punch cards

Punched Cards by Werner Kratz on Flickr (Creative Commons)

This week, we learned that our state’s largest student information system (eSIS) was purchased by Pearson School Systems. The news comes during a month of announcements about school closures, staff reductions, or similar preparations for a bleak K-12 budget process in 2011. It makes my head hurt to think about the amount of time, money, and talent we’ll need the next two years for a system transition.

In one of those moments of convergence, I started reading July’s issue of Wired this weekend. (Yeah. I know. It’s November. What’s weird is I was going to put it in the recycling bin with a stack of other magazines I don’t have time to read right now. Call it karma, fate, or those strange voices in my head – something compelled me to take a quick skim through the pages.)

I love those voices in my head. They lead me to really relevant thoughts and ideas just as I need them. July’s Wired contains an interview with Fred Brooks, author of the classic The Mythical Man-Month and new The Design of Design. As I read the article, I came to a section that is still bouncing around my brain a few days later:

Wired: How has your thinking about design changed over the past decades?

Brooks: When I first wrote The Mythical Man-Month in 1975, I counseled programmers to “throw the first version away,” then build a second one. By the 20th-anniversary edition, I realized that constant incremental iteration is a far sounder approach. You build a quick prototype and get it in front of users to see what they do with it. You will always be surprised.

Iterative design. It’s one of the hallmarks of successful information, technology, and software companies. It was the focus of two of my database design courses at Syracuse (we read excerpts from The Mythical Man-Month). We would be wise to consider doing the same in the coming years of our system transition.

It’s attractive to think about finding a system that would meet all our needs, all at once. A wonder-SIS, soup to nuts. We’ll save money all over the place. *Cough.* I’m glad the voices in my head guided me back to Mr. Brooks at just the right time.

Brooks: The critical thing about the design process is to identify your scarcest resource. Despite what you may think, that very often is not money. For example, in a NASA moon shot, money is abundant but lightness is scarce; every ounce of weight requires tons of material below. On the design of a beach vacation home, the limitation may be your ocean-front footage. You have to make sure your whole team understands what scarce resource you’re optimizing.

It’s like the interview was written just for me.