A waterfall of pages (Commons)

Two of my PhD students are in the middle of writing their theses/dissertations. No surprise, they missed the awesome seminar by Lean/Agile software pioneer Ryan Martens yesterday. During the seminar Ryan brought up a classic image representing the engineer’s design-build-test progression. The point is to illustrate when and how many times you have to learn in the traditional waterfall engineering design-build-test progress: once, at the end, when you usually don’t have time to revise. The Lean/agile approach to design necessitates that you test (and learn!) about something as quickly as possible. Sometimes you even write the test specification before you begin designing!

Waterfall versus Agile DBT

At this point, Dr. Chuck turned to the class and brought up one of my favorite points for my graduate students: the key to success with your thesis is to write (build) and test (send out for review) as frequently and as often as possible like the lean/agile way. While this may seem obvious to some, it’s not to others.

One of my good friends brought up the point, “But when you are writing and testing so many times you loose the consistency of “voice” and your writing becomes disconnected. So I prefer the single, sit-down, and write it out approach.” The approach my two PhD students, despite the warnings, are currently attempting like the majority of their peers around the US this spring. So really, which approach should you take and is agile/lean really any better?

What I tell all of my students is that writing a thesis or dissertation is like running a marathon. It’s up to you to run it in little bits over the course of the next several years, or in one big sprint at the end. You’ve got to get it done. I just know that most people can’t run a marathon cold without conditioning and the last thing we need is someone getting hurt.

Writing a thesis or dissertation is a heavy lift — one of the biggest of your life — and most people wouldn’t go to the gym after sitting in a lab for several years and immediately put their weight onto the squat rack. Too many injuries happen that way.

When is the last time you dove into a big important anything without practicing and preparing first? When is the last time you tested a prototype before swinging for the fence? I’ve written previously about how this has big ramifications on the University system where we almost always choose traditional waterfall. Go to a high performance organization within the university, a performing artist, a chef, a lead grants person, and ask them to perform with a totally new instrument — see how it goes.

And yes, many little bits takes more warm up and cool down periods with greater variation in performance. But if you want to get good, really good, it’s going to take a lot of practice. It’ll take the constant drip, drip, drip of building momentum over years to eventually become a torrent you can master. And maybe someday, after you’ve written and published daily for years, you’ll be able to run that marathon with some agility.

You really didn’t think this blog was just for you did you?