TITLE: Agile Moments, Ernest Hemingway Edition AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 07, 2015 9:26 AM DESC: ----- BODY: I couldn't help thinking of big visible charts when I read this paragraph in The Paris Review's interview with Ernest Hemingway:
[Hemingway] keeps track of his daily progress -- "so as not to kid myself" -- on a large chart made out of the side of a cardboard packing case and set up against the wall under the nose of a mounted gazelle head. The numbers on the chart showing the daily output of words differ from 450, 575, 462, 1250, back to 512, the higher figures on days [he] puts in extra work so he won't feel guilty spending the following day fishing on the Gulf Stream.
He uses the chart to keep himself honest. Even our greatest writers can delude themselves into thinking they are making enough progress when they aren't. All the more so for those of us who are still learning, whether how to run a marathon, how to write prose, or how to make software. When a group of people are working together, a chart can help the individuals maintain a common, and honest, understanding of how the team is doing. Oh, and notice Hemingway's technology: the side of a cardboard packing case. No fancy dashboard for this writer who is known for his direct, unadorned style. If you think you need a digital dashboard with toggles, flashing lights, and subviews, you are doing it wrong. The point of the chart is to keep you honest, not give you another thing to do when you are not doing what you should be doing. There is another lesson in this passage beyond the chart, about sustainable pace. Most of the numbers are in the ballpark of 500 (average: 499 3/4!), except for one day when he put in a double day. Perhaps 500 words a day is a pace that Hemingway finds productive over time. Yet he allows himself an occasional bit of overtime -- for something important, like time away from his writing desk, out on the water. Many of us programmers need to be reminded every so often that getting away from our work is valuable, and worth an occasional 0 on the big visible chart. It's also a more human motivation for overtime than the mad rush to a release date. A few pages later in the interview, we read Hemingway repeating a common adage among writers that also echoes nicely against the agile practices:
You read what you have written and, as you always stop when you know what is going to happen next, you go on from there.
Hemingway stops each day at a point where the story will pull him forward the next morning. In this, XP devotees can recognize the habit of ending each day with a broken test. In the morning, or whenever we next fire up our editors, the broken test tells us exactly where to begin and gives us a concrete goal. By the time the test passes, our minds are ready to move on to something new. Agility is useful when fighting bulls. Apparently, it helps when writing novels, too. -----