2008-09-09-is-your-software-project-a-super-tanker-or-a-speed-boat

Is your software project a super tanker or a speed boat?

Given my background, I've been involved in both small and large software projects.  Small projects can a have a budget of less than 3 hours up to a whole year of man hours.  Big projects take years and massive amounts of manpower, i.e. more than 2000 man hours.  Most of the small projects I've worked on are extremely dynamic and new challenges are presented almost every other day.  Big projects tend to plod along with not much happening or changing each day.

I've been thinking a lot about this lately as I have tried to revitalize my network of contacts for my business.  This has enabled me to get back in touch with colleagues who used to work with me on small projects but have moved on to big projects, as well as those who used to work with me on big projects and still work on big projects.  The stark contrast between the two sizes has been eye opening.  I've begun to think in terms of shared abstraction (or analogy) so I can properly describe the two types.

Big projects are super tankers of the seas (but they are definitely not cruise ships).  They move at a pace that is measured in miles and have little capacity to make course corrections.  They burn resources at a rate that would be alarming to anyone outside of enterprise software development.  They require a captain, a crew and at least one member of the crew capable of really managing the crew (i.e. not the captain but an influencer capable of staving off mutiny).

Small projects are speed boats.  Capable of turning on a dime and reacting to conditions with great agility.  Small projects require a single disciplined captain who knows the capabilities of the boat and the local conditions.  Small projects almost never face mutiny because everyone depends on each other to fulfill their duties and there is no place for problems or problem crew to hide.  The danger is higher, yes, but, there are more opportunities to experiment and/or explore unique opportunities.

I, myself, have worked on small projects then moved on to big projects and now I am back to small projects.  When I check in with my colleagues on big development projects, most of them express dismay at the speed of their pace.  Another common refrain is that they really aren't 100% certain of their direction or their true impact on the success of the project, i.e. the destination itself is so far off they aren't sure they will make it.  This is very hard for me to hear.  Working with small businesses day in and day out, I have excitement and impact nearly every day.  If I don't, the small business owners I work with are more than willing to share their excitement about new prospects or a revised process in their business.

Bottom line:  A bigger boat may bring about envy or bragging rights on the water, but the speed boat is a heck of a lot more fun.

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