A Sailing Metaphor

by Gilles Girard

Spring has finally settled in beautiful rural Pennsylvania. This morning, I am driving to my new contract assignment. I like to be at work early—to feel and sense the place that will soon become too familiar but for now is a new and exciting challenge. I love new projects.

I already know what my password will be once I can log onto the computer (sometimes in as little as one week, depending on the levels of security and authority as well as processes and procedures in place). I grin: CHAOS is the password. Before the gods, there was chaos, according to Greek mythology. It is also the name of a famous racing sailboat out on Lake Ontario, where I was lucky enough to be part of a racing team. I have yet to see a major new project in which that word does not apply.

The purple horizon now slowly turns to blue, little puffy clouds appear, and the long awaited leaves and flowers are slowly crawling out of nowhere, greeting the warmer temperature.

Every spring before the sailing season started, each team member had to spend time preparing the boat before the launch (scrubbing, painting, fixing). Only a few rules and guidelines set up the politics of the boat. All team members were expected to bring their how-to and what-to suggestions. Suggestions extended to new hardware to improve racing (spinnaker sheets or winch handle, perhaps) and new techniques to improve efficiency (new and improved processes and procedures).

But the skipper had the last say on all the options or debates. Generic rules and guidelines went something like this:

  • Security first.
  • Do your best. It’s not how much you screw up, it’s how fast you recover.
  • No finger pointing at any time. Everybody gets involved—fix it and get back on the race course. We’ll discuss things after the race to ensure problems don’t happen again.
  • Have fun!

Traffic is picking up. These secondary roads are wonderful on Sundays. Looks as if I’ll have to test-drive that route to work for a while then re-evaluate and decide whether alternatives might be better. I will also get input from my co-workers and apply it against my own experience before deciding which route is the best. I might have to try different routes and choose which one I’ll take on a daily basis depending on the time of day (or night—we all know about these projects), the traffic report or the weather conditions.

Sailboat racing ended the A to B or C or D or maybe Z era of navigating. The winds set the best course. The metrics were now defined: speed and accuracy. The selection of racing course provided ground for animated debate, precise processes and procedures, and room to change them, accommodating the variables of the race. It sounds a lot like software development.

Over time, a pattern emerged. As a sailor, my skills (including technical, team and communications skills) improved dramatically and were validated on other boats and racing courses.

I’m pulling in the parking lot. How long it will take to get my security badge and access to the mainframe and intranet applications, libraries, databases and online is always a good way to assess the current organization.

Based on past work experiences, I decided a long time ago that communication, documentation and standards are the most difficult activities to achieve successfully in this ever changing environment that is software development. I have also come to the conclusion common sense is a beautiful thing.

As I enter the building, I can almost hear the strategist screaming, “Five minutes to the start,” and the foredeck shouting, ”Looks good! Keep this course!”

GILLES GIRARD is a computer consultant with G.G. Consulting in Fort Lauderdale, FL, and Ottawa, Ontario. He holds an associate’s degree in electronics from the College of Levis-Lauzon, Quebec, and is a member of ASQ.

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