Monday, 24 August 2009 00:00

Technology's Stab in the Back

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"Technology... is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand, and it stabs you in the back with the other." This quote, delivered by C. P. Snow, is one we should all live by. Mr. Snow was a physicist, a novelist and a bit of philosopher. Technology brings about great benefits that many of our projects rely upon. We are using it right now. However, take pause to reflect on how technology is also our nemesis. It haunts our projects with its false promises and lures us into implementing superfluous functionality.

Our admiration for technology is what gets us into trouble, drawing us into the sales pitch, believing something is easier to implement than it is or finding out that the environment we are trying to use it in actually is unique.

Consider the last 20% of functionality. It is in the specification, however, is it really needed? The condition affecting us is the added functionality is the Garage Syndrome—where "precious items" increase to fill the garage. The same thing happens with technology. At the hands of the implementation staff, the scope increases to fill the technology. As you work with the customer to manage scope, technology stabs you in the back. Look back at the discussion on extensibility. Over designing falls into this class of scope expansion.

The method to solve it is to get some form of the product to the customer as early as possible. The sooner they see the basic functionality the quicker they realize that all the bells and whistles are overkill. They reprioritize their needs quickly and the real requirements bubble to the top. This action focuses the team on the real requirements and away from the distraction of the neat functions that are not important to the customer.

Technology, though, does not stop there; it gets us in other ways. Unexpected core design issues in the product can cause troubles in the implementation and make life very difficult. Soon after design, the team starts to exercise the technology and problems arise. With a focus on early delivery to the customer, engineers need to start working with the technology sooner. This does not eliminate the problems arising, but it exposes the problems sooner providing more time and options to solve them. It also focuses the customer on the real needs of the implementation.

Is this just a thinly veiled promotion of Agile? Probably. However, the philosophy, as opposed to the methodology, is applicable in many environments that are unfavorable to changing the methodology. One such place is project recovery, where the idea of implementing an entirely new methodology to fix one project is nearly impossible. Save the evangelizing for when the project completes successfully. Use it as a showcase for implementing some of the philosophy to solve the problems. People have a difficult time arguing with success.

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