The Arolla « ancient world map » of software development
Software development technologies and trends are not particularly tangible things, yet we need to reason on them. At Arolla, the company I’m part of, we’ve designed an « ancient world map » of software development, as a cartography of the universe of software development we live in. Built for our own purpose, we also share it so you can benefit from it.
If you want to use the map with your own teams, please do so (it’s licensed CC-NC-ND). If you need a high-resolution file for print, just ask (the file is quite big). We’d love to get your feedback!
The metaphor of an ancient world map
Agile and in XP suggest using metaphors to help materialize abstract stuff, and make it easier to grasp. You’ve probably seen Eric Evans (Domain-Driven Design) showing a picture of an ancient world map when presenting his concept of « a model built for a purpose ». We wanted to materialize software development technologies and trends, for which we have no clear and accurate visualisation yet, just like explorers in the middle age had no accurate knowledge of the world, lands and oceans. Ancient world maps had to represent that part of ignorance, with dragons and strange creatures on the less-known areas.
So we chose this metaphor to represent our universe. And ancient world maps are beautiful too!
A map conveys meaning
In cartography, the role of map design is to:
Orchestrate the elements of the map to best convey its message to its audience.
In our map, each continent represents a particular chapter of related technical stuff , and oceans in between represents « soft » techniques that complement them best. Of course the universe of software development has many more dimensions than the two dimensions available on a map. This means that such map is quite subjective, it depends on our own mental model. On the other hand, this is also true for any map of the physical world, that is also supposed to represents a 3D planet onto a plane, with some deep decision on whether to preserve angles or distances.
We tried to put most related technologies as close as possible to each other. Regions in the middle of the map represent the core of a developer daily work, in contrast with the regions closer to the poles which are more specialized.
Of course not every existing technology and trend was included on the map, especially the ones that we do not want to offer to our clients or that are of less importance. As a fan of DDD I regret we could not include our clients domains (finance, e-commerce, media, e-advertising, online games…) on the map, but a map is for a purpose, just like a model. A map of everything would just be useless.
Drawing the map proved a lot more work than expected, with hundreds of layers and lots of little adjustments everywhere, resulting into a huge file for printing.
To discuss skills and areas of expertise
Why this map int the first place? At Arolla we wanted to organise a session for all our consultants to discover more about each other from a skills point of view. We also wanted more senior consultants to volunteer and take ownership on some areas of their technical expertise.
We didn’t want another boring evening with slides shows in front of a passive audience. We wanted a more concrete, more fun and more engaging way to talk about technical skills and areas of knowledge.
So we printed the map on a big poster laid on a table, like in the captain room in an old vessel, and made it into a game.
Map + Lego = game
During last June DDD Immersion course at skillmaster, Alberto told me about Lego Serious Play. This game helps people express their ideas and be creative using Lego bricks as a medium, to help say crazy things in front of other people. It also makes any discussion a lot more fun! So we bought a set of Lego mini-figures, including some crazy figures, for our consultants to play with on the map (we did not follow the actual Lego Serious Play game at all).
The first part of the game was to get familiar with the map. I was shouting the name of various technologies at random, and the first to find out where it is on the map would take a marshmallow and place it as a flag (we had lots of sweeties everywhere too). This part was fast-paced and didn’t take long as it was quickly obvious that everyone had understood and indexed the map in their mind already.
In the next part, we had to create our own Lego persona, using the Lego building blocks available. It was really fun, and everyone was really happy to be given the opportunity to play with Lego again. It was nice to see that nobody built a mini-figure as planned on the box, they were all very personal, ironical or really weird.
Each consultant then told his/her career by moving his/her Lego custom figure over the big map, starting from some technology (e.g. C++) « in this continent » before « moving to another territory » (e.g. Java or .Net), then « crossing oceans » to gain additional skills in software factory and agile.
I particularly enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere, where anyone would interrupt to ask questions or comment, or throw a joke out loud. Perhaps the map, the Lego and the marshmallow made it clear that it was not too serious an exercise. The map and the Lego figures were able to make abstract skills more tangible and more fun for the time of the game.
We could have done the same exercise without all that, but the feedback we had from our consultants was very positive, they really enjoyed the game.
We’re going to put the big poster of the map on the wall, as a decoration. Smaller printed maps will help scope some discussions, perhaps for interviews, or when discussing with less technology-involved people. It could also be useful for developers to self-assert how much they know about the current state of the art in our craft.