Don't Rely on "Magic Happens Here"

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If one looks at any activity, process or discipline from far enough away it looks simple. Managers with no experience of development think what programmers do is simple and programmers with no experience of management think the same of what managers do.

On any project there are likely a lot of things that a programmer often doesn't get actively involved in — eliciting requirements from users, getting budgets approved, setting up the build server, deploying the application to QA and production environments, migrating the business from the old, ....

When one isn't actively involved in things there is an unconscious tendency to assume that they happen "by magic". While the magic continues to happen all is well — but when (it is usually "when" and not "if") the magic stops the project is in trouble.

I've known projects lose weeks of developer time because no-one understood how they relied on "the right" version of a DLL being loaded — and when things started failing intermittently team members looked everywhere else before someone noticed that "a wrong" version of the DLL was being loaded.

Another department was running smoothly — projects delivered on time, no late night debugging sessions, no emergency fixes. So smoothly in fact that senior management decided that things "ran themselves" and they could do without the project manager. Inside six months the projects in the department looked just like the rest of the organisation — late, buggy and continually being patched.

You don't have to understand all the magic that makes your project work, but it doesn't hurt to understand some of it — or to appreciate someone who understands the bits you don't.

By Alan Griffiths

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