Objects in vision are farther than they appear

Trying to describe my intuition about a project to a colleague, I found myself using this tongue-in-cheek inversion of a well-known catchphrase to describe a sequence that sometimes plays out on software engineering projects. 

Here’s how that story typically goes. The idea looks big, ambitious, and fits into some bigger aspirations of the team. Then, there is usually a great demo or a prototype that appears to put the desired outcome within reach. There is a lot of excitement and the team boldly commits to pursue the project. Around half-way through, the full extent of the project’s scope becomes evident in its horrifying scale. Like a vast creature from the deep, it leans forth and threatens to capsize the whole thing, taking the team with it. Stuck between that and an equally unappealing prospect of cutting their losses, the team has some choices to make. Some decide to persevere. Some opt to scale down the effort, the big idea shrinking into a resounding “meh.” Whichever path is chosen, the shock of exploding scope never quite goes away, affecting team’s morale. In the hallways, there are disgruntled “this isn’t what I signed up for” or snarky “we’re always three quarters away from shipping” or “hey, Dimitri, didn’t you say you were shipping this two years ago?” Yep, I totally did. I was naive and — sigh! — too enamored with the idea. The object was much farther than it appeared. (And it will be three more years until it actually ships) So yeah, I’ve been there.

Especially in environments where there’s pressure to show results quickly, the distortion effect tends to exacerbate. Big ideas that clearly won’t yield outcomes for a while will be either dismissed or presented as simplistic, stick-figure caricatures of themselves. Here, it is usually the intuition of those who’ve been there before, the voice of the seemingly jaded and so frustratingly realistic that can break the illusion. Yes, it is scary to consider that the project we thought was going to take a year is actually a three (or five!) year endeavor. It is my experience that deluding ourselves ends up being much scarier. If you have that spidey sense that the proposed timelines might be too chipper, please consider doing a simple miracle count exercise to regain your grasp on reality. 

And of course, I am so grateful to you, all of my ornery colleagues who have grounded my overly optimistic prognoses – and I expect you to continue to do so in the future. In return, I promise to do the same, even if it is uncomfortable. 

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