the software assembly line

Creativity is stifled by a manufacturing process. Project managers perceive the development process to begin by identifying and analyzing requirements in full, until they are perfect for feeding to designers. Then, designers will satisfy those requirements by detailing designs, until they are perfect for coding. Then, code will be written and tested, until all the pieces can be integrated and QA tested. No matter how often this process fails to deliver innovative solutions, software companies continue to blame the lack of compliance to the process, rather than the process itself.

Modern software methodology suggests that the disciplines operate concurrently. Requirements anaysis, design, coding, integration, and testing all happening in parallel and continuously. The process is iterative, attacking problems incrementally, and refining rapidly with every cycle. Project managers claim to support this approach, and yet they continue to define gargantuan iterations (several months in duration) with entire sets of features fully implemented. Within each iteration, they plan with distinct milestones for completing of requirements, design, coding, unit testing, integration, and QA.

This pattern seems almost inevitable, when the project team is large (>20) and composed of individuals, who are highly specialized in their discipline. Designers have expectations of receiving good requirements from the analyst. Coders have expectations of receiving good designs, if they were not the designer. Testers have expectations of receiving good code. Unfortunately, the software assembly line does not produce good software, because development is a creative process, not a manufacturing process.

You do not produce good software based on dreaming up a perfect design. You need to start with a great deal of unknowns, some gross assumptions (likely overly naive), and a poor understanding of the problem. Proceed with the knowledge that you will make mistakes, and these will facilitate learning how to solve the problem better. Build it quickly and screw up several times, improving with every attempt. Eventually, the problem will be understood, and it will be adequately solved by the solution at hand, despite its imperfections. Project managers do not understand how to plan for a process that involves spinning around cycles of two steps forward and one step back. They think that an assembly line is the model of efficiency, and iterations are too chaotic and unpredictable, because of the constant rework. A software assembly line is certainly orderly and predictable. It predictably produces little innovation at a very high cost and over a long duration.

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