"I have a mind like a steel... uh... thingy." Patrick Logan's weblog.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2003

"The Factory" vs. "The Studio"

How many of you are software developers working in a location which is referred to as "the factory" by senior management, sales, and marketing? Maybe even by engineering management, since they tend to align more with the rest of the company?

This label always (and I have been hearing it and commenting on it for the last 20 years) struck me as odd and indicated more of a misunderstanding if not a misguided wish on the part of management. The last time I had a sit down discussion with someone on it was 10 years ago. Since then I just shrug it off and work on the bigger issue from other angles.

When I had that discussion I was talking with people who came from Tektronix, a manufacturer of oscilloscopes among other things, including then X Window terminals. (Does anyone remember those? Are they still sold?)

The analogy I made went like this...

TV designers get together in the lab and iterate over ideas. Those ideas take shape, and eventually are ready to be produced on an assembly line. The activities in the lab are design-time. The assembly is factory-time.

Software designers get together in the, well, cubicles, actually. Those ideas take shape, and eventually are ready to be copied to tape. (Remember shipping software on tape?)

The cubicle activities are design-time. The copying to tape is factory-time.

What's the significance? Factory-time is something step-by-step repeatable and can be treated and "optimized" as such. The cubicle time is repeatable in the sense that a carpenter uses basically the same tools and materials every time he builds a kitchen cabinet. But each time the kitchen is a different shape, the wood has different features, and the customer has varying tastes. What gets repeated each time is a creative activity.

The TV lab and the software cubicle are really studios. The only organization I know of that treats software as a studio process is Ken Auer's Role Model Software. The XP bull pens aren't talked about in these terms, but they should be.

Do I need to add that Ken comes from the creative Smalltalk community of the 1980s where software has long been seen as a collaborative, creative set of activities?

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Portland, Oregon, United States
I'm usually writing from my favorite location on the planet, the pacific northwest of the u.s. I write for myself only and unless otherwise specified my posts here should not be taken as representing an official position of my employer. Contact me at my gee mail account, username patrickdlogan.