Project Signaling

Van Halen may have known more about project management than most program managers. Van Halen’s legendary "No Brown M&Ms Rider" is simultaneously the greatest example of rock star excess and project signaling I’ve ever seen. As David Lee Roth puts it:
The contract rider read like a version of the Chinese Yellow Pages because there was so much equipment, and so many human beings to make it function. So just as a little test, in the technical aspect of the rider, it would say "Article 148: There will be fifteen amperage voltage sockets at twenty-foot spaces, evenly, providing nineteen amperes . . ." This kind of thing. And article number 126, in the middle of nowhere, was: "There will be no brown M&M's in the backstage area, upon pain of forfeiture of the show, with full compensation."

So, when I would walk backstage, if I saw a brown M&M in that bowl . . . well, line-check the entire production. Guaranteed you're going to arrive at a technical error. They didn't read the contract. Guaranteed you'd run into a problem. Sometimes it would threaten to just destroy the whole show. Something like, literally, life-threatening.
In economics, signals are indicators that convey specific meaning between producers and consumers. For example, when you see THX on the side of a set of speakers, you know the speakers are going to probably be of audiophile quality. The THX logo is the speaker manufacturer's signal to you, the consumer, that these speakers are really good. To David Lee Roth and the Van Halen road crew, the presence of brown M&Ms indicated that the hosting venue had not understood all details of the contract and had very likely made a mistake in configuring the set. One mistake in this case could cause malfunctions during the show or even the death of a crew member.

As it turns out, signaling software projects isn’t that difficult. The 12 step Joel Test is a reasonable signal for software development companies. While the Joel Test is nice for getting a feel for a company before you work for them, the concept is still useful once you’ve got the job and the project is in full swing.

Ultimately signals, also known as tripwires or triggers, are really just binary metrics for uncovering potential problems your project might be facing before the problems explode in your hands. When some condition is met (the signal), you know it has specific significance and prompts certain actions to prevent a problem from occurring. Triggers are most often used with risk management but their use should not be exclusive to that practice. In fact, if you’re collecting real data, you have even more opportunities for identifying signals outside of risk management.

On past projects I’ve used signals for a variety of issues. Here are some examples.
  • During the past 3 iterations the team identified between 15 and 20 defects. I expect a similar number of defects to be detected for this iteration. If more defects are detected, there may be a disconnection in understanding between requirements, design, and implementation. If fewer defects are detected, tests may not have been as rigorously defined as they should have been.
  • A Fagan inspection completed in less than one hour with a rate of 400 LOC/hour. Since most inspections have covered only 250 LOC/hour it is likely that this inspection was not effective and the results not reliable since the inspection team sped through the code.
  • When evaluating potential open source libraries, Source Forge projects without a website shows a general lack of dedication to the project and indicates that the software is probably of poor quality or ill-maintained; the library is worth neither the time nor effort to use.
  • Tasks that have been estimated to require longer than 9 hours have probably not been thoroughly thought through.
  • No risks have been identified for this project or risks have not been updated for several iterations. This implies that the team doesn’t have a realistic understanding of what problems the project faces.
In each of these examples, when the signal is heard, I knew there was going to be a problem on the project.

Work with your team to establish signals for your project. The best part is that once you’ve decided on the signals for your team, when triggers are tripped you can throw a Van Halen sized rock star fits in your cubicle! Well, try to resist throwing your monitor out the window anyway.

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