by Leon Rosenshein

Milestones Vs. Steppingstones

In software, we’re very familiar with the idea of a milestone, but not steppingstones. Which is odd, because the two terms are very similar. Where does the terms come from? Like many things in the western world, the term milestoone comes from the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire did lots of things throughout Europe and Asia. Some good, some bad. One thing they did really well was build roads. Good, solid roads that you could count on to get you from here to there, regardless of the season or weather. You also knew where you were, because they put milestones along the road. At fixed, well known intervals (every mile) along the major roads was a marker, a milestone, that you could use to know how much progress you had made.

These days we have mile markers along our major roads, not actual stones, but we still use the term. In projects we use the term to mark significant points along the project’s journey from start to finish. They’re usually big, complex, demo-able things with fixed dates. They can be pretty important. They are almost always something fairly concrete and definable in the domain the user of your software can understand.

Steppingstones, on the other hand, aren’t something we talk about much. While milestones are the markers along the way that let us know how far we’ve come, steppingstones, on the other hand, are the little increments you use as you proceed from milestone to milestone. They’re solid, well anchored, stable places you can step to along the way. They usually help you to avoid falling into the water or sinking into the mud, but you can use steppingstones any time you need a place along the way to keep from making a mess or getting stuck.

In software we love to talk about analogies. To the stakeholders, the people who are not closely involved in the development of the software, but are responsible for ensuring the project succeeds, and often also responsible for providing resources, milestones often get used to provide confidence. Confidence that things are proceeding at the expected pace, and that the result will be something like what they’re expecting, and that it will arrive on the date its expected.

For those directly working on the project, the implementors, milestones provide a goal to work towards. They explain, in generally plain language, the functionality that someone who isn’t deeply involved with the project is supposed to be able to see. They’re a little bit squishy, because they don’t describe all of the possible edge cases, problems, and oddities along the way, but that’s a good thing. They let you figure out how to meet the requirements. And when the requirements don’t make sense, they give an opportunity and a forum to explain, again, in simple language, why they don’t make sense. Even more important, they give you a date. A time when the result is expected. That’s really good for helping you focus on what’s important. Focusing on which decisions need to be made now, and which decisions can (and should) wait until later.

Just like milestones have an analogy in software development, steppingstones have one too. As with milestones, stakeholders and implementors view steppingstones differently. But where they both see milestones as important, stakeholders generally don’t care about any of the details of the steppingstones. In fact, as long as you don’t get fall of the path, they don’t even want to hear about the steppingstones. They’re an implementation detail left to the implementors. For the implementors though, steppingstones are critical. They’re the stuff of the day-to-day work. Often you can’t see more than 2 or three steppingstones in front of you, so you can’t pick out which one you’re going to use until you get there. And where you find yourself directly impacts the choices you have on where to go next. You often have some idea of the steppingstones along the way, but which exact ones you end up using you won’t know until you get there.

Here’s another way to think about it. At the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark Indy is trying to get a golden idol from a lost temple. He knows his milestones. Find the temple. Find the entrance, Find the idol in the temple. Get out, Get home. He has a certain amount of supplies and tools, and he plans his route accordingly. What he can’t do beforehand though, is plan how do to each of those things. He knows there are booby traps along the way, but he doesn’t know what they are until he gets there. So he finds the steppingstones as he comes to them. In the room with the idol, he literally needs has to choose the correct first steppingstone before he can even start looking for the next one until he gets to the idol.

When you think a little more deeply about it, the difference between a milestone and a steppingstone is more of a question of scope and viewpoint than it is an objective reality. Just as software architecture can be seen as software design at a different scale, your steppingstones could be someone’s milestones, and your milestones are probably viewed as steppingstones by someone else. Which is another way of saying we need to think about the steppingstones along the way. And take many more much smaller steps.