Sunday, January 31, 2010

What Went Right... and Not So Right?

Post-mortems are absolutely great. (Unless you're the one getting post-morted, of course.)

We're human - we learn by making mistakes, and sometimes we learn by hearing other people make mistakes. We'll share stories about the nightmare contractor we shouldn't have hired, or the great way to spend $400 with a $7 quick fix for our car. Hearing straightforward discussions of what well and went badly in other people's work helps us avoid those mistakes.

I used to really love getting Game Developer magazine because every issue would have a post-mortem from a video game design team. (See here for all the post-mortems they've published.)They'd talk about the parts of creating the game that went well, and the parts that went badly. The general topics didn't change very often. This team didn't do enough testing before launch. That team had misunderstandings with the publisher explode into contract disputes at the wrong time. Another team underestimated the time for a critical piece, or didn't put enough effort into AI algorithms to make the game's behavior interesting. The articles always told a lot about what the real software development process was like, and realistically explained what could go wrong, and how the team recovered (because most of the projects were, after all, the successful ones.)

I've gone through the same sort of reflecting on my model railroad, and I used the Game Developer "What Went Right / What Went Wrong" structure to put together a presentation for the annual Santa Clara layout designs and operations meet this weekend. (Slides are here if you're curious what was on my list.) I was a bit surprised at the positive response; most of my stories concerned problems that we know can be issues for model railroad - deck height for multiple levels, reliability, space, and staging - but folks still enjoyed the talk. The talk felt best when I was telling my stories of when things had gone horribly wrong for me, or the switch work that I ended up redoing several times, or the fun of watching people spend an enjoyable 45 minutes switching one industry.

Two particular points seemed to resonate with folks. I'd been really unsure of how to start the model railroad five years ago, but at some point, I realized that this wasn't going to be the last layout I ever built, and it didn't have to be perfect. I promised myself this would be a "five year" layout - I'd assume it would have a lifetime of five years, and I might tear it down after that. (I've since heard the term "chainsaw layout" to refer to a model railroad that's being built with the knowledge that it'll have problems, and it'll get torn apart really quickly.) The "five year" declaration got me confident enough to start this layout, and I'm happy I did so five years ago. Multiple folks remarked that the single line: "This is not my last layout." was the message they most remembered.

The other big issue came from a friend after the presentation. I'd wondered whether I'd actually said anything that memorable, and he remarked, "Come on - people don't really want to hear a presentation where you just say you're a genius and everything worked perfectly. They want to hear that you built something, that you made mistakes, and that you either fixed the mistakes or that they weren't a big deal in the end. They want to know that they might succeed if they start."

So what's on your list of the things that went well, and the things that went... less well? Or what's keeping you from building that next great layout?

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