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Seven Lessons About Technical Project Management We Learned from Game of Thrones

Here at UV we have a few mantras we live by and one of them is this: everything is an opportunity for us to learn and improve our processes — both as an individual and as a company. Now, when we say this, most people usually interpret this to refer to purely business thing: you learn from your mistakes, right? Well, yes, of course — but we take it a step further and learn from everything. Even our favorite TV shows… like Game of Thrones.

Let me explain. First, while our clients look at us like a team that’s always buzzing, I’ll admit that every once in a while we do stop for some air. Including late Sunday nights, when one of our favorite shows comes on. And one of the great things about GoT is that it presents such a complex and dare I say even realistic model of human behavior that we can draw many lessons from it. Let’s jump right in:

LESSON NUMBER ONE:
Always Pay your Technical Debt.

One of our favorite families, that we “love to hate,” are the Lannisters, the rich and ruling family whose informal motto — oft repeated throughout the series is —

“A Lannister always pay their debts.”

As a team of software developers, we live by this motto as well — but in regards to technical debt. What is technical debt, the non-software developer (or the young software developer) asks? It’s when you make pragmatic business decisions in regards to your software design that you know will create problems later. Maybe you choose to build the software to be optimized for system speed — which means it can not be optimized for flexibility. Or vice-versa. Or you need to get a complex site booted up in only three weeks, which means the code isn’t as documented or as elegant as you would like. It’s when you build software in a way so that there are problems that will come back and haunt you later.
And in case you’ve never built software in the real-world, let me tell you something: there always is technical debt. What client has ever said, “we have an unlimited budget and unlimited timeline, so therefore, you can build the software without any technical debt.” Answer: no client ever in the entire history of software development ever since ENIAC was first build 75 years ago.
(One of UV’s strengths, I’ll add, is understanding the necessary trade-offs and working with our clients to make the right choices: what kind of technical debt do you prefer?).

But we prepare for it and we always pay it back. It sometimes takes some time, but it’s expected and part of the plan. A UV-er always pays his technical debt!


LESSON TWO:
Use your Dragons Carefully.

Every team has a secret weapon. At least every successful team does. (What is UV’s secret weapon? Great question — and if we were to tell you, would it be secret? But we’re going to hint at it during this series of articles so you can figure it out if you’re clever. You know, the most important knowledge is always esoteric – it can never be said directly – and what makes us so awesome, in my unbiased analysis, is of course important knowledge!)

The Dragons were Daenerys’s secret weapons.

When the soldiers were all fighting with swords, with one swoop of his fire-breath, the dragon could decimate a city. But one of the three dragons was killed and the other turned into an ice monster.
The key problem with overusing the secret weapon is actually the culmination of the series and how it ends: Dany uses her dragons to needlessly slaughter a city that’s surrendered, and the anger of that is what leads directly to her death. (I’m not sorry for giving away the ending because if you don’t know how it ended then… that means you probably don’t use Facebook so, kudos to you! That sounds very healthy!)
There’s an important lesson: bring out your secret weapons when you need to. If you use them when they’re not needed, it’s actually self-destructive.
Okay, I exaggerated above when I said I won’t tell you our secret weapons. I won’t tell you most of them but I will tell you one of them: our processes. We don’t just learn and we don’t just formalize our learning into processes — we do that all the time. This is how we minimize making the same mistake more than once, so we can go make new mistakes.
But we also try to keep in mind the lesson of Dany’s doom and her dragons: if EVERYTHING were a process, we’d lose the human touch that is critical to our success. “The process says you can only go to the bathroom for 119 seconds once per 330 minutes.” We use processes and we’re always improving them, but we don’t overuse them. We don’t want our own partners to stab us, like Jon Snow did to Daenerys!

LESSON THREE:
Every General Needs a Greyworm.

Greyworm is one of the characters in the series that seems minor but, to us, he represents something bigger. He’s the ultimate Lieutenant: works hard, follows orders, only questions orders in the most extreme circumstances, and will reliably implement what you need implemented, without even blinking.

Every General Needs a Greyworm.

Here’s a common problem, that we’ve experienced, painfully, in previous companies and watching our clients: just not having a Greyworm by your side. Without a Greyworm helping make your initiatives happen, then everyone quickly gets overwhelmed and bogged down. So Lieutenants are essential.
But it’s not as easy as it sounds: finding a good lieutenant is hard, very very hard. We need to value the Greyworms as much as Daenerys did — in fact, she made him her Master of Wars minutes before she was murdered, actually!

In our context, the Greyworm is the Project Manager. Every project as a PM, and the PM leads the troops — the intermediary between the myriad stakeholders, and interfacing and understanding both the low-levels and the high-levels. They need to have enough business saviness to understand what the client wants and why, and enough understanding of the little implementation details to keep the soldiers in-line and aligned. It’s a tall order!

LESSON FOUR:
The All-Knowing Guy In the Shadows Will Always Win.

So after all the bloody wars, who becomes the new king? The awkward kid on the side who has a raven that lets him see and know everything.
How does that apply to building software so great that our clients fall in love with us? Oh, easy: it’s often not the flashy cool player with the fanciest armor and longest sword who does the best job… but the one who (like the Three-Eyed Raven)  can see the future and the past, see what is happening from many different perspectives, and with calm focus — almost invisible in the background —

make the magic happen.

Bran, in other words, is our inspiration. Or, rephrased: we know we’re not cool. But we’re not trying to be cool. We’re trying to do what’s best for our clients and partners.

LESSON FIVE:
Winter is Coming — so be prepared for the long war.

“Winter is coming” was one of the rallying cries of the whole series: a long, apocalyptic winter was predicted that seemed like it would make life miserable, with no end in sight, for all of Westeros. And in the end of the series, winter came, with the great undead invasion from the north.

And what happened? Through a lot of planning and a lot of luck, Westeros was able to save itself from the invasion of the dead bodies.

They knew winter was coming, so they could prepare themselves physically and psychologically for the big war.

And you know what UV does with every client? We assume it will be a dark winter: that the software development will be harder than we expect. That the timelines will get stretched. That the parts we think will work to help us will break down. That key team members will quit at precisely the worst moment. That the undead will invade us.
Here’s the awesomeness of believing Winter is Coming: 99% of the time, Winter doesn’t come! (Technically, winter only comes once per year.) So most of the time, we’re just over-paranoid and over-planning. But when winter does come, when the various forces of cold unite together to fight us at wrong time — we’re prepared. We knew it would happen so we have our Valerian Steel swords ready to go.

LESSON SIX:
Know when to “bend the knee,” and know when to kill the king.

One of the reasons why Game of Thrones is such a compelling show is the shocking frequency with which main characters – particularly, the kings of various kingdoms – are just killed off. That usually never happens in TV series – the stars serve the entire series – but more than that, that maps to real life. Did you know that 8 of the 44 presidents of the USA have died while being president? That’s 18% and that figure alone makes me never want to run for president.

Let’s apply that to our client work. Here’s the reality of client work, in our experience: sometimes projects are doomed and we just don’t do doomed projects.

You know a great way to avoid disasters? Avoid scenarios which are likely to be disasters.

And if you’re in such a scenario, get out. Said differently: we’re not afraid to tell one of our clients: it just isn’t working out. It’s not you–it’s me! OF COURSE, here is something we pride ourselves on: SMOOTH TRANSITIONS. If it turns out that we’re not a good fit together, we’ll recommend other teams, organize a hand-off, have a few month transition and do what’s necessary. We pride ourselves on removing all bumps in the process of working with someone, insofar as possible — even when winding down a project.

As I write these words, I wonder to myself: “Should I say this? Shouldn’t I only talk about the positive? Shouldn’t I focus only on perfect work with perfect clients? Doesn’t the company look bad by talking about this?” And after about 22.22 seconds of thought, I’ve come to the conclusion: anyone who has ever done client service know that not every project goes perfectly, no matter how awesome you and your work is . “Man plans and God laughs”: destiny has a way. It’s like dating: even if two people are great independently, to date successfully, it needs to be the right situation for both of them. Sometimes, something as little as the personalities involved clash, even though those same personalities get along great with everyone else. So pretending every single client ever is “happily ever after” makes us look like liars — and integrity and honesty in the face of adversity is one of UV’s hallmarks.

This is why two of our key professional services questions are [a] how do you minimize the risks of things going south and [b] what do you do in the face of such situations?
To answer [a], well, continue reading this series, and we’ll address them in detail in other posts. In short, a lot of it boils down to being on top of projects intensely, and over communicating at all points. And [b] — that’s the lesson from Game of Thrones: when we realize a situation isn’t working out, to admit it, and smoothly and professionally work with our partners to ensure to a smooth transition.

LESSON SEVEN:
The many-faced God is the god of death.

Continuing the dark and serious but important observation of the last lesson, this brings us to our final lesson from Game of Thrones: Remember when, a few seasons ago, Arya spent a season on the island of Braavos being, indoctrinated into the cult of the “Many-Faced Gods”, the same cult which also taught her how to be an assassin? It’s a subtle but key point: the God with many faces, many masks – is the same God that goes around killing people.
Let’s make a direct metaphor to one aspect of UV’s philosophy towards client services work:

A constant risk is that project’s death (ie, failure) can come from many, many different ways: the many faces of the God of Death.

So how do we best ensure a project is likely to succeed? Look at the many faces of failure, be conscious of them and organized about understanding each of the failure points — and minimizing them.
Said differently, in any given project, as the project starts and at regular intervals, we ask ourselves: “if this project will fail, why?” and we create a checklist and then regularly stay on top of these likely failure points.
Every project has a different risk profile. Some have an extreme technical complexity. Some have requirements that change at a pace so dizzying it could sink any ship. Some have a vision so ambitious with a budget so tight. And so forth.
There is a saying, “Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.” At UV, our strategy is that both success and failure have a huge number of fathers and mothers, including step- ones.
(You humble writer here prides himself on always being to blame for failures, and ensuring that when things go well, everyone else gets the credit.) We know that failure can come in many ways, many of which are just impossible to predict — but we use our time, energy, and creativity to consistently do what we can to map out and minimize the chances of these scenarios from happening. And, thank goodness to both the “New Gods and the Old Gods” of Game of Thrones’ Westeros, we’ve been doing a great job so far at not just avoiding failures but at making our clients continually fall in love with our work.
And we can only hope that as we continue confronting the many-faced God of death, that we’re as cute as Ayra is.

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