Fear and anxiety-driven management decisions

By Anujah Bosman, CEO at Chillisoft

Johannesburg, 16 Oct 2019
Read time 7min 20sec

In 2014, I remember chortling at ADD (“asshole-driven development”) and FDD or “fear-driven development” that was coined by Scott Hanselman. It still elicits a smile because it is so aptly named. Recently, it has occurred to me that we are experiencing a fear-driven environment that is not only restricted to software development. 

The majority of South Africans are understandably weary from South African news that is littered with posts of declining headline earnings, corporate fraud, retrenchments and the increasing unemployment levels. We seem to ping-pong between anger, despair and cynicism. The talks about talks on job creation and the 4IR does not help matters. This smog of despair has caused a pervasive anxiety about the future, which is impacting business decisions and software development operations.

The objective of this article is to characterise the current decision-making environment and to discuss how Chillisoft is seeing it impact the future of software development in South Africa, says Anujah Bosman, CEO at Chillisoft.

Short-term decisions

At Chillisoft, we have witnessed skills pipeline plans to recruit apprentice and junior software developers grinding to a halt. Most companies want software developers with at least two years of software development experience. This is understandable because business needs to deliver value as soon as possible. However, it would be wise to note that a software developer with two to five years of experience is currently the most mobile and marketable individual. These developers are in high demand and are often poached by competitors. If we don’t continue to recruit and employ South African software development graduates, where will the next generation of software developers come from?

Cheap hourly rate vs total project cost

Software developers are not replaceable units. Software development houses are not software factories. Hiring an army of cheaper software developers does not mean projects will be delivered faster or project costs will be lower. These are obvious and well-known statements in the software industry, however, there are many managers who are maximising budgetary spend and who do not understand that choosing vendors based on their low hourly rates does not translate into lower project costs. It is not about getting more developers for the same price. It is about maintaining a cohesive team with a range of skillsets for the duration of the project.

What about South African developers?

There is a fallacy that there are insufficient software development skills in South Africa. If this were true, why is there a large contingent of unemployed software developers? If these developers’ skills are inadequate, why was it not addressed during their employment? How did a junior developer get to be paid as an advanced intermediate?

I have often heard that large financial institutions are using technology stacks that are proprietary and that it is offshored because South Africa does not have these skillsets. Why are we continuing to fail at building these scarce and proprietary technology skillsets in South Africa? How about making a conscious decision to act and to choose to focus on the people perspective in the triple bottom line  of profit, people and planet?

Anxiety-driven cognitive biases

Anxiety saps the energy and the lifeblood in a company. It also impacts on how you process information. Anxiety results in a bias towards interpreting neutral and ambiguous stimuli negatively and is associated with risk aversion. In management, risk aversion manifests as control, a need for certainty and making “safe” choices. It also drives management to “stack the deck”, where you close ranks and surround yourself with loyalists. During these times, it is important to be grounded, to obtain multiple perspectives and to question assumptions. The common phrase of “no one was ever fired for choosing XXX” is no longer true.

Fear and anxiety increasing the drive for certainty

It is well known that it is incredibly difficult to estimate software delivery. It becomes possible when there is a level of certainty and stability in the project. It is counter-productive to waste software development hours trying to predict deadlines when the project is unstable or when the business rules and functionality are emergent. If there is a driving need for firm deadlines, it is worthwhile questioning whether the need for certainty is a business-driven need or does it stem from allaying managers’ fears? This is the time when managers and project managers must display their mettle and protect the team from the fear and anxiety. It is worth remembering Peter Drucker’s quote: “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”

False economy

It is true that South Africa has lost a large number of senior software developers to countries like Australia, New Zealand and the UK. It is also true that senior and intermediate developers are ruthlessly poached by headhunters and competitors within South Africa. During difficult economic  times, all companies value loyalty. The grass is not greener on the other side, it's just a different strain. Think wisely before resigning, because you could earn slightly more now, but burnt bridges are impossible to mend. Poaching an individual and paying the individual a ridiculous salary does not guarantee loyalty or contribution. Instead, it just drives up the expected salaries in an economy that has poor growth prospects. How sustainable is that?

Company-wide software development competency vs individual’s competency

Tough economic times are also perfect times for taking stock and reflecting on what can be improved. It is at these times that company culture and loyalty is tested. It also the time when you realise that your product or development capability rested in an individual and that it was not an organisational competency or competitive advantage. How do you build software development capabilities so they are resident in the company? Have you built technical practices, learning roadmaps, knowledge transfer sessions? Have you ensured there are no silos of knowledge or capability?

Track the work in the system, not the people

During difficult times, waste and inefficiencies are highlighted. Managers are frustrated because they know that we can accomplish a lot more. The typical management response is to request timesheets and to track the hours. Timesheets are easy to obfuscate and to mislead. It just lets managers know that a developer was onsite and did some work for the specified period. It does not tell you how much work is in the system. It does not tell you if the work is flowing or moving through the system. It also does not tell you if the work that is being done is even tracked in the system. Introducing timesheets when it was not a practice will destroy trust, which negatively impacts delivery.

False security

In uncertain times, many companies are choosing to have critical business knowledge maintained by employees instead of outsourcing the work. This decision may appear sound, however, it assumes that the employee will not resign. Why would you assume that? If your company’s competency rests in an individual, it is a risk. It does not matter if the individual is an employee or a contractor. It is less of a risk if the knowledge is shared and if there are practices in place to maintain systems and knowledge.

These are some of the common behavioural patterns that we have observed. The current climate calls for a degree of caution to be exercised, but it also a perfect time to make bold choices. Now is the perfect time for South African companies and managers to act and to start creating the next generation of software professionals. Our decisions today impact on South Africa’s ability to contribute and participate in the global economy and the fourth industrial revolution. This is a sobering thought that we, as managers and leaders, must action.

For more information on technical practices, learnerships, short courses and graduate programmes, contact info@chillisoft.co.za.

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