16 Oct

Software complexity explained to non IT people

There are occasions, when starting with a new customer, specially if (s)he hasn’t an IT background, where the news telling that the requested task is going to be a little more complicated than expected, aren’t well received. Obviously, this isn’t always the case, but a bunch of times I have had the necessity of explaining why software development is a complex activity, to someone who has neither the time nor the desire to read the No Silver Bullet paper, as it’s enough for him/her with their day to day job and, in addition, deal with those pesky IT people who wont stop complaining about whatever they are told to do.

One way of explaining to non IT people why software development is a complex activity, which I’m very fond of, is to make use of an analogy with the Raiders of the Lost Ark movie. Not in the sense that developing software is about swapping an idol with a small sandbag and leave running before poisoned darts, giant stones, pits and a thousand other traps end with the poor developer’s life, but by proposing a challenge: try to guess which is probably the most expensive scene of the movie. Time.

Done? The Nazi submarine? That enormous rolling stone which is going to crush Indy? Nonsense, you are surely thinking in this scene, right?:

Raiders of the lost ark - Cairo scenes

Raiders of the lost ark – Cairo scenes

(image taken from http://indianajones.wikia.com/wiki/Cairo)

Sallah’s terrace on El Cairo scenes? Are you kidding me? Two / three absolutely calm people, totally actionless, a performing monkey… I mean, what? That’s more expensive than a Nazi submarine? How much does it take to train a monkey?

As it turns out, when the movie was shot, special effects were craftmanship, as opposed to nowadays, where computers do their magic 99% of the time. With that in mind, have you located yet all the TV antennas that were on all the roofs in that shot? In 1930s, TV wasn’t widely introduced, so all the roofs looked like in the picture. But in 1981, when the movie was filmed, all those roofs had TV antennas, which had to be taken down in order to shot these scenes.

The good thing is, at this stage, the relationship with the customer changes, and (s)he no longer thinks you are trying to deceit him/her, and what they usually do is try to help, or ease as much as they can, taking down all those antennas.