Coppola’s Prompt Book

Watching some of the bonus material from the Godfather box set, where Francis Ford Coppola shows his ‘prompt book,’1 which has every page of Mario Puzo’s novel cut out and pasted onto a larger sheet of paper, with lots of notes and arrows and margin notes. (I will probably write about this in a post of its own.) It made me think of the largest project I’ve ever been in, where each of us involved had a copy of a large binder with a requirements specification of sorts – the initial specification that went with the request for offers.

The thing was, that this document was incomplete, it only hinted at the features of the software to be developed. The reason for this was that the software was commissioned as part of a larger project, where various electrical systems were to be installed, buildings remodeled, etc. On one page was listed the kinds of electrical wires that were required, on another vague statements about required features of the software. (I particularly remember one that said that one should be able to set up to 200 ‘flags in the system,’ without any explanation of what these ‘flags’ were.)

Anyway, being incomplete, we lugged these binders to meetings, both internal meetings and ones with representatives of the customer who could answer our questions. Each of us made margin notes, tuck post-its to them with notes and references to other parts of the document, added whole pages of notes, and so on. So each copy became personal through these annotations.

I’ve thought about filmmaking through the years. I’m particularly fascinated by the straightforwardness of the script and the storyboard; these aren’t meant as complete documents, but serve as ‘objects of reference.’ The continuous discussion that is a movie project takes place (as I understand it) around these objects of reference. They facilitate coordination. They also facilitate keeping the movie in the head, remembering the details of past discussions.

In this project, we started with a lousy document, which most of us came to hate because of its vagueness and incompleteness, but centered our discussions around personal copies of it, and accumulated personal annotations of these, and in the end they proved essential to the process. Not as documentation – the annotations would make little sense to an outsider, or perhaps even to another member of the project – but as tangible objects of collaboration.

So often in software development documentation is emphasized. But software projects don’t need documentation anywhere near as much as they need good tools for coordination.

1 This clip is actually available online, ‘Francis Coppola’s Notebook.’

The above was posted to my personal weblog on August 13, 2005. 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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