Why GPS systems are a metaphor for software development

A while ago I was on my way to see family members. Due to working all the time, I was unfamiliar with the route so I used my GPS. During the journey I had a brainwave, a good GPS system is like a good software development team.

Imagine the roles involved in a car journey. We have the nice GPS lady, the one who knows the final result and the most effective way to get there. We have the passengers who do the work together with the backseat drivers who think they know better than everyone else involved and will take you in a different direction.

This is very similar to the structure of most project teams. Everyone knows the final destination, and some might even know how to get mostpart of the way there however we have project managers guiding us along the way, step by step, even if sometimes they are just background noise telling you what you already know. We have developerstesters taking the information from the project manager and applying it using their own skills. The GPS doesn’t drive the car in the same way project managers don’t write code. Finally, we have the members of the team who always seem to know better – these are either visionaries or bad apples.

As you are driving, when you are coming up to a change in direction the GPS will tell you just enough information to put you in the best position to act when the additional information is relevant instead of overloading you with unnecessary and confusing the problem right at the beginning. As the steps are broken down and told as required, if you go wrong then the GPS can adjust itself and guide you back. These could be consideration iterations.

What if the journey wasn’t broken down into steps? You would know the end route, however you wouldn’t know the quickest, or even how, to get there. Instead you would be flooded with information as soon as you enter in the car. You will be told every turn taken, every lane change. During the journey, you will attempt to remember everything, as a result relying on other indicators such as traditional sign posts. The problem is that you can easily miss a critical step and take a wrong turn. Without someone guiding you, you could be going in the wrong direction for a long period of time. This is the equivalent of a waterfall project and we all know how they end. GPS systems take an agile approach to car journeys.

But I only have a cheap GPS systems. The good (ie expensive) GPS systems respond to the environment around them.  They can sense (be alerted) to traffic ahead and as a result take a different route to ensure you get to your end goal in the most effective way. This is why you pay twice as much, as when problems occur, they can help instead of just sending you down the same old path.

I think this is the same as a good project manager. If they can see the problems coming, then they can guide the team without the team ever knowing or being distributed. This allows the team to stay focused and motivated while the project manager does the hard work of ensuring any problems don’t affect the project. This is a powerful and extremely useful position and person to have. This is when both GPS systems and project managers justify their cost.

But what if you crash? Well your project just got canned and no matter how good your GPSpm is they can’t help.

Interesting what comes into your mind during a car journey.

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