Saturday, November 10, 2007

Power in numbers: Google engineering

One thing that is very different at Google is that engineers seem to run everything. At Microsoft, every decision needed to be made by trifecta of dev, PM, and test representatives. If any of the discipline were not brought in from the start, getting its ascent was exponentially harder as time went. And if the consensus was not secured, any discipline could - and often did - sabotage the process.

At Google this conflict either does not seem to exist, or takes a much milder form. Why? Because
there are fewer, much fewer people in other disciplines.

At Microsoft, the official position was 1:2:3 - for 1 PM there were supposed to be 2 devs, and 3 testers. In reality I have never seen this work, because there usually were fewer (but not by the order of magnitude) than 1 PM, and the ratio of test to dev was usually smaller than 1:1 (but not by much). But by an order of magnitude, all 3 disciplines were approximately equal.

There was one principal source of conflict between dev and PM organizations at Microsoft - basically control of the product. There are 3 things that define typical product:
1) What goes in it? (features)
2) When it gets shipped? (schedule)
3) How does it work? (architecture)

PMs are principally responsible for (1), and devs are principally responsible for (3). However, when we hire devs, we want them to be passionate about the user (more on hiring later). So it is extremely difficult to tell devs to just shut up and code, and not participate as full co-owners of the product design. (And of course product implementation does depend on selected features).

Likewise, when we hire PMs, we want them to be passionate about technology (and techincal). So it is extremely difficult to keep them out of implementation of the product. (And of course the feasibility of features depend on implementation details!)

Therein lies the conflict - two disciplines with very different approaches vie for control of basically the same area.

One of my mentors at Microsoft used to say that a strong dev team can never coexist with the strong PM team - one ends up yielding.

In my previous projects at Microsoft, there was very strong correlation between ratio of PM:dev with the amount of conflict between the disciplines. The lowest one was in my NT base team (1 PM to 6 devs), then second lowest was Windows CE (~1 to 4), and the highest was in Windows Home Server (1 to 2 - between myself and our GPM we spent probably ~20-30% of the time mitigating this conflict, and it was really sapping the productivity).

At Google, there are very few PMs - not even 1 for every 10 developers. The PM organization is nowhere never the levels of manpower necessary to assert control. Which means that they end up being responsible for relatively high-level decision, but there's still enough meat in product design for developers to enjoy.

Similar conflict exists between PMs and devs on one side and testers on the other side with respect to schedule - most of the time it is impossible to adequately test the product in the time given, so testers push to compress dev schedule (and number of features) to expand the test schedule - and PMs and devs push in the different direction.

At Google, the test org is not anywhere near being as small as the PM org, but the ratio is still way smaller than at Microsoft. And a lot of testing is done by devs - the culture of writing unit tests is extremely strong here. But as a result, testers at Google are nowhere near wielding as much power on shipping decisions as they were/are at Microsoft.

Talk about power being in numbers!

**This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.**

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very interesting and a little funny