Nathalie shares her recent experiences on the Camino de Santiago, and turns them into some take-home lessons

Camino image 1

Have you ever attempted an 800km trek? (Or a 500 mile one, if that sounds less intimidating?) Orchid’s own Nathalie Lesbre has. In fact, she is still coming back down to Earth after recently completing a secular pilgrimage along the Camino Francés – ‘the French Way’ – from St. Jean Pied de Port in France, over the Pyrenees, and across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela.

Even if the Camino de Santiago proves a step too far for you, I’ve no doubt you have embarked on projects, personal or professional, that seemed equally daunting in their own way. You may well have remained outwardly confident of success while having private moments of doubt or trepidation.

Putting one step in front of the other a million or so times over several weeks can lead the mind to wander. Call it contemplation or hallucination, but Nathalie’s thoughts would occasionally drift from the metaphysical to the mundane. As she neared the finishing line and prepared for ‘re-entry’ she found herself thinking of the lessons learned on this venture, and how they might be applied to planning for and implementing major software projects. This article is the result of those deliberations.

The Camino Experience
Camino Image 3

For some people, walking ‘The Camino’ is about pushing their physical limits. Walking as far as their body will let them, perhaps 40km a day, one day after another.

That wasn’t why I chose to spend five weeks walking. For me it was to be a slower process, building strength every day. The important thing was to enjoy the journey, rather than simply focusing on the end goal.

Project Lesson 1: Have clear objectives

  • All parties need to have a shared understanding of what they are trying to achieve, while maintaining an open mind about how to get there. Planning for a major project should start with a ‘discovery’ phase, including requirements analysis workshops.

The Camino Experience, continued...

A lot of care went into selecting the right equipment, be it boots or walking poles, clothing or accessories, and road testing them. Everything had to carried, so while I wanted my backpack to contain everything I needed I couldn’t afford any excess baggage. 

That said, along the way it was inevitable that I’d need to acquire a few additional things. Perhaps new shoes if I got too many blisters, soothing cream for my aching muscles, or a poncho for wet weather.

Project Lesson 2: Planning and preparation are critical

  • Don’t kick off a major project until you are sure you have the information and tools you need to succeed. Go in with your eyes open. Brainstorm what might go wrong and have remediation plans in place for those setbacks that are foreseeable.
  • Before making major updates to a live system, do ‘dry runs’ in a test environment if possible.
  • Always set aside some of the budget as contingency to allow for those ‘unknown unknowns’. E.g. be prepared to purchase additional add-on modules to support requirements that were not identified in the discovery phase.

The Camino Experience, continued...

Choosing my travelling companions was the most important preparation of all. We would be living in each others' pockets for weeks, so we needed to have common goals, complementary personalities, and be prepared to support each other when the going got tough. If they weren't up to the task they would be a lot harder to jettison or replace than faulty poles.

Project Lesson 3: Put together a strong team

  • Not only must they have the right mix of skills, but you must be able to count on them to react positively and creatively should things go wrong.
  • More than ever before, teams and support networks can be virtual. It may be uncharted territory for you, but it’s likely that others have trodden the same or similar paths. Search for user groups and online forums. Attend end-user conferences. Be prepared to reach out for help. And remember that support is a two-way street, so also be ready to help others who can benefit from your experiences.


Camino Image 3

The Camino Experience, continued...

When we started our journey, Santiago felt very far away. Walking 800km could have seemed an impossible task, but the journey can easily be broken into multiple stages. It goes through different regions, with different terrains. We would begin in the mountains of the Pyrenees before moving on to the hills of Navarra, then the vineyards and fertile lands of La Rioja.

Project Lesson 4: Chunk it down

  • Methodologies for delivering complex projects are many and varied. E.g. they might include phased delivery, or prototyping, or parallel development, or an ‘Agile’ approach. What they all have in common is that they take something potentially overwhelming, and break it down into understandable, achievable, verifiable components and steps.

The Camino Experience, continued...

While my personal target was to reach Santiago de Compostela in 5 weeks, we were intentionally flexible during the initial stages. We hadn’t planned exactly where we would stop each night, or how long each stop would be, or where we would have breaks during the day.

We started slowly. The initial mountainous stages might have been the most tiring physically, but the relaxed pace helped me get used to the daily routine, and get the practical details right. I could refresh my knowledge of Spanish, learn some new words, and pick up the jargon of the Camino.

After leaving La Rioja we chose to cycle 200km across the flat Meseta plateau. This allowed us to make up time following a slowish start, as well as giving us some variety. Suddenly we’d passed the half way point and were back on time. The goal now seemed achievable.

Back on foot, we traversed the ups and downs of more hills before reaching Galicia, about 100km from our destination. By this point I was really looking forward to reaching Santiago. I was feeling strong, able to walk longer distances each day while still enjoying the scenery and sites. 

Project Lesson 5: Walk before you run

  • A large project can burn up funds at a sobering rate when it reaches full steam. Make sure you get the basics right first. Are the test environments set up? Have you settled on a methodology? Have you done some initial prototyping or other proof of concept?
  • Only bring additional personnel on board once you are sure they can quickly ramp up to full productivity.

The Camino Experience, continued...

The trip was both a voyage of discovery and a roller coaster of emotions. Much of the daily focus was on reviewing the terrain for the upcoming stage, deciding where to stop, and planning where to get food and water. There was still plenty of time, however, to contemplate our goal and reflect on what we’d achieved so far.

Towards the end, once it became clear that I would soon be arriving in Santiago, there was a strong urge to walk faster, cover longer distances each day, and reach the goal sooner.

When setting out I had thought the aim was simply to reach Santiago. As it came nearer I realised I didn’t need to stop there. I could keep walking towards the sea, to Finisterre – ‘the end of the Earth’.

But what’s the point of a journey of discovery if you don’t stop and spend time reflecting on just what it is you have discovered? Besides, there are countless more Caminos. They may all share the same destination, but there are as many routes to Santiago as there are starting points.

Project Lesson 6: It doesn't end with 'Go Live'!

  • There will always be pressure to move on to the next thing, but ‘going live’ is rarely the final word, and for a larger project it certainly won’t be. You can almost guarantee there will be post-launch tidy up tasks. Non-critical defects to investigate and fix, reports to write, support procedures to bed down.
  • We should also spend time looking back at what we might have done differently with the benefit of hindsight, and what learnings we can take forward to the projects that follow.
The last word...
Camino Image 4

And last, but by no means least...

Project Lesson 7: Always make the time to celebrate success!

About Nathalie:

Nathalie Lesbre has been with Orchid Systems for over 20 years. As ‘Special Projects’ manager she is is involved in just about every aspect of Orchid’s activities. You can find out more about Nathalie and other Orchid staff members at the bottom of our About Us page.


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