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Sunday, September 30, 2012

Team Geek Book Review

Team Geek: A Software Developer's Guide to Working Well with Others by Brian W. Fitzpatrick and Ben Collins-Sussman, is a new book published in July 2012. It is written by two Engineers who are thought leaders within Google. They also heavily contributed and led the open source Subversion SVN) project. At the heart of the book is a central theme: Humility, Respect, and Trust (HRT).

The book focuses on the social aspect of software development, team culture, and personal interactions. Although it surrounds a technical field, the book does not dive into any technical jargon. There is no elaboration on the merits of elegant design patterns or database bottle neck optimizations. Through simple stories and anecdotes, the authors mentor the reader through the obstacles of the IT office place. From hairy pointed bosses, to the perfectionist, to the ego maniac, the authors have encountered a variety of situations and offer the reader practical advice. 

The Three Pillars

Becoming an effective, likable member of the team is not something extraordinary or inventive. In fact it's quite simple. But simple actions in life are not always easy to accomplish. The individual must dig deep inside and resist the obvious temptations of ego, hero addiction, "cover your ass"-ness, condescension, or bitterness. The Team Geek guys boiled it down to three main principles, which they categorize as the Three Pillars:

Humility

    You are not the center of the universe. You’re neither omniscient nor infallible. You’re open to self-improvement.
   
Respect

    You genuinely care about others you work with. You treat them as human beings, and appreciate their abilities and accomplishments.
   
Trust

    You believe others are competent and will do the right thing, and you’re OK with letting them drive when appropriate.
The brilliance in these definitions are that these three words mean slightly different things to different people. By adding a few sentences to define the terms in the context of a software development team, Humility, Respect, and Trust (HRT) becomes simple, straight forward and easy to digest.

Leadership

Team Geek also has some insightful chapters on leadership. Gone are the traditional days where a leader commands and controlls his team, being the bottleneck of every decision and the point man for every solution. Our industry and the problem domains we try to solve are too complex for one person. The leader is unable to charge into problems head on with subservient programmers in a 'V' shaped bird formation behind him. In fact, this approach to problem solving often stifles a project where creative ideas go by the wayside and issues boil in the waiting until they explode. Today's leaders empower their team, and encourage members to step up and respond to problems.

Servant leadership is at the heart of the advice from the authors. A servant leader strives to provide an atmosphere of HRT within the team. Culture is not something created from the top down. It is created first from the leader, then cultivated by all its members. The leader should be the instigator of positive team culture.

When referring to managers, Team Geeks says the worst thing an ineffective manager can do is "manage." This is a delightful quote:
The best advice we got when we first became engineering managers at Google was from Steve Vinter, an engineering director. He said, “Above all, resist the urge to manage.” One of the greatest urges of the newly minted manager is to actively “manage” her employees because that’s what a manager does, right? This typically has disastrous consequences.
Subsequently, the book offer several antipatterns to avoid as a leader, along with several positive tips on their view on effective leadership. Much of it focuses on losing the ego, empowering the team, and providing the vision.

Take Aways

I really enjoyed reading this book in my spare team in the evenings and sometimes at the office over lunch. It's a short read with both a humorous and practical angle on the personalities you see at the IT office. The human side of software development is quite important, and even more important if you play a leadership role. Many of the readers will relate their day to day interactions with those presented by Team Geek. Besides all the good advice, the humor and stories are enough to entertain you for a while.  

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