The First Strategy: Declare War on Your Enemies (The Polarity Strategy)

Software is endless battle and conflict, and you cannot develop effectively unless you can identify the enemies of your project. Obstacles are subtle and evasive, sometimes appearing to be strengths and not distractions. You need clarity. Learn to smoke out your obstacles, to spot them by the signs and patterns that reveal hostility and opposition to your success. Then, once you have them in your sights, have your team declare war. As the opposite poles of a magnet create motion, your enemies–your opposites–can fill you with purpose and direction. As people and problems that stand in your way, who represent what you loathe, oppositions to react against, they are a source of energy. Do not be naive: with some problems, there can be no compromise, no middle ground.

In the early 1970s, Margaret Thatcher shook up British politics by refusing to take the style of the politicians before her: where they were smooth and conciliatory, she was confrontational, attacking her opponents directly. She bucked the conventional wisdom, attacking her opponents mercilessly where historically politicians sought to reassure and compromise. Her opponents had no choice but to respond in kind. Thatcher’s approach polarized the population, seizing the attention, attracting the undecided and winning a sizable victory.

But now she had to rule, and as she continued down her obstinate, all-in style of “radicalism” politics, she seemed to gain more enemies than any one politician could hold off. Then, in 1982, Argentina attacked the British Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic. Despite the distance–the Falklands were almost diametrically opposite the globe from the British home islands, off the tip of South America–Thatcher never hesitated, dispatching the British armed forces to respond to the incursion with deadly force, and the Argentinians were beaten. Suddenly, her obstinacy and radicalism were seen in a different light: courage, nobility, resolute and confident.

Thatcher, as an outsider (a middle-class woman and a right-wing radical), chose not to try and “fit in” with the crowd, but to stake her territory clearly and loudly. Life as an outsider can be hard, but she knew that if she tried to blend in, she could easily be replaced. Instead, she set herself up at every turn as one woman against an army of men.

As Greene notes,

We live in an era in which people are seldom directly hostile. The rules of engagement–social, political, military–have changed, and so must your notion of the enemy. An up-front enemy is rare now and is actually a blessing. … Although the world  is more competitive than ever, outward aggression is discouraged, so people have learned to go underground, to attack unpredictably and craftily. … Understand: the word ‘enemy’–from the Latin inimicus, “not a friend”–has been demonized and politicized. Your first task as a strategist is to widen your concept of the enemy, to include in that group those who are working against you, thwarting you, even in subtle ways.

Software projects face much the same kind of problem: there are numerous forces that are at work trying to drag the project down into failure. While agile books love to assume an environment in which the agile methodology is widely accepted and embraced, reality often intrudes in very rude ways. Sometimes management’s decision to “go agile” is based not to try and deliver software more successfully, but to simply take the latest “fad” and throw it into the mix, such that when it fails, management can say, “But we followed industry best practices, it clearly can’t be management at fault.” (This is the same idea behind the statement, “Nobody ever got fired for buying IBM (or Microsoft or Java or …).” Sometimes the users are not as committed to the project as we might hope, and at times, the users are even contradictory to one another, as each seeks to promote their own agenda within the project.

As a software development lead (or architect, or technical lead, or project manager, or agile coach, or whatever), you need to learn how to spot these enemies to your project, identify them clearly, and make it clear that you see them as an enemy that will not be tolerated. This doesn’t mean always treat them openly hostile–sometimes the worst enemies can be turned into the best friends, if you can identify what drives them to the position that they take, and work to meet their needs. Case in point: system administrators frequently find themselves at odds with developers, because the developer seeks (by nature) to change the system, and sysadmins seek (by nature) to keep everything status quo. Recognizing that sysadmins have historically been blindsided by projects that essentially ignored their needs (such as a need to know that the system is still running, or the need to be able to easily add users, change security policies, or diagnose failures quickly at 3AM in the morning) means that we as developers can either treat them as enemies to be overcome, or win them as friends by incorporating their needs into the project. But they are either “for us” or “against us”, and not just a group to be ignored.

Other enemies are not to be tolerated at any level: apathy, sloth, or ignorance are all too common among developer teams. Ignorance of how underlying technologies work. Apathy as to the correctness of the code being created. Sloth in the documentation or tests. These are enemies that, given enough time and inattention, will drag the project down into the tar pits of potential failure. They cannot be given any quarter. Face them squarely, with no compromise. Your team, if they hold these qualities, must be shown that there is no tolerance for them. Hold brown-bag lunches once a week to talk about new technologies, and their poential impact on the team or company or project. Conduct code reviews religiously, during active development (rather that at the end as a token gesture), with no eye towards criticizing the author of the code, but the code itself. Demand perfection in the surrounding artifacts of the project: the help files, the user documentation, the graphics used for buttons and backdrops and menus.

Do not wait for the enemies of your project to show themselves, either–actively seek them out and crush them. Take ignorance, for example. Do not just “allow” each of your developers to research new technologies, but demand it of them: have each one give a brown-bag presentation in turn. In a four-man team, this means that each developer will have a month in which to find something new to discover, analyze, discuss and present. They do not have to have all the answers to the technology, and in fact, if the technology is sufficiently large or interesting, they can spend the next month investigating a new element or new use of the technology. Demanding this of your developers means they are forced to educate themselves, and forced to raise their own awareness of the changing world. (Naturally, developers must be given time to do this research; anecdotally, giving them Friday afternoons to do this experimentation and research, when energy and interest in the work week is already typically at an ebb, works well.)

Wherever possible, avoid enemies that are large and hard to pinpoint. Simply saying “We need to have better quality code” is too amorphous and too vague. Developers have nothing to measure against. Personalize your enemies, eyeball to eyeball. Put names to them, make them clearly visible to all involved. “We will have 100% code coverage in our unit tests” is a clearly-defined goal, and anything that prevents that goal from being reached will be clearly visible. “We will not ship code that fails to pass any unit test” is another clear goal, but must be paired with something that avoids the natural “Well, then, we’ll not write any unit tests, and we’ll have met that goal!” response. Demanding a ratio of unit-test-lines-to-lines ratio is a good start: “We will have three lines of unit test code per line of code” now offers a measurable, identifiable enemy that can be stared in the face. Go so far as to make a ceremony out of it: call the developers into a room, put a poster on a wall, and make your intentions clear. Motivate them. “When we presented the release of the payroll system to the HR department last year, the users called it ‘barely acceptable’ and ‘hard to use’. I refuse to allow that to happen again. The system we build for them this year will be amazing. It will be reliable. It will have those features they need to get their job done (and be specific here), and we will accept no excuse otherwise.”

One of the world’s most successful software companies, Microsoft is no stranger to the polarity strategy. The company as a whole as declared war on its enemies in a variety of fields, and with few exceptions, has won in almost every conflict. Microsoft actively courts conflict and confrontation. The presence of a well-established competitor in a particular field is no barrier to entry; Microsoft has routinely entered fields with dominant competitors and come out ahead in the end. Witness their entries into the word-processor and spreadsheet markets held at the time by dominant competitors WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3, their entry into the video-game console market against well-established competitors Sega and Nintendo, and more recently, the mobile entertainment device market (the Zune) against the iPod. In the latter, the battle has just begun, and the market remains firmly in the hands of the iPod, but let it not be forgotten that Microsoft is not one to retreat quickly from a battle.

Microsoft is also known to do this within their projects; developers who are committed to a project yet seem hesitant or lax in their work are asked if they are really “on board” with this project. The legends of Microsoft developers putting in 80-plus hours a week on a project are somewhat true, but not because Microsoft management expects it of them, but because developers have been willing to put that kind of time into the project in order to succeed.

And Microsoft management itself has declared war on its enemies, time and again, looking to eliminate any and all opposition the successful release of software. Distractions? Every developer gets his own office. Household chores? Microsoft has been known to offer their developers laundry services at work. Computing resources? It’s not at all uncommon to walk into a Microsoft developers’ office and see multiple CPUs (under desks, in corners, laptops, and so on) and monitors all over the room. Bodily needs? Refrigerators on every floor, stocked with sodas of every variety, water, juices, anything that the thirsty developer could need, all free for the taking. Even fatigue is an enemy: Microsoft buildings have video game consoles, foosball tables, bean bag chairs, and more tools of relaxational activities to help the developer take a break when necessary, so that they can resume the fight refreshed.

Greene notes further,

There are always hostile people and destructive relationships. The only way to break out of a negative dynamic is to confront it. Repressing your anger, avoiding the person threatening you, always looking to conciliate–these common strategies spell ruin. Avoidance of conflict becomes a habit, and you lose the taste for battle. Feeling guilty is pointless; it is not your fault you have enemies. Feeling wronged or victimized is equally futile. In both cases you are looking inward, concentrating on yourself and your feelings. Instead of internalizing a bad situation, externalize it and face your enemy. It is the only way out.

To adapt this to software, instead of simply talking about the hopeless situation in which you find yourself–your company has no interest in agile, your team is just too “inexperienced” to tackle the kinds of projects you are being given, and so on–externalize it. Face the enemy. Your company has no interest in agile? Fine–instead of trying to talk them into it, take the radical approach, do a project in an agile fashion (even without upper management’s knowledge if necessary), and show them the results. Can’t get the IT budget to allow for a source-control server or continuous integration server? Use your desktop machine instead. Face the enemy, confront it, and defeat it.

Enemies are not evil, and should not be seen as something to avoid. Enemies give us something against which to measure ourselves, to use as a foil against which to better ourselves. They motivate and focus your beliefs. Have a co-worker who refuses to see the benefits of dynamic languages? Avoiding him simply avoids an opportunity for you to learn from him and to better your arguments and approaches. Have a boss who doesn’t see what the big deal behind a domain-specific language is? Have conversations on the subject, to understand her reluctance and opposition, and build a small DSL to show her the benefits of doing so. Don’t avoid these people, for they offer you opportunities to better yourself and your understanding.

Enemies also give you a standard against which to judge yourself. It took Joe Frazier to make Muhammad Ali a truly great boxer. The samurai of Japan had no guage of their excellence unless they challenged the best swordsmen they could find. For the Indianapolis Colts of last year, each victory was hollow unless they could beat their arch-rivals, the New England Patriots. The bigger the opponent, the greater your reward, even in defeat, for if you lose, you have opportunities to analyze the results and discover how and why you lost, then correct your strategy for the next time. For there will always be a next time.

Don’t seek to eschew enemies, either. Enemies give us options and purpose. Julius Caesar identified Pompey as his enemy early in his rise to the throne. Everything he did from then on was measured against Pompey, to put him in a stronger position to meet his enemy. Once he defeated Pompey, however, Caesar lost his way, and eventually fell because he viewed himself as a god and above all other men. Enemies force on you a sense of realism and humility.

Remember, enemies surround you and your project, and sometimes even within your project. Keep a sharp eye out, so that once spotted, they can be identified, analyzed, and handled. Show no quarter to those enemies: they must either join you to help you in your quest to build great software, or be ruthlessly eliminated from your path. They can either benefit from the project, or they can be removed from the battlefield entirely. Some enemies–ignorance, apathy, sloth–are not easily defeated, nor once defeated will they remain so. Never lay down your arms against them or trust your arms to someone else–you are the last line of your own defense.