Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Software projects are like sailing voyages

I have been reading Greg Smith's new Becoming Agile book and was struck by the false analogy that is often applied to software projects, which compares them to construction projects, where Smith points out you typically "gather requirements, create a design, excavate, lay the foundation, and then build the walls."

Smith points out two problems with applying this analogy:

"1. Additional requirements will be discovered during design, coding, demonstration, and testing.
2. Software development does not require completion of each step before the following step can be initiated. You can start design and coding based on a few initial requirements. You can iteratively build out the system, revisiting it and going deeper on requirements, design, and code as you make discoveries and refine the vision for the project."

Analogies are dangerous because they build in these sorts of inaccuracies, and that can lead to dangerous assumptions and attitudes later on. However they are excellent for helping non-experts in a field understand complex topics. I dearly want a better analogy for software projects and I have never heard a really satisfactory one, so I got the mental juices going and looked for one that makes sense to me. This is what I found ...

Software Projects are Sailing Voyages

Software projects, at least the ones I have been involved in, feel more like ocean voyages in small yachts than anything else. Like any sailing voyage you will have an idea of where you want to get to, and if you are smart you will have checked the weather forecast and planned your route - even calculating what you average speed should be and when you will reach your destination.


from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/14132971@N05/3100906233/ 

This is reasonably similar to the planning and preparation for a software project where a goal will be set, the estimated time to reach it mapped out and the current environment and conditions researched.

However, in sailing you can expect to find a number of things changing your plans. Perhaps the wind changes in unexpected ways, or your plan failed to take into account the wind shadow of a particularly large island, or the strength of local currents or tides. The helmsman may have neglected to keep his eye on where you were headed, being distracted by a pretty sight, or other crew may not have kept the sails properly trimmed or closed the bilge valve.


from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/flasporty/2791384256/ 

Mishaps can occur, such as equipment failure, collisions with other vessels or even crew sickness or injury. Your destination port might be closed, and you find that you need to make landfall either sooner or later than planned. Even the captain's intent may change as it becomes apparent that the passengers would prefer a leisurely cruise around the coast to a deep ocean adventure.


from: http://www.flickr.com/photos/wili/2691809503/ 

Very similar changes can be expected in software projects. Your tools vendor may bring out a new release that opens up new development options, business goals can change or be re-assessed, leading to changes in requirements. Staff changes can cause a change in vision, or highlight mistakes or negligence in the work previously performed. Individuals' performance may fall short or exceed expectations for their role, and unexpected leave or changes in priorities may derail timelines.

These problems occur on construction projects too, but they have a real, physical object they have been developing with building approvals already acquired so it is far more likely that they will simply continue to the end (even then, you might end up with a project like Sydney's World Square, where it was just a huge hole in the ground with some cement in it for years).


from: City of Sydney 

With software it always seems easier to throw it all away and start again (and indeed this is sometimes the best course to take). Simply having a shared analogy with the customer that makes more sense than a building will help them understand that while we can give up the voyage now, we can't avoid the fact that we have sailed this far, and perhaps we should take that learning and make use of it.

Agile software development in this case can be seen as a series of small hops around the coast, rather than the usual grand exploratory voyage undertaken by many traditional software projects. Each hop allows us to review where we have gotten to, and lets passengers get off if they so desire.

Of course analogies have their limitations, and using them to model a complex system by comparing it to another simpler, or more familiar, system does not guarantee success. It just makes client meetings shorter (which by some definitions is success!).


  1. I find your analogy interesting. There have been several opinions in the last decade on whether developing software is an art or science - and there are varying views on the same. This is one good way of looking at it - as you said, it may not guarantee success - but atleast it sets realistic expectations!

  2. Great pics!
    You remind me, when I've been in Ecuador, to the Galapagos tourist class yachts... there I met my actual husband :)
    Thanks for sharing and bringing those memoreies back to my mind!