Make the Invisible More Visible

A co-worker sent me a link to an article from the Embedded Linux Conference (ELC) where the author spoke with Robert Rose of SpaceX about lessons learned, primarily related to software development. The article references an essay titled Make the Invisible More Visible, from the book 97 Things Every Programmer Should Know. I really like some of the points the essay makes about the danger of invisibility in the development process. I particularly like these two points:

  • If you’re 90% done and endlessly stuck trying to debug your way through the last 10% then you’re not 90% done
  • Lack of visible progress is synonymous with lack of progress

These two statements really go hand in hand. In my experience, developers will often say they’re 80 or 90 percent done when they feel like they’re close to done (or that they should be close to done). In many cases, “90% done” is an arbitrary measure of progress, manufactured to give the illusion that things are on track. Typically in these situations, we’re looking at projects with loosely-defined requirements and insufficient planning. The developer was given a task and hit the ground coding without thinking about the big picture.

Without understanding what’s left, developers can’t be held accountable. When I ask a developer whose been working on a project for two weeks how far along they are, it seems pretty good when they report 80 percent. When I come back a week later and ask for another update, maybe they’re at 90 percent. “Progress has slowed down,” I think to myself, “but at least we should be done next week.” Next week comes along, and now we’re up to 95 percent. This is a perfect illustration of the points above.

In this scenario, the developer reported being at 80% when clearly they weren’t. There was no visibility to what they had accomplished or had yet to accomplish, so the measure was based on feelings—which proved to be completely inaccurate. But how can this be avoided? Here’s my advice: know what you’re coding before you start coding. I’m not talking about classes and methods, though; I’m talking about features and requirements. If you follow agile methodologies, you should be familiar with the concept of user stories. Before you start working on a project, take the time to understand and document the stories required to complete the project. This brings visibility to the project as well as giving you a calculation-based measure of completion percentage. There’s no question about what’s been accomplished and what’s left. As long as you keep completing stories, consistent progress is all but guaranteed.

But what if it’s just a lot of stuff that comes up during testing? If you’re writing good stories with solid completion criteria, you shouldn’t be finding a lot during testing. Additionally, you should be creating automated unit tests to verify what you’re doing and what you’ve done. The automated tests ensure that functionality added early in the development process isn’t affected by functionality added later.

Other features keep popping up; how do I manage those? This depends on the source of the new features. If it’s something that you missed, you just need to be aware of this and improve over time. With practice, you’ll get better and learn what types of things you commonly miss. Peer review can really help with this, too. Sit down with a buddy and walk them through what you’ve got, or work together to come up with the requirements from the beginning. With two of you, you’ll be less likely to miss something. If the source is external—like bosses and customers—your best bet is open, honest communication. This is textbook scope creep, so let them know what the impact of their request will be. “Sure, we can do that, but it’s going to take us an extra two weeks.” If it’s not in the budget, you have to push back or barter. “I’m sorry, but that’s out of scope, and we don’t have the capacity to add that requirement” or, “We can only implement that functionality if we leave out these other two things.”


Author: Adam Prescott

I'm enthusiastic and passionate about creating intuitive, great-looking software. I strive to find the simplest solutions to complex problems, and I embrace agile principles and test-driven development.

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