How a Background in Science Prepared Me for Software Requirements Part I: A Practice in Reductionism

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Reductionism: The theory that every complex phenomenon … can be explained by analyzing the simplest, most basic physical mechanisms that are in operation during the phenomenon.”

Think about any software product that you have ever used. For the most part, you care about the whole of the product, which is the collective effort of all the sub-processes involved. When envisioning a product, business stakeholders usually have a general idea of what the product should be, but don’t necessarily have a detailed vision of what the sub-processes are or how they should act. One of the jobs of a requirements analyst is to take a high level concept, and reduce it to lower levels in order to give developers a more detailed idea of what the product should be.

This works out well for me, since this type of thought parallels nicely with the thought process that is advantageous when learning about biology. In addition to memorizing an absurd amount of information from a textbook, I always tried to reduce a concept to the lowest levels. I felt I gained a better understanding of concepts this way, and it allowed me to identify missing pieces of the puzzle. In my opinion, this type of thinking relates to the type of work I do as a Requirements Analyst.


In a Biological Rhythms course I took in college, we covered a study that suggested that the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN) was both necessary and sufficient to generate the period of circadian rhythm. Researchers had lesioned the SCNs of wild-type mice, determined that the circadian rhythmicity had been lost, transplanted a tissue graft from the SCNs of mutant fetal mice, and watched circadian rhythmicity return.

The point of the lesson was to illustrate that the SCN was indeed very important to circadian rhythmicity; however, there was another lesson that some of us caught onto. The transplanted SCNs came from mice with either a heterozygous or homozygous Tau mutation. Both genotypes have a known circadian period, and when the lesioned wild-type mice had received one of the mutant SCN transplants, the wild-type mice started to exhibit a similar circadian period to the donor mouse. Knowing this, a few of us pointed out that in order for this to be possible, cells must have their own internal clock. That claim turned out to be correct, and we got major brownie points.

So what does this type of reductionism have to do with being a Requirements Analyst? Imagine that we are in an elicitation session and you tell me about the experiment above. You tell me that this is your methodology, and that this was the result. In the context of the class lesson above, you just said that you knocked out a SCN, which led to the loss of circadian rhythmicity, replaced it with another SCN, which brought back circadian rhythmicity.

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However, what you didn’t place an emphasis on was that the two types of mutant transplants gave rise to two different types of circadian periods. After noticing this, I’m able to tell that there is another level of detail that we are not covering. You mentioned a scenario involving only SCNs and rhythmicity. I was able to ask about another level, involving genotype A, genotype B, circadian period A, circadian period B. This example is very simplistic relative to what is actually going on with this mechanism in the brain, but it does illustrate the similarities between the types of reasoning I did during undergrad and in my job as a Requirements Analyst.

Part of being a Requirements Analyst is asking questions derived from the information provided by high level concepts. When someone says that they want security restrictions on a document, an analyst needs to ask questions about which documents need security, who can access secure documents, what type of restrictions are involved, how is this all controlled, etc. In my opinion, having experience with the sciences has helped me with this type of thought.

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