Writing the Book on Process Improvement: An Interview with Watts Humphrey



Susan Kushner

This library item is related to the following area(s) of work:

Process Improvement

This article was originally published in News at SEI on: March 1, 2005

Watts Humphrey founded the Software Process Program of the Software Engineering Institute (SEI) at Carnegie Mellon University. During a formal ceremony at the White House in the spring of 2005, the President of the United States awarded him the National Medal of Technology for his contributions to the field of software engineering. news@sei recently talked to Watts about his experience at the White House, his latest book, and his upcoming publications.

Watts, thank you for taking the time to talk to news@sei. Congratulations on being awarded the National Medal of Technology. March must have been an exciting time in your career.

It certainly was. I really appreciate all of the comments, support, and the marvelous reaction of everyone that’s been involved. It’s very nice, and I appreciate the help of all the SEI folks.

I followed the media coverage of your visit to the White House, but it is difficult imagine what the experience was truly like. Can you tell us more about it from your perspective?

It took a while to sink in. It started to when I talked to the contact there about the arrangements. Everything was scheduled down to the minute. Through all the mechanics involved, I began to realize this is a fairly significant operation. On the bus from the hotel to the White House, I sat next to a gentleman who was also getting an award. He’d won a Nobel Prize. I started to realize that this wasn’t just an ordinary crowd of folks.

We arrived, were greeted, and entered the White House. A whole section on the first floor was open for this event, including the Blue Room and the East Room. We were escorted to the Blue Room where President Bush actually stopped and shook each of our hands and talked with us. I was very impressed with his presence because when he stopped to talk to me, it was clear that he was talking to me. It was kind of surprising. With a large group, it’s difficult to shake everyone’s hand and say hello, and to focus on each individual. He’s obviously a pro at that.

Watts Humphrey National Medal of Technology
The occasion went very smoothly. It was delightful to have almost all of my family there. After the event, we had a reception and a meal. It was beautifully done.

Also in attendance were some other high-profile people such as Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, Under Secretary of Commerce for Technology Phillip Bond, and several former Medal of Honor laureates. Was there an opportunity to interact with any of them?

Yes, I did talk to quite a few people. I chatted briefly with Phil Bond and talked to a number of the award recipients. There were two Nobel Prize winners in the group and I chatted with one of them at length about his work in the field of cancer research.

Were there any surprises during the visit?

I was surprised that it all went so smoothly. One piece of work they did was very impressive. A group was hired to put together a two- to three-minute video about each of the 14 laureates, which was shown at the reception on Monday night. They took bits and pieces, a picture or two, a video clip from the SEI, and one from IBM and put together a very coherent story.

What is the one moment that particularly stands out as the defining moment of this experience?

Essentially, after the President placed the medal on me. Then we turned out to face the audience for a picture as we’d been told to do. It was then I realized, wow, it really did happen!

March was a busy month. You visited the White House and had your ninth book, PSP: A Self-Improvement Process for Software Engineers, published. How is this book different from your first book on the PSP, A Discipline for Software Engineering?

When I wrote the first book, I had used the PSP myself and had data from one class. But I wrote the book before anyone else had used the PSP. Then I used the manuscript to teach a course at Carnegie Mellon, and I had two other people use it to each teach a course. I held off on publishing the book until I was confident that the PSP would work. At that time, I had data on about two dozen people.

The data set I used when writing the new PSP book was from 8000 programs using the PSP. Any time I had a question, or if I made an assertion about design methods, quality, or planning, I’d look at the data to make sure I was right. Using an enormous amount of data to support what you’re doing gives it a great deal more authority.

I cut the size of book down significantly. It’s only about half as long as the previous version. I cleaned it up and responded to suggestions from readers. I tried to deal with questions up front and make it more modern and accessible to the current audience. This industry is changing so quickly that a book written 10 years ago can’t cover everything that is current today.

You set aside time each day specifically to write. Are you working on a new book?

I actually have two books now under contract with Addison-Wesley. I drafted both books a couple of years ago, and we’ve been using them in courses. The manuscript I’m finishing now is a Team Software Process (TSP) book about leading a development team. The team leader is probably the most important person on the team. The leader’s behavior and ability to guide, support, and motivate the team is the most important factor in team success.

The other book I’m working on is about coaching development teams. Earlier, I had thought of leading and coaching as similar roles, but I realize now that they’re quite different.

So you’re planning to further define each of these roles in its own book?

Yes, the need for coaches on development teams hasn’t been sufficiently emphasized. We all know how vital coaches are on athletic teams. When a football team or a baseball team isn’t doing well, often one of the first things management considers is changing the coach. The coach is important in motivating people on teams.

The coach role in the TSP is interesting because coaches are not part of the team. They support the team, but they’re independent of it. They focus on building the team and supporting individuals on the team. Even though they support each other, the coach role is different from the team-leader role. Team leaders build a product and use the team to do it. Coaches build teams and use the product effort to do it.

The PSP and TSP could be applied to many endeavors, not just software development. Is that an accurate statement?

I use PSP for writing books and preparing talks and presentations. For seven of the books I’ve published with Addison-Wesley, I haven’t yet missed a date. We waste a lot of time frittering around thinking about how to proceed. Using a procedure and a process can help you work much more efficiently. It’s helpful to work against a plan, and it’s rewarding to know that I’ll get the book done on time. I’ll almost certainly run into something that I hadn’t expected along the way, but that’s normal. When you know where you stand, you have room to handle the surprises.

That’s really the big picture I’m trying to get across. The PSP and the TSP are a way to build a rewarding and enjoyable life. Many people view processes only as constraining disciplines not as the enablers that they really are.

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