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This chapter is from the book

Learning How to Say “Yes”

I asked Roy to contribute that article because it struck a chord within me. I’ve been preaching about learning how to say no for some time. But it is just as important to learn how to say yes.

The Other Side of “Try”

Let’s imagine that Peter is responsible for some modifications to the rating engine. He’s privately estimated that these modifications will take him five or six days. He also thinks that writing the documentation for the modifications will take a few hours. On Monday morning his manager, Marge, asks him for status.

Marge: “Peter, will you have the rating engine mods done by Friday?”

Peter: “I think that’s doable.”

Marge: “Will that include the documentation?”

Peter: “I’ll try to get that done as well.”

Perhaps Marge can’t hear the dithering in Peter’s statements, but he’s certainly not making much of a commitment. Marge is asking questions that demand boolean answers but Peter’s boolean responses are fuzzy.

Notice the abuse of the word try. In the last chapter we used the “extra effort” definition of try. Here, Peter is using the “maybe, maybe not” definition.

Peter would be better off responding like this:

Marge: “Peter, will you have the rating engine mods done by Friday?”

Peter: “Probably, but it might be Monday.”

Marge: “Will that include the documentation?”

Peter: “The documentation will take me another few hours, so Monday is possible, but it might be as late as Tuesday.”

In this case Peter’s language is more honest. He is describing his own uncertainty to Marge. Marge may be able to deal with that uncertainty. On the other hand, she might not.

Committing with Discipline

Marge: “Peter, I need a definite yes or no. Will you have the rating engine finished and documented by Friday?”

This is a perfectly fair question for Marge to ask. She’s got a schedule to maintain, and she needs a binary answer about Friday. How should Peter respond?

Peter: “In that case, Marge, I’ll have to say no. The soonest I can be sure that I’ll be done with the mods and the docs is Tuesday.”

Marge: “You are committing to Tuesday?”

Peter: “Yes, I will have it all ready on Tuesday.”

But what if Marge really needs the modifications and documentation done by Friday?

Marge: “Peter, Tuesday gives me a real problem. Willy, our tech writer, will be available on Monday. He’s got five days to finish up the user guide. If I don’t have the rating engine docs by Monday morning, he’ll never get the manual done on time. Can you do the docs first?”

Peter: “No, the mods have to come first, because we generate the docs from the output of the test runs.”

Marge: “Well, isn’t there some way you can finish up the mods and the docs before Monday morning?”

Now Peter has a decision to make. There is a good chance he’ll be done with the rate engine modifications on Friday, and he might even be able to finish up the docs before he goes home for the weekend. He could do a few hours of work on Saturday too if things take longer than he hopes. So what should he tell Marge?

Peter: “Look Marge, there’s a good chance that I can get everything done by Monday morning if I put in a few extra hours on Saturday.”

Does that solve Marge’s problem? No, it simply changes the odds, and that’s what Peter needs to tell her.

Marge: “Can I count on Monday morning then?”

Peter: “Probably, but not definitely.”

That might not be good enough for Marge.

Marge: “Look, Peter, I really need a definite on this. Is there any way you can commit to get this done before Monday morning?”

Peter might be tempted to break discipline at this point. He might be able to get done faster if he doesn’t write his tests. He might be able to get done faster if he doesn’t refactor. He might be able to get done faster if he doesn’t run the full regression suite.

This is where the professional draws the line. First of all, Peter is just wrong about his suppositions. He won’t get done faster if he doesn’t write his tests. He won’t get done faster if he doesn’t refactor. He won’t get done faster if he omits the full regression suite. Years of experience have taught us that breaking disciplines only slows us down.

But secondly, as a professional he has a responsibility to maintain certain standards. His code needs to be tested, and needs to have tests. His code needs to be clean. And he has to be sure he hasn’t broken anything else in the system.

Peter, as a professional, has already made a commitment to maintain these standards. All other commitments he makes should be subordinate to that. So this whole line of reasoning needs to aborted.

Peter: “No, Marge, there’s really no way I can be certain about any date before Tuesday. I’m sorry if that messes up your schedule, but it’s just the reality we’re faced with.”

Marge: “Damn. I was really counting on bringing this one in sooner. You’re sure?”

Peter: “I’m sure that it might be as late as Tuesday, yes.”

Marge: “OK, I guess I’ll go talk to Willy to see if he can rearrange his schedule.”

In this case Marge accepted Peter’s answer and started hunting for other options. But what if all Marge’s options have been exhausted? What if Peter were the last hope?

Marge: “Peter, look, I know this is a huge imposition, but I really need you to find a way to get this all done by Monday morning. It’s really critical. Isn’t there something you can do?”

So now Peter starts to think about working some significant overtime, and probably most of the weekend. He needs to be very honest with himself about his stamina and reserves. It’s easy to say you’ll get a lot done on the weekends, it’s a lot harder to actually muster enough energy to do high-quality work.

Professionals know their limits. They know how much overtime they can effectively apply, and they know what the cost will be.

In this case Peter feels pretty confident that a few extra hours during the week and some time on the weekend will be sufficient.

Peter: “OK, Marge, I’ll tell you what. I’ll call home and clear some overtime with my family. If they are OK with it, then I’ll get this task done by Monday morning. I’ll even come in on Monday morning to make sure everything goes smoothly with Willy. But then I’ll go home and won’t be back until Wednesday. Deal?”

This is perfectly fair. Peter knows that he can get the modifications and documents done if he works the overtime. He also knows he’ll be useless for a couple of days after that.

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