Is “process” the best metaphor for software development

I think the phrase “development process”, or rather the concept of development as a process has become a paradigm in software. A google scholar search on software development process results in 2 650 000 hits!

The view of creating software done through a “development process” is so established, at least in the software industry, that no-one seem to question if this is a valid view on how to design stuff. This regardless if one talks about waterfall, spiral, agile or lean.

For me a process is a repeatable set of activities or process steps that leads to the same results. typical examples is the process of producing paper form wood or assembling parts to a car. And much effort is spent on making this process as efficient as popsicle or achieving the least possible variation in output quality. Since I am not a native English speaker it could be a lack understanding the connotation of the words, but I’ll try to explain what I mean.

First, software is developed, but no-one talks about a software creation process. To me development is more akin to refinement, exploitation or progress. I think software is created, it is one of the very few intellectual pursuits, besides the arts, where something is created from nothing.

Second, the development (or creation) is done through a process, something which in an engineering perspective means that by combining the right inputs and having the right circumstances, a desired output is achieved. And the process is repeatable as long as the inputs and circumstances are the same. I don’t think anyone disagrees when I say that not two software projects are alike, regardless how similar one tries to keep the process.

So the question is how should we view software creation? I think it would be helpful to see it as a creative endeavour similar to what a writer does. There is usually some idea of what the end result should be, but that may or may not be very detailed when starting to make sentences. Some write in a very linear fashion, starting with the first chapter. Some start with an outline which gets more and more refined until it actually is the full text. Some writers are very disciplined and can write for eight hours day, some can just write when they are inspired. And everybody has heard about “writer’s block”…

If software is not developed in a process, but seen as a work of creativity I think efforts should be to make the people writing software as creative as possible (and therefore also productive). Maybe this can be used as a “lean” principle on how to manage a software project.

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