Door Anton Vanhoucke

Ideas from Peopleware

In 1999 Tome Demarco en Timothy Lister published their second edition of ‘Peopleware’. Their insight is that software development projects fail not because of technology, but because of communication. Yet what managers do is manage technology, not the communication in the team.

Why? Technology, stuff, procedures, and such are tangible, orderly and easy to influence. When comes to communication the problem becomes hairy, impossible to analyze (because analysis changes the situation) and chaotic. Hence the title of the book: peopleware, as opposed to software.

Good analysis, dated suggestions

I really like their basic insight, though many of the “solutions” they suggest are a bit dated or not well researched. For instance they suggest switching to email for all communications, because it doesn’t interrupt your work. In the meantime everybody knows email leads to a lot of misunderstanding. And with the blackberries and outlook tray icons email too is interrupting your flow. Some ideas, though, I found really valuable.

Noisy, windowless workplaces are a waste of salaries

About a third of the book is a crusade against noise. Open space is the worst for productivity. People need quiet to do thinking work productively, and a window. The symptoms are that people work late “in the quiet hours”, book meeting rooms or just call in sick to get important work done. From my own experience I really recognize the loss in productivity. My philosophy was already not to give precedence to the phone when I’m talking to somebody live, but now I also reduced the number of rings of my phone to 1. And I require of my people that they turn outlook off during the four hours of the morning.

Productive hours vs. hours of bodily presence

We all have experienced a state of flow: deep productive concentration where time seems to fly. It takes at least 15 minutes to get into. So the real productive hours are the uninterrupted hours. It is amazing how little really productive hours we have if you start looking at it like that.

Give high performers what they want

Some people don’t want more money for their performance, but just the means to perform even better. They are highly intrinsically motivated and should be supported in that. The book tells of a company that sponsored a complete home office at the request of a high performing employee. That made me think. I now put much more effort in providing the high performing people reporting to me with the tools they ask for. I don’t care if it’s company policy, or “what would happen if everybody started to ask for that” – an often heard objection.

Music makes you perform better on focused tasks but makes you miss out on the big things.

A nice experiment with two groups of programmers. They were asked to write some number manipulation algorithm. Groups working with and without music both completed the algorithms within about the same time and with the same performance. But only the group without music noticed that the net result of all the manipulations was the same is the input! To this I also can ascribe. When I do production, stuff I know from experience I put up music. When I need to think wider, shift paradigms and integrate a lot of ideas I need absolute quiet.

Let people move in the office

There is a lot to say in favor of letting people choose their place in the office. They can collocate with the people +they+ feel they need to work most with. It creates real short communication lines. But the extreme version of that, flexible offices, where nobody has a fixed desk but only some drawers on wheels doesn’t work either. Here you have no place to ground, to install yourself, feel at home and get stuff done.

Change and creativity is born out of chaos

Now that is an obvious one. But the insight here is to see brainstorms, pilot projects, war games, trips, conferences celebrations, retreats, training experiences is injections of chaos, as breaking out of the ordinary.


The authors frown on bureaucratic procedures and the high disregard of human capital with high turnover rates or downsizing. And they touch on the subject of teams and communities as means of making work fun and productive.

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