Book Review: Peopleware (2nd edition) by Tom Demarco and Timothy R. Lister

I start a new job on Monday, leading a tech team of around 20 people, so this week’s book is some food for thought on how to give them my best.

[Note, this review is being written in the air between London and LA, on an “overnight” flight where the sun seems to be staying up the whole time, so it will either be quite terse, or ramble incoherently]

The authors of Peopleware: Productive Teams and Projects (link is to the new 3rd edition which is not what I read) have a long history in management consulting, working with software organisations to help them be better. The premise of the book is that unlike Cheeseburgers, or mops, making software is a very creative endeavour (also true of other kinds of engineering, like designing buildings, or smartphones), yet the prevailing style of management treats the people involved like they are simply gears in a machine. The book goes through a some key factors that can affect how a team works: Deadlines vs Quality, Office Environment, People Selection, Community, Enjoyment, and then there is a sixth part which was added in the second edition, which adds to the book as a whole, revisiting some of what has already been read, through the lens of many extra years of experience.

My overall take on the book is that it contains some really useful lessons and guidance, but feels a little dated. I think the first edition was published in the 90’s, and personally I think a deeper update would have served the second edition well. [Update: It seems a third edition was released after I bought the book some years ago, and now when I actually sat down to read it. Apparently it covers a number of more modern phenomena in extra chapters, and the text has been overhauled throughout. I will have to revisit this book.]

My next thought is that some of the lessons seem to be catching on, but not like wildfire, especially the Office Environment section. The world seems to be running backwards at pace on that one. I read another book in a couple of years ago, ReWork by Jason Freid and David Heinmeir Hansson, which covered a similar set of topics, and in both books the idea that knowledge work needs long consolidated blocks of quiet time comes through. Interestingly, in Peopleware, they quote a study which showed that using headphones and background music to drown out the ambient ruckus aids concentration, but damages creativity, so it goes to show that there is no substitute for quiet.

There is a lot in this book and but if I were to summarise it I would put it thus: People are not plant or equipment, you can’t just replace them if they break down or malfunction. Treat your people like they are people. As the authors point out a couple of times, you can’t hope change everything at once – successfully making one change will be quite an achievement – so I’m going to have to come back to this book, pick something and work on it.

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