Seeing through messes rather than cleaning them up

At the Cutter conference I recently attended, a gentleman named Robert Scott gave the keynote address. In it he talked about what he thought the future of technology leaders would look like. One thing he said stuck with me – future leaders will need to be able to see through messes rather than clean them up.

Although I found it an interesting idea, it couldn’t quite fit it into something I could relate to. That was until a discussion today. I was talking with someone regarding measuring a quality assurance organization and each time I proposed a metric he would counter with something like “but if we measure it that way then what about the situation where X doesn’t apply?” essentially implying that there was noise in the measurement system and we’d have to clean it up before the measurement would be useful.

And that’s when Robert’s comment finally made sense to me. As a data person, I’ve learned to live and even embrace the noise inherent in measuring software development. It’s more like economics or sociology than it is like physics or chemistry. Given some exact set of inputs, the output will be directionally the same, but not exactly the same. But software people don’t go for mostly right or directionally right. It bothers them. After all, software is either wrong or it’s right. Either it’s a bug or it isn’t. There’s no such thing as that’s sort of a defect. So, when you introduce a measurement system that naturally contains noise, the discomfort sets in.

Here’s the thing. If we assume Robert Scott is right, that future leaders must be able to see through messes rather than clean them up, then the measurement of software stands a chance of moving forward. It will always be imperfect, but the data helps us to make better decisions. Yes, it’s messy. It contains noise, but rather than always trying to clean it up, acknowledge it is there, and start to look beyond the noise at the signal underlying it.

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