Joel on software: getting things done when you’re only a grunt

By Joel Spolsky

This site is supposed to be about software management. But sometimes you don’t have the power to create change in your organization by executive fiat. Obviously, if you’re just a grunt programmer at the bottom of the totem pole, you can’t exactly order people to start creating schedules or bug databases. And in fact even if you’re a manager, you’ve probably discovered that managing developers is a lot like herding cats, only not as fun. Merely saying “make it so” doesn’t make it so.

It can be frustrating when you’re working in an organization that scores low on The Joel Test. No matter how good your code is, your coworkers write such bad code that you’re embarassed to be associated with the project. Or management is making bad decisions about what code to write, so you’re forced to waste your talent debugging the AS/400 version of a retirement-planning game for kids.

You could just leave, I suppose. But presumably, there’s some reason you’re stuck there. The stock options haven’t quite vested, there’s no better place to work in Podunk, or perhaps your boss is holding someone you love hostage. In any case, dealing with life on a bad team can be infuriating. But there are strategies for improving your team from the bottom, and I’d like to share a few of them.

Strategy 1 Just Do It

A lot can be done to improve the project just by one person doing it. Don’t have a daily build server? Make one. Set your own machine up with a scheduled job to make builds at night and send out email results. Does it take too many steps to make the build? Write the makefile. Nobody does usability tests? Do your own hallway usability tests on the mailroom folks with a piece of paper or a VB prototype.

Strategy 2 Harness the Power of Viral Marketing

Many of the Joel Test strategies can be implemented by a single person on an uncooperative

team. Some of them, if done well, will spread to the rest of the team.

For example, suppose nobody on your team can be persuaded to use a bug database. Don’t let it bother you. Just keep your own. Enter bugs that you find in your own code. If you find a bug that somebody else really should fix, assign the bug to them using the bug database. If you have good bug tracking software, this will send them an email. But now, you can keep sending them emails if they don’t fix the bug. Eventually, they’ll see the value of bug tracking and start to use the system as it was intended. If the QA team refuses to input bugs to the bug tracking system, simply refuse to listen to bug reports through any other channel. About the three-thousdandth time that you say to people, “listen, I’d love to fix that, but I’m going to forget. Can you enter a bug in the system?” they’ll start using the database.

Nobody on your team wants to use source control? Create your own CVS repository, on your own hard drive if necessary. Even without cooperation, you can check your code in independently from everybody else’s. Then when they have problems that source control can solve (someone accidentally types rm * ~ instead of rm *~), they’ll come to you for help. Eventually, people will realize that they can have their own checkouts, too.

Strategy 3 Create a Pocket of Excellence

The team won’t make schedules? Or specs? Write your own. Nobody’s going to complain if you take a day or two to write a minimal spec and schedule for the work you’re about to do.

Get better people into the team. Get involved in hiring and interviewing, and recruit good candidates to join the team.


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Joel on software: getting things done when you’re only a grunt