Keeping abreast of technology updates has always been a formidable job. As always, there are all sorts of options for consuming the fire hose of news. For me, RSS feeds (I use Feedspot for my reader now) from some trusted sources remains a favorite, and I’d like to share a couple of gems that have been really fantastic for a number of years now.
Both of these are design-oriented sites, focusing on UI technologies, techniques, and reviews as well as design theory, layout reviews, and the like. Given my typical focus on back-end design and architecture, these sites are a great way to bolster by front-end perspective and give me some tools to jump-start UI work. I’ve been following both of these sites long enough that I honestly can’t remember where I found them, but I’m really impressed with the track record for both.
Honkiat.com (odd name, I know, but it’s good stuff) is a real grab-bag of articles, so be prepared to filter out some topics you may not be interested in. If you sift through to topics that are of interest, though, there are some really good resources. In most cases, these articles are annotated link collections, so don’t expect to find source code here. Do expect to see examples of UI tools and technologies put to use with links to source sites where you can learn more. A quick flip through recent articles shows topics like these:
Smashing Magazine tends to cover fewer topics more deeply, with more of a focus on their own content, vs curation of content from other sources. This is a great source for tutorials and backgrounders, and they’ve published a number of books based largely on rolled-up content from the site. Again, not everything will be of interest, but the quality of the content that’s here is really high. Here’s a quick sampling of some recent articles from Smashing Magazine:
I’ve recently had occasion to see the same challenge pop up in a couple different settings — namely, bridging the gap between agile development and integration into an enterprise. In both of the cases I saw, development employing agile practices did a good job of producing software, but the actual release into the enterprise wasn’t addressed in sufficient detail, and problems arose – in one case, resulting in wadding up a really large-scale project after a really large investment in time, energy, and development.
Although the circumstances, scope, and impact of problems like this vary from one project to the next, all the difficulties I’ve seen hinge on one or more of these cross-cutting areas: roadmap, architecture, or testing / TDD / CI.
Of the three of these, roadmap issues are by far the most difficult and the most dangerous of the three. Creating and understanding the roadmap for your enterprise requires absolute synchronization and understanding across business and IT areas of your company, and weaknesses in either area will be exposed. Simply stated, software can’t fix a broken business, and business will struggle without high-quality software, but business and software working well together can power growth and profit for both.
Roadmap issues, in a nutshell, address the challenge of breaking waterfall delivery of enterprise software into releases small enough to reduce the risk seen in a traditional delivery model. The web is littered with stories of waterfall projects that run years over their schedule, finally failing without delivering any benefit at all. Agile practice attempts to address this risk with the concepts of Minimum Viable Product (MVP) and Minimum Marketable Feature (MMF), but both are frequently misunderstood, and neither, by themselves, completely address the roadmap threat.
MVP, taken at its definition, is really quite prototype-like. It’s a platform for learning about additional features and requirements by deploying the leanest possible version of a product. This tends to be easier to employ in green-field applications — especially ones with external customers — because product owners can be more willing to carve out a lean product and “throw it out there” to see what sticks. Trying to employ this in an enterprise or with a replace / rewrite / upgrade scenario is destined to fail.
Addressing the same problem from a slightly different vector, MMF attempts to define a more robust form of “good enough”, but at a feature-by-feature level. In this case, MMF describes functionality that would actually work in production to do the job needed for that feature — a concept much more viable for those typical enterprise scenarios where partial functionality just isn’t enough. Unfortunately, MMF breaks down when you compound all the functionality for each feature by all the features found in a large-scale enterprise system. Doing so really results in vaulting you right back into the huge waterfall delivery mode, with all its inherent pitfalls.
In backlog grooming and estimation, teams look for cards that are too big to fit into a sprint — these cards have to be decomposed before they can fit into an agile process. In the same way, breaking huge projects down by MVP or MMF also must occur with a consideration for how release and adoption will occur, and releasing software that nobody uses doesn’t count!
Architects and developers recognize this sticking point, because it’s the same spot we get into with really large cards. When we decompose cards, we look for places to split acceptance criteria, which won’t always work for enterprise delivery, but with the help of architecture, it may be possible to create modules that can be delivered independently. Watch for that topic coming soon.
Armed with all the techniques we can bring to bear to decompose large-scale enterprise software, breaking huge deliveries into an enterprise roadmap will let you and your organization see software delivery as a journey more than as a gigantic event. It’s this part that’s absolutely critical to have embraced by both business and IT. The same partnership you’re establishing with your Product Owners in agile teams has to scale up to the whole enterprise in order for this to work. The trust you should be building at scrum-team-scale needs to scale up to your entire enterprise. No pressure, right? Make no mistake — enterprise roadmap planning must be visible and embraced at the C-level of your enterprise in order to succeed.
Buy-in secured, a successful roadmap will exhibit a couple key traits. First, the roadmap must support and describe incremental release and adoption of software. Your architecture may need attention in order to carve out semi-independent modules that can work with one another in a loosely-coupled workflow, and you absolutely need to be able to sequence delivery of these modules in a way that lets software you’ve delivered yield real value to your customers. The second trait found in a roadmap of any size at all is that it’s nearsighted: the stuff closer to delivery will be much more clearly in-focus than the stuff further out. If you manage your roadmap in an agile spirit, you’ll find that your enterprise roadmap will also change slightly over time — this should be expected, and it’s a reflection of your enterprise taking on the characteristics of agile development.
Next up, I’ll explore some ways architecture can help break that roadmap into deliverable modules.
Software developers are a clever lot, and prone to bouts of creativity every once in a while. It turns out these are essential traits when building software, but cleverness also needs to be must be tempered when it impacts the user-facing parts of your software.
Case in point: Bugzilla’s search results page. This is what happens when you try searching for something in Bugzilla and it doesn’t find any results. It’s supposed to be funny — the misspelling is, in fact, intentional.
But it’s not funny. It’s really, really not funny. It’s not funny for two very specific and very important reasons.
Reason 1: Usage context. If any Bugzilla user ever sees this message, it’s because he failed at the task he was trying to accomplish. Since the message exists solely to explain to the user that he failed, it’s pretty reasonable to assume that the user might not be in the best of moods already. I know I wasn’t.
Reason 2: Product context. If you’ve not already had the pleasure of using Bugzilla, let me fill you in on its search capabilities: they suck. Like, searching in Bugzilla is not only unpleasant, it’s also unfruitful way too often. It’s the best reminder you’re likely to see about why Google won the search wars — it’s because everything else used to work like Bugzilla. So when your (otherwise excellent) product has a critical flaw, such as searching in Bugzilla, it might be best to not choose that specific part of your product to try to crack a funny. Just sayin’.
The lesson in all this? Somewhere on any product team, there needs to be a voice of reason who’s looking at context stuff like this and deciding when it’s time to be funny, and when it’s not.
I was asked recently to define “craftsmanship” in software development, and I thought this would make a great topic for discussion. You can obviously find a dictionary definition for craftsmanship, but much like with architecture, I think that when we attach the additional context of software development, craftsmanship introduces some important ideas about how individual contributors fit into a larger software development organization.
Software as Art
The concept of craftsmanship in general emphasizes the skills of individuals, and connotes high-quality, highly customized work. It is very much the antithesis of mass production.
This general understanding, when applied to software development, implies a very individualized experience — indeed, if you think about buying a work of art or even something like a piece of furniture, “craftsmanship” would imply that the product you’re buying is one-of-a-kind. Nobody, literally, has another item quite like the one you’re buying. For businesses commissioning custom software, there’s a nugget of truth here, of course — one of the reasons to write custom software is the presumption that your business requirements are different in some way from everybody else’s requirements, and your business demands the flexibility that comes with custom software.
Another key aspect of craftsmanship is the deep and broad skill set of the craftsman. Just as you’d expect a hand-crafted product to be almost entirely the result of one man’s work (to the extent that signing the work wouldn’t be unheard-of), so software craftsmanship emphasizes individual skill and accountability. And while craftsmanship doesn’t necessarily imply apprenticeship, a craftsman is certainly expected to be highly experienced and able to draw on years of work in the field in order to produce the sort of high-quality work that’s expected.
While high-quality, highly-customized software sounds very appealing from a business perspective, the deliberate pace and unyielding attention to detail we most often associate with craftsmanship is petrifying. Business software needs to move at the pace of business, after all, doesn’t it? I really believe that the implied slowness of craftsmanship acts as an impenetrable stigma against its adoption, which I think is largely unfortunate.
One of the key benefits of the higher-quality code produced by accomplished craftsmen is that less time is spent on an ongoing basis recovering from the sins of shoddy coding as these systems grow and evolve over time. High-quality code not only works better, it’s more maintainable, so that initial effort can pay real dividends over the life of a long-lived system. Where we sometimes talk about sloppy code as being high in technical debt, quality code can be seen as an asset for an organization.
Right now, software craftsmanship remains on the fringe of development practices, and thus tends to be favored in smaller shops, as well as in “green-field” projects much more so than in larger, more established environments. It remains to be seen whether it eventually transitions into mainstream use the way that Agile has, but I think a lot depends on the effective communication of the real benefits of craftsmanship, as well as on mature tactics to introduce and manage craftsmanship in the organization.
Craftsmanship is about individual contribution. It’s about taking pride in your work, and it’s about a relentless journey of improvement. The scope of these experiences is best-suited to small groups of developers who can help one another grow and hold each individual accountable to the group. This, all by itself, is a tall order. It’s not easy for anyone to expose himself to criticism, and that’s a huge prerequisite for this sort of culture to form. This sort of open sharing takes huge amounts of trust, and trust takes time to build.
Another critical motivator for a “craftsman-like” organization is the sense that the team is building something that’s going to last. When you think of hard goods built by craftsmen, you equate the higher quality to a longer lifespan — as a consumer, you may be willing to pay a premium for a product that will outlast a cheaper product because you know it’ll last a long, long time. In software, this understanding of quality has to be visible to the team as well as the customer, and the team needs to believe that this higher quality is valued. Few things are as demotivating for a developer as seeing a great body of code mangled by someone who doesn’t share the same capabilities or desire for quality.
It might seem at this point that I’m advocating an all-or-nothing strategy for software development, or that software craftsmen can exist only in small shops, but I don’t believe either of these is necessarily true. I believe that if craftsmanship is going to exist in a large organization, however, the organization needs to understand where it’s going to be applied and it must organize its teams to support craftsmanship in targeted areas. I think this prerequisite is well-suited to a component-based Enterprise Architecture, in which well-defined components or services are identified, invested in, maintained with care, and protected, and yes — this demands an enlightened and skilled application of Enterprise Architecture.
Craftsmanship isn’t a magic wand, or a buzzword, or a slogan. Craftsmanship takes hard work, and it demands commitment from organizations and developers. It’s not right for every organization, and it certainly isn’t right for all developers, but if you need software that stands the test of time, craftsmanship will pay dividends for the lifetime of that software.
Each time a new software development trend appears, people manage to find a way to misinterpret it so that it looks like a shortcut — typically, because this is far easier than really understanding the idea in the first place. Invariably, these shortcuts fall flat on their faces — perhaps contributing to the “trough of disillusionment” in Gartner’s hype cycle. I saw this when people did procedural coding in an object-oriented language and called it OO, and I saw it when people thought they were “agile” just because they had a daily stand-up meeting. I’ve even seen it when the stand-up meeting was held sitting down.
Now, it’s DevOps. In much the same way as Agile doesn’t mean you don’t have to understand software requirements, DevOps doesn’t mean that you’re getting rid of your Operations team because your developers are doing their jobs for them. In “DevOps: The Future Of DIY IT?“, readwrite points out a Gartner survey that shows that NoSql databases are generally being administered by developers — not DBA’s — and projects out of this a future in which developers are running everything in production.
There are a couple of gigantic holes in that argument, though. First, I’d bet that if companies had DBA’s that knew the first thing about administering a NoSql database, they’d put them to work. Instead, these tools are so new and so immature that the tooling is still be invented, to say nothing of procedures. The second big problem with this over-generalization is that when developers are administering NoSql databases (or any other production systems), they’re not developing applications, quickly leading to a very expensive Operations staff.
That ain’t what DevOps is all about.
The goal of DevOps is to see developers and operations working together to create a virtuous feedback loop — just because they start acting like they’re on the same team doesn’t mean that either of them are going away.
This fall, as healthcare.gov imploded before our eyes, we saw any number of self-proclaimed experts chime in on why it coughed, sputtered, and ground to a halt, and how, exactly, it might be fixed. My guess is that the answer is more complicated than most of them let on, but I’ll bet there’s a healthy dose of politics mixed in with whatever technological, security, and requirements issues might have surfaced along the way.
It seems somewhat counter-intuitive to talk about politics at all in the context of software development, of course. One of the aspects of software that really appealed to me when I entered this field was that for most problems, there existed an actual correct answer, and there are no politics in algorithms. Ah, to return to the halcyon days of simple problems and discrete solutions!
Today’s problems are more complicated than ever before, though. Prodigious capabilities have bred complex systems and murky requirements under the best of circumstances, and no government project operates under the best of circumstances. For those of you in private enterprise, you surely are aware of the struggles bred of competing interests and limited resources, but in a government setting, all those factors explode. Funding is rarely connected directly to stakeholders, opinions are everywhere, and “deciders” are nowhere to be found. Not to put too fine a point on this, but if we were to think of government-sponsored software as having been congealed rather than developed, we might be on the right track. It’s actually a small miracle when these systems work at all, given the confluence of competing forces working to rip projects in seventeen directions at once.
Think back for a moment on the early days of Facebook or Twitter or any of the other massive applications that serve as today’s benchmarks of reliability. They weren’t always so reliable, of course. Twitter, in particular gave birth to a famous “fail whale” meme in 2009 as it sorted out its capacity and reliability issues. To be clear, twitter operates on a huge scale, but all it’s doing is moving 140-character messages around — there isn’t a whole lot of business logic there, short of making sure that messages get to the right person. It’s pretty easy to gloss over some of those growing pains, but virtually every large system has them. In the case of healthcare.gov, the failures happened under the hot lights of opening night and amid opponents who wanted desperately to see the system fail, and fail hard.
If you work amid politics like this, I’d love to offer a simple solution, but sadly, I have none. Instead, I’d urge a little empathy; walk a mile in the footprints of developers, project managers, analysts, and testers on projects like this before you criticize too vigorously. I can assure you that if you think this was a failure with a simple cause, you’re mistaken.
Straight out of the business section, here’s a story from CNN about a small business owner who came up with an innovative algorithm to generate t-shirt slogans. Failure to test and monitor the output, however, led to a host of horribly offensive slogans, followed by a social media outcry and a blacklisting from Amazon.
Now, the owner of this business says the company is ‘dead’. Don’t let this happen to you — your business could be one headline away from the same fate if you don’t manage risks carefully.