Review: “Peopleware” by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister

Peopleware: Productive projects and teams is an essential manual for management of IT projects. In a light and entertaining style the authors outline what’s wrong and what’s right with modern software development projects. They also offer practical solutions and advice.

Are project problems always technical problems?

The first practical observation comes on the second page - that project problems are usually social rather than technical in nature. This may seem obvious however project managers often address the technical matters over the social.

Parkinson’s Law, anyone?

DeMarco and Lister give Parkinson’s Law a vigourous shake. (C.N. Parkinson said that work expands to fill the time available.) They argue convincingly that “Parkinson’s Law almost certainly doesn’t apply to your people” although many managers treat their staff as if it were so. This leads to one of several axoimatic statements in this book: “People under pressure don’t work better; they just work faster.”

The crime of “teamcide”

There is no magic formula to make a development team “jell”. But Peopleware does outline ways that management often commits “teamcide” on a productive bunch of people, including bureaucracy, physical separation of team members, and imposing meaningless deadlines. Fortunately the authors also offer some practical suggestions about how to foster team cohesion.

Hooray for the cubicle farm!

The section on office environment planning alone makes this book a must read for anyone stuck in a Dilbert-like cubicle. The authors present some provocative data on the effect of workplace environment on the productivity of “intellect workers”. Figures from their coding war games show a high correlation between productivity and the amount of privacy and space given to programmers. Other factors such as salary level, years of experience and development platform were far less influential on productivity.

DeMarco and Lister discuss the importance of the psychological state of “flow”, that near-meditative state of deep involvement in a task. Flow increases creativity and personal satisfaction. Prolonged periods without interruption are desirable as it takes at least fifteen minutes to return to flow after an interruption. I can confirm that flow is almost impossible to achieve in an open plan environment.

Peopleware offers a strong argument against open plan offices. Proponents of the open plan model never produced evidence that open plan offices are more productive merely offered “proof by repeated assertion”.

“The people who brought us open-plan seating simply weren’t up to the task. But they talked a good game. They sidestepped the issue of whether productivity might go down by asserting very loudly that the new office arrangement would cause productivity to go up, and up a lot, by as much as three hundred percent. … The only method we have ever seen used to confirm claims that the open plan improves productivity is proof by repeated assertion.”

– Peopleware pp 52-3.

Open that kimono!

Peopleware is a very accessible book with an engaging and entertaining style. It includes some delightfully illuminating catch phrases - the “open kimono” manager, the “furniture police”, and so on. The authors also use short stories from the trenches to help illustrate their main points. Major points are given as highlighted maxims, and they usually made this reader nod or smile in agreement.

The verdict?

The light hearted style and thinness of the book (less than 200 pages) doesn’t mean the content is light weight. Experienced programmers and project managers will identify with much of the book and will appreciate the practical suggestions it contains. The irony is that DeMarco and Lister published Peopleware in 1987 and all of the solutions they offered then are still being ignored today.

Compulsory reading for everyone working in software development or almost any sort of project work. Hunt it down, you won’t regret it.

Quite simply a classic.

Peopleware - Productive projects and teams
Tom DeMarco and Tony Lister.
Copyright © 1987 Dorset House Publishing.