TITLE: I Feel Good. I Feel Great. I Feel Wonderful.
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: September 20, 2004 8:29 AM
DESC: In a weekend of delirium, I realize that "What About Bob?" can teach us alot about agile software development.
Mark Jacobson, a colleague of mine, is a big fan of the movie
Now, I like that movie, too... I remember the first time I saw
it, when my brother and I came home and replayed the whole movie
all afternoon, and I've seen it many times since. But Mark is
a big fan. He believes that Ghostbusters can help students
learn to be better students. You can see his many
Ghostbusters-related links on his
I am a huge Bill Murray fan. Last night, I watched one of
my other favorites from his filmography,
What About Bob?
This movie is pure goofiness, unlike the high art of Ghostbusters,
but I enjoy it. I must have been in a goofy mood this weekend,
because I began to notice all the things that What About Bob?
can teach us about agile software development. Humor me.
First, a little about the movie. Bob Wiley
is a mess, a multiphobic who can barely even leave his apartment.
He's also so obsessive about his therapists that they keep passing
him on. At the beginning of the movie, Bob's current therapist
leaves his practice in order to get away from. Bob is referred
to Dr. Leo Marvin, a successful and self-absorbed psychiatrist
played to perfection by
Leo is about to go on vacation after the publication of his
blockbuster self-help book Baby Steps. Bob manages to
wheedle an appointment on that fateful last morning, making his
first sparks with Leo and receiving a retail-price copy of
It took me a long time to realize that Bob is a software developer.
He's paralyzed by change, fears interacting with people (clients),
and can't make progress toward his goals. He also isn't good at
He was married once, but that ended quickly because, as he tells
Leo in their first session together, there are two kinds of people
in the world: people who like Neil Diamond, and those who don't.
And people of different kinds can't work together.
The first thing he learns from Leo is take baby steps. Trying to
take on all of the world's pressures at once would paralyze anyone.
Set a small goal, take the actions that achieve just that goal,
and then reassess the situation. (That's
Do the Simplest Thing,
One thing that Bob already seems to understand is the need for
continuous feedback. That's what he seeks from his therapists
-- and also what keeps driving them away. He needs too much attention,
because he is caught up the backwards pathology of modern business.
He seeks feedback not from the world, which is where he takes his
actions, but from his therapist, who represents his manager. He
wants someone else to tell him what to do, and how to feel, and how
to live. A professional must take responsibility for his own actions
and feelings and life. That's one of the things that folks like
Jerry Weinberg and
have emphasized so often to software people for so many years.
We also see that Leo needs feedback, too. When planning for
his live interview on Good Morning, America, he asks
his family to help him choose what to wear and where to stand,
but they are so busy with Bob that they don't pay him enough
attention. "I need feedback, people!" he screams in a moment
of raw emotion. And he does. The ever presence of the dysfunctional
Bob accentuates Leo's own egotistic tendencies and pushes him
to cry out for help.
Another lesson Bob learns from Leo comes in the form of a
prescription -- not for more medication, with which Bob seems
to have far too much experience, but to "Take a Vacation".
This is a veiled reference to the agile principle of
In addition to taking steps that are too big, Bob spends every
waking moment, and apparently many of his sleeping ones, focused
on his problems. Such obsession will burn a person out, and
only taking regular breaks can cure the obsession. Bob isn't
cured when he decides to take a literal vacation from his
problems, but his vacation is another step on the road to
recovery. Unfortunately for Leo, Bob decides to vacation
in Lake Winnipisaukee along with the Marvin family, which
is another step for Leo toward collapse.
I'm still working on the role played by Leo's family in our
little morality play. Leo's wife, Fay, and children Anna
and Siggy take to Bob quickly, finding his attempts to put
a happy face on the world refreshing after all the years of
seriousness and isolation from Leo. It is in his interactions
with these gentle, loving people that Bob begins to grow out
of his sarcophagus, putting the lessons of baby steps and
vacations into practice. Perhaps they somehow symbolize
clients, though most software developers wouldn't characterize
all of their clients as gentle and loving. However, it is
in interaction with these folks that Bob learns that he does
not have to shoulder all of his burdens alone. (As an aside,
can have a role in my stories any day!)
This leads us to the central question remaining: Who is
Dr. Leo Marvin? The agile coach, of course. He teaches Bob
to overcome his fears, to accept the world as it is, and to
embrace change. Unlike with Bob, I felt an overwhelming urge
to identify Leo with a real person in the community. Kent
Martin? Finally, near the end of the movie, we have our answer.
Bob Wiley is ultimately cured by Leo's latest invention, the
not-so-tongue-in-cheek Death Therapy. Through a single attempt
at Death Therapy, Bob learns to untie the self-made knots that
bind him and to take command of his life. He even becomes able
marrying Leo's sister, Leo.
And so we learn that
the model for Leo must be
who recently so eloquently described the role that
might play in reversing the fortunes of a software industry that
so often binds itself up with long-range plans, unnecessary
separation of tasks, and fear of change.
Shh. Don't tell Ron any of this, though. Leo goes crazy at the
end of What About Bob?, unable to shake Bob's obsessions.
But Bob is cured!
That's all the
I can manage today. Thankyouverymuch.
Oh, and if you are one of my students, don't expect this to show
up in one of my classes. As much as I'd love to watch What
About Bob? again with you all in class, I don't quite have
the personality to carry this sort of thing off live. Then again,
you never know...