Alton Brown and the Art of the Walkthrough

BizTalk Server 2006 is a complex program comprised of many moving parts and a multitude of related systems that, when combined, solve complex business problems. Developing for BizTalk Server requires attention to a number of details from the obvious (setting up a receive port) to the obscure (linking multple orchestrations, ports, files and schemas together with effective security). One mistake in planning or development can have a serious negative impact on the final application.

Cooking is a complex task comprised of many different ingredients and a multitude of related components that, when combine, result in dinner. Being a great chef requires attention to a number of details from the obvious (knowing julienne from frenched) to the obscure (when to use a cherimoya and when to call in the entremetier). One mistake in planning, preparation or execution can have a negative impact on the gastro-intestinal tract of customers.

Okay, so Alton's job isn't that much different than your job if you happen to work with BizTalk Server. Alton:

  • Manages a creative team of professionals, from chefs and food historians to camera operators and gaffers. Together, this team must tie together ingredients, narrative, equipment, and the rest to bring a recipe to life on TV. (And I got to use "gaffer" on my blog...sweet) .
  • Designs an integration plan (recipe) specifying ingredients, processes and (often) plating suggestions. Alton must draw on culinary experience, research, team input, customer feedback, and his senses to ensure the ingredients are drawn together properly. Gouda or Edam? So many choices, so many potential points of failure.
  • Constructs the meal. On national television. Think of it as a 30-minute webcast. It may not be live, but then again development efforts aren't done "live" either (unless your site has dev cams).
  • Demands quality ingredients and perfect execution. Alton does not advocate spending cash on expensive items but rather investing in quality items even if you have to build them yourself. If you will use Gouda, make sure you know the supplier and understand what it means to be Gouda...if you can't tell, how can you ensure it is the best?
  • Cashes some pretty large checks. Don't we all have endorsement deals, hit books, and a television show?

In his cooking shows as well as in his books, Alton makes heavy use of the Walkthrough. It is a tradition with cooking shows. Ask Julia or the Galloping Gourmet. Ask Emeril or Rachel Ray. Cooking shows are all about the walkthrough. Recipes are all about the walkthrough. In fact, a recipe is a walkthrough and while I'm not prepared to call them synonyms, I might next week. They are that close in meaning.

But Alton's walkthroughs are the pinnacle of walkthroughs in the culinary world. Why? He does everything a good walkthrough should do to explain not only the surface-level what and how, but also the deeper-level what and how and most importantly why. Why is applesauce a good replacement for fat in recipes? How does baking powder differ from baking soda and what role do both play in good eats? What is the science behind broiling and even cooking? Where did haggis come from and why cook in a sheep's stomach? What makes a knife sharp? What are the important traditions of French cooking, and which traditions can be ignored when making crepes? What are trans-fats and how do you avoid them?

Here is why Alton's walkthroughs work:

  • Motivate the topic. Use a quick backstory with useful facts to orient the user to the topic and to grab his or her attention.
  • Motivate the components. Why are you using Goda over Edan? Why use a message queue? You don't have to trace computer science from Babbage to Knuth, but provide a justification.
  • Don't scrimp on quality. Alton doesn't cut corners. Cooking, like software, is all about customer satisfaction through quality product. Know your ingredients and educate the reader as needed.
  • Motivate the process. Braising is different from broiling but they both cook food. Why choose one over the other? Why do you have to GAC a component prior to deployment (and not sooner)? Again, you don't have to derive all of this from first principles, but do motivate it.
  • Describe the outcome. Readers want to know where they will be when te walkthrough is completed. What will they have created?
  • Call out dangers, warnings, and notes before the walkthrough begins. Hot oil can burn (ask medieval warriors). Will the steps possibly delete my hard drive? I want to know.
  • Choose an engaging conversational tone. We aren't all on tv, but we can choose our voice. Pick an appropriate tone and stick with it.

Did I miss anything?