Software as a Sitcom

Software development analogies are sometimes fun and potentially revealing. With that being said, I wanted to throw out a small nugget I thought of.

Growing up, I watched a fair amount of sitcoms until I realized the basic plot device. Essentially, something happens where a character on the show makes a choice, is worried about the ramifications of that choice, and is then somehow deceptive. They keep having larger and larger miscommunications and problems as the show goes on, and more problems (and hence hilarity), ensue due to keeping the problems under wraps. Eventually the characters realize the mistake, and the show ends with everyone having learned a valuable lesson.

  • Note: I am not affiliated with any of the sitcoms mentioned below, nor do they support me financially. :)

Full House

At some point, I got pissed because I just thought “Why doesn’t Stephanie just tell Danny Tanner that she wrecked the car instead of trying to hide it for like two more days? I’m pretty sure Danny’s going to flip out and kick Comet and ground you, but at least you get it out in the open. There’s definitely nothing to be gained from hiding it. Why would any rational person do this?”

Anyway, this process happens all the time on sitcoms. But the question that I thought of was: does it happen on software projects?

I suppose that part of this is a human tendency to attempt to delay pain whenever possible. You take a known undesirable and put it out into the future where it may or may not happen. Seems like a good thing, right? Maybe I can fix up the car with my piggy bank and Uncle Jessie’s spare tools, or maybe dad won’t notice the car being missing. Maybe I won’t be working on the project anymore. Maybe we can add a couple of people, that seemed to work for another project that was having similar problems. And maybe we can make it up. Maybe we can pull a few late nights or work some Saturdays to get this project back on track, or maybe we can just cut some corners here and there and fix them later when we have more time.

Unfortunately, by delaying communication, you lose a chance to align expectations early. There is a mental shift cost incurred when a stakeholder doesn’t quite know what is going on. The earlier that you can provide this information, the more time the person involved gets to stew on the information and try to come up with alternate satisfactory solutions or at least understand what is going on. In this sense, having transparency is key. No one likes to come to the end of a project that they thought was going well but see that things have gone amiss.

Unfortunately, in the real software world, hilarity rarely ensues from not communicating the true status of a project. More often money is lost and quality suffers due to a compressed schedule based on unrealistic expectations. People don’t get grounded, they get “let go”.

Home Improvement

Tim “The Toolman” Taylor always took a break around the twenty-minute mark of the show Home Improvement to talk to his neighbor Wilson across the fence about the problems he was facing during that episode. Tim would explain the situation, and Wilson would give him some sage advice that made a lot of sense to Tim. Tim would go back into the house armed with his somewhat rudimentary version of the wisdom that Wilson imparted, and things would get patched up.

It seems like Tim would have benefited from doing retrospectives before the twenty-minute mark (or, as sometimes happens in the software world, after the show, or maybe in the break room.) Maybe looking at the process and decisions made at five minute intervals throughout the episode would have helped to get at the root of the problem before it got worse. By the time that he got to the twenty minute mark, there was like one commercial break and five minutes of show left to resolve the underlying problems that were plaguing his family. They could have taken a kaizen approach to their family relations to lessen the chances that 2/3 of the way through the show the communication process was producing unsatisfactory results. I wonder how Tim’s experience with power tools and the search for ever more powerful tools mirrors some developers’ tendencies.

What this post hopefully stresses is communication of project status and expectations and evaluation of the development process. Do you have a sitcom example of your own?

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