Cross-functional teams

Cross-functional teams aren’t a new idea. And yet, somehow, we still don’t seem to have got the memo.

I was listening to the excellent Scott Hanselman’s podcast “Hanselminutes” last week, he had Angie Jones on to talk about automation. Among all the great advice around ensuring that automation is a first-class citizen in your development process one thing stood out for me

you need to get your automation engineers into your scrum team

I don’t know why, but it surprised me. Are there really companies out there up to speed enough to be doing test automation; yet so behind the times with agile that they think it’s a good idea to have a dedicated team of automation engineers, removed from the rest of the dev team?

Cross-functional teams are a pretty central idea to agile – breaking down silos and ensuring that everyone that is required to produce an increment of working software is aligned and working together. It’s certainly not a new idea, but it’s clearly an idea that we’re still struggling to absorb.

But then, looking back, I remember working for a certain large company that decided they needed to “do more test automation”. So they hired a room full of automation engineers, who sat two floors away from the dev team, in a room hidden away (we honestly didn’t know they were even there for weeks, maybe even months). This team were responsible for creating an automated test pack for the application (rather than use the one the test automation engineers in the scrum teams had been working on for the last few years). But… they weren’t even talking to the scrum teams. So they were constantly chasing to keep up. As you can imagine, hilarity ensued. I say hilarity. Arguments, really. Then anger. Eventually laughter as we realised all this effort was wasted because the scrum teams wouldn’t – in fact couldn’t – support this new automation code.

Clearly not getting the idea of cross-functional teams is an age old problem. Compare this to a more recent client of mine – one that had a genuinely more cross-functional team. Not only did the scrum team have its own automation engineer, the developers (actual developers, not re-branded testers) were encouraged to work on the test automation tools – to everyone’s benefit. Test tooling written to the same standards as production code, with the insight and experience of the test automation specialist. This is moving beyond cross-functional teams into cross-skilled teams. Not only is every skill set you need within the same scrum team, but each individual can have multiple skills, taking on multiple roles.

Sure, you still need specialists. But with generalizing specialists you get the best of both worlds: the experience of specialists in their area, with the flexibility and breadth of ideas that come from the whole team being able to work on whatever is required. When the entire team can swarm on any area you have a very flexible team, if we need a big push for test automation the entire team can focus on it. Similarly with plenty of pairing and rotation everyone on the team will see every area and every role, allowing everyone’s unique perspective to improve the product and the process.

But then, a counter-example, the same client suffered from another age-old silo: operations. I thought devops had killed this silo, but it seems not. If the scrum team can’t release an increment of software to actual users then it isn’t a fully self-contained, self-sufficient, cross-functional team. A scrum team working with a separate test automation team seems like a crazy idea; and yet, somehow, a scrum team working with a separate operations team is much more normal, much more accepted. But it’s the exact same problem: if you don’t have everyone you need in the same scrum team then you’re going to get bottlenecks. You’re going to get communication problems. You’re going to get a “them-vs-us” attitude.

Every time I’ve come up against this the typical argument against operations staff being embedded within scrum teams is that they’re not working on “your stuff” all the time, so the rest of the time they’d be busy doing other stuff, unrelated to “your team” or they’d be bored. Well, maybe if we freed up that extra capacity we could release more often? Maybe they could be working on making it quicker, easier, safer to release more often? Maybe they could be more deeply involved with development when we’re making decisions which affect what they’re going to release and how it’s going to wake them up in the middle of the night. Maybe they could even help with other, non-production environments? The neglected, little siblings of production that every company seems to struggle to pay enough attention to.

Maybe, even, over time the team evolves from having the operations specialist to having team members cross skilled into operations. Under the watchful eye of the specialist could we, shock horror, let testers touch production? Could the BA manage a release? In some industries this is completely impossible for regulatory reasons, but in all the others its “impossible” for merely arbitrary reasons.

Breaking down silos is never easy – but I think it’s an interesting reflection of how far we’ve come that some silos seem frankly ridiculous now, while others just seem old-fashioned. I still hold out for the distant dream of genuinely cross-functional teams. Whenever I’ve seen this actually happen the lack of bottlenecks and mis-communication makes everything so much faster, so much easier. In the end a cross-functional team is better than silos. But a cross skilled team is better still, if you can manage it.

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Downsizing society

The world is becoming increasingly automated. Jobs that were once done by people are now frequently done by machines instead. This started off in manufacturing, but the coming of self-driving cars will put huge numbers of people out of work; even lawyers are being replaced by machines. Some reports suggest that machines could do 50% of jobs within the next 30 yearsFifty percent! What will we do when half the population have been made redundant? How will we cope with such a restructuring of society?

To an economist, a job is an income. To a human being, it is much more than that. It provides a sense that you matter in society, that people beyond your family rely on you and even admire you.

If 50% of jobs are being done by machines, the question is what will people do instead? This is an important question, because we identify as our job. Our jobs define us. Let me introduce you to Louise, she’s a doctor. And this is Barry, he’s an estate agent. I bet you have different ideas of who those two people are. What about when they’re both unemployed? Unemployable. Made redundant from society.

How would so many people survive without jobs? Where’s the money to live coming from? The only possible answer seems to be some kind of universal basic income. The idea that everyone, employed or not, receives a fixed amount of money each month from the government – replacing all existing benefits and all the bureaucracy involved in administering them. With a UBI, the 50% of people without jobs would at least have some money with which to buy food and heating. But who wants to live on handouts? Who wants to be defined as unemployed? Even if the majority of people are in the same situation.

This inevitably results in a two-tier society: those that earn little to nothing on top of the basic income; and those increasingly rare few that still have jobs the machines aren’t able to do, yet. We have the non-working class, and a diminishing middle class. How can this cause anything other than resentment, envy and anger?

This is to say nothing of the challenges of funding a universal basic income. While ideas like funding it through a wealth tax make a lot of sense, could they ever succeed? Would the wealthy half ever vote for it? Would the big businesses (and their very wealthy owners) that bankroll governments stand for it?

As Brexit and Trump have shown, voters can vote for what previously seemed impossible. And we’ve barely scratched the surface of the anger and disenfranchisement that automation will bring upon us. However, with both Brexit and Trump people voted out of hope. Hope for something better. For respect. For status. For jobs. Could Farage evoke such a passionate response from a platform of “more handouts”? Of massive wealth redistribution, the likes of which no socialist government has ever even proposed? It seems improbable.

If we don’t introduce a UBI, what’s going to happen? The jobs that are left aren’t going to be spread evenly. London will always have disproportionately more jobs and lower unemployment than, say, Sunderland or Hull. What’s going to happen in these areas as unemployment becomes endemic? Rising anger seems inevitable. Riots. A public whipped into a frenzy of hatred against some group of “others”?

With so much anger, extreme politics is only going to increase. Does a majority of the public already feel left behind? Made redundant by automation? So far this has given us Brexit and Trump. It’s only going to get worse. Who are we going to wage war on? Syria? ISIS? China? Germany? This is the armageddon outcome. So many people feel so disenfranchised that we inadvertently start world war three.

What other outcomes are there? Another possibility is some kind of neo-luddite movement railing against technology. So far everyone’s anger at disappearing jobs has been directed at migrants. When people realise its actually technology taking their jobs, could that anger end up directed at technology instead? You can imagine someone like Farage standing against technology. Of banning automation. Of holding back progress to protect jobs. While this couldn’t hold back the tide forever, it could delay the inevitable march of technology for some years.

The flip-side of this neo-luddite revolution, is the inevitable flight of technology outside of such a regime. With the future being held back in one place, technologists will move somewhere else; to somewhere innovation is encouraged instead of criminalised. Some enterprising country, say Switzerland, would reduce taxes for technology companies to encourage them to relocate. The remaining jobs, and the people to do them, all move to an employment enclave. This exacerbates the split in society: between the wealthy employed few, and the many under-employed poor. This is the “Switzerland outcome”. A physical as well as economic split in society.

Of course, there is always the possibility that the jobs that disappear are replaced by new jobs. Jobs in manual labour become replaced with jobs like “social media consultant” that would have been unimaginable in Victorian England (some would say still are). But the signs aren’t good: in the wake of the 2007 financial crisis jobs aren’t returning in great numbers – they’re being done by robots instead. This might be the first economic recovery in history that hasn’t been accompanied by an increase in employment.

Eventually we’re bound to discover a universal basic income, or something like it. It might take a very long time – a time in which the social strife could be immense. But eventually, barring armageddon, we will have to find a way to move to a post-work society; that means finding a way for people without work to live happy, fulfilled lives.

But in a life without work, how will people find meaning in their lives? With the ready availability of automation, some people might move back onto the land – to become 21st century peasant farmers. With the help of machines it could be quite possible for a family to provide for itself and maintain a decent standard of living through farming alone. Of course, with our heavily urbanised society plenty of people have neither the space nor the wherewithal to do this; but for some this could be a good alternative to the slums from where jobs have vanished.

The ready availability of time frees people up for any project they wish to embark on. The utopian outcome is enabling everyone to become creative, to embark on personal projects and self-expression. A society full of people doing what people do best: being human and creative. Is this realistic? Some people would relish the opportunity to dedicate themselves to creative pursuits. But plenty of others would not, instead looking for the structure and security their jobs used to offer.

Could this usher in an era of grand projects? Where people band together to achieve some lofty goal? Not for financial compensation, but for the joy of being part of something bigger. With everyone’s basic needs met, instead of working for money people look for meaning. They will take part in activities that inspire them, for free. The cost of labour at this point is basically zero, for the first time in human history. The only constraint: the end goal has to inspire people. Improving the efficiency of a government department? Hardly. Flying to Mars? Almost certainly.

But there will still be plenty of people who feel they can’t contribute but need structure in their life. Iain M. Banks’ Culture series describes a post-work society where the machines run everything; but in Banks’ universe people dedicate themselves full-time to leisure. While no doubt attractive to some, this life seems without structure, without purpose. Can people really live like this? Work has defined us, given structure to our day, given us meaning. Without this, who are we?

It is likely that the end result is some mixture of all of these outcomes. Each individual finding their own way in an increasingly diverse world – the simple answer of finding a job, any job, is no longer possible; instead people are forced to find their own answers to hard questions: what am I going to do with my life?

As we approach this future, what are we to do? How can we prepare for the upcoming earthquake in society? It seems inevitable that this will be a tumultuous time. How can we smooth the transition to a post-work society?