This xkcd comic I saw today reminded me of a conversation a former colleague at Oracle and I had some years ago. During a break in one of the dozens of unmemorable meetings we attended together, he and I were talking about our wood shops. He had built several things lately, which he had told me about. I was in the planning phase of some next project I was going to do. He observed that this seemed to be the conversation we were always having. He argued that it would be better for me to build something, have the fun of building it, actually use the thing I had built, and then learn from my mistakes than to spend so much of my time hatching on what I was going to do next.
I of course argued that I didn't want to waste my very precious whatever-it-was that I would mess up if I didn't do it exactly right on the first try. We went back and forth over the idea, until we had to go back to our unmemorable meeting. I remember him shaking his head as we walked back in.
Sometime after we sat down, he passed a piece of paper over to me that looked like this:It said "cuts" with an arrow pointing to him, and "thinks about cutting" with an arrow pointing to me.
Thus was I irretrievably labeled.
He was right. In recent years, I've grown significantly in the direction of acquiring actual experience, not just imagined experience. I'm still inherently a "math guy" who really enjoys modeling and planning and imagining. But most of the things I've created that are really useful, I've created by building something very basic that just works. Most of the time when I've done that, I've gotten really good use out of that very basic thing. Most of the time, such a thing has enabled me to do stuff that I couldn't have done without it.
In the cases where the very basic thing hasn't been good enough, I've either enhanced it, or I've scrapped it in favor of a new version 2. In either case, the end result was better (and it happened earlier) than if I had tried to imagine every possible feature I was going to need before I built anything. Usually the enhancements have been in directions that I never imagined prior to actually putting my hands on the thing after I built it. I've written about some of those experiences in a paper called "Measure once, cut twice (no, really)".
Incremental design is an interesting subject, especially in the context of our Oracle ecosystem, where there is a grave shortage of competent design. But I do believe that a sensible application of the "measure-once, cut-twice" principle improves software quality, even in projects where you need a well-designed relational database model. I'm not advocating that design shouldn't happen; I'm advocating that you not pretend your design is build-worthy before you can possibly know.
Some good places where you can read more about this philosophy include...
- Getting Real, a 91-essay e-book written by 37signals.
- "Extreme programming: a gentle introduction", an introduction to a discipline for building things, wherein you can embrace the advantages of incremental design.
- "Is design dead?", a paper by Martin Fowler that supports the idea that evolutionary design becomes viable in the presence of certain risk-mitigating practices.