Kate met Dan Devlin at the coffee shop on Main Street where he had originally recruited her. They shared the lovely weather and caught up to date on their lives. But Dan had a question.

‘Kate,” Dan said, ‘things are going well. Products are selling, the Marketing people are happy, quality is up, customers are happy. I just have one question.”

“How much of a raise do I want?” Kate said. “It’s nice of you to ask.”

Dan laughed. “Don’t worry about that, there’ll be a nice present in your stocking come Christmas. No, my question is, how can what you’re doing possibly work? As soon as we have a product idea even partly fleshed out, the developers are building it and have a version for us to play with. And then you just grow it from there. How can that possibly work?”

“Do you mean technically? We have tests, refactoring, …”

“No,” Dan said. “That’s your bailiwick. I don’t understand how it can work from a business viewpoint. How can we do all this without nailing down the requirements, estimating everything, and making sure people get done what they said they would do? It seems like you have everyone just winging it.”

“Well, it is a lot like improv,” Kate said. ‘Lots of preparation, practice, refining. Maybe it would help if I told you about my Uncle Guido and his Italian restaurant.”

“You don’t look Italian,” said Dan.

“True enough. I’m in witness protection, but don’t tell anyone. Anyway, my uncle Guido had an Italian restaurant, and he decided he needed a lovely mural on the back wall, to give the place a touch of class. Let me tell you what happened.

“Guido and his pals talked about it a bit, over some of Guido’s famous Questionable Chianti. They decided this was a great idea. They thought about what they needed and decided on a nice Tuscan look, with maybe a grape arbor showing where the Questionable Grapes were grown in the old country, and probably a picture of Great Great Aunt Sophia, sitting at a picnic table or maybe hanging out laundry. They drew pictures of their ideas on bar napkins. Unfortunately most of those were lost, because Questionable Chianti turns out to be a really good bleach.

“Anyway, after they had some ideas, and the headaches were mostly gone, they started to talk with local artists. They learned a lot, most of it bad news. The artists wanted ‘artistic freedom’, or they said that the painting would take a month to do and they needed the restaurant closed for that period. There were all kinds of problems.

“The good news was, this helped Guido understand his needs. He needed to keep the restaurant going, and he didn’t want a big ugly drop cloth hanging there hiding the painting, since there were doors in the wall, to the restrooms and the kitchen. At first he tried to find someone who would paint the whole thing over a weekend, but no one stepped up to that.

“Guido was stumped. He couldn’t have the place looking horrible, and he couldn’t close, but he really wanted his mural. Finally he met one artist who had an idea. ‘What if we let people see how the mural is coming,’ she asked Guido. ‘I’ll work early mornings until you open, and folks can come in every day and see what is happening. They can give you feedback, and you can give me feedback and we’ll build the mural to best suit your ideas and budget.’

“Guido thought a bit and decided that if there were no poisonous fumes, this could be a good idea. He could see the thing taking shape and guide how it went. But he was worried about the budget. ‘How can we keep costs under control,’ he asked.

“The artist suggested this: ‘Let’s set a deadline and total budget. I’ll keep you posted on how much is being spent, and of course we’ll have the picture on the wall to look at. By the time we’re about half-way through, it should be of high enough quality, and have enough picture elements, that we could stop any time. You’ll have more ideas, of course, but by then we’ll both have a sense of how fast we can progress, and you can choose the most valuable things to add or change. You’ll have total control over how the picture winds up, and if you want to, we can stop on or before the money runs out.’

“Guido wasn’t entirely convinced. He wanted to know how he could be sure he wouldn’t be left with a horribly ugly wall. The artist told him that she would guarantee to paint it back over and stop any time he wanted, and said she would start by working in some temporary pigment like chalk, so they could erase and change things easily.

“Guido decided to go ahead.”

Dan thought. “I can almost imagine that working. But it seems awfully chaotic. Did it work?”

Kate said, “Wait and see. The story goes on. Guido was a serious thinking guy, like you are. He had made a lot of notes about the mural and his needs, and many of them were not bleached away by the Questionable Chianti. His first thought was to give all his notes to the artist and have her paint away. I’ve actually seen some of those notes and they were pretty good. Here’s how I remember what he wrote about Great-great Aunt Sophia:”

Sophia was a great beauty in her youth. It was said in our family that Sophia Loren took her name because she looked like our Sophia. Our Sophia had dark dark eyes, jet black hair that flowed down below her shoulders. She had curves to make men cry and she moved like a dancer despite her voluptuous figure.

“Maybe you are Italian after all,” Dan said.

“Silence, I’m telling a story, you dirty old man,” said Kate. “Guido had written more:”

The mural should show Sophia in her later years. She had rounded out a bit, as we Italians will, and somehow she seemed shorter. You could see in her aging face the beautiful girl she had been. And in her eyes you could see the memories of the many men she had conquered. After she married Francesco, she had a long happy married life and many children whom she adored. The mural should show her as Grandmama Sophia, still energetic and beautiful, still ruling the family gently but firmly. It should let people see the great family heritage that comes down to us and should suggest that just as Sophia created wonderful food for her family, we will create wonderful food for our customers. The picture should also show that Sophia was frugal, just as our prices are quite fair given the high quality of the food we serve. And she should look hard-working, to show that we will work hard for our customers.

“Wow,” Dan said. “He asks a lot of a picture of a little old lady.”

‘Guido was a poet at heart,” Kate said. “But tell me this: if you were an artist, could you draw a picture of Sophia at age 55 or so, and have it look like Guido’s memory?”

Dan only had to think a moment. “No. I get that she was a lovely lady but I have no idea what she looked like. Hey, wait! This is an allegory isn’t it? Are you talking to me about written specifications?”

Kate laughed. “Caught me. We have the same problem as the artist would have had with Guido’s lovely prose: it doesn’t really tell her what has to be done.”

“What did she do?”

Kate said, “First, she read all of Guido’s pages of notes. Fortunately there weren’t too many, but there were a lot of items that she made notes about:”

The family had a pet mouse named Petra. The mural should have a mouse in it, but it shouldn't look like the restaurant is infested. Also, now that I think about it, a sort of Garden of Eden feeling might be good, as our restaurant is a little paradise. And our desserts are very tempting. Maybe there should be a serpent to tempt people. Maybe a Python. Don't forget the Questionable Grapes from which we get our famous Chianti. The family kept goats and sheep. Maybe there could be some hills with animals playing. I remember one time a wolf or something got my favorite little goat. Should there be a wolf?

Kate took a breath. “Guido’s list went on and on.”

Dan said. “Wait. Guido wanted a python? In a restaurant mural? Of Tuscany?”

Kate said, “It turns out Guido was really hung up on the python. It took a lot for the artist to talk him out of it. And talking is what they did.

“The artist met with Guido after reading all his notes. Guido began by saying that he wanted the artist to write up her design for the mural and her detailed schedule. Fortunately, she had a better idea. ‘Words describing pictures don’t work very well, Guido. I suggest that I’ll draw you some sketches of what I understand. We’ll work with the sketches for a while, and then we’ll start working directly on the wall where your customers can see the mural.’”

Dan said, “Dammit, this is an allegory isn’t it? Your Jesuit education is showing.”

“No, no, this is all true, I swear it,” said Kate, holding up her crossed fingers. “It does relate to how we work on your products though.”

Dan said, “OK, let’s see. You start with whatever written material Marketing has, and then you sit and talk with them. And as soon as you can, you start showing them product pieces, like the artist’s sketches.”

“Yes, that’s right. And, as soon as possible, we get those product pieces in the hands of customers, just like the artist got things on the wall in the restaurant as soon as possible,” said Kate.

Dan said, “Wasn’t  there trouble along the way, like with Aunt Sophia’s looks and the bloody python?”

“The artist handled it pretty well. Her first move on Sophia was to ask for pictures of her at the age Guido had in mind. Naturally, there were lots of pictures in the family albums. She had him pick out his favorites, and over time, she at first sketched some samples, and then later actually did some small renditions in chalk or something. By the time Sophia went on the wall, they had a good idea what she would look like.”

Dan said, “Did they do everything that way, with lots of sketches first?”

“Fortunately not,” Kate said. “One thing that helped was that although some of their meetings had been away from the restaurant, they did have a meeting there pretty soon, because the artist wanted to look at the actual installation. Two important things came out of that.

“First of all, she couldn’t help noticing the two doors in the wall, which Guido had never mentioned to her in conversation or his writing. And she saw that the one led to the restrooms, and the other to the kitchen. She asked whether the mural should incorporate the doors, and if so, whether the one should seem open and inviting, and the other one closed, so people didn’t accidentally go into the kitchen. Guido agreed, of course.

“The artist sketched a couple of ideas … one with the door to the restroom painted to look like an inviting pathway, and one with the door to the kitchen looking like a closed gate. She also showed one with the kitchen doors painted so as to hide the fact that they were doors at all.”

Dan said, “You said two things. What else?”

“The artist noticed that there were tables near the mural wall, not for customers, but where restaurant supplies like plates and silver were kept.  The sketches they had looked at had detail all the way down to the floor, but that detail wouldn’t be visible at all. So being in the real situation had given them some important insights, one of which Guido had thought about but forgotten to mention, and the other one being new to both of them.”

Dan said, “OK, what’s the lesson in this, you Jesuitical minx?”

“Ah, Watson, you know my methods. We try to get together not just with the idea people but with the real customers for our software. In Guido’s case, they were the same person, but by putting Guido in the restaurant with the artist, new understanding came out. When we meet, not just with Marketing, but with our customers and prospects, in the presence of even sketched product ideas, better ideas come out.”

“OK, what happened next to your imaginary uncle Guido?” said Dan.

“Imaginary? Imaginary? For that you have to take me to dinner at his restaurant. Anyway, they worked with sketches for just a bit longer, and then the artist said it was time to start working on the real wall. Guido was pretty scared. He was afraid that if something really ugly went up there, customers would be turned off. The artist agreed, but she was thinking about the Python.

“So she asked Guido if he would prefer to look at sketches and then close the restaurant for a while while she painted the real wall. Right away Guido didn’t want to shut down, but then he realized that no matter how much work she did on the sketches, he wouldn’t have a sense of how the wall was looking until she was finished.”

“Unless he sat there and watched her all the time,” Dan said.

“Yes. And neither of them thought that would be much use, and anyway they would have used up all their time and cost flexibility on sketches. There wouldn’t be much ability to change, just ability to fail or run over.”

“So what did they do?” said Dan.

Kate said, “Just like she had suggested. The artist started coming in in the morning and chalking the mural on the wall. She blocked in big areas, and sometimes drew more detailed bits. I think she did Aunt Sophia in more detail early on, and the Questionable Grape Arbor.

“Guido was worried at first, but the customers loved it. They would ask what was going on, and offer comments. The whole restaurant turned into a kind of little village where people were talking among themselves, and with the staff and Guido about what was going on. A lot of people started coming in more frequently just to see what was happening to the mural.”

Dan said, “Did it all go smoothly into place?”

“Not remotely,” Kate said. “There were lots of changes, some that Guido saw, and some that the customers saw. One time, the artist sketched in the python, and people asked to be seated far away from it. I guess it was a very convincing python. Guido relented on the python at that point.”

“OK, so in our company, you put the product before the customers before it’s finished, and let them give you feedback about it,” said Dan.

“Yes, that’s right. And we build lightly enough that when we get good ideas, we can put them in without too much trouble. That’s where our testing and refactoring play in.”

Dan said, “What about the wall? When she started using real paint, were there still changes?”

“Sure, lots,” Kate said. “Many came from customers, some from Guido, some from the artist herself. In art, you just paint over the bad bits, or scrub them off and start over in some area. In software, we refactor most often, sometimes we replace whole bits. We’d rather refactor, because it’s less expensive, but sometimes we just get it wrong.”

Dan said, “But isn’t that wasteful? If you had planned better, you wouldn’t have all that rework!”

Kate smiled. “Nice try. But the issue isn’t in planning. No number of words would get the right look on Sophia’s face. Guido had to see it on the wall. In fact he had the artist change it several times before she caught his vision of this saintly but still sexy older woman. It kept getting better, and they went back to sketches a few times, but things on the wall look different than in sketches.

“I believe that Guido made some important tradeoffs to get things right. The artist was insistent that they stop on time and on budget. By now, Guido was in the throes of creativity and might have gone on refining Sophia forever. The artist brought him back to earth by reminding him of the schedule. At one point, he actually backed off on some of the animals in the field to get a little more done on Sophia.”

Dan said, “That’s what Susan does, isn’t it? I remember her briefing me one time that she had deferred my favorite feature to get another feature stronger. She had a hard time convincing me but was pretty insistent. In the end, I realized I had given her authority and let her go ahead. Turns out everything went just fine, and she put in my feature in an update later.”

“Exactly,” Kate said. “Building the best possible product in the time and money we have isn’t easy. Sometimes we have to make hard decisions, and sometimes we’ll even make them wrong. No one is perfect. What our approach does is keep everything visible: the product as it grows, the budget as it is spent, the time as it runs out. And we keep the picture on the wall at all times, so when it’s time for the big party, the picture is ready.

“And the mural was ready for Guido’s big party as well. His daughter Amelia decided to get married, rather suddenly I’m told, and Guido threw the biggest party imaginable, at the restaurant. It was just a few days after the original deadline, and of course lots of people came in who had never seen Guido’s place at all. They had a wonderful time and everyone loved the mural. As far as I know, no one asked why there wasn’t a python in the picture.”

Dan thought a moment. “I think I get it. You just work as close to real product as you can, evolving your understanding and the product at the same time. And you make decisions as you go, doing the best you can, and making sure you’re always ready for the next party – I mean ready to ship. Sounds easy.”

Kate smiled. “Pretty close. One thing: it’s not easy. You have to be willing to work in public, with all the good stuff and all the bad stuff right out there to be seen. You have to be willing to make decisions, and to remake them, and you have to work so as to to make change easy. This stuff isn’t really easier than the older ways. It’s just much better.”

“It is much better,” Dan said. “When we first talked, I thought we would have to close the company. Now we have a steady flow of new product and a steady flow of happier customers. Thanks for the story about how you do it, wrapped up in the Mythical Guido’s Restaurant story.”

“Mythical?” Kate said. “Wait until you taste Guido’s veal piccata at the dinner you’re going to buy me. It won’t seem mythical then. And the restrooms? They’re through that door that looks like a hedged pathway into a private part of the garden.”