Monday, 4 May 2015

Three guys in a garage, the NIH syndrome and big projects

As the old adage says, experience is the root (or perhaps was it the mother?) of science. Nowhere near software development, it seems. For what is worth, not a week passes without another report of a disastrous software project being horrendously late, over budget, under performing or all of these at the same time.

Usually, these bad news are often about the public sector. Which are usually great news to those ideologically inclined to think that government should be doing as little as possible, even nothing, in our current society. This argument usually does not take into account that these government run projects are almost always awarded to private contractors. Apparently, these same contractors are able to deliver as expected when they the money does not come from public funds, hence the blame should sit squarely on the way government entities manage those projects not on these contractors, right?

I have bad news for these kind of arguments: it is just that these publicly funded failures are just more visible than the private ones. With various degrees of transparency, and by their own nature, these kind of projects are much more likely to be audited and reviewed than any privately funded project.

That is, for each Avon Canada or LSE failure that is made public, we have many, many more news of public sector failures such as or Queensland failures. So next time you consider that argument, think if it is simply that you don't hear about private sector projects going wrong so often. Is it really because all goes well? Or is it because simply the private sector is more opaque and thus can hide its failures better?

Anyway, I'm digressing here. The point is that big projects, no matter where the funding comes from, are much more likely to fail. Brooks explained it in the TMM (mandatory reading) years ago. Complex projects means complex requirements which means bigger systems with more moving parts and interactions, which technically are challenging enough but are nothing compared to the challenges of human communication and interaction that rise exponentially as the number of people involved increases.

What is more surprising how often when one reads the post mortem of these projects there is some kind of odd technical decision that contributes to the failure. This is usually discussed in detail, with long discussion threads pondering how one solution can be better than another and inevitably pointing to the NIH syndrome. This can take the shape of using XML as a database, a home grown transaction processor or home grown database, using a document database as structured storage (or viceversa), using an unstructured language to develop an object oriented system and so son.

There is an explanation for focusing on technical vs. organizational issues when discussing these failures: technical bits are much more visible and easier to understand. Organizational, process or methodology issues, except for those involved directly in the project, are much more opaque. While technical decisions usually contribute to a project's failure, fact is that very, very complex and long projects have been successfully executed with way more rudimentary technologies in the past, so it is only logical to conclude that the the technology choices should not be that determinant in the fate of a project.

And we usually quickly forget something that we tend to apply in our own projects: the old "better the devil you know" adage. More often than not, technologies are chosen conservatively, as it is far easier to deal with their knows weaknesses than to battle with new unknowns. We cannot, of course, disregard other reasons in these choices. Sometimes there are commercial interests from vendors interested in shoehorning their technology, and these are difficult to detect. But we have to admit that sometimes the project team believed the chosen option as the best for the problem at hand. Which leads to the second point in the post: the NIH syndrome.

What someone unfamiliar with a strange choice of technology can be dismissed just as another instance of "Not invented here" syndrome. But what is NIH for someone claiming to "know best" for a specific technology area, it is perhaps the most logical decision for someone else. What looks attractive as a standalone technology for a specific use case may not look so good when integrated into a bigger solution. This is why people still choose to add text indexing plugins to a relational database instead of using a standalone unstructured text search engine, for example.

Another often cited reason for failure in these projects -and in all software projects in general- is that there are huge volumes of changes introduced once the project started. What is missing here is not some magic ingredient, but a consistent means of communication that states clearly changing anything already done is going to cost time and money. Projects building physical things -as opposed to software- seem to be able to get along with this quite well, if only because one does not have any issues explaining the effects of change on physical things. But the software world has not yet managed to create the same culture.

So now that we've reasonably concluded that technology choices are not usually the reasons for a project failing, that change is a constant that needs to be factored in and there is no way to avoid it, and that there is a strong correlation between project size and complexity, is there a way of keeping these projects to fail?

In my opinion, there is only one way: start small. Grow as it succeeds, and if it does not, just discard it. But I hear you crying, there is no way for these projects to "start small", as their up front requirements usually cover 100s of pages full of technical and legal constraints that must be met from day one. These projects don't have "small" states. They just go in a big bang and have to work as designed from day one. And that's exactly why they fail so often.

Otherwise, three guys in a garage will always outperform and deliver something superior. They are not constrained by 100s of requirements, corporate policies and processes, or financial budget projections.

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