Post-christmas notes #5

Here are my last notes from the holidays:

  • I’m a Sopranos fan, and as I caught up on the episodes I had taped, I thought about how things work with one “writer-director in chief” and several episode directors. Clearly, a vocabulary, format, structure, architecture, or whatever, is established and much of it probably is conveyed by watching the episodes – but there’s probably much more that needs to be communicated to episode writers and directors. I checked the Sopranoland.com episode guide for the first season, and already in the third episode, David Chase hands the job over to other people. I’d like to know more about how they work.
  • The book on writing I read had an excerpt from a book by Patricia Highsmith – it doesn’t say which one, but I guess it’s from her Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction. She repeats the notion that good books write themselves. One guideline is that as you write the first draft, never forget to pay attention to the whole; remember to check how the events fit into the bigger picture. This is definitely an important lesson for programmers, too, and I came to think of the only project I have been in where several months (almost a year) were spent on analysis and design. We managed to create a design where a handful of elements were repeated both in larger scale and on the micro scale; as you visited a place in the code for the first time, you’d find familiar elements and instantly know how things worked. I doubt that this always can be accomplished, but when you can, it’s good. ––– Highsmith also described writing as something resembling Zen koan practice, where you are totally immersed in the subject: it’s the first thing you think of as you wake up, and it follows you during the course of the day, even if you’re not actively working with it. ––– Also, she wrote about the importance of sensing that the project is going somewhere, that you constantly accomplish things. As a programmer, I have certainly been in projects that often have seemed to have come to a standstill.
  • Then there was an article on soap opera writing. I’m interested in the process, because I feel that they are “naturally agile”. In software, process has become either non-existent (as in: no-one reflects on it) or too emphasized (as in: we do lots of thing because the process says we have to) – and as a reaction to that, agile processes are “invented”, where you only do things that have significance for the end product, where you want as little friction in the process as possible, where it’s about doing. In soap operas, there’s a team writing the scripts. According to this article, you have one or two head writers, four to five storyline writers, two editors, and five to ten dialogue or episode writers. The head writer decided the overall story, which was probably fleshed out by the storyline writers. There are many meetings where the scripts are read and discussed, after which they are revised. The editors judges what works and what doesn’t. The episode writers get an overview for the season, along with character descriptions. ––– According to the article, this business is dead in Sweden, since docusoaps are much cheaper to produce: no actors, no writers.
  • Then I read an interview with Swedish writer P O Enquist, where he compared inventing a zipper to writing a book – when inventing a zipper, the problem domain (to use programmer speak) is fairly defined: it’s about joining two pieces of cloth in some way, while in writing, you actually doesn’t know what you are going to invent (which may be more true for some writers than others). I thought about this in the context of software, and it seems to fall somewhere in-between: although you know roughly what the software is supposed to do, there’s much to learn about the problem domain. Some writers chuck out a book a year, while others release books very sporadically. Is it possible to estimate the time it takes to write a book, even if you are a one-a-year writer? Does he or she know that it will be finished by the end of the year?

I realize my thinking has been more or less centered around creative processes and team culture. Learning is certainly related to this, since software projects are endeavors in learning. It would be interesting to read more about teams of people creating something together, whether it is a sitcom or a car. Currently, I’m reading Mary Poppendieck’s draft of her forthcoming book titled Lean Development (thanks, Jonas) – which seems to fit the things I’m thinking of for the moment. Lean development appears to have been big in the automobile industry.

The above was posted to my personal weblog on January 6, 2003. My name is Peter Lindberg and I am a thirtysomething software developer and dad living in Stockholm, Sweden. Here, you’ll find posts in English and Swedish about whatever happens to interest me for the moment.


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