Impossible, I Have Never Done That

When adopting agile planning techniques to non-software development activities an often heard argument against estimating the complexity of, say, schematic is:

"it is impossible to say, I have never done that before"

Well, firstly, in embedded software that's the situation pretty much allways, yet agile planning has proven to be efficient enough over and over again.

Secondly, we are living the era of enlightened experimentation. Prototyping hardware is drop dead cheap and fast nowadays. Buying yourself a status of "I have done that once" instead of "haven't done that before" is as easy as deciding to do so.

Thirdly, schematics can be estimated with relative complexity.

Fourthly, Parkinson's law works everywhere where humans are involved. Timeboxing early prototypes will help making the progress reliable and visible. This is however understandably very counter intuitive to the "get it right the first time" camp.

This is what is called up-front prototyping. In contrast to traditional hardware prototyping trying to validate something at the end, up-front prototyping focuses on learning. We may even know that the prototype will not work on most parts, but we just want a reliable measure of how far are we. It is even advisable to design a prototype to prove just one thing. More than one uncertanty will make the work unnecessarily complex.

This distinction between the goals of traditional validating and new era learning prototyping has gotten me concidering a new word to replace "prototype". So far the best candidate is 'product'. Using a word product throughout the lifecycle we would realise that this is aiming to production quality, but the maturity of the desing is evolving.

Of course I'm talking about prototypes that can be assembled within reasonable cycle cost. The bar however is getting lower and lower every day. Interesting exercise is to take your latest embedded development project, draw a bar of development salary cost and a second bar illustrating your prototype cycle cost. You may be surprised how cheap "expensive unnecessary prototyping" is in the big picture.