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On Collective Ownership and Responsibilities

Recently I’ve been butting heads with some people on the subject of Ownership, Responsibility and Accountability.  There seems to be a very unhealthy obsession with these things sometimes, and I think this is indicative of a less-than-ideal culture. I don’t want to say that they’re “anti-agile” because that just sounds a bit weak, and because I also think they’re not just bad for agile, they’re bad for pretty much any system. I’m not sure how familiar most people are with the “RACI matrix” concept, but in my eyes it’s downright evil in the wrong hands, and I’ve been hearing “RACI Matrix” a lot recently (it’s now on my Bullshit Bingo card).

I’ll start off by clarifying what I mean. I’ve got nothing against people owning actions or being accountable for certain particular (usually small) things, but I do take offence when pretty much everything has to be given an owner, someone accountable and someone to “take responsibility”. It’s divisive and results in lots of finger pointing, in my experience.

I much prefer the concept of shared ownership, and collective accountability. As a software delivery team, we should all feel responsible for the quality of the product, as well as the performance and the feature richness. These things shouldn’t be assigned for ownership to individuals, as it’ll create an attitude of “well it’s not my problem” among the other team members.

Here’s an example: I’ve worked in a team where one person was made the “owner” of the build system. They busied themselves making sure all the builds passed and that the system was regularly ticking over. Of course, the builds often failed and nobody cared except this one person, who then had to try to get people to fix their broken builds. It almost seemed as if people didn’t care about the fact that their software wasn’t capable of being compiled, or that the tests were failing, and in truth they didn’t. They cared about writing code and checking it in, because they didn’t “own” the build system.

One message that I always try to drive home with software delivery teams is that our objective is to make software that works for our users, not just write code. I know how easy it is for developers to just focus on checking in code, or perhaps just make sure it passes the tests in the CI system, but beyond that, their focus drops off. I know because I was once one of those developers :-) These days I try to encourage everyone to care about things such as:

  • How your code builds
  • How the tests execute
  • How good the tests are
  • How good the code is
  • How easy it is to deploy
  • How easy it is to maintain
  • How easy it is to monitor

Because it takes all of these things to produce good software that users can enjoy, which means we get paid.

Here’s another example of how “ownership” has hurt a product: A large system I once worked on was deployed into production using a complicated system of bash and perl scripts, which were cobbled together by a sysadmin who did the deployments. He became the de facto “owner” of the deployment system. There were untold issues with the running of the application because of permissions, paths etc and so forth. The deployment process was creaky and relatively untested. Since the “ownership” of this system was assigned to the sysadmin, rather than devolved or collectively shared throughout the delivery team, the “deployability” was seen as a second class citizen within the delivery team, because everybody felt like it was “owned” by one person who just happened to be on the periphery of the team at best.

So here’s what I think: The ability to monitor, maintain, deploy, test, build and create software should all be treated as first class citizens and should be the collective responsibility of everyone in the team. They should all own it, and they should all be accountable.

I would extend this out further, to include supporting systems such as environments, build systems, testing frameworks and so-on. Sure, each team might have an SME or two who focuses more on one of these things than any other, but that doesn’t make that one person accountable, responsible or the owner any more than any particular developer is the “owner” of any particular class, method or function. If I write some code that depends on a method that someone else has written, and that method is failing, I don’t just down tools, shrug my shoulders and say “well I’m not accountable for that”. That would be hugely unhelpful and I’d make no friends either. In the same way, we shouldn’t treat our supporting functions and systems as someone else’s responsibility. If we need it in order to make our software work for the end user, then it’s our collective responsibility, no matter what “it” is.

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