Thursday, March 16, 2017

Projects and Systems


In software development, there is a big difference between projects and systems.

A person with enough will and determination can make a project, but it requires professional practice to build a system.

This is true with all technologies; consider the difference between a go-kart and a Ferrari (both are 'vehicles'), or a dog house and a skyscraper (both are 'building'). Lets start with housing.
A homeowner that has some carpentry experience can probably complete a small renovation, and maybe a small structure (like a garage or a deck), but soon the complexity of the project requires them to bring in some help. A real carpenter, who does that sort of work all the time, can come in and complete the same project in far less time with a much higher degree of quality.

How about software? Someone with computing experience can take a course and learn enough rudimentary programming to make a project. A website, or a small app that does a few things. This person, on completing a project, could feel that they are capable of larger projects. This is a trap, with consequences.

What could possibly go wrong? Lets go back to the house example; could the carpenter, knowing how to complete renovations and possibly build a house, build a larger building? How about an office tower or apartment complex? They could try, but the complexity of the situation would overwhelm them, and the result would be unsafe.
This is what architects and engineers are for. The larger building needs civil and structural engineers to make sure the architects plan can work. The carpenters? There will be a need for a large number of them to implement the architects plan and work with the engineers to make sure everything works properly. Everything scales up, but you need real professional practice to manage the complexity.

This is the same reality for software. A programmer can make a project, but it requires a developer with architecture, engineering and programming skills to make a system.

For project sponsors, its on them to understand that a merry band of carpenters, no matter how well intended and hard working they are, will have a very difficult time making an office tower.

This is the bad reality in startups when non-technical people are the sponsors. I have talked to many business stakeholders who simply don’t know the difference whether they are talking to carpenters, engineers or architects. They think ‘developer’ is one thing, and can think they can build a large system with a group of programmers. Things go wrong, and the sponsor just doesn't understand why.

If you are a homeowner, and you think that renovation will take a month; then your assumptions are just out of line, and when it takes 3 months don't feign surprise.

Do yourself a favour and understand your own assumptions of how hard something is are probably wrong. Be pragmatic, and the results will match.