The Chicken-Ship Method


A friend sent me this yesterday:

Passengers on a plane are waiting for the flight to leave.

The aircraft entrance opens and two men walk up the aisle, dressed in pilot uniforms. Both are wearing dark glasses. One is using a seeing-eye dog, and the other is tapping his way up the aisle with a cane.

Nervous laughter spreads through the cabin, but the men enter the cockpit, the door closes, and the engines start.

The passengers begin glancing nervously, searching for some sign that this is just a little practical joke. None is forthcoming. The plane taxies out to the runway and begins its takeoff roll.

It moves faster and faster down the runway, and passengers near the windows realize they’re headed straight for the water at the edge of the airport.

As it begins to look as though the plane will never take off and instead plow into the water at full speed, screams of panic fill the cabin.

But at that moment, the plane lifts smoothly into the air.

Up in the cockpit, the co-pilot turns to the pilot and says, “You know, Bob, one of these days, they’re going to scream too late, and we’re all gonna die.”

This story resonated with me.

It’s probably because I’ve often made the case that successful, sustainable release engineering practices share many characteristics with (the operational nature) of aviation.

But there’s something else… something reminiscent of the many war stories we all swap about getting software shipped.

Certainly, the anecdote is meant to be absurd, and the humor lies within that absurdity. But the story also illustrates how patently obvious some problems can become when you examine them from a different perspective1.

We see how we can all be in situations where it’s easier to share nervous glances, instead of speaking up and averting panic.

And the story makes very plain how much energy we spend on angst and consternation, as we all barrel down the runway, unsure of the outcome.

While discussing these issues with a release engineer colleague, I coined the term “chicken-ship” to describe this pattern: a release involving this chicken-esque game between at least a couple2 of the release’s stakeholders, combined with the perceived threat of harm3.

As the available runway passes beneath the release, fewer and fewer have confidence it will make it off the ground; and only when that doubt turns into hysterical screaming, do we take note and do what needs to be done to avert disaster.

No one would fly if every takeoff was conducted like this, but many routinely ship release after release utilizing this “methodology.”

There’s a better way. And were we the passengers in the story, we’d already intuitively know that.

In release engineering, it may be more difficult and more subtle to see.

But it’s no less true.

1 Outside the plane!
2 Though often more
3 Which, to be fair, is often founded