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.

How:

  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.

A Mismatch Between Expectations and Practices

We want performant, scalable, and quality software. We wish to build and test applications that our customers profess their love to and share to their friends.

And yet:

  • We have nonexistent to little unit, performance, API, and integration tests
  • The organization do not closely monitor feature usage statistics
  • Some of us do not exactly feel the pains our customers face
  • We don’t have notifications for outdated dependencies, messy migration scripts, among other failures
  • Some are not curious about understanding how the apps they test and own actually work
  • We have not implemented continuous build tools
  • It is a pain to setup local versions of our applications, even to our own programmers
  • We do not write checks alongside development, we lack executable specifications
  • Some still think that testing and development happen in silos
  • It is difficult to get support for useful infrastructure, as well as recognition for good work
  • Many are comfortable with the status quo

It seems that we usually have our expectations mismatched with our practices. We’re frequently eager to show off our projects but are in many instances less diligent in taking measures about baking quality in, and therefore we fail more often than not. What we need are short feedback loops, continuous monitoring, and improved developer productivity, ownership, and happiness. The difficult thing is, it all starts with better communication and culture.

Some Questions For The Hiring Test Manager

  • How does the existing software development process work within the company?
  • Why was the software testing position created/open?
  • What specific problems does the current software development team have with regards to testing?
  • And where does the organization want to go with regards to testing?
  • How often does the team push new projects to a Staging area? To Production?
  • How does the software development team feel about the quality of the software they deliver?
  • What does the team hope to gain from employing me?

Lessons from NewVoiceMedia’s “So You Want To Be A Scrum Master?”

The agile community at NewVoiceMedia recently wrote a book for Scrum Masters and for everyone who is looking to improve their knowledge about what scrum masters do. Their output during a hackathon, within 48 hours, the “So You Want To Be A Scrum Master?” ebook available at LeanPub, contains great ideas, stuff that I’ve learned through experience since I had the opportunity to become a scrum master myself, alongside being a software tester.

Some takeaways from the book:

  • Maximise the time a team member spends doing what they love, and less thinking about how they should be doing it.
  • Being a Scrum Master can sometimes come with the misconception that you are there to tell people what to do. That is definitely not the case. We’re not in the business of telling people what to do and when to do it and we’re not in charge of anyone.
  • Make problems more visible before trying to point them out, and before offering a solution.
  • Your job is to help team members stick to their commitment – we all find building new habits a difficult thing to do. You are protecting the team from themselves, from the tendency of human nature to pull each of us off the path we actually want to be on.
  • To turn around a team, work with individuals in the team and listen to them.
  • Always help. But only when your help is requested or when your offer of help is accepted.
  • Not everyone who truly believes they are agile knows what it really means. They need battle scars of having tried lots of different things and lived through the consequences.
  • Just because your label is Scrum Master you do not have to only follow the Scrum methodology to the letter. In fact, your job demands that you do not.
  • Let the team fail.
  • The end goal of a Scrum Master is to effectively make themselves redundant for their team.

Takeaways from Valve’s “Handbook For New Employees”

I recently read Valve’s (yes, the company who created the Steam gaming platform) very interesting Handbook For New Employees. I didn’t know before that they are self-funded, and I didn’t know that they do not have any management until now. Valve is flat, no hierarchy, even if there is a founder; a fascinating, curious way of working for a software and entertainment company, an entirely different way of building products compared to what most businesses do. It’s challenging to imagine how their software development processes really run in the wild, and it might not be applicable to what we do right now, but it is worth understanding why they do the things they do. Maybe some of those things can help us too.

Some favorite lines from the handbook:

  • If most of the value is now in the initial creative act, there’s little benefit to traditional hierarchical organization that’s designed to deliver the same thing over and over, making only incremental changes over time. What matters is being first and bootstrapping your product into a positive feedback spiral with a constant stream of creative innovation. Hierarchical management doesn’t help with that, because it bottlenecks innovation through the people at the top of the hierarchy, and there’s no reason to expect that those people would be particularly creative about coming up with new products that are dramatically different from existing ones – quite the opposite in fact. So Valve was designed as a company that would attract the sort of people capable of taking the initial creative step, leave them free to do creative work, and make them want to stay.
  • My observation is that it takes new hires about 6 months before they fully accept that no one is going to tell them what to do, that no manager is going to give them a review, that there is no such thing as a promotion or a job title or even a fixed role (although there are generous raises and bonuses based on the value to the company, as assessed by peers). That it is their responsibility, and theirs alone, to allocate the most important valuable resource in the company – their time – by figuring out what it is that they can do that is most valuable for the company, and then to go do it. That if they decide that they should be doing something different, there’s no manager to convince to let them go; they just move their desk to the new group and start in on the new thing.
  • It would be more useful to think about what high-impact things I could do that no one else was doing.
  • The Valve approach is to do experiments and see what we learn – failure is fine, just so long as we can identify failure quickly, learn from it, and move on – and then apply it to the next experiment.
  • Of all the projects currently under way, what’s the most valuable thing I can be working on? Which project will have the highest direct impact on our customers? How much will the work I ship benefit them? Is the company not doing something that it should be doing? What’s interesting? What’s rewarding? What leverages my individual strengths the most?
  • Screwing up is a great way to find out that your assumptions were wrong or that your model of the world was a little bit off. As long as you update your model and move forward with a better picture, you’re doing it right. Look for ways to test your beliefs. Never be afraid to run an experiment or to collect more data.
  • If your expertise is not in writing code, then every bit of energy you put into understanding the code-writing part of making software is to your and the company’s benefit. You don’t have to be an engineer, and there’s nothing that says an engineer is more valuable than you. But broadening your awareness in a highly technical direction is never a bad thing.
  • Would I want this person to be my boss? Would I learn a significant amount from him or her? What if this person went to work for our competition? We should hire people more capable than ourselves, not less.
  • Hiring someone who is at least capable seems (in the short term) to be smarter than not hiring anyone at all. But that’s actually a huge mistake. We can always bring on temporary/contract help to get us through tough spots, but we should never lower the hiring bar.