The software prediction “myth”

I got told today that software is unpredictable. That the idea of planning a project is ridiculous because software is inherently unpredictable. Unfortunately, I think the comment stemmed from a misunderstanding of what it means to be predictable.

If you smoke cigarettes your whole life, odds are that you will end up with cancer, heart issues or some other horrid disease. Now, there are people who smoke their entire lives and don’t have any significant ill effects. They die from something else first. And yet, although those people exist, we can say with some certainty that for all those who do end up with some smoking related disease that it was ‘predictable.’ In the same manner, it’s predictable that if you shoot yourself in the head with a gun that you will die, and yet people live from time to time after having done exactly that.

Secondly, predictable doesn’t necessarily mean superbly accurate. Weathermen predict the weather and barely ever get it exactly right. But it turns out over the last decade or so that their accuracy has gone way up. They still get things wrong, but compared to the distant past, it’s still a reasonable prediction. In fact, some research I’ve seen would put stations like the weather channel, for example, at 80% or more accurate (within three degrees of the estimated temperature) over the long run.

To say software isn’t predictable implies that all outcomes are completely random, and yet we know that isn’t the case at all. Even the most diehard agilista will support unit testing of some form because the outcome of doing unit testing is predictable. You get better quality code. Fair coins, dice and the lottery are unpredictable (and to be fair, there have even been lab studies to show that flipping a coin can be predictable if you control enough of the variables.)

If we want to seek to improve our predictions, which is a separate issue from whether software is predictable or not, we have to study the factors and outcomes of projects to establish what matters. But software is predictable; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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