This is another Pragmatic Programmers book. As such, it is short (162 pages), and available in electronic form as well as in paper.
The text is a bit of a departure for the Pragmatic Programmers. Typically, this series has discussed techniques for software development, rather than techniques for managing software projects. Still, this kind of books is a must-read even for a neophyte developer, as it discusses techniques that your manager is likely using. Perhaps more importantly, it discusses the kinds of constraints that your manager is laboring under. From either side of the desk, knowing what options are available can make the difference between success and failure in negotiations.
The authors refer to several of Tom DeMarco's classic works, such as Slack and Peopleware, and the format of much of the book is reminiscent of Deadline. In Deadline, we followed Mr. Tompkins through the process of setting up a new software concern in accordance with every then-current software development theory. Rothman and Derby follow Sam, a new and eager senior manager, through taking over an existing development project, using agile techniques, and a variety of management techniques.
The book is structured into an introduction, seven one-week 'to-do' chapters with an illustrative parable about Sam, and a final 'techniques' chapter.
The introduction sets the hook well - in just a few pages, you learn that the authors view management as a people task, though supported by technology, and with technological deliverables. This focus stays through the book - solutions tend to be low tech, such as flip charts, stickies, and index cards, and tasks are resolved through meetings with subordinates, peers, and superiors. We do not see Sam interact with technology all that often.
My own experience shows that low tech techniques work well, as long as key information does migrate into electronic form eventually. Once the flip chart is filled out, someone ought to take a photo for the wiki, and I rather wish the point had been made more strongly by Rothman/Derby.
Each of the 'story' chapters covers a single week. In the early weeks, Sam is figuring out what his four subordinate managers are up to, and eventually teaching them the art of delegation. In later weeks, Sam is working on long term solutions, like training, hiring, and handling high priority changes from above in the organization.
One of the better sections in the books was on self control. Managers are in an authority position, and many of them do not realize how their underlings will take a casual comment, or even a facial expression. Further, many managers do not realize that their employees will occasionally burn out rather than face criticism. This is rather sad, as burnout cases usually produce work worthy of criticism.
I also applaud them for bringing up both old and new studies regarding ideal working hours. Overwork burns people out, and thus if you are running more than the efficient 40-45 hours a week, you really do need to cut back. Every job involves sprints, and everyone can do a sprint, but not if they are already worn down by needless extra hours.
For the authors of a management text to take this stance requires some courage, and they make it clear that the manager will need courage as well. There is always pressure to do more, and when the business depends on it, you must find a way. That said, every week should not be a crisis week, and they give a manager some of the needed facts to back that position up.
They also covered coaching in some detail. This was also a 'ring of truth' section, in that the authors were clearly describing situations they had seen, and had worked through in a number of ways.
The final techniques section was the least engaging, but perhaps the most useful. It listed specific techniques for areas that many managers are weak on. I know of several managers in my own past that might have gotten use from the meeting organization and facilitation techniques. Merely knowing that you either facilitate or contribute would have helped me on more than one occasion, as tempting though it is to dip the oar in, you lose the ability to move a meeting along. The authors also reiterate how important it is to facilitate _only_ if you are interested in alternatives.
Odds and Ends
The chapter references were particularly fine; the footnotes for key points led to the source material. Thus, a technique, an idea, or a point of view of interest can be hunted down in more detail. The bibliography was extensive, and while I have read many of the books on that list, it added a number of new titles for me to look up.
So what didn't work? I found that the story felt a bit too pat in spots. Sam never showed any particular flaws, so we did not really see how a manager should recognize a flaw, and how he should address it. DeMarco's Deadline did a bit better in this regard, as his hero did get angry and stubborn, and had to take both earned and unearned criticism.
I would have liked more focus on areas where managers and their reports have dissimilar goals, and how to get people to support goals only indirectly in their interest. Luke Hohmans's Journey of the Software Professional accomplished this with an unusual technique - each topic discussion was followed by different takeaway points for managers and employees. Without making a fuss, it made the point that managers and their reports have different priorities.
This book is not trying to replace solid management texts, and detailed books on estimation. It gives a stable of techniques that managers and their reports will find generally useful for the day-to-day work of getting the job done. It does so using a parable/story format that worked well enough at getting the context of management across.
The virtues generally outweighed the flaws. I rate this a four out of five, and recommend it highly to managers. Even old hands will find good things lurking in it and in the books it references. It is joining my bookshelf in the management section.