Thursday, 14 June 2012

Fairies and software users: not the same stories

It’s wonderful that, however long you spend in the world of software development, it never runs out of new lessons to teach you.

This is a particularly salutary lesson given that only yesterday I managed to get caught up in a twitter dialogue about which field of study mattered most, the humanities or information technology. Well, I can now positively assert that the two aren’t necessarily incompatible.

As I learned this week, it seems that in the ‘agile’ method of software design, a key component is the ‘user story’. Now, at the prosaic level of day-to-day reality, this is just a description of how people would use the application you
re trying to build, and for what purpose. But today I’m in the San Francisco Bay Area and that has always been a bit of a special place, somehow at one remove from ordinary reality.

In an office with a view over the Bay, awash with sunshine under clear blue skies, I found it hard not to let my mind drift into idle musings over the words themselves. A user story, I found myself pondering, really ought to start with the words ‘once upon a time’. The first figure on the scene might be a young man in pursuit of his fortune, his belongings in a handkerchief tied to a stick over one shoulder, his cat over the other, on his way – his agile way, with a bounce in his step – towards the big city where he’s heard that the streets are paved with IT resources.

Sadly, I didn’t get far into my story. I’d barely begun to sketch in the innkeeper with his beautiful daughter unmoved by the knights and princes queuing up to pay court to her, who would only have eyes for our hero.

Of course, these days knights are mostly grey-suited rather than shining-armoured, and they are borne aloft not by white chargers but by questionable careers in finance or politics, if not both. Princes, meanwhile, are slightly outlandish balding divorcees in their sixties with reactionary views on every subject from architecture to zoology. It’s no wonder that an innkeeper’s daughter worth her salt would see no merit in any of them.

But I couldn’t pursue this rich vein of narrative invention long before being dragged back to a much duller reality. I found myself discussing data fields and function buttons, rather than field mice coachmen or magic wands, and I was forced into the realisation that a user story isn’t necessarily the same thing as a fairy tale.

Not to be confused with a user story

Hey ho. Still, it’s been a good week so far, and I hope we’ll have broken the back of the work before I leave the California sunshine to return to the cheerful grey and invigorating rain back home.

If we do, I’ll feel we’ll have achieved a happy ending. We’ll all live happily ever after. Or at least until the start of the next project.

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