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The Pencil Analogy


Today we have a guest editorial from Brad Wallace 

My father, CEO of a large construction company, was fond of saying, 'IT is nothing but smoke and mirrors. Expensive and largely useless.'

Whenever I call home to report an interesting project or triumph, he is fond of chortling out 'Smoke and Mirrors, son. All it is.' Which begs the very common-- and very important question-- why is software engineering so expensive? Why are large-scale failures the norm within IT? (6/10 IT projects fail. A PM with a .30 average is considered 'Amazing.'). I will answer, if any simple answer is possible, with an analogy:

You are a pencil maker. Since the days of your youth you have frolicked amongst shavings and pencil designs; You remember your first love by the particular graphite smell of her fingertips. After a successful internship and a few pencil-making successes, opportunity knocks.

'I need you,' the CEO of Acme Inc., makers of fine roadrunner eradication equipment, says via one day via cellular link from his private jet, 'to make me a pencil.'


'It's simple,' the CEO says. 'It should be yellow, and last one week with regular sharpening.'

'Okay,' you say. 'I can do that. Six months.'

A price for your services is negotiated, based on:


Contracts are signed. You book a flight and a six-month hotel stay in Tucson, Acme Inc's. HQ. You show up with fresh white paper and a crisp tie and a notebook full of successful pencil designs. You are shown to a conference room, where you will present your pencil overview to the seven VP's who run the company day to day.

'Hello!' you say. 'Hello!' they say.

Everyone is so impressed with your pencil designs. There is light applause. On your way to the hotel to grab a club sandwich and a dip, one of the VP's pulls you aside.

'There's just one small tweak, actually,' he says. 'We're going to need two types of yellow.'

It turns out, he shares poolside, that Acme Inc. actually has a Morrocan division, responsible for 30 % of the company's profit. Due to some complex-French-colonial-rejection of the international ISO scheme for pencils, all pencils must be red. No exception. Un order d'Royale Instutucion de Escribment, Tangiers. Violations punishible by finger chopping.

'Okay, you say. We'll make some in Red.'

The VP exhales deeply.

You sleep okay.

A few days later, as you are drafting the final specification for your Yellow Pencil (to also be painted Red for shipments bound to Morroco), there is a knock at your door. It is the Director of Quality Control for Acme, Inc. A new hire, a real go-getter from MIT who is going to fix the Roadrunner problem, once and for all. He loves your pencil drafts.

'One minor thing. It turns out, that there are actually six different useage modes within Acme, Inc. for pencils, ranging from the rather-light-to-not-at-all Executive mode (approximately 4 linear pencil inches/day) to the brutal pencil consumption of the drafting department (200 linear pencil inches/day).'

'So, to meet your contract,' he says (alarmingly, he has a copy of your contract), 'you are going to have to vary the graphite hardness for different useage modes.'

You nod. This is all standard stuff. Okay, now we have 12 pencils, roughly to deliver. (Six useage types x 2 colors). No problem. You won't make as much margin on the deal, but you can squeeze it in.

You sleep so-so.

And so it goes, week by week, change after change, until you have 4,392 pencils, 16 pens (they forgot about the insidious graphite allergy problem in Texas), 25 varieties of colored chalk (Marketing refuses to use pencil, oops), and four varieties of raw ink from 3 animal, and one mineral source to produce. The client is understanding, and has increased your budget accordingly, as so that you can bring in the required ink-grinders, chalkhounds, and Masters of Penmanship,

When you finally present the results to the CEO, two years behind schedule, the deliverable has to arrive via dump truck. The board of directors fires the CEO immediately. The entire problem they were hoping to solve is duplication of writing implements. Which of course, they could have solved with a simple policy statement vs. the $15,359,104.00 they end up paying you and your small army of writing experts.

Acme Inc., sadly, goes out of business. You, on the other hand, are getting quite a reputation as a manager and overall-writing-guru, and your phone is ringing off the hook.

You sleep like a baby.


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