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The Almighty Buck Books Media Book Reviews

Slack 140

David Kennedy writes "This is a review of Tom DeMarco's recent Broadway title, Slack, sub-titled Getting past burnout, busywork, and the myth of total efficiency." Relax, and read on below to find out how good a case DeMarco makes for keeping slack.
Slack: Getting past burnout, busywork and the myth of total efficiency.
author Tom DeMarco
pages 220
publisher Broadway
rating A
reviewer David Kennedy
ISBN 076790768X
summary A highly entertaining, and informative survey of the state of the high-tech and software industries today, which suggests that companies have been taking exactly the wrong actions under pressure and further decreasing their ability to handle rapid change.

Summary:

A highly entertaining, and informative survey of the state of the high-tech and software industries today, which suggests that companies have been taking exactly the wrong actions under pressure and further decreasing their ability to handle rapid change. The book is peppered with interesting asides and examples, but is always informed by the central thesis that companies need more Slack built back into their structures.

Check your sources.

Tom DeMarco is an established industry management guru who has the respect of many of the technical community. He's written several previous titles, including the notable Peopleware and the collection, Why does software cost so much?. I'm not normally keen on any books in this genre, but have always found DeMarco's writing very readable and though-provoking -- most importantly for me, he has a habit of trying to find NUMBERS to back up any claims.

What's this book about?

This is a 2001 title, and I find it slightly shocking that, in a maturing industry, we still need a book on this topic (from the blurb):

"To most companies, efficiency means profits and growth. But what if your 'efficient' company - the one with the reduced headcount and the 'stretch' goals -- is actually slowing down and losing money? What if your employees are burning out doing the work of two or more people, leaving them no time for planning, prioritizing, or even lunch? What if your super-efficient company is suddenly falling behind?"

So far we're just talking about the state of the modern software industry right? What's he proposing we do about it?
"[...] what you need is not more efficiency, but more slack. What is 'slack'? Slack is the degree of freedom in a company that allows it to change."

It seems a very simple concept to me, but then I'm an engineer, his writing is persuasive, and I have the benefit of 20-20 hindsight when reading. How can he get a 220 page book out of such a simple concept? After all, all we programmers know that your general purpose solutions always sacrifice speed for flexibility right?

What he discusses is a business model where you keep people, say, 70% busy. This leaves time for unexpected business, for reflection on why X takes so long and how to fix it, for self-training, for discussion about how things are done. These are all good things -- but the winner is that when people are stressed by sudden change or a deluge of new work, they have some slack to take in. Things change, you suffer a reduction in productivity, but hey, you had some slack to take in so the week's work is still getting done, you've just dropped that Ruby book for a week or two. You're swamped by a rush on finishing Product X before a competitors Product hits the market first -- just drop that tinkering with a novel memory pooling thingy you were considering slotting in to replace the adequate-but-inelegant solution in your product. I'm simplifying and reducing his argument here, but that's the idea. The other corollary to the 70% busyness level is that the system is responsive -- some nodes are 100%, some are 20%, but overall things are flowing. A system where most nodes are at 100% means some nodes are hanging waiting for other nodes to catch up -- total throughput drops. This'll make more sense reading his version ('underworked but responsive secretary' vs '100% busy, cannot help until Friday secretary'), but it's a good central topic -- simple, but not trivial.

220 pages isn't much -- he states that the book should be comfortable reading for a business trip -- and the bulk of the space is taken up by rationale for his suggestion, and discussion of the consequences. What I found valuable about the book was the description and subsequent debunking of several management techniques -- for example, he has a severe go at management-by-objective. I recognise it. I suspect you too will recognise it, and several other common variations.

Let's have a quick skim of the contents -- this isn't a technical book, more one massive opinion column, so the section titles aren't that useful, but I feel like I'm cheating if I don't do this in a review ...

  • Slack
    Madmen in the halls, busyness vs business, the myth of fungible resources. This section sets up the case by setting out the assumptions, and describing what actually happened to most businesses when put under pressure in the last 10 years. I loved the word "fungible" too -- describes a resource that can be freely interchanged -- like paperclips are and software designers aren't.
  • Lost, but making good time
    The cost of pressure, aggressive schedules, overtime, culture of fear, quality, management by objective. This is a meaty section and basically describes how the heck things got to be this way, what practices were adopted, and how they made things worse...
  • Change and growth
    Vision, leadership, fear and safety, trust, what middle management is there for, change management. This section talks about change, specially why a lot of the measures adopted to prepare for it help make things worse, and how we should instead consider other approaches.
  • Risk and risk management
    Working at breakneck speed, learning to live with risk. This seems like a short section from the contents, but it's reasonably long. There's less to discuss here for what we have is a 2-by-4 to head of businesses who refuse to plan for failure. A discussion then follows of the classic problem -- scheduling -- and why you'll never do a decent job of that without risk management. This is the only section where the tone is hectoring rather than persuasive -- or else that was my own frustration at the experiences I've had coming into play!

Target audience

It's aimed at a particular segment according to the cover: "A handbook for managers, entrepreneurs, and CEOs." Well, I'm none of those, but I enjoyed it and found it useful. I'd prefer that my bosses were reading this than most of the other pap from the same shelf, but let's face it, change comes from all levels in the organisation, and if you can't spot mistakes being made within your team then you can't plan for your own career either. Read this book, it'll come in useful either when your managers start going awry and making you suffer, or it'll come in useful when you float up the org chart and have to start dealing with a team of your own.

What's good?

Most of it. This is a highly entertaining read, and does present some genuinely useful ideas. It's also great as a collection of management anti-patterns. I think any career programmer in a medium-sized or above business would find this book interesting. Actually, come to that, anyone who enjoys Dilbert will enjoy this book.

What's bad?

Not much. There were a couple of areas where I would have liked more case studies or evidence. As I said above, the recourse to surveys for the truth is something of a trademark of DeMarco -- he certainly references quite a lot of material in this book, but doesn't produce any solid evidence to back his ideas. Granted, probably hard to experiment on this scale!


You can purchase Slack from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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Slack

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  • bn.com has the book listed for $18.40. Amazon has it for $16.10 [amazon.com].

    Save yourself some money.
    • bn.com has the book listed for $18.40. Amazon has it for $16.10

      That's $32.20 after you've given an equal amount to the Electronic Frontier Foundation to counter the amount that you give to Amazon to retain a lawyer to enforce the dubious patent on "one-click shopping", or sending a personal identifier along with a request to buy a product.

      I give $65 annually to EFF. I don't spend more than $65 annually on products of the nine members of MPAA union RIAA. It works out


    • This is the original book about slack... and its even cheeeaper.

      And it also puts more bull in your bulldada.

      http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0671 638106/qid=1034609573/sr=8-1/ref=sr_8_1/102-414756 0-3840143?v=glance&n=507846
    • Chapters (aka Indigo) has it for $21.00 [indigo.ca] CDN (for those in the iRewards program it drops an additional $2.10, to $18.90 CDN), which is equal to about $13.20 US. Amazon.ca has it for $23.10 CDN.
    • Re: Half.com (Score:3, Interesting)

      by hendridm ( 302246 )
      Don't forget Half.com [ebay.com]. Get a better deal on a slightly used book and boost your eBay karma to boot!
    • And in the UK, there's a paperback at £7.99 [amazon.co.uk].
    • Please don't click on this RedWolves2 guy's link to Amazon. He's embedded his Amazon.com affiliate code into the link without telling anyone, and it would be a shame to see profit from such sleazy behavior. Slashdot should have a policy allowing moderators to discard posts from people who pull this kind of crap.
      • How the heck is that unethical?

        RedWolves2 pointed out to a populace reading a book where they could save some money on it. Pointing them to his affiliate page doesn't cost the hypothetical /. poster anything. It's exactly how affiliate programs should work--he referrs them to Amazon, and if they buy from Amazon he gets money for it.

        Besides which, it looks like /. did the same thing...
      • What is the big deal? I mean its not like it makes the book more expensive for you. He is doing exactly what the affiliate program is supposed to do... bring business to amazon for a small cut.
      • Slashdot does have such a policy -- it's called "moderation."

        The bn.com link given by slashdot tracks the referrer as well. Better send an angry email to Taco.

        What do you have against RedWolves2, anyway?

      • Slashdot should have a policy allowing moderators to discard posts from people who pull this kind of crap.

        This is great. We've got a microcosm of the whole Libertarian-accepts-sketchy vs. Ethical-demands-authority debate that always crops up on /.

        RedWolves2 is a whore. I hate namecalling, but that's the fact. As soon as I saw him shill for Amazon, I checked to make sure that he had included his affiliate code in the link, and sure enough. He will make some money on being the first 3+ post on the article, with a link (unless he subsequently gets modded down). I have a friend that, despite my chiding him, maintains an Amazon affiliate link for a book that he recommends as his sig, and pulls in a modest ~$15 a month. That's not even half as shady as RedWolves2 though.

        What upsets us about RedWolves2's action? The fact that he didn't disclose that he had included his referrer tag? I'm not bothered that he referred Amazon for a discount, and it would only make sense that he'd include *someone*'s affiliate code. If he was a true humanitarian, he would have picked a worthwhile organization that had an affiliate code and used theirs, and disclosed that fact. No, I'd say it's the fact that he used his own, and didn't disclose it, that has got our hackles up.

        That being said, that it's fairly unethical behavior that many of us would find distasteful, do we need a new method of dealing with it? He was modded up by folks who apparently wanted to reward his post, dubiously in the public interest. He could be modded down by people who want to punish it. Ultimately, you'd believe that most people clicking through his link would understand the Amazon referral program, and would realize who they were rewarding. Maybe people just keep a list of affiliate codes for worthy charities by their monitors for just such purchases.

        Some AC mentioned [slashdot.org] that the Tattered Cover [tatteredcover.com] is a more worthwhile book store to support, and that they have it for $14. They might have an affiliate program, perhaps someone should find a decent organization and buy it from there.

        I just double-checked, and sure enough, RedWolves2 has already lost 2 mod points. Looks like the people are speaking...
        • What upsets us about RedWolves2's action? The fact that he didn't disclose that he had included his referrer tag? I'm not bothered that he referred Amazon for a discount, and it would only make sense that he'd include *someone*'s affiliate code. If he was a true humanitarian, he would have picked a worthwhile organization that had an affiliate code and used theirs, and disclosed that fact. No, I'd say it's the fact that he used his own, and didn't disclose it, that has got our hackles up.

          What's the big deal? He referred people to a book and included a link which said (to amazon) that he did so. That's not unethical, that's normal. It'd only be unethical if he had defrauded people about the book's value or done so in a story submission.

          Also, what's this about being a humanitarian? Do you have anything against people making a buck?

      • RedWolves2 must be a pseudonym for Jon Katz!
    • by ClarkEvans ( 102211 ) on Monday October 14, 2002 @12:04PM (#4446018) Homepage
      This fantastic book [tatteredcover.com] is $14.00 at an independent bookstore who values freedom. If you remember, about one year ago there was a big case in Colorado where the Tattered Cover [tatteredcover.com] bookstore refused to give up records of customers who purchased particular books to the authorities on grounds of free speech. This is detailed here [aclu-co.org],here [freeexpression.org], and here. [ioba.org] Big chains like BN and Amazon don't take stands like this.

    • If you goto http://www.addall.com/ [addall.com] you can search for it in hardcover and electronic form also. They search some 24 different sites and give you the lowest price. That is what the internet is about - enforcing competition.

      Why pay more,... or amazon and RedWolves2...
      I am not associated with addall.com, I like cheap books.
  • by MosesJones ( 55544 ) on Monday October 14, 2002 @11:25AM (#4445774) Homepage
    And a history of corporate suits ignoring what he says. If you do read and implement what he says it will save you time and make you money.

    These are the great books of Software Engineering written by people who know, and can prove it. headed by The Mythical Man Month and Peopleware everytime I re-read them it depresses me. Another year on, and still the same mistakes as 30 years ago.

  • by msheppard ( 150231 ) on Monday October 14, 2002 @11:25AM (#4445780) Homepage Journal
    Am I the only one who thought this was a broadway show?

    Marge: You know, when I was a little girl I always dreamed of being in a Broadway audience.

    M@
    • No. My immediate reaction was "Let's write software BROADWAY STYLE!"
    • I certainly thought it was a Broadway play or musical. Actually, that's what got me to read the story. The name "Slack" seemed to have been an apt name for a drama based on the years of dot.com slavery.

      I was curious how they managed to integrate an educational theme like the subtitle suggested, "Getting past burnout, busywork, and the myth of total efficiency" into the narrative. I figured it was some neo-educational-broadway-drama-storytelling production. But a book isn't that bad. ;)
    • I think I saw him in Rent, or Romp, or Stomp, or some piece of crap.
    • I had this vision of a chorus line of "Bob" Dobbs's puffing on their pipes ...
  • Slack (Score:4, Funny)

    by CreepyNinja ( 615245 ) on Monday October 14, 2002 @11:25AM (#4445781)
    Give yourself to Bob Dobbs [subgenius.org], and ye shall have slack.
  • Slack? (Score:4, Informative)

    by Torgo's Pizza ( 547926 ) on Monday October 14, 2002 @11:26AM (#4445791) Homepage Journal
    Hmmm, I thought the true way to obtain Slack was through Bob Dobbs [subgenius.com].
  • And the book have a link to the Church of the SubGenius [subgenius.com]? Will Bob sue?
  • As usual, this book is a couple of bucks less at Amazon [amazon.com], or even more than a couple [amazon.com] if you don't mind a used copy.

    And moderators, this isn't redundant. A lot of people actually think Slashdot links the cheapest site.
  • Alas... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by pjt48108 ( 321212 )
    If only my boss had read this book already, but the review appears slightly more than a week too late to prevent my submitting two-weeks' notice. The concepts in this book appear to be just what my tech-ignorant, conflict-phobic, soon-to-be-ex-boss needs (apart from a swift kick in the butt).

    [Word to the wise geek: never work in a public library if you will be the only geek on staff--you'll thank me for this advice]

    That said, this book seems destined to be purchased by managers nationwide, only to collect dust on their shelf, next to the One-Minute Manager and Dummies Guide to Management.

    • Re:Alas... (Score:4, Insightful)

      by telbij ( 465356 ) on Monday October 14, 2002 @11:40AM (#4445884)
      I think it just depends on the temperment of your particular boss. I work in a marketing department with 4 non-techies (well, one is a graphic designer), and I LOVE the degree of control they give me. Of course, it only works because they trust me, but I would not trade it for a job working with techies anytime soon.
  • Why is it... (Score:1, Redundant)

    by Raul654 ( 453029 )
    ...that everytime I heard the words 'guru' or 'consultant' I get the overwhelming urge to reach for my gun?
  • University work (Score:5, Insightful)

    by telbij ( 465356 ) on Monday October 14, 2002 @11:33AM (#4445829)
    I have first-hand experience with this kind of work environment at my University job. It has really helped me produce much higher quality work (I'm a Web Designer and Developer using Perl, PHP, and MySQL). Of course, in my case it's somewhat accidental, but nevertheless I see a lot of this at the University.

    The culture here is such that people are hired to handle a set of responsibilities rather than to produce 40 hours of solid work every week. Because there is no one clear goal in most University departments, you find a wide disparity of workloads.

    I think there is one crucial distinction between people that needs to be judged before such a management is widely deployed, however. There are some people, when given spare time, will increase the quality of their work. Others however, will simply waste their extra time. I'm inclined to say that techies, being generally more interested in their work than the average full-time employee would fit into the first category. Upon reflection, however, I do not believe this is true. I think it just boils down to personal work ethic. I've seen people in what I consider to be dreadfully dull positions (retail management, facilities) coming up with all kinds of great ideas to further the goals of the organization. As with many things in business, hiring seems to make all the difference.
    • There's something fishy about the concept of work ethic as it's used to day. To me, work ethic is what gets me to sit at work for 8 hours a day and do something.

      What really differentiates people is the level of confidence they need to have in their own idea before they disobey their manager to do it. People with a low threshhold implement a lot of things ... good or bad, depending if they're smarter than their manager.

    • Employing people to 'handle a set of responsibilities' is ideal, IF you can get the right people.

      This puts a huge pressure on management to know what their people are doing. Checking that responsibilities are satisfied is much harder work than checking that hours worked >=40.

      It also means that if someone slips up regularly they have to be sacked. But, is that because you expected too much of them, or because they suck. And does legislation allow you to sack them?

      You can see why management stick with the hour counting!
  • by LinuxWoman ( 127092 ) <[damschler] [at] [mailcity.com]> on Monday October 14, 2002 @11:35AM (#4445840)
    Yeah, hiring 3 people to cover a department that should have 10 people is monetarily cheaper since you only have to cover salary and benefits for 3, the overtime and burnout will bite you in the butt in the longrun.

    Where I now work we have exactly THREE people to cover a backlog of tickets (some going back almost SIX MONTHS) along with the current issues of a 10 building, 250+ computer WAN. They wonder why we get stuck working a bit of OT (average of 1hr/week - and that's usually divided between the 3 of us), but they also expect us to get the department totally caught up (hey - there's 3 of you now instead of the just 2 of last year).

    The world really needs to kick a few of those highly paid corporate officers out of their palaces and make them work a week or 2. I bet that would let us start seeing a change in working conditions (or at least pay).

    I don't mind WORKING but this whole "we're going to cut your department, and your pay but you sill have to get everything done on time without overtime" idea is nuts.
  • by Garridan ( 597129 ) on Monday October 14, 2002 @11:36AM (#4445856)
    We didn't get it from any book. My boss is just a laid-back guy. Hell, until business was picking up to the point that it is, people were drinking every day... he offered me a beer at 3:00 on my second day!

    Now, business has picked up, and before our last two large projects, he's hired somebody to help me with them. Now, I've got a close-knit team of 3, and I'm still doing the same amount of work as always. I get a little stresed about busy weeks, but a "busy" week usually means cutting the hour of Unreal Tournament, coming early and leaving a little late -- not working 80 hours a week. As a result, I'm always "on". I don't feel burnt out. I even enjoy my work most of the time, though it can be monotonous. (web scripts are all the same after you've written too many)
    • Honest hint: (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Jerf ( 17166 ) on Monday October 14, 2002 @11:52AM (#4445954) Journal
      (web scripts are all the same after you've written too many)

      This is a big hint from the universe that you need to abstract further. Spend some time factoring out the similarities, and you can make those drudgery scripts more quickly, with fewer bugs, and move on to more interesting problems. Plus, the challenge of factoring the functionality is itself an interesting problem.

      Just trying to be helpful; I have no vested interest in you listening or otherwise ;-)
      • Believe me... I try -- its the only pleasure I get out of my job anymore. Just got into a fight with my co-workers about just that, actually. They know that simpler is better, but somehow won't accept that abstraction can mean simplicity. I abstract small things and they're happy. I want to abstract the entire database and all the pages built from it, and they bitch. I see a tiny little kernel of code that can build and run almost any complex website in a speedy, secure way (static files from templates)... but they don't like the idea of making the modularity so fine-grained.
        • They had better get used to it. The type of scripting you're talking about is now easily automated with code generation tools. It won't be too long now that the price point on this sort of activity (assuming you're in a consulting role here) for these projects get so low, that anyone who still does it all by hand won't be able to stay in business. Heck, it's already happening.

          Abstraction = less code
          Less code = shorter project
          Shorter project = less expensive project
          Less expensive project = happier customers
          Happier customers = more business for you and less for the competition

          Please, do me a favor and ignore my advice. ;+)
  • If there are some people in my company working at 20%, then I guess I am doing the jobs of 5 people....

    This is a dangerous book to hype during a time of layoffs and cutbacks. I've seen alot of folks that were tinkering with skunkworks projects lose their jobs because they were viewed as non-essential.
    • ...prone to confusing motion with progress for several reasons -

      1. Assigning staff to "Special Projects" is often done with the idea that you must have a manager directing staff and keeping them busy at all times. Clearly, the staff involved couldn't come up with any productive use of their own time, so they have to be given a project.

      2. These projects tend to have a very low code to documentation ratio. In fact, they often only produce a lot of documentation (usually of processes). Morello notes in Slack that processes often standardize the simple parts of application development and ignore the subtler and more difficult aspects.

      3. Staff working on a "special project" aren't spending time creatively improving existing applications. This goes back to point one - management assumes that the technical staff won't have good ideas.

    • I don't see how this could be a dangerous book to hype... Having read this book in the last month, I don't see this as doing anything other than advocating having more people on a project...

      You obviously didn't read the review...

      Also, if you're doing the jobs of 5 people either accept it, realize that perhaps you're doing more than your job ( i.e. stop doing other peoples' work), or get a new job... :P

  • by outsider007 ( 115534 ) on Monday October 14, 2002 @11:44AM (#4445906)
    you may already be an expert on slack.
    • > you may already be an expert on slack.

      Especially if you're using the One and Only Linux distro.

    • I personally try to keep my maximum loading on any given day at or below 70%, but I also have a tendency to do some work on the weekends. It's no accident that 5/7ths is about 70%, so scaling a 5 day workweek to 7 days gives 100%. At least in theory. In the position I'm in, there's an infinite amount of work I could be doing. I work in bursts, get lots done, and then coast until the next burst. It works out great, because there are usually a lot of 'fires' that erupt during my coasting periods, and if I were working slavishly, I wouldn't be able to 'firefight.'

      Ultimately, I think I do a better job of serving the company, as I'm able to work on projects and activities that are orthogonal to my "critical path tasks", and that helps out the productivity of everyone around me. I can spend the 10 minutes to look at someone elses code and spot a silly bug, or float an idea past someone about some project they're working on and so on. I love it.

      I actually spend probably 1/2 of my day hopping between email, browsing websites to keep up on the news, avoiding conference calls, and generally ruminating about the state of the universe as it applies to our group. The other half of the day, I'm slacking off. And then on the weekend, I churn out code. ;-) For some reason, they keep promoting me. (It sometimes has an Office Space feel to it -- "You're firing Michael and Samir, and you're giving me a raise?" -- but really, I'm not that bad.)

      Ok, I'm not *quite* that slacked all the time. But when I'm coasting, it's not too different. It balances the occasional mania-induced 14hr days and code-a-thons. I much prefer the work-in-bursts sprinting to sustained drudgery. It keeps it more interesting in the long run. And I am more likely to maintain a healthy reserve of slack.

      --Joe
  • by jeorgen ( 84395 ) on Monday October 14, 2002 @11:44AM (#4445911)
    Jay Galbraiths book "Designing complex organizations" (ISBN 0-201-02559-0) from 1973 talk a lot about having slack in an organisation as a way of being prepared for uncertainty. (At least as far as my memory serves me; it was a course book when I studied informatics ten years ago and I don't have it handy.)

    /jeorgen

  • Underutilization (Score:3, Interesting)

    by haa...jesus christ ( 576980 ) on Monday October 14, 2002 @11:45AM (#4445917)
    I think this books sounds interesting, perhaps echoing the Theory of Constraints and similar ideas. My only concern is (and this may be addressed in the book) - what is done to combat boredom, malaise, etc. in underutilized employees? This can very easily lead to undisciplined and less efficient employees when/if things are under the gun...seems to me it's a pretty fine balance.
    • I don't know that this book explicitly addresses how to 'fix' the problem of people being bored, but it did say that employees that are supposed to be able to respond to emergencies need to have a certain amount of slack/free time in order to be efficient at responding to said emergencies.

      Regardless, if employees are bored, I would think that a good manager would be able provide methods by which the employee can be challenged and motivated to grow and learn. When is there ever "nothing else to learn"?
  • I went to a workshop he ran with Tim Lister and the Atlantic Systems Guild. Well worth the time and money.

    Also check out "The Deadline" - a novel about project management. Really.
  • by Speare ( 84249 ) on Monday October 14, 2002 @11:51AM (#4445951) Homepage Journal

    ... and I agree with the basic premise. This is a great "new" look at the problem of stressing effectiveness over efficiency, especially in the design house. However, most career managers have little incentive to rock the good ship status quo, and the majority of business contexts are production-oriented, not design-oriented, so efficiency over effectiveness is the name of the game.

    Slip it into your boss' carry-on luggage before a big trip. Maybe you'll luck out.

  • read it!! (Score:5, Informative)

    by mrsmalkav ( 33086 ) <lisa2006@travivi ... minus herbivore> on Monday October 14, 2002 @12:30PM (#4446207) Homepage
    I picked up this book for about $10 at a super-mega-uber-discount bookstore in San Francisco earlier on this year. Boy, what a bargain.

    This book absofuckinglutely rocks. After I was about 50 pages into it, I started evangelizing it to all my game programmer and IT friends. I wish that every manager and project manager would read this book. There are some amazing ideas and concepts in that book that are no big surprise, but you'd think that these concepts would be impossibilities looking at how people manage!

    There are some "amazing" ideas like: (paraphrased)
    * 'If a project fails to meet a deadline, it's not the fault of the employees doing the work, it was the responsibility of the project manager to make a realistic project plan'
    * 'No matter how many hours you force your knowledge employees to work, they'll still only be as productive as they would have been in 8 hours of work.'
    * 'Interrupt your knowledge workers often, and it reduces their productivity'
    * '100% efficient means no flexibility'
    * 'Constant meetings make managers not able to manage'
    * 'It costs money and time ($$$) to train a new person, so keep your old people happy if they're doing their jobs.'

    The scenarios presented in this book rang so very true with the dotcom paradigm and the game industry. I couldn't believe how well everything applied. That whole book should be applied.

    Most of these ideas aren't big surprises, but damned if people don't listen. I reiterate: I wish that every manager of knowledge workers would read this book, and that members of upper management would take time off from their busy meeting schedules and read it too. I think that it could make some kind of difference and even a tiny one would be amazing.

    Us dotcommers burned out and used that severance period to get our lives back, but a good number of companies are still behaving like they did back then, and currently employed people are burnt out and/or burning out.

    As someone who was an IT manager and still intends to be an IT manager, it was an excellent read. I just wish that my manager and the the COO would have read that damn book.

    Burnt out employees is a bad thing. This book in the hands of managers is a very good thing.
    • That's exactly the point.

      The people in charge, the important people, the managers, are never going to read this book.

      At my company (which shall remain nameless) we were recently assigned a book (The Trusted Advisor) to read. Management hyped it so much that they actually bought one for every engineer. It was a good book, actually an excellent book, about building high-level relationships with customers, and I found several sections that were actually philosophically diametrically opposed to some new policies and procedures that had just been instituted along with the hyping of this book. Apparently it was a "feel good move" passed on from some consultant to soften the blow of the policies (and a round of "performance-based" layoffs that were just around the corner that we hadn't been told about yet). Management obviously never read the book.

      The funny thing is - the policies were put in place so that the managers could root-out slackers. They involved doing reviews of all their team members every 30 days, and team members had weekly status reports (which were not even read in the majority of cases). And the managers were too lazy to actually carry out the policy themselves. They did the reviews for the first and second month, then the next review was 4 months later (and everyone was working their asses off so they wouldn't be in the bottom 10%).
      In the end, some layoffs did come, mainly politically motivated layoffs, rather than "performance-based" as they had planned.

      And the end result was the workers left behind are all getting burned out - because the workload didn't go down when the pressure increased.

  • I worked at a place that had recently gotten a new CEO. All of a sudden, everyone started getting those Daytimer notebooks. When asked why I didn't have one yet, I replied that I didn't like being so busy; it interfered with my daydreaming. People looked at me funny. Then I got a Newton (yes, it was a long time ago) and started to log my work time. I got depressed after finding out that I was working 13 months for every 12 month period. I quit using the Newton and felt much happier, until I got laid off during the Asian Flu thing in '98. Then I went back to being a contractor and was happy until the dotcom crash. Now I've had 18 months of slack time. Too much of a good thing is as bad as too little.
  • by Hard_Code ( 49548 ) on Monday October 14, 2002 @12:36PM (#4446267)
    "Premature optimization is the root of all evil." -Knuth

    Companies, especially in the cut-throat US market, consistently choose immediate gains over long term gains. This is why we can have billion-dollar corporations just crumbling within days. At some point you can no longer borrow from Peter to pay Paul, and it all falls apart. Companies should be looking not only 1 or 5 years (or god forbid, just months!) into the future, but 10 or 20...not only with respect to human resources, but all the other resources and strategies available. Unfortunately, when you are surrounded with competition which will gladly eat your lunch if you attempt to forego immediate efficiencies for long term efficiencies, this can be very hard. Somehow this premature optimization needs to be disincentivized, but I'm not sure how that can be done. Also, with such "premature optimizations" the damage is long done before the long court process can resolve any wrong doing (HOW many years has the MS trial been going on without any ramifications or reparations so far?) Perhaps corporations should be forced to submit long term business strategy documents or have their charter revoked (maybe make this public record, so that companies cannot eat each other's lunch?) Who knows. But it a larger issue than just human resources. The free market optimizes very locally (and while some may argue the failure of those that optimize too locally, and the subsequent emergence of other companies support, not detract, from the free market - remember, big giants make BIG fucking holes when they fall...maybe we should be wary of letting the giants get that big without looking where they are going)
  • Another important aspect of slack pops up in Repenning, Understanding Fire Fighting In New Product Development [mit.edu]; without it, the system is unstable against transients that tend to draw resources from upstream development (where they are more efficient) into downstream firefighting (where their benefit is more timely). A death spiral results.

    Decent paper. Yes, he tends to belabor points the reader should see coming, and the model is clearly simplistic - but these very points might make it accessible for managers, particularly those still enamored of their MBA degrees.
  • My trick... (Score:4, Funny)

    by Pig Hogger ( 10379 ) <<pig.hogger> <at> <gmail.com>> on Monday October 14, 2002 @12:50PM (#4446354) Journal
    For the last 15 years, I've always told my boss that I am 2-3 days behind where I'm really are in my work. So, whenever the shit hitts the fan, I am always able to slither out unscathed...
    • by Anonymous Coward
      I didn't know Scotty from the Enterprise posted on Slashdot!
    • OK, am really responding to the .sig, not the comment, so mod me down as offtopic, I guess...

      Adolf Hitler would be delighted to see plenty of justification for the shoah just by watching how israël acts

      I really do have to take exception, however, to expressing such a sentiment. Let me list the ways in which this is flagrantly wrong.

      First, you are implying that there can be justification for genocide. Now most people, from the Noam Chomsky left to the Pat Buchanan right, seem to be able to agree that there is no justification at all for genocide... It doesn't matter if you think Isreal is right, wrong, or if you think Israel is commiting genocide itself in its actions towards the Palestinians (which, I presume, is what you are referencing).

      Secondly, not only are you claiming justification for mass murder, but you seem to be arguing from the typical anti-semitic viewpoint: Jews are evil and must be destroyed. I say this because you aren't suggesting that today's israel should be punished for actions you disagree with, you are claiming that Hitler was right in his desire to destroy the Jews and paint them as the source of evil in Germany. In effect, you are claiming that modern Israels actions are retroactively legitimating Hitler's intentions (and no one can deny that they were profoundly anti-semitic). The destruction of European jewry in the holocaust was a great evil, a crime of tremendous magnitude, period. This is true no matter what modern day Jews may do.

      Lastly, you are actually hurting your own cause by espousing such rascist and offensive ideas. I might be inclined to sympathise with your sentiments if you criticised Israel in a more constructive matter (you could even invoke the holocaust (if you must) by saying something like "You would think a people who had undergone incredible oppression like the shoah would make every attempt to avoid oppressing others.") I recently read a book written by an aquaintance of mine, Art Gish, about his experiences in Hebron as part of a peace team, and have somewhat modified my views on realising that the lunatics on the Israeli settler fringe are just as stupid and violent as the Hamas "the Zionists must be pushed into the sea" terrorists. Reading an idiotic comment about the holocaust, however, gives me an urge to put an Israeli flag on my car and a Star of David on my jacket as a sign of solidarity with Israel against anti-semites.

      Those of you looking for additional perspective on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict might check out Hebron Journal [amazon.com] for a first hand account... For Pig Hogger, however, i have some other reading suggestions. Try reading and applying this book on critical thinking [amazon.com] before you make any more editorial comments on the holocaust.

      regards
      Simeon
      • Whoooa!!!! Pal, my goal is merely to shock people. No need for such philosophical rhetoric. Save your neurons to blast the RIAA or the MPAA!!!
  • Perhaps the book already addresses the issue, but it sounds like it is taking a manufacturing view to tech productivity. Sure, extra margin/slack might be useful if the widgets are interchangeable, but we are talking about people here. A new warm body brought into the project needs to be brought up to speed, slowing other developers down. So we have that famous axiom from "The Mythical Man-Month" that adding a new programmer to a late project makes it later. How exactly does DeMarco (who is no dummy) handle reallocation of human "slack"?
    • You totally missed it. Instead of adding new people, you:

      • Ensure that people have 'slack' where if they need to increase productivity for a short period of time, they can.
      • Don't add new people, keep the 'old' people happy so they don't need to be replaced or added too (esp. in project).
      • Have a realistic project timeline.

      No mystic man months here. Move along.

    • I think the point is that if you keep everyone about 70% busy, then when something unforseen comes up, each person has some resources to throw at the problem. I think he means to do that, more than have people move around.

      It's a long term strategy for the whole organization and won't help with the project that's due next month. Your organization will be healthier and stronger in the long run if each part has some slack.

      Think of driving your car down the freeway. It's bad if it takes everything your car has just to keep up. It's much better if there is some extra capacity. That way, when the semi starts to squeeze you into the guardrail, you can accelerate out of the way.
  • i predict this book will be popular with those who do the work, and they will highly recommend it to those who schedule the work, who will find its arguments less persuasive.

    -- p
  • This "Slack" sounds like a luxery of a boom economy. In this world of cutbacks, layoffs, and rescoping, how many companies are ever going to have employees that remain only 70% utilized.

    The truth is that you don't need slack, you need good managers. Should a business opportunity arise, good managers reprioritize and shift the focus of their employees, not complain that they have too few resources.
    • by killthiskid ( 197397 ) on Monday October 14, 2002 @02:44PM (#4447209) Homepage Journal

      I have a car capable of going 143 miles per hour. However, I have only driven it that fast once, and most times I hover around 70 mph. The car is designed to perform for a long time when well maintained and driven at sane speeds. The same can be said for people. An employee can work 80 hours a week as fast as they can, but it is the equivalent of driving a car too damn fast for too damn long. On an average work day, I work at 70%. It's not that the other 30 percent is wasted, it is just extremely flexible. I'm currently using my extra 30% to refactor some stuff, read some good programing books, look at new technology and what not... all stuff I can drop at a moments notice so I can devote that extra 30% to something else.

      Using the 30% as I want keeps me interesting and happy.

      The false perception is that the 30% is lost. It is not.

  • Not a New Idea (Score:2, Interesting)

    by scottennis ( 225462 )


    There are a lot of writers out there who have been talking about this concept for years.

    Tom Heuerman calls the "slack" concept Organizational Mindfulness [shpm.com].

    Not as snappy as "Slack," but essentially the same idea.

    BTW, is somebody looking into grabbing the domain slackdot.org?

  • I thought he was talking of slackware. Thus, the following picture occured to me:

    slack = 70% of time spent busy
    debian = 5% of time spent busy ... thus the article defeated itself.

    Granted, I know this isn't what it's talking about, but the idea of someone writing of - or even thinking - that slackware is a time-efficient distro is quite humorous.

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