Scraping 80's Television for Project Management Methodologies

So, basically, I watched way too much television as a kid. I've since remedied this and am now television set free (and would be tv show free if it weren't for Hulu ... damn you accessible, advertiser-driven premium content), however, my mind is indelibly stained with seemingly innumerable hours of 80's television programming (and 70's shows through reruns).

All of that is to relay why it ought not to be terribly surprising that it suddenly occurred to me, while detailing some project or another on a white board that Charlie's Angels may have been incredibly ahead of its time in presenting a model for project development. That spark sent my mind racing for other shows that might offer glimpses of insights into this crazy world of programming. The result was the discovery of three models that I think are representative of freelance software contracting. Definitely not exhaustive, just three that struct may as worth considering.

I latched onto investigation shows as they really fit the model of independent development: Presentation of a problem, exploration of a solution, execution of the solution and finally, payment, though sometimes not. I skipped police shows (Hawaii Five-0, Hill Street Blues, etc), family investigation firms (Hart to Hart, Simon & Simon, etc) and the inane (Scooby Doo, The Fall Guy).

So, even though I started with Charlie's Angels as the teaser, I want to start with Magnum P.I.. Not because I have any claims to physical similarity nor a penchant for wearing really short shorts, but because my situation seems akin to his. That is, there is a primary obligation that secures the overhead and takes precedence over other concerns (Magnum's is to the Robin Master's estate and mine is to the day job) and side jobs seem to be somewhat smaller in scope and generally can be done by one's self or with limited assistance from a small set of colleague/friends. It is not a model for growth, but can provide comfort and amusement.

The problem with the Magnum situation is that one is tremendously subject to uncontrollable factors. Consider Robin Masters selling the estate the equivalent of getting laid off. And sustaining an injury while pursuing a case the same as over-extending and not performing the day job well. While the Magnum role can provide a short-term decent lifestyle, and some interesting stories, it is not secure and can be hard to escape. It provides no opportunities for passive income, revenue is always a function of effort, and the personal commitments to complete jobs and/or repay friends acts as an anchor. (Watch Magnum P.I.)

Still, it is better than just a straight day job. And perhaps better than the next model, The A-Team. The A-Team is an Agile team of hired guns. Each of its four member team has specialties, however cross-training affords them flexibility and they often take advantage of this to engage in sub-grouping for maximum effect (think pair-programming). As a solid Agile team, they work in intense bursts and then disperse to decompress. Of course, like any intense teams, the pressure can be hard to handle, explaining why one member is frequently committed to psychiatric institutions. Also defining their Agile production environment, they often are required to refactor their efforts to meet the needs of their evolving understanding of the project. And they are continually haunted with pressing deadlines that threaten to arrest project development, and themselves, if not met.

There is a lot to be said for this environment as it affords experience with a broad range of projects. Working with a team of competent professionals that are multi-talented means there is someone to get your back when you are stuck while providing division of labor. Further creativity and improvision are encouraged, actually desperately necessary, so you really have an opportunity to grow.

The problem is that, in such an intense environment, there is a high probability of burn out. Plus, with ambitious goals, tight resources and looming deadlines, there is a good chance of failing. I think it would be virtuous to try this out for awhile, but dangerous to stat in it for too long. (Watch A-Team)

Which brings me to the beginning and why I am considering that it may be good to be Charlie. As best as I can tell, Charlie is a VP or director in charge of a number of projects. Towards that end, he has created a number of teams of specialists targeted to perform specific types of tasks. The teams are kept small to ensure efficiency. Specifically, there is a project coordinator, Bosley, and three specialists or, in this case, Angels. Bosley provides the principal liaison to Charlie while ensuring that the Angels have the resources that they need to complete the job. It may be possible that Bosley has other teams, but he is best utilized as a dedicated resource for a team. This ensures that the specialists are well equipped and free to pursue the specific tasks at hand, while Bosley takes care of anything supporting the goal and administrative requirements.

What makes this phenomenal is the early demonstration of telecommuting as an effective means of management. Charlie limits his contact to sharing goals and discussing specific project developments or setbacks that may require redirection. The number of teams that Charlie could effectively administer in this fashion seems to be rather high. And the small number of each team would eliminate the ability of non-producers to go undiscovered; there is little room to hide in a team of three. A large organization could conceivably be run very effectively in such a fashion without necessarily stifling creativity and risk-tasking along the way. Further, the modular nature of the teams provides not only a model for organizational growth, but also for Angel growth - by matching experience levels to provide opportunities for mentorship.

Perhaps the missing link of the system, this model could be coupled with an institutional ability to organize projects based on skill requirements, allowing workloads to be distributed, reducing development time requirements. External contracts could also be acquired and integrated into the development flow. Of course, trying to go to far into making software development a factory has often only yielded disappointing results. Still, even as a small group of specialists working somewhat independently to complete a project would still realize benefits. (Watch Charlie's Angels)

Anyway, just something to think about the next time you're watching a show - you might be performing investigative reviews of disparate project management methodologies and hence actually working,

My Christmas gift to you.

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