17 October 2010

Why You Should Not Blame EA Louse - by Jacek Wesolowski

      Posted 10/16/10 11:12:00 am  

Before automated sensors were invented, coal mines used canary birds as their early detection systems. Coal mines are vulnerable to carbon monoxide and methane contamination: the former is odourless, colourless, and lethal, while the latter is flammable.

In case of buildup, a canary bird would stop singing and choke to its death, prior to gas concentration becoming dangerous to humans. It might become useless to you at this point, but you would still need to evacuate miners and let the fresh air in.

Invention of automated sensors made some coal mines more vulnerable, because, unlike a bird, a sensor can be configured to set off the alarm when gas concentration exceeds arbitrary threshold. A fairly common practice is to re-configure the sensor when it starts to indicate danger, rather than giving everyone a break. Occasionally, methane explodes, and humans die.

Game development teams are just as vulnerable to bad atmosphere as a coal mine, if less literally, and they have their early detection systems as well. These are not automated: sufficiently reliable software development practices have not been invented yet. The “dangerous gases” of game development are failures in communication. They take a variety of forms, from personal conflicts to faulty review processes, to unreliable schedules. Gossip is their most common byproduct.

Remember: gossip is not a danger in itself. Gossip is the carrier. It facilitates communication. It carries all kinds of data, from personal rumours to the newest corporate policy.

A healthy team has a rumour mill just like a troubled team does, and grinds the exact same kind of gossip. But in a healthy team, when Adam says Bob eats children for breakfast, everybody thinks Adam doesn’t like Bob. In a troubled team, Adam says Bob eats children for breakfast, and everybody thinks they need to hide their children from Bob. In other words, there is enough “fresh air” in a healthy team to render your communication failures harmless. In troubled teams, there is buildup.

A failure in communication occurs when there is a personal conflict or a schedule slip, but not when people talk about it. A rumour is the team’s self-diagnostic process. You can kill it, tell everyone it’s not true, forbid them from repeating it, but that will just make them spawn a new rumour, because the communication failure is still there.

You can announce that Bob can’t eat children because he’s vegetarian, and next day in the morning Charlie will say Bob has a magic wand that turns children into lettuce. The content of rumour doesn’t matter much, in that it’s essentially random. The gist of it is that something has caused people to turn against Bob before the rumour was there at all.

And yet, most companies install a fairly strict “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. Criticising anything, or anyone, is either forbidden or strongly discouraged. For instance, telling your boss he’s having a bad idea is interpreted as insubordination. People are quite literally told to never say there is any kind of trouble. Larger companies in particular tend to turn their noisy sensors off, hoping that it will make problems go away. But it only causes the buildup to accelerate, even in teams which would remain healthy under different circumstances.

It’s quite simple, really. When people are prevented from interacting freely, they communicate less. There are a number of things they cannot do or say in a straightforward manner, so they communicate less efficiently. So they fail more often.

EA Louse is the kind of sound that your team’s most sensitive canary bird makes as it drops dead. It probably stopped singing some time ago, but you didn’t notice. Or maybe you did, but you threatened to put it to sleep if it doesn’t start singing again. In any case, its final sound is unpleasant, because it yells "DANGER!" right in your ear.

Is it really cowardly to rant anonymously about your co-workers, whom you identify with their real names? Well, of course it is. But the word “coward” wouldn’t occur to anyone if this wasn’t a matter of courage. People write stuff like this, because they can’t take the tension anymore, and they do so anonymously, because they’re afraid. Something’s been driving them seriously nuts.

Just for the record: it could - potentially - be something different than their job. And just because they genuinely believe Bob eats children for breakfast doesn’t necessarily mean Bob is guilty at all. But they’re not a problem. They’re a symptom. You should thank them, give them a vacation, and pay for their therapist. 

And don't forget to let the fresh air in.


none   Comment:  

Submit Comment

No comments:

Post a Comment