Writing by Peter Hilton

Domain primers

How software developers and product people can bootstrap subject-matter knowledge - 9 November 2021 #DDD

People talking about a book

Alexis Brown

When you work on either general purpose software or custom software development, you end up needing to understand your customer’s business. If you’ve never visited a warehouse or talked to someone who works in one, attempting to build inventory management software will most likely result in unusable or even useless software. To properly understand your customer’s subject-matter domains, you could do their job, but this takes a few years. You’ll save time if you read some kind of domain primer.

Domain language to start with

Learning a domain starts with its language - its jargon and slang, which effective communication requires. As you learn the language, you can start engaging with customers enough to learn from them directly. After all, most people (sometimes secretly) love talking about their job. This naturally leads to learning more than just the language.

While getting started, a day’s reading goes a long way, if you can find the right stuff to read. A domain’s Wikipedia page often provides the most convenient and accessible starting point, and introduces the key jargon. However, Wikipedia quickly jumps from a general overview to oddly-specific topics. You start reading about inventory management and before you know it, price elasticity of demand equations start melting your brain.

Novels

Ideally, you find a deeper book-length introduction to a particular business. However, non-fiction about someone else’s job is likely to help you catch up on sleep more than it helps you understand the field they work in. Novels work better, especially if they’re funny.

Refusal Shoes, for example, offers entertaining but unflattering insights into how immigration (border control) works at a large airport. Presumably not coincidentally, Tony Saint wrote Refusal Shoes after ten years working for the UK Immigration Service. And Time Will Tell, by Donald Greig, follows an early music vocal ensemble on an adventure.

Non-fiction examples from industry insiders that forego a novel’s plot structure but retain plenty of wit include Gideon Karting’s book, Never Work With Your Idols: 35 Commandments for a Successful Career in the Music Industry (in Dutch), and This is Going to Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor, by Adam Kay.

Unfortunately, not every business has a canonical fictionalisation. I don’t know of an entertaining novel whose protagonist works in a warehouse.

Television

Television drama has the potential to provide a richer introduction to a field than a book, but has two problems. First, only professions with uniforms (doctors, soldiers, etc.) or dealing with criminals (detectives, lawyers, etc.) or both (police) get the television treatment. Secondly, television drama tends to prioritise glamour over realism, so you’ll need a doctor to tell you that ER portrayed emergency medicine and surgery more realistically than Grey’s Anatomy.

Meanwhile, shows that wouldn’t appear on the uniform channel or the crime channel tend towards slapstick comedy that obscures their underlying educational content. No industry suffers this fate more than tech; you only get the likes of The IT Crowd or Silicon Valley. Perhaps the ultimate compromise would be a series about an spy or police officer who goes undercover in a series of different industries, and who gets a crash course in each one.