I was up in Redmond when a ASP.NET developer started comparing his development work to that of a lawyer. He wondered what all the fuss was in terms of software developers not completing something on time or building exactly what the client expected. His argument was lawyers don't do that and they are often contracted with vague specifications for both time of completion and the actual work being performed.
At first I scoffed at his idea, but the more we debated, the more it made some sense. After all, very few of us outside the law really understand the nuances of how to build legal arguments (which often don't make sense), and we can't specifically state what final product we expect from a lawyer.
Instead we contract to have some work done, whether that's draw up a contract or defend us in a court case. We don't necessarily have a good way to measure the quality of a piece of legal work, and often we don't even understand what the final product is. We direct lawyers to accomplish some set of work, often changing what we need as we learn more about the situation and what work they've done. Typically there are meetings to talk about the progress and perhaps slowly refine the work being performed.
In many ways, that does sound like software development. So perhaps we should contract ourselves or our firms out, billing by the hour, and working on what the client wants, rather than bidding out for a flat rate. Wait, that's what many people do. :)
I know there's a lot of fear involved with software projects, assuming that they are never-ending pieces of work. In some sense that's true, and in many cases it's why I think you need to plan for a permanent IT staff, including developers, at most every company. I think over time managers are getting used to the idea that there will always be IT projects, and those projects constantly change.
There is one crucial difference between software and legal documents: software almost always gets used on a regular basis.
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