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The Dorset House Quarterly Interviews

Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister
Author of Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams, 2nd ed.

ISBN: 978-0-932633-43-9  
©1999  264 pages   softcover  
$33.95 (plus shipping)

DHQ: The first edition of Peopleware, released in 1987, was an overnight bestseller and the second edition is following at the same pace. How did the book come about and what was your reaction to its success?

LISTER: Peopleware was born as an experimental session in our "Controlling Software Projects" seminar, and it just took off from there.

DeMARCO: My first response was to feel great that we had picked the right subject and nailed it. But the effect over time of the (almost always grateful) correspondence that has poured in is quite different. The stories those letters tell are individually amusing and collectively depressing. I have been so privileged to work over the years under talented and humane managers; I'm full of sympathy for those who have gotten less of a good break.

DHQ: Is there a unifying theme to the eight new chapters in Part VI, Son of Peopleware? How do the new chapters relate to the originals?

LISTER: I'd say it is the change from workplace to community. Most people these days look to work to find all sorts of fulfillment I never thought about as a young programmer. They look to the job to find friendship, enjoyable social functions, even love.

DHQ: Is there a ceiling to the amount of freedom that management can give a programming team before the team loses control of itself? If so, what is that point?

DeMARCO: The hardest and most useful trick of management is to know not to steer when the project is going in the right direction. Of course this applies as well to the project that is going in almost the right direction. The team has an innate ability to steer itself and you need not to intervene unless it really has begun to wander off track.

DHQ: If you could pick one insight from Peopleware to broadcast to every software development manager, what would it be?

DeMARCO: It's the idea that good managers are talented and adept at building real community.

LISTER: I'd add that people really yearn to do good work. If you manage them any other way, you are participating in some sort of dysfunction.

DHQ: You two have been a jelled team for many years now. What's your secret?

DeMARCO: There is an element of luck in our pairing. Decent jell requires lots of respect, shared values, good emotional connection, and at least some similarity in sense of humor. But those things aren't enough. I think it's also important that teammates have some clearly complementary skills. I am constantly aware that Tim's contributions are in domains where I do not excel. He is a gifted phrasemaker, quipper, image coiner, and a genuinely original thinker. We also have some domains in common: We're both very serious about being in the abstraction business. We both know that a good abstraction is worth many days of work. It's the combination of some overlapping skills and some complementary skills that has been essential for us.

LISTER: Like every happy couple, we work together often, but also go our separate ways at times. Tom never even told me he was writing The Deadline. A manuscript appeared one day; I read it in one sitting. It was like a present, even if it wasn't just for me.

DHQ: Peopleware is celebrated for promoting management concepts that are controversial within the computer industry. How have the debates you've raised affected you over the years?

DeMARCO: I find I'm not so welcome anymore in companies that make a practice of burning out their workers. High pressure managers are threatened by the thought that there are limits to how much good applying pressure can do. Yet pressure has some very pronounced limits. Consider this: If you tell a joke in front of an audience and hold up a laugh sign, people will dutifully laugh—even if your punch line wasn't terribly funny. But if you leave that sign up for more than about five seconds, the laughter will die away and leave you with a cold, sullen silence. I'd like to put all new managers on a stage and make them perform that experiment enough times to know what cold, sullen silence sounds like. Then they will recognize it the next time they try to apply too much pressure.

LISTER: I don't think this is exactly trouble, but somehow I've been dubbed a workspace expert. I've even been on a panel at a meeting of the Royal Canadian Society of Architects. If you think a lot of office space is poor, you should have heard the air quality expert that night!

DHQ: Instead of revising all the chapters of the original text, you added a whole new section with eight chapters. What were your impressions of the original text as you prepared the second edition?

DeMARCO: The French author Marcel Pagnol was asked to prepare a revision of a book he had published many years before. He sketched out some ideas and then stopped, and finally sent the unchanged original back to the publisher with a note saying, "I no longer have the right to make changes to this young writer's work."

DHQ: In Peopleware terms, what have been the healthiest and sickest trends of the last ten years?

DeMARCO and LISTER: Healthy: small empowered teams, co-location, lots of job formation in new companies with no institutional baggage. Not so healthy: level envy, process obsession, most "team building exercises," distributed "teams," and Management by Objectives.

DHQ: What evidence have you seen that the industry is moving in the direction of the Peopleware principles?

DeMARCO: First of all, the term Peopleware is in general use everywhere. Even people who don't know what it means realize that it is one of every manager's chief responsibilities. I think the strongest Peopleware theme that is actively at play in business today is an understanding that keeping people is the sine qua non of success. On the downside, we clearly didn't win the sensible workplace war. Companies presented with evidence that noise and tight quarters are counterproductive just close their eyes and ears and proceed as before.

DHQ: Thanks, Tom and Tim!

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The preceding interview appears in The Dorset House Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring 1999. DHQ is now iDH: Inside Dorset House, our free quarterly newsletter. It features book excerpts, interviews, author news, and special discounts. Request a subscription with our Contact Form.

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