Exhibiting aggressive competence

This last term I facilitated the participation of five MSU students in the Undergraduate Capstone Open Source Projects (UCOSP) program, in which students do distributed open source software development and receive home institution credit. UCOSP was managed out of U Toronto by Greg Wilson, and I was (and am) enthusiastic to participate as it's clearly a good way bring open source into education.

However, I was less thrilled to see that the majority of the MSU students received, ahem, "less than passing" grades from their project leaders. I knew about the problems in one particular project from having met with the students on a regular basis, but the other results caught me by surprise. I would love to kick and scream and complain that I should have been made more aware of what was going on -- and where I had constructive things to suggest, I did -- but the more important failure may have been a mismatch between the MSU students' approach to these projects, and project expectations.

The students variously had a number of problems, ranging from team miscommunication & poor conduct to an inability to get the software to compile. This meant that for several students, no visible work got done -- for example, in one project, it regularly happened that person X was working on a patch, and person Y committed an overlapping patch first. Or on another project, person Z spent two months trying to get the basic project infrastructure compiled, and was reduced (at the very end) to submitting code fixes without testing them in the full project context. Or several times, person A spent a week working out how to refactor a test into something reliable, and resulted in what looked like (and maybe was) a trivial code change.

All of these situations may result (and did result) in low evaluations. This is understandable: no visible work got done, so how is an evaluator supposed to grade them!? Yet, all of the situations are legitimate issues that block progress. What is a student to do?

The answer won't be too hard to guess for anyone who has worked on real-world team projects: make your struggles visible.

Someone steps on your patch? Fine -- submit your patch too, and explain why it's better (or worse) than the first patch. Code review the other patch, while you're at it: who better to do the review than someone who really understands the issues? Then when you get poor marks for not having contributed code, point at your patch. (You are using version control, right?)

Can't compile the software? Fine -- write down what's going wrong, and post it publicly. Document your fix attempts. Ask for help. Bash your head against the wall repeatedly. Either fix the problem, or document the problem thoroughly. Either someone will help you, or you'll figure it out, or you'll leave an audit trail so that others won't have to do all that fail work. Then when you get poor marks for not having contributed any patches, point out that the project has technical issues and either no one could help you (project FAIL) or you spent all your time fixing them.

Trying to debug niggling details that turn out (in the end) not to involve big impressive code changes? Submitting too many unimpressive patches that no one seems to value? Write down why your contributions are valuable. At the end of the day the evaluation may (rightly or wrongly) be "not too smart, but sure did work hard" -- but that's better than "no evidence of any work having been done".

Note how a lot of this seems to involve communication? Right -- that. For team projects, being an effective communicator is more important than being a kick-ass programmer.

At the end of the day, there are things you can control, and things you can't control. You can't control what other people think of you, and you can't control how other people (including project leaders and professors) evaluate you. But you can visibly work hard, and defend yourself based upon that evidence.

I call the general approach of throwing energy at a project "aggressive competence", and I think it's a necessary component of effective team software development. Everyone has days, or weeks, or even months where they look incompetent or ineffective; often that's because outsiders don't understand or appreciate the work that you've done. Tough on you, but I don't think it's reasonable to expect your boss, or colleagues, to look hard at your work to find reasons to praise you. Fundamentally, it's your responsibility to "manage up" and communicate your progress to others effectively.

In open source projects (and elective college courses) the immediate ramifications of a poor evaluation may not be clear -- I'll leave you, dear reader, to figure out the longer term consequences. But I think the ramifications of a poor evaluation are immediately obvious in the context of a capstone course, or a paying job.

Incidentally, this illuminates one of the reasons why I'm such a big fan of UCOSP: it is reality. You're working on an existing project, with other developers, at a distance; and it's not anyone else's responsibility to frame the problem for you. It's your responsibility to make progress.

This is where I think there were mismatched expectations. The students expected that they were going to be managed, helped, and given clear expectations. They weren't. So they got bad evaluations.

What do I plan to do? Well, assuming that UCOSP + MSU goes forward next term, I will be communicating my expectations quite clearly to the students. And I will be asking for regular progress reports, sent to me and CCed to the project leaders. And I'll be sending them this blog post. And I'll be failing the ones that don't listen.

I'll end with a paraphrase of one of my favorite sci-fi authors: "every new developer has problems on a new project. The extent of our sympathy for those problems, however, will be dictated by the efforts made to overcome them."


p.s. It's also a good way to figure what projects you don't want to work on: I once got dinged for working too hard in a company; I was told that I was "rowing too fast and the boat was going around in circles." My response (that perhaps others might consider rowing faster) was not received well. That's the kind of job situation you can leave without guilt (as I did).

p.p.s. Code reviews can be an extraordinarily effective passive-aggressive way to correctively interact with jerks on a project, too.

Legacy Comments

Posted by manuelg on 2009-12-18 at 19:59.

Everything you say is true, and very well put.  I will point people
who deserve sound counsel to your blog post as well.    But the truth
is that "aggressive competence" is hard for many people, and it is not
unusual for a student to leave school without ever practicing this
particular skill.  I would imagine a healthy majority of students
would do whatever they could to avoid having to practice "aggressive
competence" in their careers.    I will stress this skill to my own
daughter, because I feel responsible to help prepare her for the world
as it actually exists.  But I can easily imagine computer science
majors avoiding the career of software development just to avoid the
need for "aggressive competence", and into careers with far less
demand for assertiveness, even if those careers are less
intellectually rewarding and less lucrative.  (Because, as you put it,
clear specifications and clear direction are so often lacking in
software development.)    So we have students that could love
programming, and will avoid careers in software development.  And I
would be a liar if I said I knew how to repair that.

Posted by holger krekel on 2009-12-21 at 03:52.

Hi Titus, good post and thanks for taking the time to write down your
insights, advise and conclusions.  Also, i am often wondering why
universities don't try harder to involve CS students in Open Source
projects and am happy to see that you are seriously trying to foster
that.   cheers, holger

Posted by Paul Hildebrandt on 2009-12-23 at 19:01.

I think "aggressive competence" is really important in the work place.
We work in small teams and every morning we have a stand up meeting to
tell people what we are working on and if we have any problems.  This
15 min meeting helps everyone get an idea of where the project is
going.  it's also a great time to ask for help. Even better we sit
close to each other and when someone has a problem they just call out
"Hey I'm stuck can I get another set of eyes on this problem"  It's
normally solved pretty quick and we keep making progress.  Time is
money and the company doesn't care if you have help solving the
problem they just want it solved, and the quicker the better.

Posted by Titus Brown on 2009-12-24 at 13:34.

Hey all, thanks for the kind words.    Holger, most professor-level
academics just don't have much experience with open source!  That, and
it's hard to fit it into a course in the right way.  You might be
interested in this:    <a href="http://teachingopensource.org/index.ph
.php/TeachingOpenSource_Mailing_List</a>    Anyway, UCOSP is the best
opportunity I've seen yet for introducing OSS in an effective way.
We'll see how it shakes out next term, when I will be more heavily

Posted by Ann on 2009-12-25 at 05:05.

Thank you for a great post!

Posted by Ann on 2009-12-25 at 05:06.

Thank you for a great post!

Posted by Doug Hellmann on 2010-01-03 at 13:42.

It sounds like you're giving your students excellent real-world
experience.  The part of my college education with the highest pay off
in the end was the time I spent as a graduate assistant working on a
team building software for a bunch of geologists.  They were perfect
customers: They weren't computer experts, so had no idea what we could
make the software do or how long it would take.  That meant we had to
work with them to establish requirements and schedules, and then go
meet them on our own without a lot of help.  Stakes were lower,
because deadlines were very flexible, but otherwise it was a great
training ground for a "real" job.    For transparency at work, we rely
heavily on a ticketing system for all significant tasks.
Communication isn't really happening unless it's recorded in trac (in
our case).  Notes from hallway conversations, meetings, etc. are all
entered as comments on the appropriate ticket (giving us a historical
record as well as a chance to clarify or correct the understanding of
whoever makes the notes).  Writing everything down is our way of
establishing an institutional memory, which has come in handy quite a
few times in the 8+ years I've been on this project when no one could
remember the origin of a feature or design decision.     Progress is
reported in terms of closed tickets, rather than code written.
Requirements become obsolete or change and not every task in support
of a release requires development of a new feature, fixing a bug, or
writing docs.  Code reviews, doc reviews, and sysadmin work are all
relevant, too.

Posted by Mark Sienkiewicz on 2010-01-07 at 14:58.

From your description, it looks like the real problem is not the
students -- it is incompetent management.    Why didn't the manager
coordinate assignments, so that people do not waste their time writing
conflicting patches?  That is the job of the manager.    How did the
manager fail to notice that a worker could not compile the software
for * 2 months * ?  How did the manager fail to offer any help?  That
is the job of the manager.    If it is anything like most open source
projects that I have contact with, it is because there IS NO manager.
Many open source projects expect you will download their code, reverse
engineer it (because there is no documentation), figure out what you
need to know, and then find a way to aggressively contribute.  People
who thrive in that environment will contribute; those that don't will
quietly go away.    From the goals page on UCOSP's web page, I would
expect the project to give extensive and explicit instruction in how
to work in the open source environment.  From your description,
though, it sounds like the project really let the students down.  It
threw them into a situation that they were totally unprepared for,
gave them no guidance, and then was disappointed when they were not
successful.    Am I being too harsh?  Maybe, because I only know what
you wrote in this blog post.  But the fact of the matter is that your
idea of "Aggressive Competence" is just a tiny hint of what those
students need to know.    Aggressive Competence is a useful technique.
Even in the business world, where it costs real money to waste your
programmer's time, you can still find bad management.  AC shares a lot
with CYA (Cover Your Ass), where you document that you did the best
that you could in the circumstances.    The part I find depressing is
this:  It would be even better if you could tell the students how to
succeed, rather than just documenting their reasons for failure.  I
don't know what to tell them, though, because I have never found a
recipe for a project to succeed in the face of bad management.    I
think your idea of asking for regular progress reports is a good one.
You will be acting in place of the manager; when you see the report,
you will be in a position to take corrective action.  When you don't
see the report, you will be in a position to ask "Hey, where is your
report?"  (They're still learning; they need to be reminded.)    And
you'll be in a position to suggest what the student should have done
-- not as a criticism, but as a way to show them what works and what
doesn't.  Wouldn't hurt to tell them about the differences between
free-software and commercial development when the opportunity arises.
When I got my degree, I knew all kinds of things about computers, but
nearly nothing about how to apply that knowledge in a group.  I
graduated, got a job, and then started learning to be a professional
programmer.  It would be great if you could give the kids coming along
now a head start on that.    Mark S.    p.s.  I assume you'll also be
sharing this blog post and the comments with UCOSP?

Posted by pengar roulette on 2010-01-08 at 16:44.

Hey, ok, I get it, I guess - but does this really work?

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