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Deadline Management: Are You Just Wasting Money?

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It's harder than you might think to squander millions of dollars, but a flawed software-development process is a tool well suited to the job. This chapter from The Inmates Are Running the Asylum untangles the expensive confusion of deadline management.
This chapter is from the book

It's harder than you might think to squander millions of dollars, but a flawed software-development process is a tool well suited to the job. That's because software development lacks one key element: an understanding of what it means to be "done." Lacking this vital knowledge, we blindly bet on an arbitrary deadline. We waste millions to cross the finish line soonest, only to discover that the finish line was a mirage. In this chapter I'll try to untangle the expensive confusion of deadline management.

Deadline Management

There is a lot of obsessive behavior in Silicon Valley about time to market. It is frequently asserted that shipping a product right now is far better than shipping it later. This imperative is used as a justification for setting impossibly ambitious ship dates and for burning out employees, but this is a smoke screen that hides bigger, deeper fears—a red herring. Shipping a product that angers and frustrates users in three months is not better than shipping a product that pleases users in six months, as any businessperson knows full well.

Managers are haunted by two closely related fears. They worry about when their programmers will be done building, and they doubt whether the product will be good enough to ultimately succeed in the marketplace. Both of these fears stem from the typical manager's lack of a clear vision of what the finished product actually will consist of, aside from mother-and-apple-pie statements such as "runs on the target computer" and "doesn't crash." And lacking this vision, they cannot assess a product's progress towards completion.

The implication of these two fears is that as long as it "doesn't crash," there isn't much difference between a program that takes three months to code and one that takes six months to code, except for the prodigious cost of three months of unnecessary programming. After the programmers have begun work, money drains swiftly. Therefore, logic tells the development manager that the most important thing to do is to get the coding started as soon as possible and to end it as soon as possible.

The conscientious development manager quickly hires programmers and sets them coding immediately. She boldly establishes a completion date just a few months off, and the team careens madly toward the finish line. But without product design, our manager's two fears remain unquelled. She has not established whether the users will like the product, which indeed leaves its success a mystery. Nor has she established what a "complete" product looks like, which leaves its completion a mystery. Later in the book, I'll show how interaction design can ease these problems. Right now, I'll show how thoroughly the deadline subverts the development process, turning all the manager's insecurities into self-fulfilling prophecies.

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