Why do you need a cardboard batman?

I am not a software developer.  I do have some training as a database administrator, most of experience is in managing projects and teams for highly technical initiatives.  This ranges from shopping cart and credit card integration for an e-commerce site in the early stages of the Internet; the creation of automated renewal subscription processes; billing systems; customer portals; complex billing processes for publicly traded companies and legacy to SAAS migration of critical business software.  I raise my experience here as I want to talk about the principle used in software development called “rubber duck problem solving”, but which I have been using and calling cardboard batman for my entire career.

“Cardboard Batman” refers to the act of clearly articulating a technical problem and in the process solving it, without any help from the person you talked to (real or fake).  I have to thank my husband, Carson, for introducing me to this concept. I met my husband 20 years ago at a small, e-commerce startup.  He was the programmer and I was the project manager.  At the pinnacle of the dot com bubble, our days, nights and weekends were often filled with work towards an aggressive deadline.  This often meant that Carson would be sustaining himself on mountain dew and pizza and I was constantly asking “are you done yet? is it ready for me to test?”

Inevitably an issue would arise late at night with no seemingly easy solution.  After Carson would spend some period of time trying unsuccessfully to debug his code, he would call me over to explain what he was doing. This usually involved walking me through software code in the language du jour and trying to step me through the problem – both what customer problem he was trying to solve and what issue he was running into.  This is where my lack of programming skills became an asset.  In translating between the customer problem and the software code, more often than not, the issue would become obvious.

Over the years, I have incorporated this methodology into my project and product management.  It forces you to step back and rethink the problem you are trying to solve and the current solution.  In many cases, it has exposed a different, better way of doing something.  It has also allowed me to manage highly technical developers, database and system administrators, without necessarily having that classical training.

So, Do you have a cardboard batman (or rubber duck) readily available?

While we call it something different, the cardboard batman method is real and sound.  You can find more at this blogyoutube, wikipedia and even urban dictionary.