"just work"

There's an idea in  the management world that some work is "just work". I once had a holiday job in a factory that involved a good deal of one kind of "just work"—unpack a box of bottles of nose spray originally destined for one market and re–label them for another, put them into a different box. Well defined tasks, repeated many, many times. At the limit "just work" comes close to the physicist's idea of work: it's what happens when a force displaces its point of application.

Over the last century or so "just work" has been the topic of intensive study. Techniques for organising the execution of "just work" with the goal of maximum output are very well developed. But what is "just work" for programmers? The question arose in the comments attached to this discussion of distributed development. It also relates to some thoughts I've been having recently about the rush to adopt Lean practices in some quarters.
Andres says that 
In knowledge work, “just work” is learning. [his emphasis]
If that's true then I think we have to say that a lot of contemporary development activity isn't knowledge work. Wiring up GUI controls? Transducing between HTTP requests and SQL queries? Mashing up web services? You have to learn how to do these things at all, it's true. But what do you learn while doing it once you know how? What learning takes place that is the work? 

I'm reluctant to accept "finding out how to hack your way around the deficiencies of the current framework" as a form of knowledge work. Meanwhile, this maybe does give me a way to think about a curious claim (see comments #3 and #4 on that posting) from the Lean camp:
A pair team has to produce twice as much output at a given level of quality as two solo programmers in order to be worthwhile.
What would we have to believe, in order to think that this claim were true? I think that we would have to believe that the paired programmers are engaged in quite a strong sense of "just work". What is it that a pair of programmers necessarily do half as much of because they are pairing? I can't think of anything but typing. Are keystrokes really what it is that programmers do that adds value? At a slightly higher level of sophistication we might say (as Corey in fact does) that the measure of value added is function points. That's a much better measure than typing (which implies code)
Measuring programming progress by lines of code is like measuring aircraft building progress by weight.—Bill Gates
but still gives me slight pause. Function points are still a measure from the technical solution space, not the business problem space. One of the things that makes me a bit nervous about the rush to Lean is the de–emphasis on conversations with the user/customer (which Leaners have a habit of dismissing as wasteful "planning") in favour of getting tons of code written as fast as possible

What I really want to see is getting users empowered to make money (or whatever it is they value) as fast as possible. That's knowledge work. And that requries learning.

No comments: