Drinking from the OSS firehose

Most people know what they want, but don’t know how to get it. When you don’t know the next step, you procrastinate or feel lost. But a little research can turn a vague desire into specific actions.
For example: When musicians say, “I need a booking agent”, I ask, “Which one? What’s their name?”
You can’t act on a vague desire. But with an hour of research you could find the names of ten booking agents that work with ten artists you admire. Then you’ve got a list of the next ten people you need to contact.
A life coach told me that most of his job is just helping people get specific. Once they turn a vague goal into a list of specific steps, it’s easy to take action
.”
Derek Sivers
in his blog, “Get Specific!

In a post last week, I spoke about feeling like never before that I’m at an OSS cross-road, looking towards a set of paths. The paths all contribute heavily to the next-generations of OSS, but there’s the feeling of dread that no one person will have the ability to step out each path. The paths I’m talking about include network virtualisation, data-science / artificial-intelligence / machine-learning, open-source deployments like ONAP, cloud infrastructure and delivery models, and so many more. Each represents a life’s work to become a fully-fledged expert.

In the past, a single OSS polymath could potentially scramble along a majority of the paths and understand the terrain within their local OSS environment. But that’s becoming increasingly less likely as we become ever more dependent upon the interconnection of disparate expertise.

This represents a growing risk. If nobody understands the whole terrain, how do we map out Derek’s “list of specific steps” on our complex OSS projects? If we can’t adequately break down the work, we’re at risk of running projects as a set of vague, disjointed activities. So I imagine you’re wondering how we do “Get Specific!”?

Most technology experts appear to me to have a predilection to plan projects from the bottom up (ie building up a solution from their detailed understanding of some parts of the project). However, on projects as complex as OSS, I’ve never seen a bottom-up plan come together efficiently. Nobody knows enough of the details to build up the entire plan.

Instead, I prefer the top-down approach of building a WBS (work breakdown structure), progressively diving deeper into the details and turning the vague goal into a tree of ever more specific steps. I consider the ability to break down complex projects into manageable chunks of work as my only real super-power, but in reality it largely just comes from using the WBS approach.

Okay, it might sound a bit like a waterfall model (depends on how you design the tree really), but it beats the “trying to drink from a firehose” alternative model.

Which approach works best for you?

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