October 2016

Volume 31 Number 10

[Editor's Note]

Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Monty Python and the Holy Grail

By Michael Desmond | October 2016

Michael Desmond“Monty Python and the Holy Grail” might be the funniest movie ever made. Filmed on a shoestring budget by the irreverent British comedy troupe Monty Python, the movie tackles the legend of King Arthur and lampoons everything from arranged marriages to medieval superstitions to the French. Given its medieval setting and farcical treatment, you’d think there would be little software developers could learn from the film. As it turns out, “The Holy Grail” offers more than a few lessons for those involved with code.

Be pragmatic: Everyone told the King of Swamp Castle that he was “daft to build a castle on a swamp,” and sure enough, his first attempt sank into the muck. “So I built a second one,” he says. “That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up.”

This is the kind of thinking that produces epic SAP implementation failures. The King and his melancholy son Alice ... I mean, Herbert … could’ve spared themselves a lot of trouble if they had listened to trusted advisors and built on another site. Be pragmatic and be willing to shift your plan as events and conditions warrant. Oh, and no singing.

Assume nothing: That simple code update project you were assigned? It could be a killer rabbit. Don’t make assumptions. Assess for complexity and scope, watch out for sharp, pointy teeth and budget accordingly.

Commit to process: It’s not enough to have a great idea, you have to execute. Sir Bedevere’s giant Trojan rabbit ploy worked flawlessly—except he forgot to put anyone in the construct before the French guards rolled it into their castle. A more rigorous process would have ensured the project was complete before he deployed it, allowing the knights to take the French “not only by surprise, but totally unarmed!”

Harden your code: At the Bridge of Death, each knight had to correctly answer three questions or face being launched into the chasm. When the Bridgekeeper asked King Arthur the air speed velocity of a laden swallow, Arthur replied, “What do you mean, African or European swallow?” Surprised, the Bridgekeeper muttered, “I don’t know that,” and was himself launched into the abyss. The unanticipated input crashed the authentication routine and left the bridge unguarded. This is stuff that can be addressed by fuzz tests and error checking.

Value documentation: The knights’ quest would never have even reached the Bridge, had Joseph of Arimethea not documented his work in the living rock of the Caves of Caerbannog. And the knights never would have gotten past the killer rabbit without the Book of Armaments and its detailed instructions on using the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. Document, document, document!

Consider open source:True fact: The budget for “The Holy Grail” was so small that the crew couldn’t afford horses. So cast members took two halves of coconut and clapped them together as they skipped along. Sometimes, free tools are the best tools.

Know when to quit: The Black Knight always triumphs, except when he doesn’t. Don’t be stubborn—no one is of any use with all their limbs lopped off. Take a lesson from King Arthur and his men, who throughout the movie would cry, “Run away! Run away!” as they retreated from one peril after the next. It looked cowardly and silly, but those retreats allowed the knights to regroup and press on with their quest.

Michael Desmond is the Editor-in-Chief of MSDN Magazine.

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