In Stockholm, Sweden, there is a museum that displays the ship called the Vasa, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628. I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard that the museum is fascinating for both architectural and historical reasons. The Vasa took three years to build, and was supposed to be the flagship for Sweden’s growing navy. The ship was built with 72 guns on two decks, and was adorned with elaborately painted carvings to reflect its majesty.
On the day of its maiden voyage, in full view of thousands of people, including ambassadors from other countries, the ship sailed only 1400 yards before tilting, capsizing, and sinking. It was a calm day, but a simple gust of wind caused the ship to list too much to one side, and water began pouring in through the gunports. The primary reason for the loss of the Vasa was the simple fact that the ship’s center of gravity was too high. How did this crucial error happen? The answers can be helpful to us even 400 years later!
Make sure you have solid, updated plans
The shipwright in charge of building the Vasa became seriously ill (and eventually died) in the beginning stages of the project. His assistant was in charge of completing the project, which had changed significantly since its inception. After the initial plans were drawn, the number of guns it was expected to carry doubled, and the length of the ship was increased from 111 feet to 135 feet. Yet the shipwright’s assistant never created a new set of plans to account for these changes.
Our lesson today: Working in an agile environment means the specifications for our software projects will frequently change. We need to be mindful of this, and remember to re-evaluate our plans and communicate them clearly to the entire team.
Communicate with other teams
Archeologists who have studied the Vasa and the remains of the wreckage discovered that one team of builders was using Swedish rulers, which had the modern-day 12 inches in a foot, while another team was using Amsterdam rulers, which only had 11 inches in a foot. This resulted in the ship’s mass being distributed unevenly, compounding the problem of the high center of gravity.
Our lesson today: Most of us don’t enjoy having meetings and writing documentation, but they can be crucial in making sure that we are all on the same page. We don’t want to waste time accidentally duplicating another team’s work, or using the wrong version of our tools.
Pay attention to your test results
Shortly before the Vasa’s first and final voyage, the captain supervising construction of the ship arranged for a demonstration of the ship’s stability. He had thirty men run back and forth across the deck. He stopped the test after the men had crossed the deck just three times, because the ship was rocking so much he feared it would capsize! Rather than conduct further tests, plans continued for the launch.
Our lesson today: Test results that don’t show us what we want to see can be disheartening, but to see a software release launch and fail feels even worse! It’s important that testers keep digging when we see results that are different from what we expected, and it’s important that we listen to what our testers are telling us, even when it’s bad news.
Learning about the Vasa made me marvel at just how much engineering principles have remained the same over hundreds of years. Even though our projects are built from code rather than timber, the fundamental principles of having solid plans, communicating with everyone in the project, and getting valuable feedback through testing are still crucial to creating a great product.