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Shady Illuminations

Fear Factor

by John Shade

Generic image illustrating the article
  John faces his fear and hands it his car keys and wallet.  

A startup may be driven by inspiration or ambition or ego or hunger. But in any mature business, all the really critical decisions are based on fear. And this is as it should be.

Because we’re all doomed. It’s only a matter of time before the buzzards are picking at your bones. What we call success is just that period of freefall between jumping out of the plane and hitting the ground. The only sane reaction to all this, of course, is terror, but the question is: which kind of terror?

You have to Know Your Fears. There are many species of fear, from the little fear nits that get under your collar and itch all the way up to the big scary elephant in the room fear. To help you identify your fears, you need a knowledgable Fear Guide. Only with expert guidance can you be sure that you are responding to the appropriate fear.

The ABCs of Fear

Bertrand Meyer, the creator of the language Eiffel, has given a lot of thought to this, and has developed a system for categorizing software projects based on how scary they are. He doesn’t put it that way, for some reason, so I’ll describe his system, highlighting the fear factors.

The lowest fear level is C, for Casual. Software from projects in this category can be unreliable, incomprehensible, not produce the right results, use too much memory, and run as slow as an old dog. An old French dog. You can use any programming language to write them, even Python, because nobody will ever read your code. Your primary fear with this kind of project is that the client’s check will bounce. Most software projects, Meyer explains, fall in this category. (And like the tree falling in the woods, nobody hears them when they do.)

The next level of fear is B for Business. In projects at the B level, somebody’s business depends on the proper functioning of the software you write. Not your business, thank God. Somebody else’s. The business will assign somebody to the project whose job it is to keep pushing you to internalize the business’s fears. Don’t let them. Write B-level software in C++ and the suits will think it’s serious stuff.

The highest fear level is A for Acute. If you screw up at this level, people will die. Evil will triumph. The killer asteroid will get through. You should be scared even to be assigned to an A project. If you are, the only chance you have of getting through it in one piece is to do all your programming in Eiffel.

I am just paraphrasing, but that seems to be the basic idea.

Alistair Cockburn Is One Scary Guy

Alistair Cockburn is another expert on managing fear. He has learned to manage it so well that he is constantly jumping out of airplanes. Actual airplanes, not the metaphorical planes I mentioned earlier. This might give you some trepidation about taking his advice on your software project. And that would be a Good Thing, provided that you know how to leverage your trepidation.

Cockburn has developed a more elaborate, two-dimensional scale, but it all comes down to how much it hurts, and whom.

In Cockburn’s scale, the lowest fear level is fear of being made uncomfortable, followed by fear of losing the milk money, fear of losing the beer money, and fear of zombies eating your face (again, I’m paraphrasing).

The second dimension is size of the project, which maps to size of milk or beer budget or the number of people in danger of having their faces eaten or being made uncomfortable.

Basically, once you assign your project to a cell in this 4-by-n Fear Grid, you will be in a position to be able to use your fear wisely, knowing what strategy to apply, whether to circle the wagons, cover your posterior, or get out while the getting’s good. With agility.

Each of these scales measures the fear inherent in a project. But did you notice? They were both created by supremely confident and skilled individuals who could probably knock off your scary project alone in an afternoon.

That can’t be good. I suggest that you really need the perspective of someone who comes to the process without a clue. Someone who is pretty sure he would fail spectacularly. Then you’ll get some useful perspective.

I’m thinking Corey Levitan.

You know about Corey? For years he wrote a column in the Las Vegas Review-Journal called “Fear and Loafing” for which, every week, he took a job that he was ridiculously unqualified for. Skydiving Elvis. Ballerina. Midwife. And then he wrote about his experience. Which, predictably, was never all that successful, but was generally funny and frequently scary. Like the time he was a nude model.

So that’s the ticket. We need Corey Levitan to develop a Software Project Fear and Loafing Scale.

I know you can remember projects where it would have been appropriate.

John Shade was born under a cloud in Montreux, Switzerland, in 1962. Subsequent internment in a series of obscure institutions of ostensibly higher learning did nothing to brighten his outlook. The only thing he’s not afraid of is fear itself. Follow John on Twitter, send him your feedback, or discuss the article in the magazine forum.