Saturday, January 12, 2013

Date Chicken

Through out my software development career I have been trying to understand how things work, actively pursuing the thought processes that people use to make their decisions. I spend time asking questions about the hows and the whys of what I am asked to do and produce. This action, over time, has produced a decent picture in my head of how software development should work and in many ways how it should never ever work. I have been able to understand the whys of certain actions and requests but the one 'action' for which I have yet to totally understand is the idea of software development "Date Chicken".

Date Chicken as I would describe it is the propensity of an organization to want to assign a date to a project without understanding or going through an understanding of the complexities around what has been requested to be developed. Date chicken comes about due to not having enough of the discovery executed such that any date that can be provided has to be provided with a long list of provisos and comments/risks about what in the world at large has to line up "Perfectly" in order to meet the date that is being published. So software development teams are asked to produce these "Plans" that indicate that we can meet the date IFF (If and only if) everything else in the world happens perfectly. What happens next, every other team produces the same sort of statement about their ability to meet the date and the fun begins. Management from each team begins to execute on the "PLAN" that has been produced, they organize teams, and instruct people on what needs to be done and they wait patiently for the first 'date' on the plan to come up.

Here the Chicken part of date chicken takes over. Basically the teams continue to plod along towards the date until that first date arises and a team has not produced the things that they 'said' they would produce and everyone else involved in the project gets to point out that 'their' dates will have to slip day for day with every day missed in the development team at the front of the train. Hence the 'Chicken' in date chicken.

Why is this so hard for me to understand you might ask - every software company of any size seems to do this...

Its difficult for me for the following reasons:

1) The date is a lie, perpetrated by someone else and then taken as gospel, which leaves me feeling like my management doesn't want me to tell the truth, ever. Ok - the date is not entirely a lie - because there is an OFF chance that the needed software shows up on "time" with high quality, but so far I have yet to see that happen when this game of date chicken takes hold.
2) Because the date is a lie everyone 'RUSHES' to turn out the thing that they were on the hook for before their date arrives. In turn this produces software of lessor quality, with production issues, that turns out to be hard to manage and maintain.
3) #2 causes our customer experience to essentially suck, driving the customers to complain or look for service else where, making my company look like the best of the worst.

I do understand that sometimes the date is important, there might be legal reasons or contractual reasons that a specific software development item must be completed by a specific date. However - when there is no specific pressure in this way, I would much rather have my management say "I want to give you the time to make the software 'RIGHT', and I am willing to wait to make that happen."

I don't think it appropriate for the waiting to be forever, but do think that a management statement that says something like "I would like to see something demonstrable in one quarters worth of time." or even, "I am ok to wait to get this right, but I would like it to launch this year" to be fine statements that reinforce the please build this right rather than fast. As we get closer to actually delivering the software requested it is possible to provide a VERY high confidence number on 'when' we are going to be complete. The further away from done however the less confidence in the 'plan' being the right 'plan' and the date, so much more a lie.

In the end - none of this is in my control, but I sincerely hope that it will be at some point if I either end up in a position to make changes, or have my own company making software. Date chicken reinforces all sorts of really terrible habits and I would rather not participate.

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