The Myth of “What” and “How”

I often hear things like, “Tell the team what to build, but don’t tell them how to build it.”

Or, “A feature is what you’re building. A story is how you’re going to build it.”

Or, “When you’re doing TDD, don’t worry about the internals of the class. The API is what it does. The internals are how it does it.”

Here’s the thing. When we write code, that’s how we’re creating a story or a feature. It’s also how we’re implementing the architecture. It’s how we’re managing security and providing an audit trail and doing a bunch of other stuff.

And that’s how we’re selling more goods. And how we’re keeping things maintainable for the future. And how we’re preventing data theft. And how we’re correcting our mistakes.

And that’s how we’re staying in business. And how we’ll be able to react in the future. And how we’re able to sleep at night. And how we learn.

  • The code is how we deliver a story.
  • The story is how we deliver a feature.
  • The feature is how we give the users the capability to do something.
  • The users’ capabilities are how they deliver a business goal.
  • The business goals are how stakeholders implement a vision.
  • The vision is an idea of how to make money, save money or protect revenue.
  • And we could keep going if we wanted to…

Every goal, no matter how big or small, is the how for someone’s what. (The how and the what may come from the same person, but the interesting stuff happens when they’re different people. Or behave like they are.)

If only life worked by being able to divide a bigger what up into smaller pieces and manage them appropriately, then it would all be fine! Unfortunately the code has to work with other code to deliver its value. The features have to work with other features. The system has to work with other systems, users have to work with other users and the goals of one stakeholder have to align with the goals of another.

This is why we have root cause analysis and the “5 Whys” – because when we can see the higher-level goals and deeper-rooted problems, we can understand better how our own actions fit into them, and what they deliver – for better or worse. This is also true for other domains than software.

It doesn’t really matter much whether we call them features, stories or tasks, as long we appreciate that they’re how we’re delivering to those higher-level whats, and we have a pretty good understanding of the whats and how to test that we’ve achieved them, even (especially!) if the what is a learning or exploratory goal.

Of course, we’ll get the how wrong occasionally and fail to deliver the what. But that’s what feedback, in its many forms, is for.

This entry was posted in bdd, business value, stories, testing. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Myth of “What” and “How”

  1. Tom Akehurst says:

    I believe Dan North is making a similar argument in http://dannorth.net/2011/01/31/whose-domain-is-it-anyway/ (under the ‘Chunking – or the myth of “declarative”’ section)

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