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Under Pressure

In almost every software project of any length that I’ve participated in, the last few weeks before a release are tense and pressure filled. (Please note that I write custom business software; that’s what these conclusions are drawn from.) Being in the middle of a project release myself, I thought I’d muse on the causes of this pressure. Why are the last few weeks before the deadline so tense? Because software is, above all else, about the details. Joel puts it well in his interview with

The fundamental problem that you’re trying to solve here is that humans think of things in vague, mushy terms. In order to visualize something, they don’t have to actually visualize every part of it. Whereas the programmer, in order to actually implement that thing, to create it, needs to have every part specified.

What happens on projects over a certain level of complexity is this specification is pushed off, often until a decision must be made, or even past that point. This occurs for a number of reasons: programmers want to start coding, the client doesn’t have the information at the moment the issue is raised and it is never revisited, the answers to certain questions (or the questions themselves) are dependent on answers to other questions. In the beginning of a project, big questions are decided, but the small niggling details, which the compiler most certainly needs to know about, are, perhaps noted, but not dealt with.

Why not specify how the system will work before building any of it, to every exacting detail? Some software processes try to do this, but in general, unless the problem is very well understood (in which case the client will almost always be better served by off-the-shelf software), the requirements will change as the project progresses. (Incidentally, if they don’t, the project is a great candidate for offshoring.) The client will better understand the problem and technology and the software team will likewise better understand the problem and domain space. So specifying the entire system up front will likely leave the customers unhappy or the system unused.

Because business software is actually business process crystallization, it matters very much that things are correct. Because business software is implemented by a group of people with specialized skills and a different focus from the users, at best, or no understanding of the business, at worst, software delivery is unlike other deadline driven industries in that changes are expensive and mysterious. I think every software engineer has an example of a simple change request that turned out to have massive implications throughout the system, and this effect is mysterious to normal users.

What matters is not why the details crop up, but that they do. So, the last few weeks of every project consists of mentally running around and nailing down every detail. I expect this is true of every job with fixed deadlines (ever been around a retail store the day before Thanksgiving?). Every issue should be resolved or acknowledged when the software is released, and while some facets are less important than others, no detail is unimportant.