Before Agile, there were agile ideas–the Backlog part 1

Backlogs have long been used to organize work. I could go back as early as Benjamin Franklin writings on how he dealt with practicing a list of mental virtues in an iterative, incremental fashion.

However I would like to point out two more recent examples, the first one in this post, followed by another post on the second one.

Not many are aware of how Steven Spielberg operated when developing his first block buster, Duel. It was shot in a relentless pace, just sixteen days, at a total cost of $425,000 – after all it was originally a TV movie. Its quality though attracted enough audience that allowed it to be released in Europe and Latin America as a theatrical release, and two years later it also came to movie theaters in the United States as well. Brode’s description of Spielberg’s approach is fascinating as anyone who practices Agile today would recognize what he was doing (my inline comments between []s):

[Spielberg] became involved during the time period when Matheson [the original story author] was writing the script, though Spielberg did not consult with him during the writing process. Methodically he blocked out the entire film on IBM cards [the backlog], the first time he tried what would become his regular approach. Each card contained the gist of the scene, the angle he would take on it, and how many camera setups he needed. While filming in Lancaster, he assembled those cards on a huge bulletin board in his motel room [the task board]. Rather than opening the script to the day’s page, he would instead take down several cards. They constituted the day’s work [daily iterations – after all it was sixteen day project], and when each scene was finished, he would tear the card up and throw it away, knowing every night, by glancing at the bulletin board, how much was left to complete.

In addition to cards, he had his art director sketch the entire film on one long mural that arced around the motel room, an aerial view portraying every moment in the movie [the user story map], including chases. Never a great reader, Spielberg liked to avoid referring to his script and memorizing blocks of words, preferring to study this visual panorama, locking himself into it before filming any one day.

The films of Steven Spielberg, by Douglas Brode 

I brought this extract to show that using backlogs has always been a way of working in the minds not only of software developers under a delivery pressure, but also of the general public. Well, at least for smaller projects – the DOD distortion field that swept the 70’s leading to Waterfall stems from the need of extra planning big projects under extreme risk pressure.

Hopefully this example shows how people while thinking create new ideas, which are eventually formalized as a best practice (I will bring that up on the next post related to backlogs), and finally automated in a tool such as Team Foundation Server 2013.

Where did Spielberg have the idea of using IBM punch cards? Maybe by interacting with friends at the university Computer Science department? If you happen to have a chance, please ask Spielberg for me. Smile

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