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Forget technology, embrace people

01 Jun 2008

Resellers of IT products know better than any other group how often the technology gets blamed for project failures. They also know that this typically masks the real, more fundamental, problem – the people implementing the project. The ‘people problem’ is one all of us in the IT industry need to be concerned about and trying our best to solve.

We are regularly bombarded with IT industry shortcomings – the embarrassing and expensive project failures, the skills shortage and the lack of new graduates coming through, and the fact that our industry isn’t sexy and has no ‘mana’. 

Why do we have this people problem? This is the question on the lips of many of the industry’s leading bodies, including government funded groups established to improve our image problem.

Fundamentally, the IT industry has failed to deliver any system to validate the capabilities of the people implementing IT projects. Would you have an unqualified and inexperienced architect design important buildings? Yet, we seem quite happy to let some relatively poorly prepared people design and develop software or manage large, expensive and strategically important IT projects. Often the problems don’t manifest until something breaks

or some poor developer tries to extend the

product and discovers what is really under the hood.

So what do we do? While there are initiatives underway such as the NZ Computer Society’s Professional Certification Program, little is available right now.  If a project manager holds a Prince 2 or PMP qualification it doesn’t necessarily mean they are capable of running significant projects.  The same applies for software development. There is a vast difference between a real software engineer and a programmer — even if the programmer has a string of letters after his or her name. 

How do we reduce risk, accelerate delivery and reduce long term IT costs? Simple – get the right people, and only the right people. Don’t accept anything else.  This isn’t good news, especially in a tight labour market; however, let’s get pragmatic here and look at the costs in real terms.

Joel Spolsky’s excellent article Hitting the High Notes  shows that there is a 5:1 to 10:1 productivity difference between average and excellent software developers.  So potentially, a good developer can be more productive than five or even 10 mediocre ones.  The same can apply to project managers. A good PM will reduce risk and prevent issues occurring, drastically reducing overall costs.

The lesson from this? Don’t skimp on the cost of good people.  So, how do you find and retain the good people? That subject is too big to approach in this article, but culture, employer of choice, challenge and leadership all spring to mind. When developing a model that attracts and retains the right people for IT projects, a simple, clear approach works best:

  •     Be invitation-only. Only the very best people should get the chance to become your ‘members’.

  •     Heavily vet your people, from code reviews on developers through to reviewing past project delivery for project managers. This is not just reference checking; do thorough digging into a candidate’s background and really try to understand what they have done in the past.

  •     If it doesn’t ‘feel’ right, don’t proceed. That might sound subjective, but in dealing with people all the objective analysis all of us do has to be balanced with our gut reaction to a person.

This process means it takes longer to get people and it may mean you have to turn work away because you don’t have the resources available. But you will undoubtedly see the impact. 

In summary:

  •     Don’t rush the recruitment process. It is more important to get it right than get it fast.

  •     Don’t skimp on paying for the good people. Good people cost less overall.

  •    Focus on value rather than cost. And don’t forget it is people, not technology, that make the difference.  

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