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Originally published in The Smalltalk Report, March/April 1996.
The Demo Trap
by Jan Steinman
"C'mon, guys -- we don't have time for testing; we've gotta get
the demo ready for the department heads meeting!"
said Aaron, the project leader, as he stared at
the ceiling in exasperation. Things had been going good -- too good,
MegaCorp had been having
some difficult times with development schedules, and after many
studies, too many meetings, and much political maneuvering, "they"
went along with Aaron Blake's plan to transition their traditional
development environment into Smalltalk with a
Aaron had been in this game a while; he knew this project was a
career maker or breaker, so he had planned the transition in careful
detail. They had gotten the training they needed, budgeted for the
best tools available,
and in a real coup for MegaCorp, he had even convinced them to bring
in some experienced
mentors, so that his team wouldn't have to repeat someone else's
Most importantly, MegaCorp MIS Director
Andrea Saunders had personally approved Aaron's
development process, which was unlike anything ever seen in
MegaCorp. MegaCorp needed rapid turn-around on various software
projects, and their traditional, waterfall process had been running
an average of 250% of original schedule. Their users needed six-week
changes, IS was quoting six-month changes, but they were actually
delivering in a year and a half!
It had been a hard sell. Andrea knew there was a problem, but she
wasn't ready to simply swap a new problem for an old one. "Whenever
one of my guys comes crying about all the hoops they're jumping
through, I ask them 'ya got something better?'"
Luckily, Aaron was in his usual state of preparedness, and had
come to the meeting with an impressive presentation citing Barry
Boehm and other development process scholars. He showed Andrea and
her department heads how simultaneous design, implementation, and
testing could result in an evolving, incremental product that could
deliver quick changes to users without sacrificing quality. He had no
idea that all his careful planning could result in disaster!
"Trigger" Larsen was Aaron's best developer,
and the fastest squirt-gunner in the company. Trigger had gone off to
a month of "Smalltalk
immersion therapy" in an apprenticeship program, and had returned
with stars in his eyes. "Hey Aaron, look what I got working today!"
he'd often exclaim, which was a bit tiring, but it was the kind of
nuisance Aaron could easily live with -- much preferred over the
usual complaining about short schedules and missed deadlines.
Trigger quickly assembled a GUI that was years ahead of anything
MegaCorp had ever put together. True, the database wasn't connected
yet, and the legacy systems were not interfaced, but hey -- it looked
sexy, and actually seemed to be doing something, unlike the "paint
and draw" prototypes that other departments had been putting together
Enthusiasm has its drawbacks, and when combined with a little
boastful competitiveness, it can have bad side effects. Trigger
played racquetball with Denny Hicks, a developer
on a "traditional development" team, and could contain his enthusiasm
no longer. "Hey, you should see the neat stuff WE'VE been doing!"
Trigger shouted over the sound of ricocheting balls and pounding
sneakers. It seemed an innocent enough boast at the time.
It was kinda nice being ignored. Aaron knew this couldn't last
forever, but neither did he suspect it was the calm before the storm.
The pace of a traditional waterfall project meant that the first
third or so of the schedule was dominated by documents, and no one
wanted to see documents, they just wanted to be assured that they
were being produced.
Aaron's cyclic development process was cheating a bit here. He
followed the letter of the MegaCorp Software Procedures and Standards
Manual by naming and listing all the required documents, and checking
them off as produced, reviewed, and delivered at the appropriate
The "cheating" part was that they were "incomplete" by MegaCorp
standards -- he
kept them in
their Smalltalk development environment, so they could be updated
readily, instead of "checking them in" to the mainframe, which
generally meant no one ever changed them again, because rigorous
procedures were involved with check-in and check-out.
They were also much smaller than usual, because instead of
extensive boilerplate for every conceivable situation (half of which
were marked "N/A"), Aaron insisted on plain English descriptions of
the behaviors and interactions of the objects in the system.
A greater heresy that wouldn't have passed muster if he hadn't
bribed the bored QA guys (by promising to train them in Smalltalk and
actually let them write some test code) was the fact that none of the
documents his group produced said anything about the
internal structure of their objects! He knew he could get shot down
for that, but he also suspected he'd need that flexibility later
during performance tuning. "Isn't it enough for now to say that an
Employee can answer its department, without stating that it
stores its department somewhere?" Aaron mused to
The net result of this was that after several months, MegaCorp
treated Aaron as though he were "waterfalling" through analysis into
design -- it ignored him -- while in reality, his team had Pretty
Neat Stuff Running. No one at MegaCorp had ever seen Pretty Neat
Stuff Running before at least 110% of initial schedule had been
"Hey Aaron!" shouted Jake Sather across the
lunch room, "Denny tells me you've got a GUI going -- can I get a
look sometime soon?" Jake was Aaron's peer, managing the "traditional
development" group Denny Hicks worked in. "Sure, c'mon up this
afternoon!" replied Aaron. (He had been catching some of Trigger's
enthusiasm as of late.)
What Is Our Product?
Jake's demo went good -- too good, it seems. It would have been
better if it had been worse. It would have been better if it had
crashed a few times. It would have been better if Aaron had stalled
Jake to prepare, because Aaron's team had been practicing
integration and continuous testing, and Jake knew this was the
best spur-of-the-moment demo he'd ever seen at MegaCorp. Aaron looked
at it and saw a half-finished prototype. Jake looked at it and saw A
The Friday staff meeting was not a pretty sight for Aaron. "You
guys should see what Aaron's been hiding from us!" Jake started out,
"We all should be looking at this stuff!" They scheduled several
demos that week. Marketing should get a look, Sales was os a
boondoggle, so would need their own demo, and of course the tech
writers would need a working copy, and users, what about the users?
"We'll have to find some; Aaron, can you look into that?"
None of Aaron's careful planning accounted for the coming weeks.
Oh, he had planned for demos, all right, but he didn't anticipate the
magnitude of interest that "early GUI" generates.
But the interest in Aaron's stuff was not passive. Everyone thinks
they're a "GUI Guru," when really they are more likely seduced by
"neat stuff" than what actually is useful to an end-user. Marketing
immediately wanted "more color and icons" while various VPs that
drifted in and out of Aaron's office put in their own personal GUI
order, and Sales wanted to immediately ship everything they saw.
Aaron was averaging at least two demos per week, and each one ended
with some "recommendation" of some kind. His schedule was slipping,
as his developers thrashed away implementing conflicting, unplanned
Aaron fantasized about the want ad he would soon be placing:
"Product Demo Manager for hire. Expert at jumping through upper
management hoops with constantly changing, but meaningless, user
interface stuff. If your product is demos, I'm your man!" He thought
hard about what he was trying to accomplish, mentally crumpled up the
half-composed ad, and picked up the phone. "Andrea, can we have a
talk?" he said.
Return of Sanity
After hearing him out, Andrea Saunders agreed that Aaron's project
needed a shield. Demos would be limited to the period immediately
following "cycle end," which averaged every six weeks. "Must do"
demos in between the scheduled ones would only be on the software
that had recently been formally presented -- no more pulling people
off of "real work" to prepare a special demo.
Trigger had completed the architecture work and much of the
design, and had given the implementation a good start. Being
outgoing, enthusiastic, and a bit boastful earned him the new
unofficial title of "appeasement engineer."
"Half your job is to see that no one else on the team is impacted
by demo activity," Aaron told him, "and the other half is to do
everything else you were doing with all your time before!" he joked.
He knew that Trigger was up to the challenge, and could carry on
limited peer review and coding while carefully tracking all the
little tasks that producing a good demo requires, and still have time
for manic squirt-gun fights.
The Demo Trap had slipped the schedule, and they weren't going to
ship all the functions they had originally planned, but their
"continuous development" regime was paying off regardless. They had
taken on "productization" early, and all they had to do between
cycles was add functionality. Sales wanted what they had NOW, and
marketing was actually considering a "MegaSoft Lite" offering to
"selected beta partners."
"If this keeps up," Aaron mused, "it could be the first time in
history that MegaCorp has shipped a product -- albeit not the one
they set out to build -- ahead of schedule!" He sighed a contented
sigh, and went back to planning his next Smalltalk project.
Go to the previous column in
the series, or the next
column in the series.