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The Quest for the Silver Bullet


Scott is a DDJ Senior Contributing Editor and author of numerous IT books. He can be contacted at www.ambysoft.com/ scottAmbler.html.


It was a dark and stormy night within the IT department, and suddenly a status report rang out! A senior manager, someone high up in the clouds of crystal palace, our headquarters here at The Heartland Ltd., had read an article in Business Week. This article lamented the poor state of IT productivity within corporate America: The failure rate was high, even successful projects struggled to provide adequate return on investment (ROI), and the underlying technology changed faster than anyone could possibly imagine. This wasn't an isolated problem, but instead was happening in a multitude of companies across all sectors. Our senior manager wisely concluded that there was a "process werewolf" living in the virtual IT hills, which was killing our "project sheep"—apparently our manager had read this article while his children were watching "Underworld" in the same room. Clearly the only way to kill this process werewolf was with a process silver bullet, and thus the quest for the silver bullet began.

A band was formed, not the type of band that plays music but instead a close-knit group of people who didn't recognize that they were on a death march. We would have called it a task force, but after the abject failure of previous silver bullet task forces—the CASE Tool Task Force, the Rapid Application Development task force, the 4GL Task Force, and the eTaskForce—we realized that the term "task force" was a serious impediment to success. We were convinced that our band would succeed where previous task forces had failed.

Sur Robin, Sur being short for "Suresh," of the Software Process Engineering Group offered to lead the band on this most critical of quests. Also in the group was Jack Bigbritches, a certified project management specialist, who would aid the band by developing detailed Gantt charts. Diane Narrowfocus, who had been a database administrator throughout her 20-year career, would ensure that our silver bullet protected our corporate data from not only the werewolves out there but anyone else who had the audacity to access the database without explicit permission. Both Jack and Diane had spent their entire careers at The Heartland Ltd. John Tiger-Mellon, a system-testing expert, would ensure that the silver bullet addressed validation, verification, and compliancy concerns. Elwood Reason, a recent hire within The Heartland, was an agile developer with expertise in Java programming and architecture and an all-round knowledge of software development.

At first there were naysayers. People pointed to the ancient writings of Frederick Brooks, who was not only the source of the legendary "mythical man-months" but also claimed that there were no silver bullets. Preposterous! This process werewolf wasn't a myth, so clearly silver bullets weren't myths either. Furthermore, the IT industry moved so fast that nothing written more than three months ago could possibly be worth reading. The naysayers were quickly denounced, and all of our hopes were placed upon the band.

And thus the quest began. Although Sur Robin wanted to start the search right away, Jack pointed out that the band still needed to follow the existing project-management process. The first step for any project was to first get sufficient funding from William Ogre, who was responsible for what was informally called "The Financial Gates of Dread." Jack knew Ogre and brought the band to Ogre's office in the far reaches of The Heartland. Ogre, not one to mince words, although unprepared project managers were another story, burst forth with "Thou shalt answer three questions. If thou dost fail to answer all three questions exactly at the same time, thou shalt be cast into the Pit of Funding Uncertainty from which no project has ever returned! The questions are: What is your scope? What is your estimate? What is your schedule?"

Brave, brave Sur Robin replied, "We shall do whatever up-front work it takes to answer those questions. We shall gather requirements and document them in detail from which we can base complex cost and schedule calculations. Verily, this makes perfect sense."

"Wait!" exclaimed Elwood Reason. "The primary goal shouldn't be to write comprehensive documentation throughout the project, it should be to invest our stakeholder's money wisely in systems that will provide them the greatest return on investment (ROI). Instead of trying to predict this up front, should we not work closely with stakeholders, provide them with concrete feedback throughout a project, and give them the opportunity to direct the funds as they see fit?"

Ogre considered this radical new idea. "This makes some sense, but we would need to fund a pilot project to explore this issue. I don't know how long it would take, or cost, but it seems like a great idea. Wait a minute, we can't initiate such a project under our current rules." Upon which Ogre startled babbling to himself about the conundrum and the band slipped through the financial gates unnoticed in the confusion.

The band continued looking about for a likely silver bullet. Diane Narrowfocus suggested that the band talk with John Blacknight, the director of data management.

"Data, and the processing of it, is the primary focus of IT. We wouldn't be in the trouble that we're currently in if we had a strict data governance program in place. As you can see in this detailed procedures manual, my data governance program will solve all of The Heartland's problems," claimed Blacknight.

"I fully agree. If only development teams had been forced to follow this process, and if my fellow DBAs only had the problem meta data management tools available to them, then our jobs as protectors of the corporate data would have been that much easier," piped in Diane.

Sur Robin, always one to question yet another layer of bureaucracy, asked "But haven't we tried similar data strategies in the past, with little tangible results with respect to data quality?"

"You varlet, how dare you question my authority!" screamed Blacknight. And thus the duel began.

"Wouldn't it be better to have data professionals and developers work together collaboratively?" thrust Sur Robin.

"No, the developers must conform to the data governance process!" Blacknight parried.

"Shouldn't the DBAs understand the data naming conventions, and the legacy data sources, and bring that knowledge with them to the project teams that they're collaboratively working with?" responded Sur Robin.

"No, the development teams must bring their work to us for review, and we'll dictate to them whether their work is sufficient. Naturally it won't be, and we'll need to rework their database schemas and force them to conform to our will! Bwaa ha ha ha ha!"

"But won't that do nothing more than justify your data group, and do little to improve overall data quality? Wouldn't we be better off doing database regression testing on a regular basis, to ensure that we discover quality problems at the time they are injected? Wouldn't that require highly collaborative teamwork between developers, data professionals, and testers, and not just your proposed data-centric, command-and-control approach?"

"Of course not! Everyone must abide by my data governance program!"

"That's it, we're out of here. The best governance programs are based on willing collaboration. If you try to enforce a compliance regimen on them, it's unlikely everyone will follow it consistently and yet you'll need to create some form of compliance review group to support your program. It will increase your costs, slow down your development process, yet yield very little benefit other than to prop up yet another political empire within our ever-growing bureaucracy. We need data governance, but we don't need your outmoded vision of it."

"Wait, wait, come back here and follow my process. Don't run away! Cowards! Sigh." And thus, Blacknight was blocked by brave Sur Robin and his merry band.

After seeing this escapade, Elwood Reason said, "We should consider adopting a more flexible approach to the way that we develop software. Instead of trying to define everything up front, and then create a detailed plan based on that, why don't we instead embrace change? We could adopt techniques with short feedback cycles that enable us to react to changing requirements easily while still developing high quality software."

"That sounds great in theory," responded Tiger-Mellon, "but without a detailed plan and proof that we're following it, the compliancy auditors would rip us to shreds."

"But it's only an auditor, why are you so worried?" asked Reason.

"Because the auditors have big nasty teeth. Nasty, nasty teeth I tell you. A project team couldn't possibly survive an audit without extensive documentation and plans. Responding to change would never work here, we must remain bogged down in paperwork."

Diane, still amazed that Blacknight had been defeated so easily, piped in, "And then there are the legal issues. Without a comprehensive requirements document and project plan, our lawyers couldn't possibly negotiate a detailed contract. That's why they're known as the lawyers who say NO!"

"But if we have a good relationship with our customers, if we work with them closely and provide working software on a regular basis, and if we act on their changing requirements in a timely manner, then the need for a detailed contract goes away," pointed out Elwood.

"That's an interesting idea, but it's doubtful that the lawyers who say NO! will accept that approach."

"Perhaps if we try talking with them? Perhaps bring them some nice shrubbery as a peace offering?" pleaded Reason.

"Shrubbery isn't going to have an affect on the lawyers who say NO!" sighed John Tiger-Mellon. "Elwood, unlike Jack and Diane, two American kids who grew up here in The Heartland, you still don't understand the obstacles to change that we face. We need to find a silver bullet to solve our problems, not change the way that we work."

Weeks went by, the band searched for a silver bullet, but it proved to be elusive. When all hope was lost, Elwood concluded, "Fred Brooks was right, there are no silver bullets. Instead of looking for a quick fix, we must instead build an IT organization that values individuals and the way that they interact with one another, on delivering high-quality working software which reflects the changing needs of our stakeholders, and on collaborating effectively with our stakeholders. We need to invest in our people and create an environment that would allow them to succeed."

Alas, this advice fell on deaf ears, and the quest for a silver bullet had failed yet again. The lone voice of Reason was ignored, and the band instead recommended that The Heartland begin outsourcing development to the Shining Knight Consulting company. The senior manager had since read a similar article in Fortune while his wife was watching Eragon and had concluded that it really wasn't a process werewolf that was the problem, but instead some sort of business dragon. This knight was required to slay said dragon.


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