fig2_wasdale_head

Running in China

One of the most important things in any project, not just in software development, is to maintain a disciplined schedule. It’s absolutely critical to always have a set of goals and approaching deadlines in mind, at any stage of a program, and to gear your efforts to accomplishing those goals. I honestly think this is a productive attitude to have and it is key to keep yourself and your team members focused and driven.

But at times those approaching deadlines can get a little out of hand, and the need to meet a project’s planned schedule can become the cart that ends up in front of the proverbial horse. At these times, it might seem like a good idea to do one of two things: either to begin ejecting some of the project’s more ambitious features in the hopes that these can be included in a later version, or to produce “brute-force” solutions that meets all of the contractual obligations of the project but will inevitably require re-design in the future.

I’ve been in this situation several times over the course of my career thus far and have implemented both of the above solutions. I have been in the position of the developer that is pushing for more time and the position of the team lead that is pushing to get the product out the door on time.

When fighting for more time on a project, I’ve found myself recounting the same parable over and over again to guide myself and my colleagues.

A long time ago in Ancient China, the great scholar Lao-Tzu was spending the winter months with his family in the small village in which they made their home, with his wife, his children, and several students. As the snows thawed, the Emperor sent a message to Lao-Tzu, commanding him to present himself at the royal court at mid-summer. Always a loyal citizen, Lau-Tzu bid his wife and children farewell, and he set out on the road to the ancient capitol, accompanied by his students.

As the travelers neared the end of their journey, Lao-Tzu’s youngest pupil noticed that skies over their heads had begun to darken and the clouds had begun to thicken as if to rain. Lao-Tzu scowled; for, being early summer, they had begun their journey in the middle of the rainy season. Not wanting to be delayed on the road, Lao-Tzu urged his party on, all the while the clouds continued to grow thick and shaded.

After traveling a little further down the road, the group met a farmer, who was on his way home from working in his rice paddy. The great scholar Lao-Tzu stopped the farmer, and asked him how far he and his pupils were from the Imperial city. The farmer explained to the scholar that he was, in fact, only a few short leagues from the capitol. Reassured by the farmer’s statement, Lao-Tzu gave a long sigh, but the skies were growing even darker while he had spoken with the farmer.

Lao-Tzu turned once again to the farmer and asked the man if he thought that he and his group would be able to reach the shelter of the city before the summer storm broke.

The farmer gave the scholar a thoughtful look. He noted that the young men in Lao-Tzu’s retinue were burdened with papers and books, the sort that a true scholar would always carry with him wherever he traveled. The farmer saw this, and said to Lao-Tzu that he believed that the party would reach the city in time, as long as they did not move too quickly.

Lao-Tzu thanked the farmer, and he and his party continued down the road.

As they traveled, the clouds became so thick, that none of the sky beyond them was visible. Lao-tzu began to worry, and he quickened his pace. The wind began to blow strongly, and Lao-Tzu hurried even more, holding his scholar’s cap against his head as he walked. Lightning became visible in the distance behind the group, and Lao-Tzu moved faster still.

Eventually, the group topped the crest of a small hill and espied the walls and minarets of the capitol only a short distance away; and as they began to move down the hill towards the great gates, the first small drops of rain began to fall.

Lao-Tzu steadied his pack and began to jog rather hurriedly towards the great gate. His students breathed heavily, for their loads were not light and the wind was blowing against them.

The rain drops, that had been small and scattered only moments before, began to grow more substantial, but soon Lao-Tzu and his party were only a short distance from the gate.

As they hurried to reach shelter, the great scholar misplaced his foot on the road, and tumbled into the dirt, spilling his papers onto the ground.

The wind came on strongly, and carried the sheaves into the air. And as Lao-Tzu’s students stooped to help their master, the summer storm broke around them, drenching them all in the cold rain. The water soaked into their clothes and seeped into their baggage, ruining their precious books, scrolls, and notes.

And if they had not hurried so much, the great scholar would not have slipped, and the party would have made it to the city gates in time.

Whenever someone pushes me to meet some unreasonable deadline, I always think of this story of Lao-Tzu on the Chinese road, and it always helps to put things in perspective to me.

Sometimes, going as fast as you can is really the slowest option you have.