Thursday, 21 April 2016

Software engineer goals: when SMART is not smart

This time around I'd like to talk about creating goals for software engineers.
First things first, let's get the well-known body of work behind us. You probably know about SMART goals. If you do not, the link to Wikipedia is in the previous sentence. One way or another, by the time we went past this paragraph, we're all on the same page with regards to specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (or finite, if smarf were a good acronym) goals.

However, once we leave this familiar territory behind us, we get into the big lawless desert that separates the SMART ideal from real, flesh and blood, people. As managers, we intuitively know what we'd like to get from our team, and we know what SMART means. What we don't always know is how to relate one to another.
In this mini-article I'll try dispelling the notion that goals can be generated in an algorithmic way, by ticking specific boxes.

Let's kick things off with a few counter-examples:

SMART goals that aren't smart

Counter Example #1

Resolve at least 10 bugs in the next 3 months
This goal is specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound. It still has one big problem that should banish it into neverland.

Here's the thing: bugs are not born equal. A typo is a bug, and a subtle kernel packet routing problem is a bug. Expertise and time required for dealing with these two issues are incomparable. By setting such a goal, we encourage the reviewee to seek out the easier bugs: after all, they have to hit a number. And, by extension, we nudge their career into technical comfort zone, and inhibit progress.

Counter Example #2

Raise 2 patents in the next year
This goal also ticks all the 5 boxes, though one can argue that the "A" (achievable) is a bit shaky. However, just to make our discussion simpler, let's assume that the reviewee is working on projects that have potential for patents. There's still a big chasm however, one which is happily supplied by the legal system. It takes years to fully approve a patent, and until those have elapsed, it's hard to tell whether the patent brought benefit to the business. Internally, there are few people who can serve as the quality gate before the patent goes out to the bureau. So, we might get 2 patents, but those may waste our internal resources, employee's time or both - it's hard to control and assess their value.

Counter Example #3

Find 15 defects
I've seen this one a number of times, and it is one of the worse sins to be stamped on a QA engineer's goals' spreadsheet. Firstly, it creates antagonism between developers and testers: if a developer does their job well, then there are fewer defects to find. Hence, maybe the tester now is less interested in having strong quality before getting their hands on the new feature. Also, as per the first counter-example, bugs are not born equal. Often we'll value a single non-trivial, high impact defect detection over 10 typo findings.

Thinking about side effects

In each of these three counter-examples, we had a particular outcome in mind, dressed it in SMART clothing, but the result was full of side-effects that subverted our original aim far and wide. The intents are hard to argue with: we want developers to fix defects at a reasonable pace, we want them to be innovative, and we want our testers to release quality software. The problem is not with them, but with how they were expressed. The obvious question now comes: how should they be expressed in a smart (lowercase) way?

Revised examples

Counter Example #1

Resolve at least 10 bugs in the next 3 months

What was the original goal here? To be blunt, we want the developer to be productive, and not sit on a single work item for weeks while his teammates are sweating through the backlog. However, as described above, we solved that problem by creating several others.
The sad truth is that the number of defects resolved do not codify productivity. What does codify productivity is the total value or complexity of tasks completed. If we operate in an Agile-like environment, we could express this via percentage of tasks completed versus committed (which can be more than 100%):
Complete at least 90% of committed tasks each sprint

Of course, the word sprint can be replaced with month, or any other recurring time unit. Note that the goal does not prevent people from under-committing. The good news is that we are neither lawyers nor sportsmen. We don't have to legislate everything, and we can prevent under-commitment when planning our work, and ensuring that everyone gets their fair share.

Counter Example #2

Raise 2 patents in the next year

Here, we were obviously after innovation. There's a senior engineer on the payroll, and we'd like him/her to generate sound ideas, and not just implement what they're told. However, we well know that innovation does not come via patents, and the value of those patents can be hardly measured come review time. Perhaps it's time to detach ourselves from numbers and go for something like this:
Proactively suggest design improvements and/or feature enhancements

Now this goal is not SMART, as it is not measurable. However, given the right description, it sets clear expectations, and it provides enough to talk about. We probably should say that suggestions accepted by the team, including product management, count more, and that we're going after quality rather than number. Ideas, among other concepts, are hard to measure and count, and it's more honest and productive to accept that rather than retrofit measurable goals for the sake of measurable goals.

Counter Example #3

Find 15 defects

The intent here is simple enough: we don't want to get defects out. However, setting a goal of finding X defects is akin to setting a goal of catching Y criminals. For sure, the bugs/criminals will be found, but they are likely to be the wrong ones, while the right ones will escape.
And, this is exactly what matters: how many criminals bugs escape, not how many are detected. Also, bugs are not born equal, so a fair goal would go along these lines:
Have no more than 3 critical, 5 high, 7 medium and 9 trivial defects escape under area of your responsibility


This mini-article had examples, counter-examples, numbers and absence of numbers, but little in a way of recipes and templates. That is fully intentional: you know your team better than I do, so I can't tell what goals you should set. This is exactly why I used the word  crafting in the title, and not generating: people are unique, and so are their goals. SMART is not a rule or an axiom, but a guideline, and guidelines always have exceptions.

1 comment :

  1. Wonderful illustrated information. I thank you about that. No doubt it will be very useful for my future projects. Would like to see some other posts on the same subject! kodux