Building software is not like building houses (thankfully)

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I hate the “building software is like building buildings” metaphor. For a start most software people know so little about physical building that they are comparing the messy world of software construction with a idealised image of what they think happens in construction.

The above is a picture from my back garden last week. Only a couple of weeks ago the back of this house looked much like the back of my house, except it had an small, ugly, 2m x 1m kitchen extension on it. And it had an over grown garden, a third of which houses this big extension while the rest of it is full of building debris.

The builders moved into this house less than six week ago. During that time they have: cleared the garden, cleared the house of remaining furniture, dug foundations, concreted foundations, built a two story side and back extension, ripped the roof off both this house and the ajoining house and replaced the roof while also constructing loft conversions on both houses. The roof came off on Monday and the new one was done by Saturday.

Builders – roofers and brick layers – go fast. Three years ago I had some work done on my house. I was well impressed with the speed the builders ripped the back rooms apart, tore down a wall, bricked up a door, and built a new wall.

Then it goes slow.

Once the actual “building” is done the wiring, plumbing, plastering, decorating and other fitting-out starts and o my, it goes so slow. Hold ups are regular as parts and people are not available when needed. There is a constantly changing cast of workers as specialists appear for a few days and then disappear.

I expect it will be four or five months before anyone is living in my neighbours house again.

During that time it goes slow, work people come in but it is hard to see progress. And the progress is far less clear than when a wall disappears, or a new wall comes into being overnight.

And so it is in software… usually.

The thing about construction – both physical and software – is that so often the most visible bits are actually among the most quickest and straight forward. These are the bits where not only can progress be made rapidly but visibly too.

But lots of time is spent on less visible bits – the tricky bits. The Devil is in the Detail as the saying goes.

When people say “How can is possibly take so long?” they are speaking from the experience of seeing the visible bits happen fast. The less visible bits, where the time is consumed, they don’t know what is happening during the less visible bits and have few memories to guide them – but they did remember it went fast last month!

When my house was being worked on I often felt like saying “why isn’t it done yet?”. The big changes, the heavy lifting, was done. How could all this other stuff? – the minor bits, the bits which didn’t require actual building – take so long?

Fortunately, software doesn’t need to be like this. There are alternatives. But working such ways means slowing down the early stages to deal with the detail as you go. Overall you get a more consistent (and sustainable) pace, and may well finish sooner but you loose the quick start that impresses people. Almost from day-1 they start complaining about the lack of progress.

Not being a builder I don’t know, but I do know I hired experts and I have to trust them. And I never tried to say to them “If this was software you would be done by now.”

(Now I’ve written this blog I remember, I’ve said something two years ago… Heavy Lifting is the Easy Bit. Worth saying again I think.)

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