Tuesday 18 October 2005

A Lever, or a toothpick?

Any modern development effort which is complex enough to be commercially and/or technically interesting requires active, continuous collaboration between professionals and craftsfolk of various disciplines and specialisations. For instance, most organisations developing computer software have, in addition to the designers and coders of the software itself, several other interested stakeholders: quality engineers, documentation authors and editors, sales and marketing specialists, and various flavours of managers. Each of these individuals and groups have different capabilities and roles with regard to the project being developed, each of the groups have different perspectives, different needs — but one need that all share, knowingly or not, is the ability to communicate effectively and efficiently with each other. This involves the creation or acquisition of information, its refinement, analysis, discussion and use within the context of the project. The end goal, of course, is the completion and delivery of some sort of artifact that meets the needs of the organisation and delights that product's customers, without sending the development organisation on a death march in the process.

"But wait", you might reasonably say, "we already do this. We have meetings, minutes are taken, transcribed and emailed about, lots of other emails get sent back and forth, we have documents like functional specifications and design documents and whatnot to keep ourselves organised — what do we need all this gimcrackery for?" All of which is perfectly true, just as you can put harness and bit on your horse, hitch up a carriage, and travel from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore — or you could catch an airline flight instead. There are countless organisations, and a depressingly high proportion of smaller ones, who continue to solve earl-21st-century problems with early-20th-century tools and practices. We know better. One of the points that many leading authorities, such as Steve Maguire in his excellent book Debugging the Development Process, make is that for each hour of meetings which a knowledge worker attends, it takes at least another hour for him or her to regain the level of productivity in work product creation which would have been effected had the meeting not taken place. So, for a typical large-corporate developer who spends an hour every day in meetings that could have their purpose accomplished through less intrusive means, the company is taking a 25% hit in productivity for that individual. Take 1/4 of the payroll of, say, Maxis, or even my own company Cilix, and that starts to add up.

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