Saturday, February 04, 2012

May the day I actually complete something finally come

Completing projects is hard

I have a curse.

My curse is that I have too many great ideas. Now, I know that ideas are cheap, so I don't just publicly announce my ideas and then complain that nobody is acting on them. I know that if I want my ideas to have an impact, I must act on them myself. I do act! But I'm still cursed.

Often, my idea is something that I can code on a computer. That's great! I have a computer, and I know how to code. I can act. So I put everything aside, fire up my favorite text editor, and enthusiastically put in the hours necessary to create something out of nothing. But it doesn't work! I'm still cursed.

The main problem with this "put everything aside" approach is that the main thing I put aside is usually the code I was writing in order to implement my previous idea. And by the time the code for my new idea becomes something usable, it will in turn be shoved aside by an even newer, better idea! That's why great ideas are my curse. If only I was coming up with worse and worse ideas instead of better and better ones!

Well, this curse ends now.

I was discussing Agile with Nadya yesterday, and I asked her how small she thought a team could be while still being Agile and benefiting from it. Since she and I love to work on common projects, I expected her to answer "two", suggesting that our common projects should use Agile. But to my surprise, she answered "one".

I guess it makes sense. If following the Agile methodology can help a team to ship, why couldn't it help me complete my personal projects? Let's give it a shot.

The project I will actually complete

My current project is Substrate, a text processing tool making it easy to build text processing pipelines.

I got that idea while using Houdini, a 3D software package making it easy to build 3D-model and 2D-image processing pipelines. It's very different from other 3D packages. Using Houdini was much more fun than using 3DS Max. Houdini felt more like programming than modelling, but at the same time, it also felt more fun than programming. Very few things do! I suddenly wanted all of my tools to be like Houdini.

I started immediately, and that was my first mistake. I should have taken the time to figure out what it was that made Houdini so different. Instead, I immediately started working on a Houdini clone, with the major exception that my clone would manipulate text, not 3D models.

So far, I have a pane system where I can open and close tabs, split panes horizontally and vertically, and... well, that's it, really. No text manipulation yet. I just copied Houdini's pane system because Houdini had it. From an Agile perspective, the state of the project is highly embarrassing: totally unshippable, with the "team" focussing on miscellaneous GUI features over the core functionality.

Well, this ends now.

I still don't know what it is that makes Houdini feel different, but I will find it. Iteration after iteration. And each iteration will be shippable. Amen.

Iteration 1

Since I am working on this during my free time, I will need relatively long iterations in order to have enough coding hours to produce anything. Let's say one month: I shall have a shippable MVP at the end of February. And here is what this MVP will contain.

Story 1 (1 story point): I can load a Bash script and view its contents.
Story 2 (1 story point): I can run the currently-loaded script and run it using a command from the menu. I will see the script's output on stdout.
Story 3 (1 story point): I can run a prefix of the script using a command from the menu. I will see the output of the truncated script on stdout, or an error if the truncated code doesn't represent a valid Bash script.
Story 4 (1 story point): I can successfully run a script prefix even if the last line ends with a pipe character.

The hypothesis tested by this first iteration is that while working on a pipeline, the ability to see intermediate results from the middle of the pipeline will make it much easier to debug the pipeline. The Houdini feature which corresponds to this is the ability to click on any node to see what the 3D model looks like at this point.

I'm not convinced that this is really what makes Houdini fun to use, but it's certainly a core feature, and it's one which I am confident I can implement quickly.

Well, let's get to work!

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