My short review of “Slack: Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency”, authored by Tom DeMarco.

Slack — Tom DeMarco Slack — Tom DeMarco

I’ve several times noticed, in my 10+ years of being a computer/web developer, that always being busy-busy-busy meant I didn’t have much time left to think – especially about middle or long-term problems or concerns or projects.
This may be coding a story and the next and the following one, or dealing with an interruption and another and then yet another, or even with an outage and a story and a interruption and a meeting and then another one of those – it doesn’t really matter which kind of busy it is. But, when it happened for too long, I believe not taking time to think didn’t benefit any of the project I was working on, in the long term.

In this book, Tom DeMarco starts by using the (clever) term busyness and shows how “hurry up” actually oftens ends up meaning “slow down”. The first part also notes we, knowledge workers, are not fungible resources that can switch from one project to another one just like that: there is a cost to interruptions and tasks switching.

The second part of this book is all about aggressive schedules, the cost of pressure, overtime (especially when the accounting departement counts 8h per employee per day and not the real amount of time spent each day), the culture of fear some companies live in, the obsession some have with process, the difference between being efficient and effective, and ends with a section on management by objectives – which rarely succeeds in the long term.

Here’s a quote I liked. It’s from page 50, in chapter 7 “The Cost Of Pressure”:

“People under time pressure don’t think faster”
— Tim Lister

Think rate is fixed. No matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you can’t pick up the pace of thinking.

And another one, from page 67, in chapter 9 “Overtime”:

Overindulgence in work […] will eventually lead to burnout. Burned-out workers have no heart of anything – not for more overtime, not event for putting in a sensible eight hours a day. They are simply lost to the effort.
If they have any capacity left at all, they will use it to conceal the burnout, or at least try to do so. But they won’t be able to do any real work. […] And they are often the ex-stars of the entreprise.

Part 3 of “Slack” is about change and growth. It tells about vision, leadership vs “leadership”, fear and safety, what middle management is for, and change management. The last part concludes with risk and risk management, with a section called “working at breakneck speed” (well, it might work for a while – or you might very well break your neck) and another one about learning to live with risk.

45 I really liked the first half of this book, I recognized some (good and bad) things I lived during my career. The second half is interesting too, but a bit farther from what I’ve experienced in my work – yet. Anyway, “Slack” is nice to read, short and easy, and I would say “read it!” to pretty much any manager.

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Also by Tom DeMarco (I realized this reading the first few pages of “Slack”), I read Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams several years ago – and have recommended it to many people since.