Thursday, 28 June 2007

If only you want to dance to your tune you'll leave an empty dance floor

Last year my wife and I were married (hence the fact she is now my wife) and being the independent thinking, creative couple we are, we planned and organised the whole wedding ourselves, right down to the music. Both of us being passionate and snobbish about our music - and having the luxury of a very large collection - we didn't want some spotty DJ ruining our day by playing some dreadfully cheesy tracks and mumbling his way through the evening. So we managed what many said was impossible: a completely cheese free wedding playlist which got everyone boogieing the night away (not to blow our own trumpets but we had to hold back drunken protesters when we turned the music off!).

This weekend was my best man's wedding and so impressed was he with our music he wanted me to emulate it for him; so I accepted and invited him over to peruse my record collection. Finally, a few days before the wedding, he gave me his list and I looked at it with horror: it was clear he had just given me a list of his favourite personal tracks. His wedding being a typical big family and friends affair (over 150 guests compared to our 50) I could tell instantly the list wouldn't work, but no matter how much I tried to explain this he was adamant that on his wedding he wanted his favourite tracks. So I conceded and took his laptop gave him copies of the tracks I had and installed the latest WinAmp and the excellent SqrSoft Advanced Crossfading plugin to give it that ultimate disco feel and used WinAmp's built in ReplayGain to level the volumes of the tracks out (to prevent quiet track then sudden loud track).

The wedding reception went as I had expected: the groom loved every track that came on and a few close friends got up a jumped around the dance floor with him. But after half and hour or so the groom was off mingling at the bar and the dance floor was empty. His new bride was soon begging us groomsmen to get people up and dancing to fill the depressingly empty dance floor and although we did drag a few people off the sides, quickly the floor was vacant again.

About an hour later the groom came running up to me waving his arms and shouting in distress that his new wife had only gone and changed the playlist: she had loaded her emergency backup playlist instead! Before I could even react she had rushed over, the train of her dress picked up in her hands, shouting at him that she'd changed it because no-one was dancing while he shouted back something to the effect that her girl band music was rubbish (I can't print the exact words) and as I turned to leave them to their first domestic as husband and wife both their eyes looked pleadingly into mine. So there I stood with both looking to me to take their side; the groom playing to my taste as his wife’s playlist was full of offensively bad music and his wife looking to my reasonable side and the fact that people were now dancing. It was an easy decision for me to make: I asked them "do you want people to dance?" they both replied instantly "YES", "were people dancing before you changed the playlist?", "no" the wife replies and a sharp look at the groom squeezes out a squeaky "no", "OK then", I firmly state "if we go into the dance room and people are dancing then we leave her playlist on and if they're not then we change it". So we marched into the dance room to find a mass of badly dancing relatives and the decision was made.

There is a moral to this humorous story of marital conflict; my friend had placed his personal preferences before his objective: to ensure people dance and have a good time at his wedding. When my wife and I did our playlist we didn't just dump our favourite tracks down, we made lots of compromises - which included a strict no Smiths or she'll annul our wedding - to ensure that the songs we played people would want to dance to but we used our principles of good taste to guide us. Our principles meant that there would be no cheese at the objective meant that although The Rolling Stones Beast of Burden may be on our personal playlist we knew that Brown Sugar is the one that get's everyone dancing and that people would bounce around to The Undertones Teenage Kicks way before Radiohead's Exit Music (For a Film). When we put together our playlist we carefully considered whether each track was appropriate (which is why we didn't have Super Furry Animals Man Don't Give a Fuck) and listened to the track trying to imagine our guests dancing to it and ultimately remembering that although every song wouldn't please everyone that everyone should be pleased by most of the songs.

Development is like choosing a playlist: a good developer will always remember the objective. We've all been there: developing our own little features, the one's we think are really cool, and then getting upset when the customer says they don't like it and they want to change it. Developers are very guilty of doing what they think the application should do, forgetting what they've been asked to deliver and instead of doing the best thing to meet the customer's requirements they end up writing code to solve problems that don't exist or aren't important. It's a hard thing to avoid and I am as guilty as anyone of doing it: I remember all too clearly arguing that a feature shouldn't be developed the way it was requested as I felt it was functionally incomplete forgetting that what the customer was trying to achieve was to solve a problem quickly but not perfectly (what I call developing Word when all they want is Notepad).

As developers we find it difficult to compromise the 'perfect solution' for what the customer wants and we get stuck in thinking that to not write a technically or functionally complete solution means writing a technically or functionally bad solution (as my friend believed that not playing his favourite music was to play bad music). I had a conversation with a developer the other day who, like my friend, didn't want to compromise his design to meet the customer's objective. He wanted to build the feature in a way that was more generic and technically clever than was required and saw any sacrifice to this principle as bad coding. So entrenched was he in this view point he was prepared to sacrifice the customer's requirements and the deadline as he couldn't conceive that writing good, flexible code which was specific to the customer's requirements was a good thing. I struggled to find a way around this loggerhead and in the end I tried to explain the emphasis should be on usability before reusability and not on over-engineering.

The difference between my friends playlist and ours was that although both of us stuck to our principles of what we believe is "good music" (in the same way as a developer I would stick to mine: Agile, TDD etc.) my wife and I always checked ourselves against the objective and adapted to the situation, where as my friend just hung on to his principles for principles sake, forgetting what he was trying to achieve, and ultimately it was this that separated our full dance floor from his empty one.

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West Malling, Kent, United Kingdom
I am a ThoughtWorker and general Memeologist living in the UK. I have worked in IT since 2000 on many projects from public facing websites in media and e-commerce to rich-client banking applications and corporate intranets. I am passionate and committed to making IT a better world.