Thinking About Software Executives

  1. Posted on March 26, 2007 2:21:PM by Steve McConnell to 10x Software Development
  2. Podcast, summit, software executives, executives, Construx Software Executive Summit, Management

It's hard to believe it's time to begin thinking about Construx's Executive Summit already. The Summit isn't until October (October 15-17), but there are a few long-lead-time activities. Right now I'm inviting speakers and rounding up discussion moderators. We're also finalizing hotel arrangements. Next I'll define discussion topics, and then comes the event agenda. Once that's done, we'll update the event website with 2007 information so that by May we can begin officially inviting people.           

This event has become one of the real high points of my year, because it gives me a chance to spend 3 intensive days with software development executives. Historically, I've spent much of my time with programmers and managers, but as the years have gone by I've spent an increasing amount of time with directors,VPs, and C-level execs. It's an interesting group, and interacting with them represents a chance to make a real difference in software development practices. The people who attend the Summit are typically the most senior technical executives in their organizations. If they can get some good insights into better software development practices, their whole staff will benefit. But if these people don't "get it," there isn't much hope for their organizations--no one above them is going to get it if they don't.

I've learned that as you move higher in a software organization you find some subtle shifts in viewpoint that go along with the more obvious shifts in responsibility. Lower level managers tend to spend most of their time looking downward, looking after the staff underneath them. By the time you get to the VP level and above, the orientation tends to shift a little upward and a lot outward. Exec certainly can and should care about the staff underneath them, but their day-to-day issues revolve more around peer-level executives (in large organizations), boards of directors, C-level execs, and customers. Top technical executives aren't thinking so much about the health of individual programmers, managers, or even projects. Their focus is on the health of the entire organization. Some of the irrationality that developers perceive at their level can actually look pretty rational when you see it from the executive level (although sometimes, of course, it doesn't!).

There are some subtle shifts in communication style that go along with the shift in viewpoint. In lower level technical ranks, it's common to find skepticism or even cynicism as the day-to-day stock in trade, and I think that goes with the territory. Good programmers have to be paranoid about all the influences that can undermine their work. This can lead to a certain negativity in their communications. It doesn't mean they're negative people; it just means that many programmers have found that the best way to ensure something works is to be hyper-conscious of all the ways it might break. For people who aren't used to that orientation, it can seem pretty negative.

As you move up in an organization, top executives tend to be much more focused on possibilities than on problems, as well as being more concerned with the big picture than with pesky details. Summit attendees nearly all come from software development backgrounds so you might think they would be prone to negative-sounding communications, but as a group they sound much more positive than a group of developers would. I don't know if these software executives learned to change their communication styles somewhere along their paths to executive positions, or if perhaps people with a more positive communication style tend to get selected for executive positions more often. Whatever the reason, the difference in communication style becomes very noticeable once you become sensitized to it. 

The event also attracts fascinating people from really interesting companies that collectively are trying just about every different kind of software development practice. I find it really stimulating to be in this environment discussing software issues with people from very different companies who all share the goal of improving their software practices.

This year our speakers at the event are

  • Alistair Cockburn, "The Role of Manager in Modern Agile Projects
  • Watts Humphrey, "Process Scaling: From Small to Huge"
  • Tom DeMarco, "Quick or Dead: Organizational Velocity for an Impatient Age"
  • Howard Look, "From Screenplay to 1.0: Applying Movie-making
  • Steve McConnell, "The Legacy ofAgile Development"

The speakers are really the icing on the cake. The main focus of the event is small group discussions (fewer than 10 people per discussion) in which we talk about enterprise-level software development issues. I learn a lot just by sitting and listening in these discussions.

If you'd like to read more about the event, please visit www.construx.com/summit/. Full details will be posted on that site shortly.[Update 5/18/07 -- full details are now posted at www.construx.com/summit/.]

Maksym Shostak said:

May 31, 2007 10:37:AM

"If they [Software Executives] can get some good insights into better software development practices, their whole staff will benefit. But if these people don't "get it," there isn't much hope for their organizations--no one above them is going to get it if they don't."

I was trying to get it (SD best practices) being a programmer in three software  companies. They was looking on me as an opponent to "common bureaucratic regime", disregarding that I was approving by practice results.

"It doesn't mean they're negative people; it just means that many programmers have found that the best way to ensure something works is to be hyper-conscious of all the ways it might break. For people who aren't used to that orientation, it can seem pretty negative."

Hum, I was in such situations too. The last task in one of the companies I worked was to write software requirements specification. My manager (testers lead in previous company) assigned to me (to developer) that task. There were four persons in our team. The executive want to develop (or participate in development) an application for social network needs. The application's business requirements was to find and display (visualize) to (business) user relations between directors, VPs, C-level execs and companies they have relations to, etc.

Beside the requirements task I had a task to develop lexical (semantic) text analysis module that will find the relation from piece of text. I do not have knowledge in that area, so I searched in the internet about that theme and found that one russian company was working on that field and spent about seven years with recruiting high forehead mathematicians and linguists to develop such text analysis engine.

A couple of weeks I was fighting with the above managers and was discharged because "One who want to make (the task), do search facilities, but one who don’t (want to make the task) - is looking for the reasons."

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Steve McConnell

Steve McConnell is CEO and Chief Software Engineer at Construx Software where he consults to a broad range of industries, teaches seminars, and oversees Construx’s software development practices. In 1998, readers of Software Development magazine named Steve one of the three most influential people in the software industry along with Bill Gates and Linus Torvalds.

Steve is the author of Software Estimation: Demystifying the Black Art (2006), Code Complete (1993, 2004), Rapid Development (1996), Software Project Survival Guide (1998), and Professional Software Development (2004). His books twice won Software Development magazine's Jolt Excellence award for outstanding software development book of the year.

Steve has served as Editor in Chief of IEEE Software magazine, on the Panel of Experts of the SWEBOK project, and as Chair of the IEEE Computer Society’s Professional Practices Committee.

Steve received a Bachelor’s degree from Whitman College, graduating Magna Cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, and earned a Master’s degree in software engineering from Seattle University.
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