According to Wikipedia, in Software Engineering, a Methodology is defined as:
A codified set of practices (sometimes accompanied by training materials, formal educational programs, worksheets, and diagramming tools) that may be repeatably carried out to produce software.
Unfortunately, that definition is believed by many, and it’s dead wrong. If you believe it, your projects may be doomed to failure.
Methodologies are systems for the creation of things. A system designed to manufacture cars at Ford or hamburgers at McDonalds is a methodology (although not a software methodology). Ford manufacturing plants produce new cars through an assembly line where each phase of construction is extremely well defined. It’s defined to the point that even robots participate in various phases of construction. You can interchange people who work in the assembly line with relative ease and almost no impact on the end result. There’s quality assurance at every phase to ensure that each benchmark is within the predefined limits. All of this results in the manufacturing of nearly identical cars, in every single instance. It works great.
Likewise, McDonalds has a similar strategy for making hamburgers. The steps to create a burger are well defined. If you change the cook, the burger will still be the same with the same amount of materials, same ingredients, same cooking temperatures, same sauces and the same wrapping. McDonald’s burger-creation methodology results in the customer enjoying the same burger, every single time. Their success is proof that the system works and it works well.
Methodologies Don’t Produce Software
So why not a system for the creation of software? If Ford can do it for cars and McDonalds can do it for hamburgers, why can’t we have a system to produce software? The answer is that we can. The catch, however, is that the system can only re-create software that has already been created. The system cannot produce new software just as Ford’s methodology for creating new cars will never create a different kind of car. It’s designed to re-create the exact same gas-guzzling, poor quality, tire-exploding and boring car in the exact same way that you have come to expect from Ford. So it is at McDonald’s. The system doesn’t create a new kind of hamburger. It simply re-creates the same bad-tasting, low-quality, high-calorie hamburger that you’ve now come to expect from McDonald’s.
In the same light, a software methodology cannot produce new software. This concept is a major surprise to a lot of companies and the US Government, who after spending hundreds of millions of dollars on software projects that end up being canceled — projects that should have been fool-proof in their success. After all, they used the most concrete software methodologies known to man-kind (or to Grady Booch). How could such software projects fail?
Learning that methodologies or well-defined systems and processes can’t create things is important. People create things. Systems and methodologies can only re-create things, but only after people create them first. So what about successful software projects that have employed rigid systems and software methodologies? Easy. Such projects have succeeded in spite of the methodologies used, not because of them and it’s virtually guaranteed that a less restricted team would have accomplished the same task in less time.
New Trends in Software Development
The world is slowly coming to the realization that people are the most important part of any successful new software project. No systems or processes can substitute for your top software engineers. Take your own software projects as an example. Would you give up the top one or two team members or would you give up your software methodology? My guess is that the answer is a no-brainer. Even in a team of 100, losing the top couple of team members would be far more detrimental to the success of the project.
You have undoubtedly heard of new software methodologies such as Agile and Scrum. The popularity of these new light-weight systems is exactly because of the reasons I have explained above. They put the emphasis on people. Is it any surprise that trimming down detailed, process-heavy, software methodologies has produced much better results? Of course not. These new systems are putting the emphasis on individual team members, finally coming to the acceptance that the individuals are far more important in the creation of new software. The systems should only support the individuals, not get in their way. Unfortunately, even these new methodologies are slowly becoming heavy. Scrum is becoming better defined by the day and the more it gets defined, the more Scrum Masters who insist on having a burn-down chart from day 1 on a new project, the more such projects will suffer.
Finding the Right Balance
Like everything in life, there is a balance that each team must obtain between systems and processes and team and individual freedom. Each project is different. There is no one system that can meet the needs of all teams and no single implementation of a system that should be used instead of another. Google’s founders didn’t start with a methodology. Neither did YouTube or FaceBook. Even well established companies like Microsoft and Apple didn’t (and still don’t) have rigid systems in place and they provide significant team freedom to choose the right amount of process for their projects.
So unless you have a lot of free tax-money to waste or if you work on human-safety systems, reconsider the weight of your software methodology. In software, lighter is usually better.
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