Use Tracer Bullets to Find the Target

There are two ways to fire a machine gun in the dark. You can find out exactly where your target is (range, elevation, and azimuth). You can determine the environmental conditions (temperature, humidity, air pressure, wind, and so on). You can determine the precise specifications of the cartridges and bullets you are using, and their interactions with the actual gun you are firing. You can then use tables or a firing computer to calculate the exact bearing and elevation of the barrel. If everything works exactly as specified, your tables are correct, and the environment doesn't change, your bullets should land close to their target.

Or you could use tracer bullets.

Tracer bullets are loaded at intervals on the ammo belt alongside regular ammunition. When they're fired, their phosphorus ignites and leaves a pyrotechnic trail from the gun to whatever they hit. If the tracers are hitting the target, then so are the regular bullets.

Not surprisingly, tracer bullets are preferred to the labor of calculation. The feedback is immediate, and because they operate in the same environment as the real ammunition, external effects are minimized.

The analogy might be violent, but it applies to new projects, particularly when you're building something that hasn't been built before. Like the gunners, you're trying to hit a target in the dark. Because your users have never seen a system like this before, their requirements may be vague. Because you may be using algorithms, techniques, languages, or libraries you aren't familiar with, you face a large number of unknowns. And because projects take time to complete, you can pretty much guarantee the environment you're working in will change before you're done.

The classic response is to specify the system to death. Produce reams of paper itemizing every requirement, tying down every unknown, and constraining the environment. Fire the gun using dead reckoning. One big calculation up front, then shoot and hope.

Pragmatic Programmers, however, tend to prefer using tracer bullets.

The Pragmatic Programmer: From Journeyman to Master

by Andrew Hunt and David Thomas