Software Development and the Construction Analogy

Dietrich Kappe

This post was previously on the Pathfinder Software site. Pathfinder Software changed its name to Orthogonal in 2016. Read more.

Dan Vanderboom has a thoughtful post up about software development methods. I especially like his takedown of the building construction analogy that is overused and abused in the world of software development:

[…] this is completely at odds with how homes are normally built.  People typically choose a previously-implemented design, and only customize superficial features like countertops, cabinets, floors, and railings.  Houses from this plan have been built before, and the labor and materials cost are known from previous experience.

Building software is usually more like constructing something that’s never been built before: the first sky scraper, the Golden Gate Bridge, or the Hoover Dam.  The requirements are unique, the pieces have never been assembled in such a way before, and there’s an inherent level of risk in creating something new.  When this is the case, the Customer needs the services of an Architect, not just a Builder who stamps out deliverables in a cookie-cutter style.

I would add two points to his post:

  • One additional reason that building construction is not a good metaphor for software construction is that it breaks down along scale. You can construct a scale model of a house to validate the concept, but a scale model of the software is the same as the software itself. An application’s size is measured in features, not feet. That’s why agile development seeks to deliver a minimal set of features as quickly as possible.
  • We’ve folded User Experience Design (UXD) into our agile process as a way of getting to value more quickly. Feedback in agile is important, but if you can improve the quality of that feedback, you converge on good features more quickly.

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