Why does software development have to be so hard?

Untangling this could be tricky

A series of 8 tweets by Dan Creswell paints a familiar, if depressing, picture of the state of software development:

(1) Developers growing up with modern machinery have no sense of constrained resource.

(2) Thus these developers have not developed the mental tools for coping with problems that require a level of computational efficiency.

(3) In fact they have no sensitivity to the need for efficiency in various situations. E.g. network services, mobile, variable rates of change.

(4) Which in turn means they are prone to delivering systems inadequate for those situations.

(5) In a world that is increasingly networked & demanding of efficiency at scale, we would expect to see substantial polarisation.

(6) The small number of successful products and services built by a few and many poor attempts by the masses.

(7) Expect commodity dev teams to repeatedly fail to meet these challenges and many wasted dollars.

(8) Expect smart startups to limit themselves to hiring a few good techies that will out-deliver the big orgs and define the future.

The Fallacies of Distributed Computing are more than twenty years old, but Arnon Rotem-Gal-Oz’s observations (five years after he first made them) still apply:

With almost 15 years since the fallacies were drafted and more than 40 years since we started building distributed systems – the characteristics and underlying problems of distributed systems remain pretty much the same. What is more alarming is that architects, designers and developers are still tempted to wave some of these problems off thinking technology solves everything.


Is it really this hard to get it right?

More importantly, how do we change this?

In order to determine a solution, we first have to understand the nature of the problem. Dan’s tweets point to the machines developers are used to, although in fairness, those of us who lived through the bad old days of personal computing can attest that developers were getting it wrong back then. In “Most software developers are not architects”, Simon Brown points out that too many teams are ignorant of or downright hostile to the need for architectural design. Uncle Bob Martin in “Where is the Foreman?”, suggests the lack of a gatekeeper to enforce standards and quality is why “our floors squeak”. Are we over-emphasizing education and underestimating training? Has the increasing complexity and the amount of abstraction used to manage it left us with too generalized a knowledge base relative to our needs?

Like any wicked problem, I suspect that the answer to “why?” lies not in any one aspect but in the combination. Likewise, no one aspect is likely, in my opinion, to hold the answer in any given case, much less all cases.

People can be spoiled by the latest and greatest equipment as well as the optimal performance that comes for working and testing on the local network. However, reproducing real-world conditions is a bit more complicated than giving someone an older machine. You can simulate load and traffic on your site, but understand and accounting for competing traffic on the local network and the internet is a bit more difficult. We cannot say “application x will handle y number of users”, only that it will handle that number of users under the exact same conditions and environment as we have simulated – a subtle, but critical difference.

Obviously, I’m partial to Simon Brown’s viewpoint. The idea of a coherent, performant design just “emerging” from doing the simplest thing that could possibly work is ludicrous. The analogy would be walking into an auto parts store, buying components individually, and expecting them to “just work” – you have to have some sort of idea of the end product in mind. On the other hand, attempting to specify too much up front is as bad as too little – the knowledge needed is not there and even if it were, a single designer doesn’t scale when dealing with any system that has a team of any real size.

Uncle Bob’s idea of a “foreman” could work under some circumstances. Like Big Design Up Front, however, it doesn’t scale. Collaboration is as important to the team leader as it is to the architect. The consequences of an all-knowing, all-powerful personality can be just as dire in this role as for an architect.

In “Hordes of Novices”, Bob Martin observed “When it’s possible to get a degree in computer science without writing any code, the quality of the graduates is questionable at best”. The problem here is that universities are geared to educate, not train. Just because training is more useful to an employer (at least in the short term), does not make education unimportant. Training deals with this tool at this time while how to determine which tool is right for a given situation is more in the province of education. It’s the difference between how to do versus how to figure out how to do. Both are necessary.

As I’ve already noted, it’s a thorny issue. Rather than offering an answer, I’d rather offer the opportunity for others to add to the conversation in the comments below. How did we get here and how do we go forward?

There is No “Best”

You're the best

What is the best architectural style/process/language/platform/framework/etc.?

A question posed that way can ignite a war as easily as Helen of Troy. The problem is, however, that it’s impossible to answer in that form. It’s a bit like asking which fastener (nail, screw, bolt, glue) is best. Without knowing the context to which it will be applied, we cannot possibly form a rational answer. “Best” without context is nonsense; like “right”, it’s a word that triggers much heat, but very little light.

People tend to like rules as there is a level of comfort in the certainty associated with them. The problem is that this certainty can be both deceptive and dangerous. Rules, patterns, and practices have underlying principles and contexts which give them value (or not). Understanding these is key to effective application. Without this understanding, usage becomes an act of faith rather than a rational choice.

Best practices and design patterns are two examples of useful techniques that have come to be regarded as silver bullets by some. Design patterns are useful for categorizing and communicating elements of design. Employing design patterns, however, is no guarantee of effective design. Likewise, understanding the principles that lie beneath a given practice is key to successfully applying that practice in another situation. Context is king.

Prior to applying a technique, it’s useful to ask why? Why this technique? Why do we think it will be effective? Rather than suggest a hard and fast number (say…5 maybe?), I’d recommend asking until you’re comfortable that the decision is based on reason rather than hope or tradition. Designing the architecture of systems requires evaluation and deliberation. Leave the following of recipes to the cooks.

Plans, Planning, and Pivots

There is no magic to planning.

(originally posted on CitizenTekk)

According to Dwight D. Eisenhower, “…plans are useless but planning is indispensable”. How can the production of something “useless” be “indispensable”?

The answer can be found on a banner recently immortalized on Bulldozer00’s blog: “React Less…PLAN MORE!”. Unpacking this is simple – the essence of planning is to decide on responses to events that have yet to occur, without the stress of a time crunch. Gaining time to analyze a response and reducing the emotional aspects should lead to better decisions than ones made on the fly and under pressure. The problem we run into, however, is that reality fails to coincide with our plans for very long.

As Colin Powell observed, “No battle plan survives contact with the enemy”. Detailed, long-term plans can quickly become swamped by complexity as the tree of options branches out. Making assumptions about expected outcomes can prune the number of branches, but each assumption becomes a risk that an unexpected event invalidates the plan. The key is to find a middle ground between operating completely ad hoc on the one hand and having to be Nostradamus on the other.

Planning at the proper scope is one tool to help avoid problems. As noted above, plans with deep detail and long durations are brittle due to complexity and/or the difficulty in making predictions. Like any other view, plans should be more detailed in the foreground and fuzzier in the distance. Much more than a general path to your desired destination will likely turn out to be wasted effort. Only that planning that promotes success is needed. There’s no magic inherent in planning that justifies a belief in “more equals better”. Fitness for purpose should be the metric rather than pure quantity of detail.

Another benefit to avoiding useless detail is that it makes it easier to abandon a plan when it no longer makes sense. Humans tend to value that which they’ve invested time in. In execution, commitment is a virtue right up until the point it ceases to be. Hanging on to a plan past that point can be expensive. Having the flexibility to pivot to a new plan can make the difference between success and failure.

Process, Product, Service – What is IT Selling?

At your service

If your job is developing custom software, whether as part of an in-house IT group or as a contractor, what are you selling?

According to Rob Vens’ post, “Software is not a product”:

The product of ICT is the process. Software systems are by-products. By focussing on improving the quality of processes, the quality of the by-products will improve more effectively.

While I agree that improving the process will contribute to customer satisfaction, I have to agree more with what Oliver Baier observed in “It’s the process, not the product”:

In my experience, clients still want to buy the results of the software process (e.g. an evolving web shop) rather than the collaborative design process yielding this result. This is despite the fact that software development processes and methods can be the subject of great debate at all phases of the sales and delivery process.

I would, in fact, go further: your customers don’t want software, they want a need fulfilled. Software is merely a means to that end. They don’t want a web site (though that may be what they ask for), they want sales, exposure, etc.

We shouldn’t get hung up on the issue of product versus service. We should realize that, ultimately, a product is a service. As Tom Graves noted in “Product and service”:

In essence, ‘product’ and ‘service’ are different views into the same entity: the creation and delivery (potential and/or actual) of value, usually associated with some form of asset – in turn typically as associated with some notion of ‘value-proposition‘.

Whether I’m selling new shoes (product) or repairing your old ones (service), the desired end result is serviceable footwear. Circumstances and desires may make the customer prefer one path over another, but the destination is functionally identical.

This is not to say that the manner in which the product/service is provided is unimportant. Quite the contrary, the better the provider is at working with the customers, the more likely the product will satisfy their needs. What it does say is that, first and foremost, the need must be satisfied. When the customer doesn’t get their expected value, then the process by which the failure is provided is irrelevant.