Of media and software design

by Mathew on November 11, 2007 · 4 comments

Before I get started, let me just confess that I am not a programmer. I’ve tinkered with some HTML and even some CSS, but other than that I’m pretty much illiterate (a fact that my brother, who is a real programmer, would no doubt be happy to confirm). I’m an English major, after all. And yet, I have read a fair bit about the trend towards what some are calling “agile” software design, and it struck me that there are similarities between software programming and the traditional media.

A lot of traditional programming — the kind that produces software with billions of lines of code in it — involves dozens or even hundreds of people all toiling away for weeks, months or even years to produce a piece of software. It’s like a military campaign, in which the grunts do the low-level work, then it gets tested, then eventually it goes “gold” and is shipped. Then everyone buckles down for the next revision or upgrade.

As I understand it, an “agile” approach takes a much more evolutionary approach, in which the software gets put together in small chunks and then tested, then tinkered with, then tested, then improved, and so on. In that sense, the end product evolves over time, based on the feedback from users and from watching it get stress-tested in the real world. I could have this all wrong, but that’s my perception of it.

Now let’s look at the way a traditional medium such as the newspaper operates. It may not be months or years (although magazines are close to that kind of time-frame) but you still have a gigantic machine with many small cogs, devoted to producing something that is frozen in time — a lot like the software that goes gold and is shipped. Then everyone gets ready to do the revisions or the upgrade of the news the next day.

The Web, however, is not like that — or shouldn’t be. With a Web operation, news gets out quickly but in smaller chunks, and then it is tested against the facts (and the responses of those involved, or with knowledge of the events) and revised, and it evolves over time. It is never really finished. Instead of a mammoth project aimed at a single product, it is a series of small steps that eventually take you somewhere.

Just a thought.

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