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Feature-List Bargaining

One consequence of deadline management is a phenomenon that I call "feature-list bargaining."

Years ago programmers got burned by the vague product-definition process consisting of cocktail-napkin sketches, because they were blamed for the unsuccessful software that so often resulted. In self-defense, programmers demanded that managers and marketers be more precise. Computer programs are procedural, and procedures map closely to features, so it was only natural that programmers would define "precision" as a list of features. These feature lists allowed programmers to shift the blame to management when the product failed to live up to expectations. They could say, "It wasn't my fault. I put in all the features management wanted."

Thus, most products begin life with a document variably called a "marketing specification," "technical specification," or "marketing requirements document." It is really just a list of desired features, like the list of ingredients in the recipe for cake. It is usually the result of several long brainstorming sessions in which managers, marketers, and developers imagine what features would be cool and jot them down. Spreadsheet programs are a favorite tool for creating these lists, and a typical one can be dozens of pages long. (Invariably, at least one of the line items will specify a "good user interface.") Feature suggestions can also come from focus groups, market research, and competitive analysis.

The managers then hand the feature list to the programmers and say, "The product must ship by June 1." The programmers—of course—agree, but they have some stipulations. There are far too many features to create in the time allotted, they claim, and many of them will have to be cut to meet the deadline. Thus begins the time-honored bargaining.

The programmers draw a dividing line midway through the list. Items above it will be implemented, they declare, while those below the "line of death" are postponed or eliminated. Management then has two choices: to allow more time or to cut features. Although the project will inevitably take more time, management is loath to play that trump so early in the round, so it negotiates over features. Considerable arguing and histrionics occur. Features are traded for time; time is traded for features. This primitive capitalist negotiation is so human and natural that both parties are instantly comfortable with it. Sophisticated parallel strategies develop. As T/Maker's Royal Farros points out, when one "critical-path feature was blamed for delaying a deadline, it would let a dozen other tardy features sneak onto the list without repercussion." Lost in the battle is the perspective needed for success.

Farros described T/Maker's flagship product, a word processor named WriteNow, as "a perfect product for the university marketplace. In 1987, we actually shipped more copies of WriteNow to the university market than Microsoft shipped Word. However, we couldn't hold our lead because we angered our very loyal, core fans in this market by not delivering the one word-processor feature needed in a university setting: endnotes. Because of trying to make the deadline, we could never slip this feature into the specification. We met our deadline but lost an entire market segment."

Programmers Are in Control

Despite appearances, programmers are completely in control of this bottom-up decision-making process. They are the ones who establish how long it will take to implement each item, so they can force things to the bottom of the list merely by estimating them long. The programmers will—in self-defense—assign longer duration to the more nebulously defined items, typically those concerned with substantive user-interface issues. This inevitably causes them to migrate to the bottom of the list. More familiar idioms and easy-to-code items, such as menus, wizards, and dialog boxes, bubble to the top of the list. All of the analysis and careful thinking done by high-powered and high-priced executives is made moot by the unilateral cherry picking of a programmer following his own muse or defending his turf.

Like someone only able to set the volume of a speaker that isn't within hearing distance, managers find themselves in the unenviable position of only having tools that control ineffective parameters of the development process. It is certainly true that management needs to control the process of creating and shipping successful software, but, unfortunately, our cult of deadline ignores the "successful" part to concentrate only on the "creating" part. We give the creators of the product the reins to the process, thus relegating management to the role of passenger and observer.

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