Author: Chris Vander Mey
Audience: Inexperienced software team leaders
Reviewer: Janet Swift
This book promises to reveal the secrets to shipping great software. Does it contain good advice?
Author Chris Vander Mey promotes his own book with its subtitle "Practical lessons on building and launching outstanding software, learned on the job at Google and Amazon" and this is a book based on his experiences with lots of anecdotes along the way.
He also refers to advice from other industry expert and it is presented in a readable and compelling way. However, for this review lets stand back and evaluate the advice and whether it suits your situation.
To better understand the book's mission, you need to start reading at page v, Preface which opens with:
Designing, building and launching the right software is referred to as shipping in the software industry. Shipping software is not packing boxes and it's not only hosting launch parties. Shipping is finding the right product, working through a complex and ever-changing process, and doing it quickly.
Note "doing it quickly" - this is a hallmark of the approach advocated and in some instances I think it leads to cutting corners. Take for example this advice on user experience research (UXR), which shook my confidence in the author's reliability as a role model:
"How can I have statistically significant data from a group of 5-10 UXR participants? The answer is that you can establish significance by comparing all the questions that were asked.For example if all five participants have the same experience on 15 tasks but diverge on one task you don't just have just one set of 5 divergent data points you have 5x16 data points, and you can establish significance"
I think a lesson in statistics is called for here.
The book is organised into two parts. Part I describes a process that is purportedly used by "many of the best teams at Google and Amazon and is arranged in a logical order so you need to read its seven chapters sequentially:
- How to build a great mission and strategy
- How to define a great product
- How to build a great user experience
- How to achieve project management greatness on a budget
- How to do a great job testing
- How to measure greatness
- How to have a great launch
Each of the chapters is characterized by lists - numbered steps, objective, questions. There is plenty of practical advice that you can apply to your own project and the book's website includes spreadsheets for a revenue model discussed in Chapter 2 and a project management tool from Chapter 4 and a launch checklist from Chapter 7 among other resources. There's also a lot of anecdotal evidence from Amazon and Google among others and this adds to the interest if you enjoy reading about other people's experience.
Part II goes over similar ground but with a change of focus - it sets out to impart techniques, best practices, and skills to the reader who is assumed to be a newly appointed team leader who’s been asked to ship software for the first time.
Five chapters are devoted to different aspect of this challenge:
- How to build a shipping-ready team
- How to be build great, shippable technology
- How to be a great, shipping communicator
- How to make great decisions
- How to stay a great person while shipping
The final chapter:
13. That was great; let’s do it again
suggests what you should do when you get to the end of the product development cycle and, as is the case throughout the book, gives personal insights.
The book rounds off with three appendixes, the first two of which, Ten Principles of Shipping and Essential Artifacts your team needs provide a succinct summing up of the content of the book - although they won't mean very much until you have read the rest of it. The final one provides references for further reading arranged by topic.
This is a highly readable book. It maintains a fast pace from cover to cover and also covers a lot of ground - twice over in many instances but I don't think this is a disadvantage. Although it makes readers ask themselves questions from time to time the author doesn't expect them to question his advice, which is delivered with confidence. Despite being worried about his grasp of statistics, Chris Vander Mey's practical advice is well presented and on the whole seems well worth taking on board.