Lessons from Space: Roadmaps

Reading Time: 9 minutes

I covered the launch of the CRS-20 mission to the International Space Station as a NASA Social appointee. I’m writing this blog series about what software engineers can learn from the process of a launch. You can check out all the posts in the space series (as well as some other posts about space-related code) right here.

Last time we talked about requirement gathering for plant growing in space. Y’all loved the plants (which I get—I like plants too!). So this time, let’s talk about the roadmap for plants in space and what it might teach us about software roadmaps.

Check out this masterpiece (shout-out to whomever wrote on a whiteboard for hours);

Space Plant Plan
Click here for full-size image.

This whiteboard lives at the labs of VEGGIE, the Columbus module’s botany research facility on the International Space Station. One of the botanists, Ralph Fritsche, guided us through this road map.

Remember the PONDS device that we saw in the previous post?

Screen Shot 2020-03-10 at 7.07.26 PM
A refresher: it looked like this, and it is designed to deliver water to plants in microgravity with no electricity and minimal human intervention.

The PONDS project, with all of its requirement gathering, testing, and deployments, represents a small piece of the overall plan. Here’s where PONDS fits into this roadmap:

where is PONDS

Now, check out where this roadmap ends: with producing crops on Mars.

Does that seem like a  long way away? It is. It’s years away by the most ambitious estimates. It’s over a decade away by the less ambitious estimates. We have to get the moon again to even begin doing some of the research that we need in order to learn how to grow crops on Mars.

And that’s what the milestones on the whiteboard are for. They mark a path backwards from nourishing life on other planets to where we are now—growing bok choy and lettuce radishes in little water pillows on the International Space Station.

Take a moment to think about how this roadmap compares to roadmaps you see at most software companies.

I see a massive difference. Do you notice it, too?

I want to share a story that will at first seem unrelated to this.

About a year ago, I made the announcement that I had quit my full time job to start my own business. I was lucky that demand for my time quickly outpaced supply. At that point, everybody told me to raise my rates; that’s the conventional business advice. Auction off your time, make more money while working the same hours. Then in twenty years you can retire on your nice nest egg!

I looked around.

  • A fascist administration is imprisoning Mexican children in concentration camps.
  • Our cavalier use of fossil fuels is accelerating climate change even faster than scientists predicted.
  • A privatized healthcare system spends extra money to leave people in need with no support.
  • Billionaires make more money every day than they could spend in a lifetime while the workers at their companies suffer from existential insecurity.

I figured, if the world is going to hell in a handbasket, I will not dither away my time working for an ad-click company or something. I needed to work on projects that I thought mattered, in a grander sense. So I looked specifically for clients who focused on saving the planet, advancing scientific research, or providing resources to underserved communities. These clients can pay, but they can’t pay top rates.1 My advisors’ reactions to my plan spanned from this:

To this:

The “raise your rates” advice and the typical tech road map share a characteristic: myopia.

They focus on relatively short-term benefits for an extremely limited number of people: mostly stakeholders, maybe paying customers.

At  tech companies, the end of the road map is the release of a functioning product. The Veggie roadmap ends with scientific feats we are nowhere close to accomplishing…yet.

I don’t know about you, but I’m currently sitting at home to help prevent further spread of COVID-19. I’m learning to adjust to a new schedule. And I’m thinking even harder about where we all go from here.

This unique moment in history shows us a few things.

  1. The capitalist system that most tech companies bank on to reach the short-term financial accumulation that they call “success” is a lot more fragile and transient than  we maybe thought it was.
  2. We as individuals depend a lot more on each other’s well-being than we maybe thought we did.
  3. As government-mandated isolations force public institutions to waive fees and provide benefits that they previously denied the public, we can gather empirical data to support or disprove the hypothesis that providing for communities would have made us all better off all along.

This moment, right now, gives us the space to think about how our roadmaps in tech could be a lot more ambitious and a lot more focused on the outcome for many, rather than a few.

Today, I’d like to challenge you to a thought exercise in rethinking your tech company’s roadmap.

What product are you building? Who does it benefit? How could it benefit more people?

The project you’re working on right now has a release target a few months away. Or maybe it’s a year or two years. If you had the resources and a decade of time, what could you learn and do in this field to transform how we do it?

  • What glaring problems exist in the industry, and how might those be—not solved. That’s too small. How could you change the structure of the solution to eliminate those problems? Could you make those problems obsolete?
  • Who does your project exclude or screw over? Look hard and be honest: if there’s a profit motive, someone is getting screwed. What would your project, goal, or industry look like if it prioritized including and serving those people?

Have some ideas? If those ideas could be accomplished in the next two to five years, think harder. Someone is getting screwed that you’ve omitted so far. Keep digging.

Got it? Is it scary? Good. Write it in the lower right-hand corner of a piece of paper.

Now, write the project you’re currently working on in the upper left-hand corner.

Here’s the fun part: How might you get from where you are now to that idea in the lower right-hand corner?

Start by writing some of the big questions you need to answer, or tools you need to build, in order to get to that lower right hand corner. We see examples of this in the VEGGIE whiteboard, in the green rectangles. Those are the incremental milestones. Leave space to write in the projects and studies that might help you get from each one of those big needs to the next one.

Include projects that you have no idea how you could possibly make happen. On the VEGGIE whiteboard, everything with a resource gap is written in red. Notice that a lot of the VEGGIE whiteboard is written in red: this, folks, is why it’s important to elect a government that prioritizes scientific advancements for the greater good.2

You don’t have to finish the exercise right now. Feel free to take your paper, with your milestones and what you have so far, and post it somewhere in your office. Over time, you’ll think of things to add to it: a gap to fill here, an idea for how to fill it there.

You could even copy your exercise onto a poster board or whiteboard to increase its visibility. Move it to a virtual whiteboard for your distributed team. Let other people add stuff to it on color-coded post-it notes. Make it a team exercise of sorts.

Because, whether or not we reach that lower right-hand corner, we could use more of this kind of thinking.

If you end up doing this exercise, I’d be thrilled to see what you come up with. Feel free email it or tweet it to me.

And please consider what sorts of projects you’re blessing with your time, your expertise, and your advocacy. What we build matters, and it’s our technical and ethical responsibility to consider that before we write a line of code.

1 Wanna hear something that totally surprised me when I went into business for myself? My non-profit clients always pay on time. My venture-funded for-profit clients literally never pay on time. I joke that these companies call themselves tech mavens right up until it’s time to pay and suddenly, payroll software is far too hard for them. The closest I have ever had a for-profit company come to paying an invoice on time was three weeks late.

2 $6 trillion is the amount earmarked by the United States Federal Government for a coronavirus stimulus package in a bill proposed during the third week of March, 2020.

If you liked this piece, you might also like:

The debugging posts (a toolkit to help you respond to problems in software)

The Listening Series (Prepare to question much of what you know about how to be good at your job.)

Skills for working on distributed teams (including communication skills that will make your job easier)

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