Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Would You Mind Communicating That?

To sum up then, Fred Brooks said "Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later."

Web sites are visible software.

Instead of saying manpower (which is valid) you can also say words (also valid). As in: "Adding words to improve communication makes communication impossible." True. Sort of. Sort of not. When in doubt, assume the worst. We're talking communication here.

The main problem is that there are no simple, clear, unvarying rules. This is an art. If software development were surgery then those involved would end up in pieces. Mommy and Daddy would never come home from work. There would be blood on the tracks and everywhere else.

Web sites are communication. Web development, communication, are not mechanical processes. People keep trying that approach though. You've seen the results. Those $10 web sites that you can't understand or navigate. The ones that look and work just like all the other ones you can't figure out.

And they expect you to trust them with your credit card?

Fred Brooks worked in a different world than we do. He was a manager at IBM when IBM was betting the business on OS/360, an all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful operating system for their mainframe computers. Those were huge beasts that could barely be steered. Imagine a woolly mammoth on a leash of dental floss. Like that.

IBM thought they could do better so they took a running leap off a cliff. Everyone learned on the way down.

They made the beast fly, but only by luck and sweat and swearing and lack of real competition. Partly luck, it's true.

Here's a central concept: your communication channels increase by the square of the numbers involved.

Say you have three people working. Three communication channels. Say you have 10 people working. More like 100 communication channels. IBM had hundreds of people on that one project.

Makes you dizzy.

Now instead of people think words. Same deal. The more you say, the more you have going on, the less you communicate. The opposite is also true though. Nice pickle to be in, right?

Say too much, or in the wrong way, and you have a confused mess. You need footnotes and outlines. Study guides, dictionaries. Tutors. You have to call in people with degrees (and lawyers too) to untangle the mess.

But say too little and you have nothing at all. Imagine a bouquet of flowers that's all stems and no blossoms. Ineffective. Pointless. Embarrassing. Scratchy.

All this is true.

Communication is hard. You have to work at it. It is a professional discipline. It has rules. There are pitfalls. It takes constant vigilance. There is no certified plan, no glory road to success. What works, works, and vice versa. But it isn't always easy to figure out which is which. You are never done.

Say what everyone else says, in the same way, and you vanish in the noise. Bad move. Don't sound like someone else. You need words that identify you, excite you, express your dreams, prove your expertise, shout with joy, electrify others, reel them in.

So study the best. Read. Let yourself stumble upon delight in the world. You will be better, your words too. Don't copy. Don't pretend. Work at finding out who you are and what you really do. Then say that.

See if it works. Keep trying.

You will know when you're getting close. People won't leave you alone.



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