HomeApp Dev Methodologies

Mitt Romney, Agility King

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And now some admiring words about Mitt Romney.

No, no, no, no, no. I’m not referring to any recent votes he might have made in the Senate. I’m referring to his recent, well-publicized 72nd birthday and the parallels he and his staff established for achieving business and IT agility. The standard they set for business and IT thought leadership rivals anything Romney achieved during his years at Bain Capital.

Start with his staff’s innovative multi-Twinkie cake architecture.

Most birthday cakes are layer cakes and result from waterfall design and production techniques. The baker starts with a recipe — a complete specification for the cake itself, coupled with a detailed work breakdown structure for creating it.

Many cake makers achieve excellent levels of success using these waterfall techniques, and I’d be unlikely to reject their work products.

But … personally, I’d be likely to concentrate my gustatory efforts on the icing. It isn’t that I dislike the cake component of the finished product. It’s that the cake component dilutes the flavor of the frosting, which I enjoy quite a lot more.

In business/technical terms, layer cakes aren’t modular, and deliver unnecessary features and functionality. Twinkie cakes are, in contrast, modular. Each component Twinkie is a complete, integrated whole.

Also: A layer cake is an all-or-none proposition. The baker decides how big a cake to make and that’s that. If unexpected guests show up, well that’s just too bad. Either everyone gets less dessert, or the new guests do without.

Traditional cake-baking doesn’t scale. Because Twinkie cakes are modular they scale easily: Just add more Twinkies, frost them, and everyone’s happy.

Another aspect of the Twinkie cake deserves mention: It evokes the value of an important technical architecture design principle: buy when you can, build when you have to.

Layer-cake bakers start with raw ingredients and baking infrastructure (the oven and other paraphernalia) and engage in actions equivalent to application development.

Twinkie-cake-makers start with a pile of commercially manufactured Twinkies. They do then make and apply their own frosting, but that step is more analogous to application configuration and integration than to application development.

Our final step in beating the metaphor to death (as opposed to beating the eggs that go into many layer cakes) is testing.

Bake a layer cake and the only way to test it is to mar the cake by cutting a slice out of it. Sure, you can reserve some of the cake mix to bake a mini-cake instead, but small cakes bake more quickly than full-size ones so the baker can never be sure the test cake tastes the same as the production version.

Compare that to a Twinkie cake. Want to test it? Eat a Twinkie. Not sure? Eat another one.

No problem.

The Twinkie cake architecture was innovative and interesting. But just as there’s no such thing as an IT project — it’s always about doing business differently and better or what’s the point? — so Romney himself deserves credit for the “business innovation” of using Agile techniques to blow out his cake’s candles.

Traditionally, candle blowing has been just as waterfall-oriented as cake baking: The birthday celebrator attempts to blow out all of the candles in one great whoof.

As is the case with waterfall project management, this is rarely successful, due to another waterfall parallel: Just as the risk of failure rises in direct proportion to the size of a project, the older the candle-blower, and therefore the more candles there are to extinguish, the less likely it is that anyone could nail all the candles in one breath.

Not to mention the unpleasant thought that unavoidably, in an attempt to blow out all those candles, some of the blower’s saliva must inevitably end up on the cake.

I’ll leave it to you to figure out parallels to application development or business change. And please do feel free to share your analogies in the Comments.

In any event, Romney used an Agile technique — iteration — to dodge the challenges of traditional candle out-blowing: He removed each candle from the cake and blew it out separately.

Especially, kudos for explaining that this way each candle was another wish.

The candles, that is, were his birthday backlog. And he dealt with them as all Agile teams deal with items in the backlog: One at a time, with little stress, and a very high level of success.

And, in the end, a spit-free cake.

Comments (10)

  • Great analysis. While the cake baker is more vertically integrated, the cake “maker” has to outsource a major component, which may or may not be a good long-term solution in the future. Certainly, as a one-off project, the cost is less a consideration. For a company that sells cakes, unwrapping so many Twinkies for the many cakes to be sold will be prohibitively expensive and labor intensive. Better to bake from scratch, even if a cake or two must be sacrificed for QA purposes (though certainly not wasted), and reap the savings of mass production.

  • But isn’t the Twinkie itself the risk in your cake building Bob? If the Twinkies are defective (and I would argue are since Hostess changed the filling many years ago) you end up with a cake that scales but still tastes miserable. So I would say Romney’s mistake was relying on the Twinkie.

    If they would have make a cupcake cake, they could have made the cupcakes and frosting on their own, doing QA on the cake batter and frosting. They can still scale by having extra cupcakes around, but they are not limited by a defective underlying project that is out of there control (the Twinkie).

    It could be argued that Romney’s people did not have access to ovens and the such. But that is the same as starting a software project with crappy components and expecting it to succeed. In other words, you need a better base than a Twinkie (and note not all Twinkies are alike!)

    I can’t believe I actually analyzed this.

  • roflmao

  • I’m hungry!

  • As with IT-related business projects, for the birthday-cake project, the buy/build decision (a.k.a. the modular/integrated decision) is a whole SPECTRUM of possibilities, not just 2 or 3. These also represent additional opportunities for additional features/functionality. Even further additional features/functionality can be optionally put in or taken out, independently of the underlying baseline architecture.

    * Bake in an oven, from the batter stage, but don’t bake entirely from scratch; instead, use pre-made cake mix. Duncan Hines SuperMoist Chocolate Cake Mix is just as much a professionally designed, mass-manufactured, process-controlled, QA’d product as any Twinkie. Pair it either with home-made frosting, or else with Betty Crocker’s Ready-To-Spread Frosting, which is similarly a factory product. (Perhaps this corresponds to starting out by mashing together open-source modules?)

    * I recently discovered a ridiculously easy and delicious “home-made” frosting: just mix together store-bought mascarpone cheese with store-bought lemon curd (from the jellies/jams section) in one-to-one ratio for a fancy lemon-and-cream-cheese-ish frosting.

    * Embed fresh blueberries or fresh strawberries into whatever frosting you ended up with.

    * More modular: buy a bunch of ready-made cupcakes at the supermarket, and frost THEM. Bonus: you can incorporate 2 or more flavors into the cake this way, to accommodate individual user preferences.

    * Buy a ready-made layer cake or a sheet cake from the fresh-bakery section of the supermarket, then one of those squeezable tubes of frosting from the baking-supplies aisle, to write “Happy Birthday, Senator!” on the ready-made cake. (This is close to simple customizing of off-the-shelf software, using its own built-in tools for that purpose.)

    * Some supermarkets now offer a fun service: give them ANY photographic print, and they can inkjet-print it onto a sheet cake with edible inkjet ink! (Similar to: Hire a software-publisher-approved consultant to fiddle with JUST ONE SECTION of the source code.) This photographic print can depict a real-world object, such as a snapshot of someone’s face, but it can ALSO itself be computer generated (e.g. screenshot of software, or an MS Project chart printout, or a PowerPoint slide, or on and and on.)

    Also, Romney later said that he did that thing with removing and blowing out individual candles because he happened to have a cold, and he didn’t want to infect the cake for everybody else by blowing out the candles directly on the cake. This sort of security-conscious management-level prioritizing of anti-virus hygiene is all too lacking in so many IT-related business projects today.

    • ????? I think you just devoted more analysis to cake architecture than any comment focused on IT organizational effectiveness in the history of Keep the Joint Running. Wow!

      • FYI, I wrote a goof!… because I was writing from memory, and hadn’t actually thought about cake mix for some time. The trademark “SuperMoist” actually belongs to Betty Crocker. When I wrote “Duncan Hines SuperMoist”, that was a gaffe in its field of business fully as embarrassing as “Macintosh Windows” would be in OUR field. Oops, sorry!

      • Don’t beat yourself up too bad. Betty Crocker’s lawyers were pretty belligerent at first, but when I explained the facts of life to them they calmed down.

  • I remember a scene from the television show “Monk.”

    At the office, they covered his birthday cake with plastic wrap (to calm his obsession about germs).

    As Monk blew on the candles, the plastic caught fire. Someone extinguished the blaze with a chemical fire extinguisher. The cake ended up in the trash.

    I know there is ananology it this…it is just not coming to mind at the moment.

    • I don’t know about any analogies, but I have written from time to time about the idea that sometimes, playing it safe isn’t safe.

      This would seem to be an example.

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