Software is Not Coding, It’s A Cooperative Game of Communication by Bruce Nielson

In my post on “code is really design” post, I mentioned that I would further address the paradox that software is created in “thoughts units” but the most important people to the success or failure of a project are the sponsor and customer. In this post, I’ll explore that paradox further by discussing Alistair Cockburn’s idea of Software as a cooperative game.

In Agile Software Development, Cockburn says:

Software development is therefore a cooperative game of invention and communication. There is nothing in the game but people’s ideas and the communication of those ideas to their colleagues and to the computer.

In Crystal Clear: A Human-Powered Methodology for Small Teams, he writes:

[Successful teams] view developing software as an evolving conversation – an economic-cooperative game, actually. In any one move they go forward and create reminders for each other.

But in what sense is software a game and how does this help us understand software development better?

I’ve never been fully comfortable with Cockburn’s calling it a “game.” I’m not sure images of Monopoly and Halo (which is what comes to my mind, anyhow) is what he intended.

It’s helpful to refer to other non-software examples that Cockburn uses. One of my favorite of his examples is making laws in a legislature.

Can You Estimate How Long it Will Take to Pass a Law?

Imagine if the republicans asked the democrats, “How long will it take you guys to pass that new health care law of yours?”

Now in theory, the democrats should be able to estimate this. It’s just a bunch of words on a pieces of paper, right? Someone has to sit down to write it, they have to talk to experts, they have to run a few numbers and come up with a budget, then they have to pass it through a committee, then bring it to the floor, and finally get a vote. So the question the republicans are asking seems reasonable on the surface.

But in reality, part of what the democrats have to estimate is how long it will take them to convince enough republicans to pass a version of the bill. If this step were unnecessary, making an estimate would probably be easy. But if the democrats need to actually convince some key republicans to vote for the bill to get it passed, then part of their estimate will have to be an estimate for how long it takes to keep revising the bill until the republicans accept it – if ever.

Once we realize that is the case, the republican’s question seems less legitimate. The Republicans have a significant say in determining when the bill is “done” and the democrats don’t actually control that part of the process. The democrats cannot, even in principle, make an estimate for how long it will take to pass the law.

I see software much like this. We have customers and sponsors on the one hand and the development team (programmers, testers, designers, project managers) on the other hand. But instead of capturing ideas into specific laws to be interpreted by other humans, they are cooperating together to capture business rules into an automated programs that will be interpreted by computers.

There is nothing else going on when we make software. There is no analogy here to building a house or a wall, or anything else physical. When my customers ask me “how long will it take to program the fitz-bart module?” I am literally incapable of answering them because part of my estimate would have to be how long they will choose to iterate before they accept the software as matching their needs. There is literally no limit to how many times they might choose to keep tweaking the requirements and I’ve been in cases where they never become satisfied with it.

If I didn’t have to worry about customers having to accept the software, estimates would be a lot easier. But with customer acceptance required, it’s impossible to estimate anything beyond the first iteration of the creation of the module.

An Alternative – Cooperation

Now consider an alternative example. Lets say that both the republicans and democrats both are anxious to pass a health care bill and they both have more or less synchronous goals. Now is it possible to estimate how long it will take to pass a health care law?


Why? Because now both sides are working together to meet a target date. This means both sides are motivated to make the date and, more to the point, both will be willing to accept some compromises to meet that date.

Software works the same way. If the customers/sponsors and the development team both want to make a certain release date or a specific budget target, there is almost always a way to come up with a workable (though usually manual, and thus less than ideal) solution to any software problem such that you can meet those goals. It just requires both sides to agree that they will make the target date or the target budget and to be willing to negotiate on scope until they match those goals.