Articles > The Risks of Invulnerable Software Teams

The Risks of Invulnerable Software Teams

Written by
Holden Rehg
Posted on
August 27, 2021 at 7:16 AM

Vulnerability has multiple meanings. I'm going to focus on the ability of software developers, managers, and teams,to admit to weaknesses. A weakness could be an individual weakness like a team member lacking experience. It could be a product weakness like a lack of functionality. Often, there is an overall team weakness that can lead to lapses in communication and missing deadlines.

Speaking from experience, the typical response from someone who struggles with this is "screw you". I'm going to sit still, put up my middle finger and wait until someone changes the subject. It's obviously a defense tactic. Our lizard brains are freaked out that we are going to be identified as the weakest link and kicked out of the group, meaning if this happened thousands of years ago we wouldn't survive.

Survival is not exactly as big of a concern today as it was then but it's how we're wired.

So what does this have to do with software development?

Well it means that we defend and justify our problems instead of identifying and fixing our problems. The most interesting part of this to me is that it seems to be a bigger problem within overall organizations and company culture than it does with people. Shit rolls down hill.

Organizations and teams that are invulnerable and can't accept legitimate feedback introduce a lot of risk into their organizations. Some of the biggest risks I've dealt with are:

  • Burnout. It's tiring to constantly be on defense. Every tweet or support ticket about "hey maybe this could be better" turns into a battle about why it works fine the way it is. Two sides emerge to argue about what's best. I've seen employees at all levels of an organization do this almost daily. It's not a fun way to spend your time at work.
  • Restricted improvement. Now I'm not going to say that refusing to accept external ideas would completely prevent improvement. Of course you still have an internal team attempting to improve, but it chokes off the potential to improve. If you have a big customer base, that's a critical group to pull feedback from. At the same time, if you are in the mindset of defending your ideas about an organization, it's going to be hard to not defend your personal ideas when it comes to coworkers feedback as well.
  • Efficiency. In short, it's just a waste of your time in the long run.
  • Technical debt. The sunken cost fallacy and invulnerability go hand in hand. We should all understand that sticking with something just because you put time and money into it, despite there being a better solution out there, introduces debt into your project. Of course, with more tech debt, comes snowballing issues that get bigger and bigger over time.
  • Limited hiring pool. Every tech company in the world seems like they need more people to interview now. If you can't accept new ideas or recognize there are problems to fix, finding people to hire will be hard. You're restricted to only hiring people who think how you do. And since you are going to have more burnout and turnover, hiring is going to be even harder.

These are just some of the issues I've personally seen. I'm sure this list could be expanded out to dozens or hundreds of items.

Getting better: But what can teams do? Learning about some of the work done by engineering managers focusing on improving their teams is a good place to start. Read the Peopleware book, take a look at Project Oxygen or Project Aristotle by Google, learn about the BICEPS model created by Paloma Medina, read about some of Allen Holub's work on agile development, or read one of the many books about psychological safety in the workplace.

Thanks For Reading

I appreciate you taking the time to read any of my articles. I hope it has helped you out in some way. If you're looking for more ramblings, take a look at theentire catalog of articles I've written. Give me a follow on Twitter or Github to see what else I've got going on. Feel free to reach out if you want to talk!

project management
software craftsmanship

Holden Rehg, Author

Posted August 27, 2021 at 7:16 AM