The best sled ever; or, how I learned about testing early.

I think I may have been out of bed and fully awake before my eyes were completely open. This didn’t usually happen on school days, but today was different. The weatherman had promised we would get snow; a lot of snow. Not just a few inches, mind you, he said it could easily be a foot.

I ran downstairs and turned on the radio, “…Fox C-6 closed, Grandview R-2 closed, Hillsboro R-3 closed…” There it was, the phrase I was longing to hear. School was closed.

I headed back upstairs to get dressed. I started with two pairs of jeans. Getting the second one on over the first one was a chore, but at least I would be warm. Next came a couple shirts, followed by two pairs of socks. I put my boots on, grabbed my coat, and headed back downstairs.

I stopped in the kitchen to get some cereal. A bowl and milk would take too much time, so I opened the box and started pouring it into my mouth like a mother bird feeding her chick. Pour, chew, swallow, pour, chew, swallow, pour, and head out the door.

I was to the end of the driveway before I had my coat on. I zipped it up as I ran across the street. Hopefully Jeff and Kelly, my cousins, were already awake. I knocked on the door and Kelly answered immediately. “What took you so long?” he asked. “We’ve been ready for ten minutes.”

“What do you want to do?” I asked, “do you want to get everyone together and play football? Or should we start with sledding?”

“Sledding,” he replied. “It might warm up, and I would rather play football in slush than try to sled.”

“Cool, I was hoping to go sledding first anyway,” I answered him. “I will go get my sled and meet you up on the pasture hill.”

“Ok, we’ll be there,” he said as he was closing the door.

I headed back over to my house and went into the basement. The basement had an outside entrance. As I understand it, the door opening used to be large enough for my grandfather to park a car down there. I assume there was a ramp going down where the steps are now. But the large opening has been closed and replaced with a standard door for as long as I had lived there.

The sled was hanging from a nail in the set of shelves at the far end of the basement. I grabbed it and headed back across the street, past grandma Grote’s house, and into the back pasture. Grandma Grote was my great-grandmother. She died a long time ago, and my dad’s cousin inherited the house and land; but we all still called it grandma Grote’s house. There was a barn and pasture behind the house, but there hadn’t been any livestock since Grandma died; so, we never had to worry about running into a cow or a patty.

I was out of breath by the time I got to the top of the hill, but I managed to choke out, “where are your sleds?” as I looked around for their runner sleds.

“We are going to use those,” Kelly said as he pointed to a couple pieces of metal corrugated roofing material. He and Jeff had pulled one end of each sheet up a little to prevent the leading edge from digging into the snow. Looking back, a bunch of boys sledding down a large hill on pieces of sheet metal is probably not a very good idea. I guess we should be thankful we didn’t have any amputated legs.

They both jumped on their crudely fashioned sled and took off down the hill. I sat on my tiny aluminum saucer and followed. We continued to climb the hill and slide down until we became so wet and cold that we started to shiver. As we were walking back to their house I asked about another piece of sheet metal.

“I don’t know if we have another one or not,” Jeff said. “look around in the tractor shed and take what you can find.”

I searched the shed and found nothing. I looked under the tractor, against the back and side walls, outside of the shed and found nothing that even resembled a sheet of metal. I was about to head for home when I looked up and saw it; a glorious piece sheet metal, up in the rafters, just waiting for me to rescue it from obscurity and turn it into a down-hill racing machine.

I climbed up on the tractor and pulled it down; then headed for home. On the way, I began thinking about what I could do to the metal to turn it into a real sled. Just a piece of metal was fine for the other two guys, but I wanted a machine; a racing machine. The best sled ever devised or built.

On my way down the steps into the basement, an old step ladder caught my eye. In my imagination, I could see the perfect frame for my hot rod. The ladder was missing the back legs and only had the half that contained the steps. It was five feet long, so it was exactly the right length. This would perfectly fit the six-foot piece of metal, with just enough to pull up in front. I laid the metal down on the floor and grabbed the ladder. I laid the ladder on top of the metal and then went to find a hammer and nails.

I wrapped the metal up one side and nailed it to the ladder; then I repeated the process on the other side. At that point, I realized I had a problem. Now I couldn’t wrap the metal up in front because it was already wrapped up on the sides like a ladder taco. I looked around on the tool bench and found a set of tin-snips. I could cut the metal down the side at the front of the sled and bent it up.

When I went back to the bench to return the snips, I noticed an old car side mirror on the bottom shelf of the bench. “Sweet”, I said to myself. I grabbed it and attached it to the right side of the sled. Now I would be able to see Jeff and Kelly as I left them behind in a dusting of snow.

I noticed the mirror was still a little loose but, with just nails to hold it, I wasn’t going to be able to get it any tighter. But that wouldn’t stop me. It wasn’t a bug–it was a feature. I found an old piece of wood from a building my dad had rehabbed, and attached it behind the mirror with a single nail. Now I could push down on the wooden handle and the mirror would push up so I could see the top of the hill. When I let it go, I could see directly behind me. “I am a genius”, I thought. This truly was the best sled ever.

I was working so hard I had long ago shed my outerwear. I felt nice and warm, even in the cold basement. Jeff and Kelly had to be warm and ready for another session of speed by now. I really wanted to put a few coats of paint on it, but I was anxious to take it on its inaugural run.

I bent to pick it up, and realized I had made one heavy sled. It was going to be a bear getting to the top, but with all that weight, gravity will pull me a lot faster. I grabbed some bailing twine and tied it to the ladder near the front, then manhandled it up the steps and pulled it up the driveway, across the road, and toward the hill.

Jeff and Kelly were already outside taking wood into the house. “I will meet you up on top,” I yelled, without stopping. They caught up with me and we all arrived at the top together. “What do you think?” I asked. “It looks heavy,” Kelly said. “Maybe for someone with teeny muscles like you,” I retorted. “Shut up,” he quipped. “Let’s just see who gets to the bottom the fastest,” I challenged. We lined up our rides, Jeff on my left and Kelly on my right. We got comfortable, with our legs out and our feet in the snow, holding us back from the tug of gravity.

“Ready, Set, Go!” Kelly yelled, and we all pulled our feet into the sleds and took off down the hill. I went so fast, I barreled through the mound of snow we had erected to stop us, through the high grass, and stopped just before the creek. I turned around and saw them still half-way up the hill, gently coasting down.

Actually, that was how I had imagined it would go. What really happened was we all lifted our feet and Jeff and Kelly took off down the hill and I went nowhere. I just sat there. I put my feet out to try to scoot myself forward, but still went nowhere. I kept trying to get it to move until the other boys were back on the top of the hill. “It won’t move”, I said. Jeff turned it over and said, “it is covered with rust. There is too much friction. You need to find a piece of metal that doesn’t have rust on it.”

I was heartbroken. I grabbed the twine and pulled my failed creation back across the street and into the basement. I pulled it all apart and threw the sheet metal into the corner, put the mirror back on the bench, and then took all of the wood out to the fire pit and lit it on fire.

I was sitting there looking at it do the only thing it was good for, burning, when Kelly came up behind me. “Hey, do you want to play football?” “Might as well,” I replied. Kelly had already knocked on our door and alerted my two brothers, Tim and Kevin, that we were going to play; and had called my cousin, Bill, who lived up on the top of the hill behind our house.

It wasn’t long before the only thing that mattered was the score, and my failed sled attempt was forgotten.

Actually, it was never forgotten. I still remember it like it was yesterday. But now I don’t see it as a failure. I did a lot of good work. I simply failed to test early and often. If I had tested the metal before I built anything, I would have known it was never going to work. I would have either looked for a sheet that did work, or given up on the project before I had spent any time on it.

Preventing these kinds of expensive failures is the reason we test so much in Agile. Early project termination is not the failure in Agile that it is in Waterfall. In fact, we should actually be looking for things that could cause us to stop the project. We want to know these risks as early as possible so we either have time to resolve them, or stop the project before we spend any real money. I was so excited and emotionally attached to an old ladder, a piece of sheet metal, and some nails, that I wasn’t able to accept failure as a possibility.

When you are talking about the lives of three astronauts, it may be true that failure is not an option. However, for an Agile project, “failure” is not only an option, it should always be on the table and discussed.

So, don’t build a rusty sled. Either, build a sled that moves, or don’t build a sled at all. Unlike me, who could move on and get over it by dragging his brothers to the snowy grass as they were trying to score a touchdown, you may lose your job and find it hard to get another.

Test early and often, or don’t even try.

See you next time…