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It turns out that the term “Waterfallian” has been in the lexicon for at least a year and a half, but that doesn't stop it from being a new and useful term.  Maybe I can be know as, “the man who popularized the term Waterfallians”.  Of course, before I let my ego get too far ahead of me, I should probably define what exactly a Waterfallian is.


In short terms, a Waterfallian is someone who with great skill (and the best intentions) transforms any agile process into a high ceremony waterfall project in a short amount of time.  I picture a big hulking, not too bright, jovial cartoon character going, “Give me the earliest date that you can't prove you can't make, and then I'm going to go bet YOUR job on it”.


To really get the idea of why I think that Waterfallians are a great source of humor, imagine an oil executive, who on being told that a particular piece of land might have oil on it, turns to his assistant and says, “I want you to go into your office and, using your knowledge of the industry averages, write up a report that will tell us in detail how much oil we will get out of that field and on what schedule we will get it on.  If I like the numbers, I'll let you go drill the wells ... oh and by the way, if you are wrong , you will be blamed for any short comings.”

In oil, it wouldn't happen, because they understand that they really won't know what they're dealing with until they do some test drilling and maybe blow some things up (I love that ground sonar uses really big explosions) to get a better idea of what the yield of a field will be.


In software, everyday some project manager is told the same thing by their bosses.  This is because we stuck with the legacy of all those people who where ingrained with the idea, that software has an “ideal process” and it is called “the waterfall method”.  The fact that the guy who is blamed for creating the waterfall method effectively said, “This is the ideal process, assuming that you really can know everything about a project, but because this is software, you would have to be criminally insane to use it” was totally left out of the equation when it was being taught.  Now those people who were “touched” by a bad idea, are upper mid level managers, vice presidents and ceo's.  And they're quite willing to patently explain to people that the waterfall method is a “more mature process” to anyone who will listen.


The sad thing is, that the waterfall method allows you to be wrong with certainty of your rightness.  A waterfall project spends all of it's time on schedule, until you get a 6 week schedule slip.  Businesses want certainty, certainty is seductive, waterfall is certain, businesses use waterfall.  If I remember my stats correctly, MS Word 4 was 18 months late, but after the first slip, it was never more that 6 weeks from completion, that’s 77 weeks of being 99% done.


So it's understandable that people would like the certainty that comes with waterfall, but what makes Waterfallians a source of pained amusement, is that they know waterfall doesn't produce results but they stick with it and attribute the results that came from persistence to the methodology that they desperately want to believe in.

Posted on Thursday, October 27, 2005 8:07 AM Agile Development | Back to top

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