Peopleware – Summary and Discussion Guide

The questions below are meant to be used in a guided discussion on the book, “Peopleware: Productive Teams and Projects” by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister. If you are interested in more detailed notes from this book, they are available here.

Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams
Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams


A brief synopsis of the book is reprinted below from Amazon.

“Few books in computing have had as profound an influence on software management as Peopleware . The unique insight of this longtime best seller is that the major issues of software development are human, not technical. They’re not easy issues; but solve them, and you’ll maximize your chances of success.

For this third edition, the authors have added six new chapters and updated the text throughout, bringing it in line with today’s development environments and challenges. For example, the book now discusses pathologies of leadership that hadn’t previously been judged to be pathological; an evolving culture of meetings; hybrid teams made up of people from seemingly incompatible generations; and a growing awareness that some of our most common tools are more like anchors than propellers. Anyone who needs to manage a software project or software organization will find invaluable advice throughout the book.”

Discussion Guide:

How Managers and Developers View Quality

The authors talk about the differing perceptions of software quality between managers and software developers. Managers view quality as an attribute of the product that can be tuned based on the needs of the marketplace. For the developer, their self-esteem is strongly tied with the quality of the product. The authors claim that maintaining a high quality of software, beyond what the end-user desires, leads to higher developer productivity.

  • Do you think the different perspectives on quality are accurate today?
  • The authors describe the importance of a flow state for developers. Anything that keeps them from it will reduce their effectiveness and the satisfaction they take in their work. Managers, on the other hand, do the majority of their work in interrupt mode. Paul Graham also described fundamental differences between managers and developers in his essay, “Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule.” Does your team’s environment set the conditions for the developers to operate in a distraction-free environment?
  • Modern software development methodologies such as Lean and Agile prioritize shipping small batches of software in order to learn from users and adjust the product based on user feedback. Do you think these modern methodologies conflict with the recommendation to ship quality beyond what the end-user desires?
  • If the developer’s motivation is impacted by the quality of the finished product, is there a way to mitigate this effect if the end product quality level is below the developer’s standard? Can clearly scoping projects and defining quality standards at the beginning of development help align expectations? What about having stretch goals for quality?

Parkinson’s Law

Parkinson’s law states that work expands to fill the time allocated for it, resulting in a heavy reliance on schedule and deadlines. The authors claim that bureaucracies are prone to such problems because they give little job derived satisfaction to their workers. However, in tech, people generally get job-derived satisfaction and unreasonable deadlines are counterproductive.

  • Do you agree with the characterization of technology employees compared to those in a bureaucracy? Do large technology companies also have employees who get little job-derived satisfaction?
  • Are there some characteristics of a bureaucratic organization that technology companies should model or adopt (clear roles and responsibilities, defined process, straightforward career progression)?
  • Under what circumstances is it appropriate to highlight time pressures and deadlines to a team? Do you think it can ever result in a positive impact?


Team Building

Research states that two people from the same organization tend to perform alike. That means the best performers are clustering in some organizations while the worst performers cluster in others.

  • What aspects of an organization attract and retain high performers?
  • The book, “Who” outlines hiring best practices to identify “A players” who will then higher other “A players”. How would you improve your team’s hiring process?
  • Is your current team primarily high performers? If low performers limit your ability to attract high performers, do you need to place additional focus on your low performers?

Team Dyanmics

It’s critically important for employees to feel that their work is meaningful and impactful. The authors note that a lack of affiliation with others on the project and the project goals can result in poor employee performance. In offices with high employee churn, employees have a “just passing through” mentality and don’t feel a sense of loyalty to the organization. However, strong teams are catalyzed by a common belief that the work is important, and that doing it well is worthwhile.

  • What are some characteristics of a healthy team? Google’s Project Aristotle details research describing the characteristics of high performing teams.
  • What tools can a manager use to build an environment where employees feel their work is meaningful? The authors note that good managers provide frequent easy opportunities for the team to succeed together. They also described a scenario where the employees got to choose the projects they worked on and the people they worked with. Maybe an employee has a personal goal outside of work that they can make progress towards by learning new skills in their professional life?
  • In his book Principles, Ray Dalio defines happiness as the combination of meaningful work and meaningful relationships. How important are the relationships between team members and other coworkers in generating a high performing team?

Are Managers Part of the Team?

“Managers don’t have the one thing that any team needs in order to jell, “common ownership of the work product” according to the authors. However, the authors also state that “The purpose of a team is not goal attainment but goal alignment.”

  • Do you believe that managers can’t collaborate and operate as a team?
  • Do you believe this statement about the purpose of a team? Does your current goal-setting process generate a shared sense of purpose on your team? Are team members able to provide input to the goal-setting process?
  • John Doer, who was instrumental in developing the Objective Key Result goal-setting metholodology, argues that organizational level goals are helpful to incentivize various teams to work towards a shared goal instead of individual goals. What do you think about this approach to goal setting?