Every time I speak with the programmers of our team in casual conversation, I ask what they’re working on. Every time, I get the same kind of answer, “I’m building a dashboard,” or “I’m optimizing a database,” or “I’m testing the user interaction.”
In other words, I get the same answer as the proverbial masons, “I’m laying bricks,” or “I’m building a wall.” But not, “I’m building a cathedral.”
At an abstract level, programmers understand the value of the big picture. But at a practical level, they focus on the immediate next steps. Since time is always crunched, programmers skip absorbing the big picture.
“This is a mistake,” I told them. “Your work improves if you know why you’re doing what you’re doing.”
“How?” the curious ones asked. That’s when I told them the story of Andre.
Andre told me he was creating a dashboard. I decided to ask him the five whys.
- “Why are you building this dashboard?” I asked. “Because my team leader told me to,” said Andre.
- “Why does he need it?” I then asked. “Because the client Rudolph told him to build it,” he answered.
- “Why does the client need it?” I continued to ask. “Because his boss told him … I guess?” he replied.
- “Why does his boss need it?” I asked him. “I don’t know,” he said.
I knew I couldn’t get further. So, I asked to see the dashboard. It showed 14 metrics and their performance across time. I had no idea what I was supposed to infer from the numbers.
I spoke to Rudolph, the client, and asked why he needed the dashboard. His answer was similar, “Because Victor, my boss, wants to know how our operations are doing.”
“So, do you need all 14 numbers? As a table?” I asked him. “Yes,” he said. “I need to know how each number is performing.”
I tried a different tack. “Suppose you’re on an elevator with Victor, and he says, ‘Hi Rudolph, how’s it going?’ How will you answer? Are you going to recite all 14 numbers to him?”
Rudolph thought for a while and said, “No. I’ll probably just tell him about what’s improved and what’s worsened. Then I’ll tell him what I’m going to focus on improving. That’s all that matters to him.”
That left Andre and me wiser. Our aim was not to show 14 metrics. It was to help Rudolph and Victor figure out what’s improved and worsened.
This helped Andre change three decisions.
Change the Development Priority
Not all metrics were equally important. Some were consistently stable. Some fluctuated a lot. He wrote the queries for the fluctuating metrics first. So, when the deadline hit and he wasn’t fully ready, he still had the most important metrics in place.
Change the Design
He added simple traffic-light colors to the metrics that grew the most and fell the most. It made it much easier for Rudolph to figure out what’s improved and what’s worsened. Rudolph never commented on it. But we knew without it, his response would have been, “There’s something wrong with this, but I don’t know what.”
Change What to Optimize
The queries run slowly. Rather than optimize all queries, Andre reordered the queries to render the fluctuating metrics first and optimized those. Those results appeared first, markedly improving how fast the dashboard appeared to load.
There’s a reason modern agile processes refer to user stories to capture requirements. But we lose the spirit of the story when we write, “As a user, I want to see the performance of 14 metrics.”
The next time you write a requirement, don’t hesitate to write the full user story for the programmers. “When my boss is in the elevator and asks for a quick summary, I want to tell him what’s improved and what’s worsened, in less than 10 seconds.”
Stories are memorable. They are easier to understand and communicate. They help explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. They also help prioritize development, improve the design and optimize better.
Always ask for requirements as stories. Always narrate requirements as stories.