Notes from Creating Great Teams (How Self-Selection Lets People Excel) by Sandy Mamoli and David Mole

Here’s an always challenging question: how are great software development teams formed? Managers, scrum masters, we all struggle to create continuous progress within our groups. And we know that there’s lots of factors in why that is – communication, skills, individual quirks. Sandy Mamoli and David Mole tells us that self-selection is the answer, and their book, Creating Great Teams (How Self-Selection Lets People Excel), provides us with the details.

Here are some notes from the book:

  • Fundamentally, two factors determine whether a group will forge itself into a team: 1) Do these people want to work on this problem? 2) Do these people want to work with each other? Neither a computer program nor a manager can answer these questions. Only the employees who will do the work can.
  • Self-selection is a facilitated process of letting people self-organize into small, cross-functional teams. Based on the belief that people are at their happiest and most productive if they can choose what they work on and who they work with, we think it’s the fastest and most efficient way to form stable teams.
  • The best motivators are autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Autonomy provides employees with freedom over some or all of the four main aspects of work: when they do it, how they do it, who they do it with, and what they do. Mastery encourages employees to become better at a subject or task that matters to them and allows for continuous learning. Purpose gives people an opportunity to fulfill their natural desire to contribute to a cause greater and more enduring than themselves.
  • No one chooses to work on more than one team or project. Time and again organizations fall into the trap of optimizing resources rather than focusing on outcomes. People often believe that multitasking, having people work across several projects, and focusing on resource utilization are the keys to success, when in reality they’re not.
  • People communicate face to face. There are barely any discussions about process or how to communicate. Team members just talk and coordinate and collaborate as needed. Things are much faster that way.
  • In the spirit of letting people control their way of working, we never mandate whether a squad should run scrum, kanban, their own special creation, or a traditional way of working. Following Daniel Pink’s principles of motivation, one of the key forms of autonomy is being in control of your processes. Giving people autonomy over who they work with should be extended by letting them choose how they work together.
  • There are two agile practices we believe should remain mandatory: retrospectives and physical story walls (if you are co-located).
  • It’s fair to say that sometimes employees don’t want to work with each other. And that’s okay. People know whether they’re going to gel in a squad with a particular person, and if not, it makes sense they would choose not to work with him or her. Self-selection, unlike management selection, allows them to make that choice.

Questions for Recruiting Employers I

Having received a handful of calls these past few weeks, I’ve realized that I’m thinking more about learning opportunities now than only looking at an offer’s compensation package. Salary still matters of course but there’s more to a day job than just allocating money for expenses and savings. Work wouldn’t be fun when there’s only menial work to do. What would I learn if I took an offer in exchange for my services? Will I be doing something I’ve never done or tried before? Is this work meaningful, both for our customers and for me as an individual?

And some more questions to recruiting employers on the top of my head:

  • How does the existing software development and testing process work in the organization?
  • Are testers embedded into software teams? Or do they work in silos, away from the developers?
  • What does a software team look like and compose of?
  • What does the day-to-day work look like for the software tester?
  • How many testers are there currently in the organization? And what’s the existing ratio of developers to testers?
  • What technologies do the organization currently use for testing? Are there automated checks? Is there an existing CI system?
  • Does the organization use containers? Visual testing? Machine learning?
  • Who are the organization’s actual clients? Which lives are we trying to improve on a daily basis?
  • How do the software teams get feedback from the people who use their applications?

Allow People To Do What They Think Is Best

To find out that the programmers in the team are seeking out product owners, stakeholders, and teammates on their own to ask clarifications and start meaningful discussions is a positive thing for me, to notice them initiate communication to whomever they need to talk to is always a major confidence booster about their ability to work on problems on their own. They never need my authority or permission to do what they think is best, they manage their own tasks, they own the responsibility to do the right thing as they see fit. I’m just there to help them perform the best work they can, in the form of suggestions and testing.

That’s why it’s bewildering to see someone get disappointed over a behavior that I deem to be on the plus side. Why would letting developers talk directly to stakeholders make you feel overstepped, if they think it supports better work? It seems to be, at least for me, a shallow use of a leadership position, a certain level of being clingy to power that’s not serving the team mission. It’s an upsetting, controlling reaction that I feel does not do any good.

Focus on empowering the team.

Team Questions I

What  does our team actually want to accomplish this particular sprint?

Do I know my teammates well enough?

Does everyone in the team feel safe working together with each other?

Can I rely on everybody in the team?

What does a user story mean to us?

Do we even need tickets in order to perform our best work?

Do we truly need this specific document to move forward?

How can I help a teammate feel good with the work he/she is doing?

What’s the minimum amount of input do we need in order to start?

What’s the 20% of activities that contribute to 80% of outputs we desire?

Do we believe in what we are building?

Which rules, in reality, help us become the best versions of ourselves? Which don’t?

Takeaways from Timothy Ferriss’ “The 4-Hour Workweek”

Timothy Ferriss‘ “The 4-Hour Workweek” might be my favorite book this year. Tons of lessons about how to be productive, as well as how to enjoy life to the fullest, and reading the book has left me excited about the future while reconsidering many of my other choices.

Some favorite takeaways:

  • The perfect job is the one that takes the least time. The goal is to free time and automate income.
  • ‘If only I had more money’ is the easiest way to postpone the intense self-examination and decision-making necessary to create a life of enjoyment – now and not later. Busy yourself with the routine of the money wheel, pretend it’s the fix-all, and you artfully create a constant distraction that prevents you from seeing just how pointless it is. Deep down, you know it’s all an illusion, but with everyone participating in the same game of make-believe, it’s easy to forget.
  • What are you waiting for? If you cannot answer this without resorting to the previously rejected concept of good timing, the answer is simple: You’re afraid, just like the rest of the world. Measure the cost of inaction, realize the unlikelihood and repairability of most missteps, and develop the most important habit of those who excel, and enjoy doing so: action.
  • Retirement as a goal or final redemption is flawed for at least three solid reasons:
    1. It is predicated on the assumption that you dislike what you are doing during the most physically capable years of your life.
    2. Most people will never be able to retire and maintain even a hotdogs-for-dinner standard of living. Even one million is chump change in a world where traditional retirement could span 30 years and inflation lowers your purchasing power 2-4% per year. The math doesn’t work.
    3. If the math doesn’t work, it means that you are one ambitious hardworking machine. If that’s the case, guess what? One week into retirement, you’ll be so damn bored that you’ll want to stick bicycle spokes in your eyes.
  • If it isn’t going to devastate those around you, try it and then justify it. Get good at being a troublemaker and saying sorry when you really screw up. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
  • Ninety-nine percent of people in the world are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for the mediocre. The level of competition is thus fiercest for ‘realistic’ goals, paradoxically making them the most time- and energy-consuming. So do not overestimate the competition and underestimate yourself. You are better than you think.
  • Doing something unimportant well does not make it important. Requiring a lot of time does not make a task important. What you do is infinitely more important than how you do it. Efficiency is still important, but is useless unless applied to the right things.
  • Remember that most things make no difference. Being busy is a form of laziness – lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing and is far more unpleasant. Being selective – doing less – is the path of the productive. Focus on the important few and ignore the rest.
  • If you haven’t identified the mission-critical tasks and set aggressive start and end times for their completion, the unimportant becomes the important. Even if you know what’s critical, without deadlines that create focus, the minor tasks forced upon you (or invented) will swell to consume time until another bit of minutiae jumps in to replace it, leaving you at the end of the day with nothing accomplished.
  • The key to having more time is doing less, and there are two paths to getting there, both of which should be used together:
    1. Define a short to-do list
    2. Define a not-to-do list
  • Don’t ever arrive at the office or in front of your computer without a clear list of priorities. There should be no more than 2 mission-critical items to complete each day. Never. It just isn’t necessary if they’re actually high-impact.

An Experiment on Executable Specifications

What: Create executable specifications for an ongoing project sprint. Executable specifications are written examples of a business need that can be run anytime and acts as a source of truth for how applications behave. It is a living documentation of what our software does, and it helps us focus more on solving the unusual and noteworthy problems instead of wasting time with the ones that we know we shouldn’t have been worrying about.


  1. Join a software development team for one sprint duration.
  2. Discuss project tasks for that sprint with everyone.
  3. Ask about requirements examples and create executable specifications for those tasks as the application is being written.
  4. Refine the specifications when necessary.
  5. Continuously update the specifications until they pass.
  6. Keep the specifications running on a preferred schedule.

Why: To see if writing executable specifications alongside development is feasible during the duration of a sprint.

Limitations: Tester writes the executable specifications, programmers work as is.

Experiment Realizations:

  • Writing executable specifications can be done during actual app development, provided that tester is experienced with the tools for implementing it and understands well why the need for such specifications.
  • It is of course more beneficial if everyone in the team learn how executable specifications work and write/run the specifications, and why the need to implement it.
  • It will take quite a long while before executable specifications becomes a norm in the existing software development process, if ever. This is a function of whether everyone believes that such specifications are actually useful in practice, and then building the skills and habit of including these specifications in the team’s definition of done.

Lessons from Gojko Adzic’s “Specification By Example”

Automated checking is not a new concept. Gojko Adzic, however, provides us a way to make better integration of it in our software development processes. In his book titled “Specification by Example”, he talks about executable specifications that double as a living documentation. These are examples which continuously exercise business rules, they help teams collaborate, and, along with software code, they’re supposed to be the source of truth for understanding how our applications work. He builds a strong case about the benefits of writing specifications by example by presenting case studies and testimonials of teams who have actually used it in their projects, and I think that it is a great way of moving forward, of baking quality in.

Some favorite takeaways from the book:

  • Tests are specifications; specifications are tests.
  • “If I cannot have the documentation in an automated fashion, I don’t trust it. It’s not exercised.” -Tim Andersen
  • Beginners think that there is no documentation in agile, which is not true. It’s about choosing the types of documentation that are useful. There is still documentation in an agile process, and that’s not a two-feet-high pile of paper, but something lighter, bound to the real code. When you ask, “does your system have this feature?” you don’t have a Word document that claims that something is done; you have something executable that proves that the system really does what you want. That’s real documentation.
  • Fred Brooks quote: In The Mythical Man-Month 4 he wrote, “The hardest single part of building a software system is deciding precisely what to build.” Albert Einstein himself said that “the formulation of a problem is often more essential than its solution.”
  • We don’t really want to bother with estimating stories. If you start estimating stories, with Fibonacci numbers for example, you soon realize that anything eight or higher is too big to deliver in an iteration, so we’ll make it one, two, three, and five. Then you go to the next level and say five is really big. Now that everything is one, two, and three, they’re now really the same thing. We can just break that down into stories of that size and forget about that part of estimating, and then just measure the cycle time to when it is actually delivered.
  • Sometimes people still struggle with explaining what the value of a given feature would be (even when asking them for an example). As a further step, I ask them to give an example and say what they would need to do differently (work around) if the system would not provide this feature. Usually this helps them then to express the value of a given feature.
  • QA doesn’t write [acceptance] tests for developers; they work together. The QA person owns the specification, which is expressed through the test plan, and continues to own that until we ship the feature. Developers write the feature files [specifications] with the QA involved to advise what should be covered. QA finds the holes in the feature files, points out things that are not covered, and also produces test scripts for manual testing.
  • If we don’t have enough information to design good test cases, we definitely don’t have enough information to build the system.
  • Postponing automation is just a local optimization. You might get through the stories quicker from the initial development perspective, but they’ll come back for fixing down the road. David Evans often illustrates this with an analogy of a city bus: A bus can go a lot faster if it doesn’t have to stop to pick up passengers, but it isn’t really doing its job then.
  • Workflow and session rules can often be checked only against the user interface layer. But that doesn’t mean that the only option to automate those checks is to launch a browser. Instead of automating the specifications through a browser, several teams developing web applications saved a lot of time and effort going right below the skin of the application—to the HTTP layer.
  • Automating executable specifications forces developers to experience what it’s like to use their own system, because they have to use the interfaces designed for clients. If executable specifications are hard to automate, this means that the client APIs aren’t easy to use, which means it’s time to start simplifying the APIs.
  • Automation itself isn’t a goal. It’s a tool to exercise the business processes.
  • Effective delivery with short iterations or in constant flow requires removing as many expected obstacles as possible so that unexpected issues can be addressed. Adam Geras puts this more eloquently: “Quality is about being prepared for the usual so you have time to tackle the unusual.” Living documentation simply makes common problems go away.
  • Find the most annoying thing and fix it, then something else will pop up, and after that something else will pop up. Eventually, if you keep doing this, you will create a stable system that will be really useful.