their best work. That is really hard.

Well, these are the answers given by Johanna Rothman. I hope you like the general idea. If you don't, then let me know. And if you do, be sure to subscribe to this blog! Next time I will show you Alistair Cockburn's reply to the same five easy questions.

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