NEWS AT SEI
This article was originally published in News at SEI on: May 1, 2006
If your work involves software, and if you’ve ever laughed out loud over a Dilbert cartoon, then just wait until you meet Ricky and Stick, the cartoon duo who recently made their way onto the SEI Web site.
Ricky and Stick are best friends who live on the same street and play together a lot. Their escapades around school and the neighborhood, which frequently get them in trouble, are captured in The Adventures of Ricky & Stick: Fables in Software Acquisition, a book of cartoons with themes that relate to software, acquisition, or government programs in general.
Ricky & Stick is the brainchild of David Carney, senior member of the technical staff at the SEI. To turn the idea into a book, he collaborated with David Biber, graphic designer and illustrator with the SEI’s CERT Program. Together, Carney and Biber—through Ricky, Stick, and their friends—give a send-up to the profession that will leave software developers, engineers, and acquisition professionals chuckling and groaning with familiarity.
"No need to try it out—it'll work just fine."
Testing and Modeling
Carney has taken an informal and irreverent look at software before; his Little Red Book a short, tongue-in-cheek essay about the dangers and challenges of using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software in government systems is a takeoff on Mao Zedong’s famous Little Red Book. Hoping only that the essay would amuse a few people, Carney was thoroughly unprepared for how deeply it resonated in the Department of Defense community. Carney’s Little Red Book has undergone numerous reprints, and he still receives email from readers who appreciate its spurious Chinese aphorisms.
Asked recently to offer something short and to the point that would prepare beginning program managers for being stuck between demanding users, angry program executive officers, and frustrated software engineers, Carney chose to use a humorous approach once again. And Ricky & Stick was born.
“I decided that these little stories should be fables,” says Carney, “each of which includes a moral relevant to software, to acquisition, or to government programs. Possibly the most important point—and yet another similarity to the Little Red Book—is that these fables are based on real-world experiences: all of the situations in this book are inspired by programs that I know.
“A common thread among these fables,” he says, “is the need is to keep sight of a few simple, fundamental realities, which are all too easy to dismiss as mere common sense. But when the world seems to be coming apart at the seams, it is amazing how easy it is to let common sense fly out the window. A besieged program manager—even an experienced one—can sometimes make decisions that appear reasonable under pressure, but in retrospect seem harebrained.”
Cartoons in the book are organized into six chapters:
- Testing and Modeling
- Estimation and Metrics
- Integration and Interoperability
- Business Processes
Each cartoon in the book has accompanying text that leads to a bottom-line statement or moral, which Carney encapsulates in the epilogue. Examples include “Using the ‘seems OK to me’ rule is usually a disaster,” and “Counting the right things is better than counting the wrong things.”
The book’s sponsor was the U.S. Air Force Acquisition Center of Excellence, which, during the book’s development, was led by acting director Col. Ralph DiCicco, now retired. The center’s current director, Brig. Gen. Janet C. Wolfenbarger, wrote in the introduction, “This book isn’t an official guide to best practice, and it certainly isn’t a textbook. But in a kind of off-beat way, it’s an entertaining yet insightful look at some of the things that can really happen in software acquisition; each fable is based on true examples where our acquisition system has broken down.”
“In a way,” says Carney, “using Ricky and Stick, I can say more and say it more memorably in six panels than I can in a lengthy technical report.”
Installments from the book recently began to appear on the Acquisition Support Program’s pages on the SEI Web site; one chapter will appear each month until the complete text is online.
Carney says also that he and Biber are looking for readers to send more situations, stories, or scenarios. “If you can help us concoct a few more of these little fables, we’ll definitely find a way to use them somehow.”