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Articles from Joel Spolsky about functional specifications


  • Wed 09 November 2011
  • code

These articles were written in 2000, but are still relevant today:

Key excerpts:

Part 1

So that's giant reason number one to write a spec. Giant reason number two is to save time communicating. When you write a spec, you only have to communicate how the program is supposed to work once. Everybody on the team can just read the spec. The QA people read it so that they know how the program is supposed to work and they know what to test for. The marketing people use it to write their vague vaporware white papers to throw up on the web site about products that haven't been created yet. The business development people misread it to spin weird fantasies about how the product will cure baldness and warts and stuff, but it gets investors, so that's OK. The developers read it so that they know what code to write. The customers read it to make sure the developers are building a product that they would want to pay for. The technical writers read it and write a nice manual (that gets lost or thrown away, but that's a different story). The managers read it so that they can look like they know what's going on in management meetings. And so on.

Part 2

When you're building a product with a team, everybody tends to have their favorite, real or imagined pet features that they just can't live without. If you do them all, it will take infinite time and cost too much money. You have to start culling features right away, and the best way to do this is with a "nongoals" section of the spec. Things we are just not going to do. A nongoal might be a feature you won't have ("no telepathic user interface!") or it might be something more general ("We don't care about performance in this release. The product can be slow, as long as it works. If we have time in version 2, we'll optimize the slow bits.") These nongoals are likely to cause some debate, but it's important to get it out in the open as soon as possible. "Not gonna do it!" as George Sr. puts it.

Part 3

Program managers are invaluable. If you've ever complained about how programmers are more concerned with technical elegance than with marketability, you need a program manager. If you've ever complained about how people who can write good code never do a good job of writing good English, you need a program manager. If you've ever complained about how your product seems to drift without any clear direction, you need a program manager.

Part 4

So. Specs are good, but not if nobody reads them. As a spec-writer, you have to trick people into reading your stuff, and you should also probably make an effort not to cause any already-too-small brains to leak out through eye-sockets.