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Software Requirements Meets Real Life: “Getting Rid of Clutter” is Like Cutting Scope

Normally, “taking work home with you” is considered to be a negative thing, proof that your work-life balance is out of whack. However, lately I’ve noticed that the things I learn and do at work are affecting my personal life, and not in a bad way.

As a requirements analyst, one of the most important aspects of my job is to help clients ruthlessly narrow down long lists of “requirements” (in many cases, “system shall” wish lists) to identify those things that really are needed. To do this, I must have a deep understanding of what the business needs are and what the people using the software have to accomplish. As a result, I’ve developed the habit of questioning every requirement, of maintaining a certain amount of skepticism.

Recently, I moved into a smallish house that has no garage. (That’s what happens when you have two days to house-hunt in the crazy Austin rental market; you grab what you can get.) When I first moved in, my living room was a maze of boxes, and I thought I’d never see my floor again. I knew that the only way to kill the mess was to become a brutal sorter. As I unpacked, I looked at my possessions in a new way. No longer did I evaluate a possession on its cool factor, or how much it cost me to buy it. I started considering whether or not I really needed it.

The folks at the local donation center have gotten to know me quite well, because over the past few months I’ve dropped off a huge amount of stuff. Some things were easy to get rid of; some were a bit of a wrench. When you discover you own three identical knife sharpeners, it’s not so hard to get rid of two of them. (That gorgeous silk dress that doesn’t quite fit anymore? That was a little tougher to say goodbye to, but say goodbye I did.)

The truth is, getting rid of stuff makes you feel light and free. You spend less time putting things away and moving things around, more time doing what you want or need to do instead. Keeping software or business processes lean has the same effect. There are many well-documented, logical reasons for cutting scope and keeping software as simple as possible: the high cost of software development, the depressing statistics on project failure, and the realities of tightening IT budgets. But there are other reasons to cut scope that have less to do with cost accounting and more to do with human nature.

Because bloated, complex software systems can be difficult to learn to use, users may either completely reject the software, or develop so many work-arounds that the system is rendered virtually useless. Bloated scope and software complexity can also stifle creativity and innovation in an organization, by hardening the bureaucratic arteries or by consuming so much of your employees’ time that they have none left for thinking and collaborating. Just as buying your kids a pile of cool video games ensures that they will spend way too much time sitting on the couch, deploying an “all the bells and whistles” blinged-out system could have the unintended consequences of reducing productivity and degrading the work environment.

Software projects with “scope bloat” can yield an end product that’s a lot like a rice cooker: a big, expensive, feature-laden piece of equipment. If that rice cooker produces an identical product to an old saucepan, but only gets used occasionally and takes up a huge amount of space, are all those features worth the extra cost and resources? (In my new, scope-cutting mode, I can say “goodbye, rice cooker.”) On the other hand, software projects that control scope are like my stand mixer. The stand mixer may be big and expensive, but I use almost all the features regularly for a variety of purposes, and it produces better quality bread or cookie dough faster than I can create by hand. (The mixer stays.)

Of course, those boxes of pictures my kids painted in kindergarten? They’re in the warehouse. Hey, I said I was ruthless, not heartless.


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