Friday, April 06, 2007

The value of a demonstrable prototype

I've just been reading an interview by Ron Jacobs with Scott Guthrie; it's up on The Microsoft Architect Journal (

What's caught my attention is the importance Scott put on having a demonstrable prototype of their ASP.Net technology early in the development. "There were three or four of us" and yet they managed to create one of the key product offerings of one of the world's largest companies. A truly remarkable outcome.

Now I'm sure that the team itself was extraordinary, but still I bet in many companies they would have been driven into the ground under the weight of the stakeholders. The more people involved, the more diluted the good ideas become and the greater effort needs to be put into selling ideas and managing the stakeholders. The processes companies typically put into place to manage new delivery put a stranglehold on true innovation.

'...That's one of the successful things that we did with ASP.NET. We said that we're
going to throw away every line of code we're going to write for the next couple
of months. Let's all agree on that. We're not going to say, "Oh let's take this
and adapt it; we can clean it up." No. We're going to throw it away. We're going
to "deltree" this subdirectory at some point, and that way we can be more
adventurous about trying new things. We don't have to worry about making sure
that everything's robust because it's going to be in the final version.

We actually did that for a few months and said, "We're done, delete it; let's start
over from scratch; now let's write the full production code and make sure we
bake in quality at the time." I think a lot of teams could benefit from that.
The hardest thing is making sure you delete the prototype code. Too often,
projects develop with "Well, it's kind of close." It's very difficult to start
with a prototype and make it robust. I'm a firm believer in starting with a
prototype phase and then deleting it.

The typical corporate company approach would not have sustained this type of development.

It would be an incredibly gifted individual that could convince a steering committee to support expenditure on experimentation when little or no artifacts could be easily capitalised at the end of a 3 month development. Most companies want functional delivery early with a clear line of connection from end user requirements to final deliverable.

Scott talks specifically about the value of a prototype to help sell the idea.

"We certainly had to persuade a number of people along the way. One thing we
did early in the project was get running code in prototypes that we could show
people. Often when you're working on a project that's new or something that
hasn't been done before, it's easy to put together a bunch of PowerPoint slides
that sound good, but it's especially valuable to actually show code and walk
people through code that's running. Not only does the prototype prove that it's
real, but also you just learn a terrific amount by doing it.

Perhaps their greatest achievement was the successful marketing of the development from initial concept through to the current deliverables. The early prototyping and demonstrations were obviously a critical part of this achievement.

At the end of the day all of this makes great fodder for the creation of a myth list: the My Myth List. My first two myths are going to be:

  1. End users know what they require
  2. Product delivery is a linear process

Because it's apparent that people don't know what they want. It's the visualisation of what is possible that provides a basis for requirements. And product delivery is never linear.

I'm sure I'll think of more over the next few weeks.

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