What is a Maguffyn?

One of the most frequently asked questions that I get asked is "What is a Maguffyn?"

To start the story we need to go back to a friend, Justin Wilson who founded his own company and called it Alpheus. Upon hearing the name most people think that it is simply a variation on "alpha" but it is in fact much more clever than that:

The story goes that one of Twelve Labours given to Hercules was to clean out the Augean stables in a single day. The task was impossible as the stables filled up faster than any man could clean them. Hercules succeeded by focussing, not on the pile of dung, but on rerouting the rivers Alpheus and Peneus. This then flushed the stables and cleansed them completing the task. For Justin it also gave his company an image of "thinking outside the box" solving problems and it was also available as a .com name for registration.

So, as with so many things, a simple thing gives rise to a story of more beauty and complexity than you could conceive before. And thus was the gauntlet thrown down: When I created my company it needed to be more than simply "Ian Batty Consulting"- it needed to tell a story.

But what story to tell? After all working in the IT industry is pretty dull stuff. I genuinely thought about this for quite a while until I remembered reading a book about a film critic who much to his fear and annoyance, gets involved with some dangerous activities. The main protagonist in the book was a huge Alfred Hitchcock fan and through the procedings of the book explained what a "McGuffin" is.

Hitchcock himself explained a McGuffin by telling the following story:

"It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men in a train. One man says, 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?' And the other answers, 'Oh that's a McGuffin.' The first one asks 'What's a McGuffin?' 'Well' the other man says, 'It's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.' The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,' and the other one answers 'Well, then that's no McGuffin!' So you see, a McGuffin is nothing at all." But I have to confess even after telling people that story I still have little to no idea what he was on about. I guess that is what comes of being a genius. The best summary is that a McGuffin is a plot device that "motivates the characters and/or advances the story, but has little other relevance to the story".

The way I like to put it is slightly more prosaic:

"A Maguffyn is the thing, without which, nothing else happens"

It could be (in a film) a mis-directed letter, or a chance meeting on a train or even the plans for a nuclear bomb. Whatever it is, without it the film would not have a story. Of course, when it comes to creating an architecture for a computer system there is little chance of the plans for a nuclear bomb being involved. Instead, the idea behind the name is that I will (probably) not build you the complete system: there will need to be infrastructure guys to connect the boxes with cables, there will need to be developers to turn the design into code, DBA's to implement the logical data model that I designed, project managers to do whatever the hell project managers do (still not sure about that one, except that I know when you have a bad PM life can get a whole lot worse) etc etc.

However, and this is my thesis: Without the bit that I do, be it

  • Coming up with the data architecture that underpins the information system
  • Being the annoying technical guy who is constantly asking the developers to explain what the hell they are doing
  • Being the anally retentive documenter who wants to make sure that all the documents use the same template
  • Or any of the other things that I seem to get asked to do

the system that we build will not be as successful as it could be. Sure, it might work, but the cost of on-going maintenance will be higher (because the documents weren't of a high enough quality) or the development time will be longer(because the design wasn't truly understood) etc etc.

So why Maguffyn not McGuffin? Simple really- one of the requirements for Alpheus was that the .com domain was available. By mis-spelling McGuffin I was able to grab the .com name (and the .co.uk name too)

And the summary of the story is: Maguffyn is a phonetic mis-spelling of "McGuffin". Or put slightly differently "the thing, without which, nothing else happens" And that is what I try to do: Play a little (but crucial) part in the successful design, build and deployment of a computer system that meets the business requirements of the company that I am working for.