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 Tuesday, October 13, 2009
Haacked, but not content; agile still treats the disease

Phil Haack wrote a thoughtful, insightful and absolutely correct response to my earlier blog post. But he's still missing the point.

The short version: Phil's right when he says, "Agile is less about managing the complexity of an application itself and more about managing the complexity of building an application." Agile is by far the best approach to take when building complex software.

But that's not where I'm going with this.

As a starting point in the discussion, I'd like to call attention to one of Phil's sidebars: I find it curious (and indicative of the larger point) his earlier comment about "I have to wonder, why is that little school district in western Pennsylvania engaging in custom software development in the first place?" At what point does standing a small Access database up qualify as "custom software development"? And I take huge issue with Phil's comment immediately thereafter: "" That's totally untrue, Phil—you are, in fact, creating custom educational curricula, for your children at home. Not for popular usage, not for commercial use, but clearly you're educating your children at home, because you'd be a pretty crappy parent if you didn't. You also practice an informal form of medicine ("Let me kiss the boo-boo"), psychology ("Now, come on, share the truck"), culinary arts ("Would you like mac and cheese tonight?"), acting ("Aaar! I'm the Tickle Monster!") and a vastly larger array of "professional" skills that any of the "professionals" will do vastly better than you.

In other words, you're not a professional actor/chef/shrink/doctor, you're an amateur one, and you want tools that let you practice your amateur "professions" as you wish, without requiring the skills and trappings (and overhead) of a professional in the same arena.

Consider this, Phil: your child decides it's time to have a puppy. (We all know the kids are the ones who make these choices, not us, right?) So, being the conscientious parent that you are, you decide to build a doghouse for the new puppy to use to sleep outdoors (forgetting, as all parents do, that the puppy will actually end up sleeping in the bed with your child, but that's another discussion for another day). So immediately you head on down to Home Depot, grab some lumber, some nails, maybe a hammer and a screwdriver, some paint, and head on home.

Whoa, there, turbo. Aren't you forgetting a few things? For starters, you need to get the concrete for the foundation, rebar to support the concrete in the event of a bad earthquake, drywall, fire extinguishers, sirens for the emergency exit doors... And of course, you'll need a foreman to coordinate all the work, to make sure the foundation is poured before the carpenters show up to put up the trusses, which in turn has to happen before the drywall can go up...

We in this industry have a jealous and irrational attitude towards the amateur software developer. This was even apparent in the Twitter comments that accompanied the conversation around my blog post: "@tedneward treating the disease would mean... have the client have all their ideas correct from the start" (from @kelps). In other words, "bad client! No biscuit!"?

Why is it that we, IT professionals, consider anything that involves doing something other than simply putting content into an application to be "custom software development"? Why can't end-users create tools of their own to solve their own problems at a scale appropriate to their local problem?

Phil offers a few examples of why end-users creating their own tools is a Bad Idea:

I remember one rescue operation for a company drowning in the complexity of a “simple” Access application they used to run their business. It was simple until they started adding new business processes they needed to track. It was simple until they started emailing copies around and were unsure which was the “master copy”. Not to mention all the data integrity issues and difficulty in changing the monolithic procedural application code.

I also remember helping a teachers union who started off with a simple attendance tracker style app (to use an example Ted mentions) and just scaled it up to an atrociously complex Access database with stranded data and manual processes where they printed excel spreadsheets to paper, then manually entered it into another application.

And you know what?

This is not a bad state of affairs.

Oh, of course, we, the IT professionals, will immediately pounce on all the things wrong with their attempts to extend the once-simple application/solution in ways beyond its capabilities, and we will scoff at their solutions, but you know what? That just speaks to our insecurities, not the effort expended. You think Wolfgang Puck isn't going to throw back his head and roar at my lame attempts at culinary experimentation? You think Frank Lloyd Wright wouldn't cringe in horror at my cobbled-together doghouse? And I'll bet Maya Angelou will be so shocked at the ugliness of my poetry that she'll post it somewhere on the "So You Think You're A Poet" website.

Does that mean I need to abandon my efforts to all of these things?

The agilists' community reaction to my post would seem to imply so. "If you aren't a professional, don't even attempt this?" Really? Is that the message we're preaching these days?

End users have just as much a desire and right to be amateur software developers as we do at being amateur cooks, photographers, poets, construction foremen, and musicians. And what do you do when you want to add an addition to your house instead of just building a doghouse? Or when you want to cook for several hundred people instead of just your family?

You hire a professional, and let them do the project professionally.


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Tuesday, October 13, 2009 1:42:22 PM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
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 Monday, October 12, 2009
"Agile is treating the symptoms, not the disease"

The above quote was tossed off by Billy Hollis at the patterns&practices Summit this week in Redmond. I passed the quote out to the Twitter masses, along with my +1, and predictably, the comments started coming in shortly thereafter. Rather than limit the thoughts to the 120 or so characters that Twitter limits us to, I thought this subject deserved some greater expansion.

But before I do, let me try (badly) to paraphrase the lightning talk that Billy gave here, which sets context for the discussion:

  • Keeping track of all the stuff Microsoft is releasing is hard work: LINQ, EF, Silverlight, ASP.NET MVC, Enterprise Library, Azure, Prism, Sparkle, MEF, WCF, WF, WPF, InfoCard, CardSpace, the list goes on and on, and frankly, nobody (and I mean nobody) can track it all.
  • Microsoft released all this stuff because they were chasing the "enterprise" part of the developer/business curve, as opposed to the "long tail" part of the curve that they used to chase down. They did this because they believed that this was good business practice—like banks, "enterprises are where the money is". (If you're not familiar with this curve, imagine a graph with a single curve asymptotically reaching for both axes, where Y is the number of developers on the project, and X is the number of projects. What you get is a curve of a few high-developer-population projects on the left, to a large number of projects with just 1 or 2 developers. This right-hand portion of the curve is known as "the long tail" of the software industry.)
  • A lot of software written back in the 90's was written by 1 or 2 guys working for just a few months to slam something out and see if it was useful. What chances do those kinds of projects have today? What tools would you use to build them?
  • The problem is the complexity of the tools we have available to us today preclude that kind of software development.
  • Agile doesn't solve this problem—the agile movement suggests that we have to create story cards, we have to build unit tests, we have to have a continuous integration server, we have to have standup meetings every day, .... In short, particularly among the agile evangelists (by which we really mean zealots), if you aren't doing a full agile process, you are simply failing. (If this is true, how on earth did all those thousands of applications written in FoxPro or Access ever manage to succeed? –-Me) At one point, an agilist said point-blank, "If you don't do agile, what happens when your project reaches a thousand users?" As Billy put it, "Think about that for a second: This agile guy is threatening us with success."
  • Agile is for managing complexity. What we need is to recognize that there is a place for outright simplicity instead.

By the way, let me say this out loud: if you have not heard Billy Hollis speak, you should. Even if you're a Java or Ruby developer, you should listen to what he has to say. He's been developing software for a long time, has seen a lot of these technology-industry trends come and go, and even if you disagree with him, you need to listen to him.

Let me rephrase Billy's talk this way:

Where is this decade's Access?

It may seem like a snarky and trolling question, but think about it for a moment: for a decade or so, I was brought into project after project that was designed to essentially rebuild/rearchitect the Access database created by one of the department's more tech-savvy employees into something that could scale beyond just the department.

(Actually, in about half of them, the goal wasn't even to scale it up, it was just to put it on the web. It was only in the subsequent meetings and discussions that the issues of scale came up, and if my memory is accurate, I was the one who raised those issues, not the customer. I wonder now, looking back at it, if that was pure gold-plating on my part.)

Others, including many people I care about (Rod Paddock, Markus Eggers, Ken Levy, Cathi Gero, for starters) made a healthy living off of building "line of business" applications in FoxPro, which Microsoft has now officially shut down. For those who did Office applications, Visual Basic for Applications has now been officially deprecated in favor of VSTO (Visual Studio Tools for Office), a set of libraries that are available for use by any .NET application language, and of course classic Visual Basic itself has been "brought into the fold" by making it a fully-fledged object-oriented language complete with XML literals and LINQ query capabilities.

Which means, if somebody working for a small school district in western Pennsylvania wants to build a simple application for tracking students' attendance (rather than tracking it on paper anymore), what do they do?

Bruce Tate alluded to this in his Beyond Java, based on the realization that the Java space was no better—to bring a college/university student up to speed on all the necessary technologies required of a "productive" Java developer, he calculated at least five or six weeks of training was required. And that's not a bad estimate, and might even be a bit on the shortened side. You can maybe get away with less if they're joining a team which collectively has these skills distributed across the entire team, but if we're talking about a standalone developer who's going to be building software by himself, it's a pretty impressive list. Here's my back-of-the-envelope calculations:

  • Week one: Java language. (Nobody ever comes out of college knowing all the Java language they need.)
  • Week two: Java virtual machine: threading/concurrency, ClassLoaders, Serialization, RMI, XML parsing, reference types (weak, soft, phantom).
  • Week three: Infrastructure: Ant, JUnit, continuous integration, Spring.
  • Week four: Data access: JDBC, Hibernate. (Yes, I think you need a full week on Hibernate to be able to use it effectively.)
  • Week five: Web: HTTP, HTML, servlets, filters, servlet context and listeners, JSP, model-view-controller, and probably some Ajax to boot.

I could go on (seriously! no JMS? no REST? no Web services?), but you get the point. And lest the .NET community start feeling complacent, put together a similar list for the standalone .NET developer, and you'll come out to something pretty equivalent. (Just look at the Pluralsight list of courses—name the one course you would give that college kid to bring him up to speed. Stumped? Don't feel bad—I can't, either. And it's not them—pick on any of the training companies.)

Now throw agile into that mix: how does an agile process reduce the complexity load? And the answer, of course, is that it doesn't—it simply tries to muddle through as best it can, by doing all of the things that developers need to be doing: gathering as much feedback from every corner of their world as they can, through tests, customer interaction, and frequent releases. All of which is good. I'm not here to suggest that we should all give up agile and immediately go back to waterfall and Big Design Up Front. Anybody who uses Billy's quote as a sound bite to suggest that is a subversive and a terrorist and should have their arguments refuted with extreme prejudice.

But agile is not going to reduce the technology complexity load, which is the root cause of the problem.

Or, perhaps, let me ask it this way: your 16-year-old wants to build a system to track the cards in his Magic deck. What language do you teach him?

We are in desperate need of simplicity in this industry. Whoever gets that, and gets it right, defines the "Next Big Thing".


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Monday, October 12, 2009 4:51:39 PM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
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 Friday, October 02, 2009
Jon Skeet, you will always be an MVP

Jon Skeet, noted C# MVP, has been asked by his employer to reject his MVP award this year.

I have two reactions:

  1. I think it's an awkward situation when an employer hires somebody who is as deeply involved in a technology space as Jon is, then asks them to take actions that will deliberately distance them from that technology space. It strikes me as a waste of Jon's investment into the space, and a poor choice of actions. Why take a champion and hobble them?
  2. Jon's actions, by accepting their request, puts him in that class of character that can be best described as "with honor".

Jon, if you by chance are in Redmond during the MVP Summit, you are more than welcome at ChezNeward2010. You may not be an MVP with Microsoft, but you're one to me.


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Friday, October 02, 2009 11:08:51 PM (Pacific Daylight Time, UTC-07:00)
Comments [2]  |