March 17, 2010

Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies

Filed under: Learning,Reading — Freek Leemhuis @ 8:34 pm

I’ve followed Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister ever since I read Peopleware, a great book about building great software teams. When a new book by these authors (and a few others) came out last year, I ordered it straight away. It’s called Adrenaline Junkies and Template Zombies, and it’s a great list of patterns of project behaviour.
It’s a fun read, although I’m sure for some of my colleagues and former colleagues some of the stories are too close for comfort.
I’ll describe why a few of the patterns really resonated with me:

At one of my previous assignment there were a lot of procedures to follow. Using project management procedures like Prince2 really revolved around having the specified documents in place at certain to pass certain milestones. Usually, the templates for these documents have little descriptions here and there where information is required.At the start of a project, one had to fill in an document listing predefined architectural concerns and design decisions for the system to be delivered. In itself not a bad practice, but ofcourse only valuable if you put the right amount of detail and consideration into it. As a test, I filled in the template with completely inane comments to see who would pick up on it. Where it asked: what are the logging and tracing requirements for this application I wrote This application has no specific needs for logging and tracing other than standard.
Under the heading: what security concerns need to be adressed for the information contained in the database I wrote : the information needs to be authorized by the guidelines specified in the technical design (note: there was at that time no technical design document – this was to be delivered only in the next project phase). You get the picture. I filed the document and it passed with flying colours: all boxes where checked. In reality, it amounted to nothing.
This kind of behaviour is what DeMarco et al refer to as Template Zombies. If procedures are more about form than content, be very careful. The Template Zombies are out to get you.
The other pattern that lends it’s name to the book is one I deal with quite a bit: Adrenaline Junkies. You will find these people in organizations where priorities are constantly shifting to the project that is particular urgent at that time. A new project was about to start, and after calculating the manpower required to finish on time we concluded that a 4man team should start right away to have any chance of actually meeting the deadline. However, after confronting the project manager with this information, he looked at us stunned, and responded: `are you kidding me? There are 10 more projects that we need to work on before we start that one!’
And so we did not start until it was too late, and ofcourse the project was late like any other project they were doing.
This is the thing when you are dealing with Adraneline Junkies: they react rather than consider, and there is no long-time planning, and generally they confuse being very busy with being very productive. There is generally a lot of burnout and turnover at companies that follow this pattern. Junkie behaviour does not scale, and companies that fail to recognize it will struggle to make a long term impact.
Mind you, the book does not really go into detail on how to handle the situations it describes. It merely gives a name to patterns that are, unfortunately, rife in our industrie. When dealing with Adraneline Junkies I have made my mind up to avoid in particular one other pattern mentioned by DeMarco: I will not be a Film Critic. Go ahead and look that one up, and many other similarly apt named patterns.

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