At the heart of every software adventure exists a journey in service of a quest. Melodramatic much? Sorry, but while wandering dazzled through Race to the End of the Earth, a fantastic exhibit at the Royal BC Museum on the 1911-1912 race to the South Pole between Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and British naval officer Robert Scott, I couldn’t help but think of the two radically different approaches each team took to the race and it shocked me to see that some of the same principles that lead to success or failure in software development also seem to lead to success or failure in exploration.
I wish I could reproduce the experience of walking through the exhibit. Plaque after plaque I remember wondering out loud at Scott’s choices and then nod in agreement with Amundsen’s approach. The core conflict was straight out of any ancient Agile (Amundsen) vs Waterfall (Scott) thread you can find on Usenet. And Waterfall lost.
As background here are some sources you may want to read to understand more about the race. Race to The End: Amundsen, Scott, and the Attainment of the South Pole is one of the books they sold at the museum. There are plenty of other books to choose from as well. The race to the South Pole seems like a good online source for the story as does The Tragic Race to Be First to the South Pole in Wired.
In short: the goal of each expedition was to be first to the South Pole. Each leader approached their task in radically different ways, stemming from their different goals, experiences, and temperaments. Amundsen’s team arrived in good health 33 days before Scott’s malnourished and exhausted team learned the devastating news that they were too late. Amundsen’s team returned home without losing a single life. Tragically, all five men in Scott's polar party died on the ice returning from the pole.
For detailed list of the difference between the two teams take a look at Comparison of the Amundsen and Scott Expeditions, 10 Mistakes That Caused the Most Punishing Nature Expedition in History, and The South Pole Fifty Years After. Of course I didn’t have access to this information at the time, so I’ll weave in this data into some software development lessons: