Home > technical > Understood, Manageable, And Known.

Understood, Manageable, And Known.

Our sophistication continuously puts us ahead of ourselves, creating things we are less and less capable of understanding – Nassim Taleb

It’s like clockwork. At some time downstream, just about every major weapons system development program runs into cost, schedule, and/or technical performance problems – often all three at once (D’oh!).

Despite what their champions espouse, agile and/or level 3+ CMMI-compliant processes are no match for these beasts. We simply don’t have the know how (yet?) to build them efficiently. The scope and complexity of these Leviathans overwhelms the puny methods used to build them. Pithy agile tenets like “no specialists“, “co-located team“, “no titles – we’re all developers” are simply non-applicable in huge, multi-org programs with hundreds of players.

puny processes

Being a student of big, distributed system development, I try to learn as much about the subject as I can from books, articles, news reports, and personal experience. Thanks to Twitter mate @Riczwest, the most recent troubled weapons system program that Ive discovered is the F-35 stealth fighter jet. On one side, an independent, outside-of-the-system, evaluator concludes:

The latest report by the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, Michael Gilmore, provides a detailed critique of the F-35’s technical challenges, and focuses heavily on what it calls the “unacceptable” performance of the plane’s software… the aircraft is proving less reliable and harder to maintain than expected, and remains vulnerable to propellant fires sparked by missile strikes.

On the other side of the fence, we have the $392 billion program’s funding steward (the Air Force) and contractor (Lockheed Martin) performing damage control via the classic “we’ve got it under control” spiel:

Of course, we recognize risks still exist in the program, but they are understood and manageable. – Air Force Lieutenant General Chris Bogdan, the Pentagon’s F-35 program chief

The challenges identified are known items and the normal discoveries found in a test program of this size and complexity. – Lockheed spokesman Michael Rein

All of the risks and challenges are understood, manageable, known? WTF! Well, at least Mr. Rein got the “normal” part right.

In spite of all the drama that takes place throughout a large system development program, many (most?) of these big ticket systems do eventually get deployed and they end up serving their users well. It simply takes way more sweat, time, and money than originally estimated to get it done.


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