What 'The Martian' Can Teach Us About Being Agile Under Pressure

MEST, Friday October 30th 2015

I had the pleasure of seeing The Martian a couple weeks back and, having thoroughly enjoyed the film at the time, found myself reflecting on it recently in a more generic sense: as an archetypal date-driven project with high stakes, many stakeholders, and drama throughout. This might sound familiar if you're a member of a software development team!

While not all projects are guaranteed a Hollywood happy ending, here's some unexpected wisdom from The Martian that can help agile teams perform well under the pressure of external deadlines. (note: minor spoilers ahead!)

Redundancy saves lives

Mark Watney wouldn't have been able to survive long enough to start his Martian greenhouse without the redundant food stores NASA had provided for the rest of the Ares crew. It's a good thing they were there when he needed it the most! Similarly, modern development teams know they need data backup and restore capabilities, staging environments and a stress testing strategy, but it's often neglected in the race up to launch.

Make sure you've actually battle-tested your product before the big day comes (an approach like Chaos Monkey is a great example), and have failsafes in place in case your app, services or dependencies buckle - like Mark, you never know when you'll need them!

Engineer for the long haul

Real-life NASA does this too - targeting a mission to only last for 30 sols or a similarly modest number, but building all the equipment to last an order of magnitude longer. And often times it's not just out of necessity that mission durations are extended, but the option wouldn't even be on the table if engineering had done the bare minimum to meet the 30 sol spec.

Maintaining code quality is a constant struggle when racing towards an MVP, but being vigilant about quality (for Scrum teams, this might be through a Definition of Done) can help prevent you from falling into the trap of growing a large "legacy" codebase with a backlog of quality issues. If you engineer your product well from the start, you'll have that option on the table to use it well past its intended "mission lifetime," and be confident that it'll still get the job done.

Simulations remove unknowns

Mark quips at one point in the movie that he has all of Earth's best minds working for him, so that before modifying his rover, he doesn't have to worry about making mistakes in an environment where failure is practically synonymous with death. We then cut to scenes of JPL employees trying out what they're asking Mark to do in a simulated environment, making sure it works as expected before sending him instructions. Rich Purnell does just as much when testing his hypothetical trajectories at NASA's computing facility, as well.

There's an important lesson here about using simulations to remove our fear of the unknown, making the expected results known and then giving us confidence to pursue it as the path forward. Techniques like A/B testing are built around this same principle, and when done in an incremental fashion, really embody the agile mentality of fast failure and iterative learning.

Multidisciplinary teams are stronger

Why does a botanist even get to be an astronaut? This is a running joke between crewmates in the movie, but it highlights the importance of diversity in the makeup of your technical teams. The ability to grow life in the harshest of conditions ended up being Mark's ace in the hole - and it's been well-studied in business circles that diverse teams outperform their less diverse peers. If you've covered this one from the start of your project, you shouldn't find yourself scrambling for an expert when crunch time comes - leaders will emerge from within your existing team.

If you haven't seen The Martian yet, I'd encourage you to watch with a critical eye, because it's more that just good fun to cheer on our ragtag band of Ares astronauts in their mission. What other teamwork strategies have you found in your viewing?

Sean is a former Technical Fellow of the MEST Incubator. Reach out to him on Twitter.