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Ego Driven Development

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Ego Driven Development, (EDD), is a software development anti-pattern where developers and managers repeatedly act as if established best practices do not apply to them, to the detriment of their organization. Institutional ego is most often to blame.

EDD plagues many organizations; here just some of the symptoms you might encounter:

  • “Not Invented Here” syndrome. Expressed most commonly in a desire for everything needed to be developed in house. E.g.: “Need a CMS? Let’s make our own from scratch!” Perhaps, you work at a place where all your teammates do is constantly bring you bad ideas. Are they really all terrible? Or are only your ideas good enough for the organization? Not Invented Here can also apply to your own head, not just the organization.

  • Little to no test coverage of domain logic. There are plenty of great developers who do not need automated tests to remember all the little quirks of their systems when working alone, and that works fine until you bring on a second developer. Domain logic tests are about increasing communication and speed for the team, and they are part of being a good citizen of a team.

  • No dedicated UI person for external user interfaces or no actual user testing. Either the developers or the manager think they are good enough to design excellent and understandable user interfaces or do not realize the importance of this. Think of a “Steve Jobs”-type manager who imagines himself to be a prodigy of design and usability, or the developer who “doesn’t think design is all that hard”. Real users trying out your software for a few minutes will tell you more than you would believe.

  • No dedicated QA for externally-facing software. Someone who is experienced at breaking software should have a crack at it before it goes to users. Developers (including me) are too enamored with their own work to really take the time to break it, so someone with a sense of pride in finding problems needs to be given the task.

  • Ivory Tower” or “Architecture Astronaut” team leads. The team member that is focused on “perfection” of the design or code to the detriment of the business. This is not an easy distinction to make, and no one becomes this without a heart full of good intentions. “If only the test coverage could be higher” (when it is already high) or “we can make our own programming language to solve this so much more elegantly”. Like I said, a fine line that takes many years of experience and deep familiarity with the business and the domain to discern.

  • Broad skill level spectrum (that stays static). A huge gap in skill level between the best and worst team members. Most often happens when a bunch of new hires come on board, and were not skilled enough for the task or were not trained properly. The original team members decide the new members are “not worth the effort” and neglect to train them in the hopes they will be fired. Months, or even years later, the “new members” are still struggling along, berated by the “elites”.

  • No pair programming. Very few activities will raise the water level for all the team members like pairing. It trains new developers quickly, as well as allows the older developers to see the pain points of a system through a new set of eyes.

  • Micro-management in some areas, no management in others. When leads and managers put too much effort and management into some areas, to the neglect of other areas. Some tickets will be crammed with detail down to the database column names, others will be one-liners covering a month of work. Typically, this is a top-down effect, starting at upper management and trickling down to the lowest levels. Whatever the “eye of Sauron” is focused on is what the whole chain of command suddenly turns its laser focus towards, while the rest of the projects/tickets are abandoned by all but the developer assigned to the ticket.

  • Agile “Lite”. Everyone pretty much has heard that agile is a fast development methodology. What often happens is that management either does not learn enough about it to implement correctly, or does not like the “chaotic” nature of true agile, and so attempts to adopt the “best parts”. Typically this means splitting work into “sprints” and having a “stand-up”, while developers all just work off of tickets assigned and estimated by their leads. Often this happens because the person who makes the call on whether or not to implement agile falsely believes themselves (and the team) to be “good enough to not need it”.

  • Low Joel Test score. The Joel Test remains a great indicator of institutional ego. A team that scores low on the Joel Test does so because someone along the way decided that, “nah, we don’t need that here, we are special”, and almost certainly they are not. I have yet to hear of a team with a legitimate reason for a low Joel Test score.

  • Low pay. Ah, yes, the shops that pay their developers significantly lower than the average in that location, language, and experience. This one is hard, because it really is almost always up to just one person, and the developer usually only gets to vote with their feet: by either staying or going. If you are that person, you had best consider what you are missing out on by remaining in a positon where you are underpaid.

Ego driven development is unfortunately self-reinforcing. Much of it is caused by individual pride, and usually it is driven by someone towards the top of the chain of command. While it can be a vicious cycle trickling down, it is possible to break out of the loop by fighting back against EDD with humility and an attitude of just doing what’s best for the team. I have seen managers take tremendous crap from above, and never let a bit of it touch those below them. Those managers were heroes we all fought to impress, because we knew how hard they worked to make our teams better. I have seen experienced developers swallow their pride, and do the boring, tedious, hard, and less fun work for the betterment of the whole, in the process grew into someone much more productive.

EDD is possible to defeat. Treat everyone with respect, and praise what steps they do take in the right direction. Set aside your ego, and when you get micro-managed and treated with disdain from those above you, do what it takes to make sure that doesn’t trickle down to those below you and at your level. Pick a few things on this list that you know you are not doing well, and tackle the root cause. Swallow your pride, and do your part to be excellent, and your work will thrive.

steve shogren

software developer, manager, author, speaker

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