We'll see | Matt Zimmerman

a potpourri of mirth and madness

Posts Tagged ‘Project management

Scaling Human Systems: Roles and Responsibilities

This is part 5 in a series on organizational design and growth.

What it means

Each of us has a job to do, probably more than one, and our teammates should know what they are.

Why it’s important

Roles are a kind of standing commitment we make to each other. They’re a way of dividing up work which is easy to understand and simple to apply. Utilizing this tool will make it easier for us to coordinate our day to day work, and manage the changes and growth we’re going through.

Old Status Quo

Roles are vague or nonexistent. Management roles in particular are probably not well understood. Many people juggle multiple roles, all of which are implicit. Moving to a new team means learning from scratch what other people do. People take responsibility for tasks and decisions largely on a case-by-case basis, or based on implicit knowledge of what someone does (or doesn’t do). In many cases, there is only one person in the company who knows how to perform a certain function. When someone leaves or goes on vacation, gaps are left behind.

New Status Quo

Each individual has a clear understanding of the scope of their job. We have a handful of well defined roles, which are used by multiple teams and have written definitions. People who are new or transfer between teams have a relatively easy time understanding what the people around them are doing. Many day to day responsibilities are defined by roles, and more than one person can fill that role. When someone leaves a team, another person can cover their critical roles.

Behaviors that help

  • Define project roles: when starting something new, make it explicit who will be working on it. Often this will be more than one person, often from different teams. For example, customer-facing product changes should have at least a product owner and an engineering owner. This makes it easy to tell if too many concurrent projects are dependent on a single person, which is a recipe for blockage.

  • Define team roles: Most recurring tasks should fall within a defined role. An owner of a technical service is an example of a role. An on-call engineer is an example of a time-limited role. There are many others which will depend on the team and its scope.

  • Define job roles: Have a conversation with your teammates and manager about what the scope of your job is, which responsibilities are shared with other members of the team and which are yours alone.

Obstacles that stand in our way

  • Getting hung up on titles as ego gratification. Roles are tools, not masters.

  • Fear that a role limits your options, locks you into doing one thing forever. Roles can be as flexible as we want them to be.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

August 27, 2013 at 17:05

DEX: Debian and its derivatives, getting things done together

Since I resumed active status in Debian, I’ve been thinking about how to bridge the gap between Debian and its derivatives*. I’ve spoken at length with Zack, the attendees of the Derivatives BoF at DebConf 10, and the fine folks at the Derivatives Front Desk about the technical and social issues affecting derivative projects, and could probably write a very thorough series of blog posts on the subject.

Instead, Zack and I decided to try doing something about it: we have begun a project to test out a new approach to the problem.

Introducing DEX

DEX is all about action: merging patches, fixing bugs, crunching data, whatever is necessary to get changes from derivatives into Debian proper. DEX doesn’t try to change the way any existing project works, but adds a “fast path” for getting code from one place to another.

DEX is a joint task force where developers from Debian and its derivatives work together on this common goal. As a pilot project, we’ve established an Ubuntu DEX Team focused on merging code from Ubuntu into Debian. With members from both projects, we hope to be able to resolve blockage anywhere in the pipeline. Whatever needs to get done in order to merge an Ubuntu patch, someone in the Ubuntu DEX team will know what to do. If we get good results with Ubuntu, we hope that other derivatives will follow. With thanks to David Paleino, we’re excited that the Utnubu project is merging into DEX as it aligns well with their goals. I’m very grateful to have Colin Watson and James Westby signed up to contribute as well.

Our first project is simple: turn this list green. This is an archive of quite old patches from Ubuntu, most of which have probably been merged already or made obsolete, but they pre-date any kind of tracking system so they need to be verified. Once that’s done, we’ll move on to a new project with a new todo list.

If you want to see Debian benefit from technical work done in derivatives, DEX is a chance for you to act together to make it happen. If you work on a derivative and want to carry a smaller delta, come and join us. I’m sure we’ll learn a lot from this experience.

* There are many instances of great cooperation between Debian and derivative distributions, including joint package maintenance teams, and some derivatives are even part of the Debian project. Nonetheless, there are areas were most people I’ve spoken to agree that we need to do better. This is what I’ve referred to as the “gap”.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

March 16, 2011 at 21:30

Weathering the Ubuntu brainstorm

In our first few years, Ubuntu experienced explosive growth, from zero to millions of users. Because Ubuntu is an open project, these people don’t just use Ubuntu, but can see what’s happening next and influence it through suggestions and contributions. The volume of suggestions quickly became unmanageable through ad hoc discussion, because the volume of feedback overwhelmed the relatively few people who were actively developing Ubuntu.

Ubuntu Brainstorm logo

In order to better manage user feedback at this scale, Ubuntu Brainstorm was created in 2008. It’s a collaborative filtering engine which allows anyone to contribute an idea, and have it voted on by others. Since then, it’s been available to Ubuntu developers and leaders as an information source, which has been used in various ways. The top ideas are printed in the Ubuntu Weekly Newsletter each week. We experimented with producing a report each release cycle and sharing it with the developer community. People have been encouraged to take these suggestions to the Ubuntu Developer Summits. We continue to look for new and better ways to process the feedback provided by the user community.

Most recently, I asked my colleagues on the Ubuntu Technical Board in a meeting whether we should take responsibility for responding to the feedback available in Ubuntu Brainstorm. They agreed that this was worth exploring, and I put forward a proposal for how it might work. The proposal was unanimously accepted at a later meeting, and I’m working on the first feedback cycle now.

In short, the Technical Board will ensure that, every three months, the highest voted topics on Ubuntu Brainstorm receive an official response from the Ubuntu project. The Technical Board won’t respond to all of them personally, but will identify subject matter experts within the project, ask them to write a short response, and compile these responses for publication.

My hope is that this approach will bring more visibility to common user concerns, help users understand what we’re doing with their feedback, and generally improve transparency in Ubuntu. We’ve already selected the topics for the first iteration based on the most popular items of the past six months, and are organizing responses now. Please visit brainstorm.ubuntu.com and cast your votes for next time!

Written by Matt Zimmerman

November 3, 2010 at 11:55

DevOps and Cloud

DevOps

I first heard about DevOps from Lindsay Holmwood at linux.conf.au 2010. Since then, I’ve been following the movement with interest. It seems to be about cross-functional involvement in software teams, specifically between software development and system administration (or operations). In many organizations, especially SaaS shops, these two groups are placed in opposition to each other: developers are driven to deliver new features to users, while system administrators are held accountable for the operation of the service. In the best case, they maintain a healthy balance by pushing in opposite directions, but more typically, they resent each other for getting in the way, as a result of this dichotomy:

Development Operations
is responsible for… creating products offering services
is measured on… delivery of new features high reliability
optimizes by… increasing velocity controlling change
and so is perceived as… reckless and irresponsible obstructing progress

Of course, both functions are essential to a viable service, and so DevOps aims to replace this opposition with cooperation. By removing this friction from the organization, we hope to improve efficiency, lower costs, and generally get more work done.


So, DevOps promotes the formation of cross-functional teams, where individuals still take on specialist “development” or “operations” roles, but work together toward the common goal of delivering a great experience to users. By working as teammates, rather than passing work “over the wall”, they can both contribute to development, deployment and maintenance according to their skills and expertise. The team becomes a “devops” team, and is responsible for the entire product life cycle. Particular tasks may be handled by specialists, but when there’s a problem, it’s the team’s problem.

Some take it a step further, and feel that what’s needed is to combine the two disciplines, so that individuals contribute in both ways. Rather than thinking of themselves as “developers” or “sysadmins”, these folks consider themselves “devops”. They work to become proficient in both roles, and to synthesize new ways of working by drawing on both types of skills and experience. A common crossover activity is the development of sophisticated tools for automating deployment, monitoring, capacity management and failure resolution.

DevOps meets Cloud

Like DevOps, cloud is not a specific technology or method, but a reorganization of the model (as I’ve written previously). It’s about breaking down the problem in a different way, splitting and merging its parts, and creating a new representation which doesn’t correspond piece-for-piece to the old one.

DevOps drives cloud because it offers a richer toolkit for the way they work: fast, flexible, efficient. Tools like Amazon EC2 and Google App Engine solve the right sorts of problems. Cloud also drives DevOps because it calls into question the traditional way of organizing software teams. A development/operations division just doesn’t “fit” cloud as well as a DevOps model.

Deployment is a classic duty of system administrators. In many organizations, only the IT department can implement changes in the production environment. Reaping the benefits of an IaaS environment requires deploying through an API, and therefore deployment requires development. While it is already common practice for system administrators to develop tools for automating deployment, and tools like Puppet and Chef are gaining momentum, IaaS makes this a necessity, and raises the bar in terms of sophistication. Doing this well requires skills and knowledge from both sides of the “fence” between development and operations, and can accelerate development as well as promote stability in production.


This is exemplified by infrastructure service providers like Amazon Web Services, where customers pay by the hour for “black box” access to computing resources. How those resources are provisioned and maintained is entirely Amazon’s problem, while its customers must decide how to deploy and manage their applications within Amazon’s IaaS framework. In this scenario, some operations work has been explicitly outsourced to Amazon, but IaaS is not a substitute for system administration. Deployment, monitoring, failure recovery, performance management, OS maintenance, system configuration, and more are still needed. A development team which is lacking the experience or capacity for this type of work cannot simply “switch” to an IaaS model and expect these needs to be taken care of by their service provider.


With platform service providers, the boundaries are different. Developers, if they build their application on the appropriate platform, can effectively outsource (mostly) the management of the entire production environment to their service provider. The operating system is abstracted away, and its maintenance can be someone else’s problem. For applications which can be built with the available facilities, this will be a very attractive option for many organizations. The customers of these services may be traditional developers, who have no need for operations expertise. PaaS providers, though, will require deep expertise in both disciplines in order to build and improve their platform and services, and will likely benefit from a DevOps approach.

Technical architecture draws on both development and operations expertise, because design goals like performance and robustness are affected by all layers of the stack, from hardware, power and cooling all the way up to application code. DevOps itself promotes greater collaboration on architecture, by involving experts in both disciplines, but cloud is a great catalyst because cloud architecture can be described in code. Rather than talking to each other about their respective parts of the system, they can work together on the whole system at once. Developers, sysadmins and hybrids can all contribute to a unified source tree, containing both application code and a description of the production environment: how many virtual servers to deploy, their specifications, which components run on which servers, how they are configured, and so on. In this way, system and network architecture can evolve in lockstep with application architecture.

Cloudy promises such as dynamic scaling and fault tolerance call for a DevOps approach in order to be realized in a real-world scenario. These systems involve dynamically manipulating production infrastructure in response to changing conditions, and the application must adapt to these changes. Whether this takes the form of an active, intelligent response or a passive crash-only approach, development and operational considerations need to be aligned.

So what?

DevOps and cloud will continue to reinforce each other and gain momentum. Both individuals and organizations will need to adapt in order to take advantage of the opportunities provided by these new models. Because they’re complementary, it makes sense to adopt them together, so those with expertise in both will be at an advantage.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

June 8, 2010 at 10:28

Rethinking the Ubuntu Developer Summit

This is a repost from the ubuntu-devel mailing list, where there is probably some discussion happening by now.

After each UDS, the organizers evaluate the event and consider how it could be further improved in the future. As a result of this process, the format of UDS has evolved considerably, as it has grown from a smallish informal gathering to a highly structured matrix of hundreds of 45-to-60-minute sessions with sophisticated audiovisual facilities.

If you participated in UDS 10.10 (locally or online), you have hopefully already completed the online survey, which is an important part of this evaluation process.

A survey can’t tell the whole story, though, so I would also like to start a more free-form discussion here among Ubuntu developers as well. I have some thoughts I’d like to share, and I’m interested in your perspectives as well.

Purpose

The core purpose of UDS has always been to help Ubuntu developers to explore, refine and share their plans for the subsequent release. It has expanded over the years to include all kinds of contributors, not only developers, but the principle remains the same.

We arrive at UDS with goals, desires and ideas, and leave with a plan of action which guides our work for the rest of the cycle.

The status quo

UDS looks like this:

This screenshot is only 1600×1200, so there are another 5 columns off the right edge of the screen for a total of 18 rooms. With 7 time slots per day over 5 days, there are over 500 blocks in the schedule grid. 9 tracks are scattered over the grid. We produce hundreds of blueprints representing projects we would like to work on.

It is an impressive achievement to pull this event together every six months, and the organizers work very hard at it. We accomplish a great deal at every UDS, and should feel good about that. We must also constantly evaluate how well it is working, and make adjustments to accommodate growth and change in the project.

How did we get here?

(this is all from memory, but it should be sufficiently accurate to have this discussion)

In the beginning, before it was even called UDS, we worked from a rough agenda, adding items as they came up, and ticking them off as we finished talking about them. Ad hoc methods worked pretty well at this scale.

As the event grew, and we held more and more discussions in parallel, it was hard to keep track of who was where, and we started to run into contention. Ubuntu and Launchpad were planning their upcoming work together at the same time. One group would be discussing topic A, and find that they needed the participation of person X, who was already involved in another discussion on topic B. The A group would either block, or go ahead without the benefit of person X, neither of which was seen to be very effective. By the end of the week, everyone was mentally and physically exhausted, and many were ill.

As a result, we decided to adopt a schedule grid, and ensure that nobody was expected to be in two places at once. Our productivity depended on getting precisely the right people face to face to tackle the technical challenges we faced. This meant deciding in advance who should be present in each session, and laying out the schedule to satisfy these constraints. New sessions were being added all the time, so the UDS organizers would stay up late at night during the event, creating the schedule grid for the next day. In the morning, over breakfast, everyone would tell them about errors, and request revisions to the schedule. Revisions to the schedule were painful, because we had to re-check all of the constraints by hand.

So, in the geek spirit, we developed a program which would read in the constraints and generate an error-free schedule. The UDS organizers ran this at the end of each day during the event, checked it over, and posted it. In the morning, over breakfast, everyone would tell them about constraints they hadn’t been aware of, and request revisions to the schedule. Revisions to the schedule were painful, because a single changed constraint would completely rearrange the schedule. People found themselves running all over the place to different rooms throughout the day, as they were scheduled into many different meetings back-to-back.

At around this point, UDS had become too big, and had too many constraints, to plan on the fly (unconference style). We resolved to plan more in advance, and agree on the scheduling constraints ahead of time. We divided the event into tracks, and placed each track in its own room. Most participants could stay in one place throughout the day, taking part in a series of related meetings except where they were specifically needed in an adjacent track. We created the schedule through a combination of manual and automatic methods, so that scheduling constraints could be checked quickly, but a human could decide how to resolve conflicts. There was time to review the schedule before the start of the event, to identify and fix problems. Revisions to the schedule during the event were fewer and less painful. We added keynote presentations, to provide opportunities to communicate important information to everyone, and ease back into meetings after lunch. Everyone was still exhausted and/or ill, and tiredness took its toll on the quality of discussion, particularly toward the end of the week.

Concerns were raised that people weren’t participating enough, and might stay on in the same room passively when they might be better able to contribute to a different session happening elsewhere. As a result, the schedule was randomly rearranged so that related sessions would not be held in the same room, and everyone would get up and move at the end of each hour.

This brings us roughly to where things stand today.

Problems with the status quo

  1. UDS is big and complex. Creating and maintaining the schedule is a lot of work in itself, and this large format requires a large venue, which in turn requires more planning and logistical work (not to mention cost). This is only worthwhile if we get proportionally more benefit out of the event itself.
  2. UDS produces many more blueprints than we need for a cycle. While some of these represent an explicit decision not to pursue a project, most of them are set aside simply because we can’t fit them in. We have the capacity to implement over 100 blueprints per cycle, but we have *thousands* of blueprints registered today. We finished less than half of the blueprints we registered for 10.04. This means that we’re spending a lot of time at UDS talking about things which can’t get done that cycle (and may never get done).
  3. UDS is (still) exhausting. While we should work hard, and a level of intensity helps to energize us, I think it’s a bit too much. Sessions later in the week are substantially more sluggish than early on, and don’t get the full benefit of the minds we’ve brought together. I believe that such an intense format does not suit the type of work being done at the event, which should be more creative and energetic.
  4. The format of UDS is optimized for short discussions (as many as we can fit into the grid). This is good for many technical decisions, but does not lend itself as well to generating new ideas, deeply exploring a topic, building broad consensus or tackling “big picture” issues facing the project. These deeper problems sometimes require more time. They also benefit tremendously from face-to-face interaction, so UDS is our best opportunity to work on them, and we should take advantage of it.
  5. UDS sessions aim for the minimum level of participation necessary, so that we can carry on many sessions in parallel: we ask, “who do we need in order to discuss this topic?” This is appropriate for many meetings. However, some would benefit greatly from broader participation, especially from multiple teams. We don’t always know in advance where a transformative idea will come from, and having more points of view represented would be valuable for many UDS topics.
  6. UDS only happens once per cycle, but design and planning need to continue throughout the cycle. We can’t design everything up front, and there is a lot of information we don’t have at the beginning. We should aim to use our time at UDS to greatest effect, but also make time to continue this work during the development cycle. “design a little, build a little, test a little, fly a little”

Proposals

  1. Concentrate on the projects we can complete in the upcoming cycle. If we aren’t going to have time to implement something until the next cycle, the blueprint can usually be deferred to the next cycle as well. By producing only moderately more blueprints than we need, we can reduce the complexity of the event, avoid waste, prepare better, and put most of our energy into the blueprints we intend to use in the near future.
  2. Group related sessions into clusters, and work on them together, with a similar group of people. By switching context less often, we can more easily stay engaged, get less fatigued, and make meaningful connections between related topics.
  3. Organize for cross-team participation, rather than dividing teams into tracks. A given session may relate to a Desktop Edition feature, but depends on contributions from more than just the Desktop Team. There is a lot of design going on at UDS outside of the “Design” track. By working together to achieve common goals, we can more easily anticipate problems, benefit from diverse points of view, and help each other more throughout the cycle.
  4. Build in opportunities to work on deeper problems, during longer blocks of time. As a platform, Ubuntu exists within a complex ecosystem, and we need to spend time together understanding where we are and where we are going. As a project, we have grown rapidly, and need to regularly evaluate how we are working and how we can improve. This means considering more than just blueprints, and sometimes taking more than an hour to cover a topic.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

May 27, 2010 at 16:15

Lucid ruminations

A few months ago, I wrote about changes in our development process for Ubuntu 10.04 LTS in order to meet our goals for this long-term release. So, how has it turned out?

Well, the development teams are still very busy preparing for the upcoming release, so there hasn’t been too much time for retrospection yet. Here are some of my initial thoughts, though.

  • Merge from Debian testing – Martin Pitt has started a discussion on ubuntu-devel about how this went. For my part, I found that Lucid included fewer surprises than Karmic.
  • Add fewer features – This is difficult to evaluate objectively, but my gut feeling is that we kept this largely under control. As usual, a few surprise desktop features were implemented that not everyone is happy about, myself included.
  • Avoid major infrastructure changes – I think we did reasonably well here, though Plymouth is a notable exception. It resulted (unsurprisingly) in some nasty bugs which we’ve had to spend time dealing with.
  • Extend beta testing – This will be difficult to assess, though if 10.04 beta was at least as good as 9.10 or 9.04 beta, then it will have arguably been a success.
  • Freeze with Debian – Although early indications were good, this didn’t work out so well, as Debian’s freeze was delayed
  • Visualize progress – The feature status page provided a lot of visual progress information, and the system behind it allowed us to keep track of work slippage throughout the cycle, both of which seemed like a firm step in the right direction. I’m looking forward to hearing from development teams how this information helped them (or not).

A more complete set of retrospectives on Lucid should give us some good ideas for how to improve further in Maverick and beyond.

Update: Fixed broken link.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

April 20, 2010 at 09:23

Cognitive time travel through reminder lists

Making a list

Credit: guinnessgurl/pamelaadam

I make a lot of lists: lists of things to do, things to talk to someone about, things to write, and mistakes never to repeat. I use them to keep track of various aspects of my life, and to help me to “shift gears” to a new task or project by filling my mind with the work at hand.

List-keeping is generally regarded as boring administrative work, something only important to compulsive organizers. When a writer wants to portray a character as meticulous and dull, they need only brand them as a list-maker, with eyes bespectacled from years of squinting over their lists.

The reality of list-keeping is much more exciting: reminder lists are a mechanism for cognitive time travel. They allow us to transport information from the time when it occurs to us, to a time in the future when it will actually be useful. Like a wormhole, they connect distant points in spacetime (though unfortunately only in one direction, as in the Stargate universe).

Throughout my day, I will remember things I need to do, though not right away: an article which looks interesting, or someone I need to remember to call. Putting these items on a list frees my mind to keep going with whatever I’m doing, knowing that the idea is not lost. A common scenario for me is that I’m riding the tube, reading RSS feeds offline on my Android phone using NewsRob, and come across something I want to explore further. There is as yet no wireless service on the tube, so I can’t do anything but read, but I can send myself an email using K-9 which will be delivered later. At the other end of the wormhole, when I’m back online, I receive the email (usually at my computer) and pick up where I left off.

Traveling through time in your head may not be as exciting as flitting about in a TARDIS, but it is much more accessible, and genuinely rewarding.

Written by Matt Zimmerman

March 19, 2010 at 11:25

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