One model for a software development project is the assembly line on the factory floor, where we’re making a buhzillion copies of the same thing. And it’s a lousy model.
Software is developed in an architectural studio with people in it. There are drafting tables, drawing instruments, good lighting, pens and pencils and paper. And erasers, and garbage cans that get full of coffee cups and crumpled drawings. Good ideas become better ideas as they are sketched, analysed, criticised, and revised. A lot of bad ideas are discovered and rejected before the final plans are drawn.
Software is developed in a rehearsal hall with people in it. The room is also filled with risers and chairs and other temporary staging elements, and with substitute props that stand in for the finished products. There’s a piano to accompany the singers while the orchestra is being rehearsed in another hall. Lighting, sound, costumes and makeup are designed and folded into the rehearsal process as we experiment with different ways of bringing the show to life. Everyone tries stuff that doesn’t work, or doesn’t fit, or doesn’t sound right, or doesn’t look good at first. Frustration arises, feelings get bruised, and then breakthroughs happen and problems get solved. Lots of experiments lead to that joyful and successful opening night.
Software is developed in a workshop with people in it; skilled craftspeople who build tools and workspaces for themselves and each other, as part of the process of crafting products for people to buy. Even though they try to keep the shop clean, there’s occasional sawdust and smoke and spilled glue and broken machinery. Work in progress gets tested, and weaknesses are exposed—sometimes late in the game—and get fixed.
In all of these places, variation is encouraged. Designs are tinkered with. Discoveries are celebrated. Learning happens. Most importantly, skill and tacit knowledge are both applied and developed.
The Lean model for software development might seem a more humane step forward from the older days, but it’s still based on the factory. Ideas aren’t widgets whose delivery you can schedule just in time. Failed experiments aren’t waste when you learn from them, and if you know it won’t be waste from the outset, it’s not really an experiment. Everything that makes it into the product should represent something that the customer values, but when we’re creating something novel (which we’re always doing to some degree as we’re building software), we’re exploring and trying things out to help refine our understanding of what the customer actually values.
If there is any parallel between software and manufacturing, it is this: the “software development” part of manufacturing happens before the assembly line—in the design studio, where the prototypes are being developed, refined, and selected for mass production. The manufacturing part? That’s the copy command that deploys a copy of the installation package to all the machines in the enterprise, or the disk duplicator that stamps out a million DVDs with copies of the golden master on it, or the Web server that delivers a copy of the product to anyone who requests it. Getting to that first copy, though? That’s a studio thing, not an assembly-line thing.
The primary inspiration for this post is a conversation I had with Cem Kaner in 2008. Another is the book Artful Making by Robert Austin and Lee Devin, which I first read around the same time. Yet another is Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. One more: my long-ago career in theatre, which prepared me better than you can imagine for a life in software development.
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