Thursday, 27 October 2005

Craft, culture and communication

This is a very hard post for me to write. I've been wrestling with it for the last two days, and yes, the timestamp is accurate. If I offend you with what I say here, please understand that it is not meant to be personal. Rather, it probably means you may want to pay close attention.

When I was in university, back in the Pleistocene, I had a linguistics professor who went around saying that

A language is the definition of a specific culture, at a specific place, at a specific time. Change the culture, the place or the time, and the language changes — and if the language changes, it means that something else has, too.
Why is this relevant to the craft of software development?

Last weekend, I picked up a great book, Agile Java™: Crafting Code with Test-Driven Development, over the weekend at Kinokuniya bookstore at KLCC. There are maybe half a dozen books that any serious developer recognises as landmark events in the advancement of her or his craft. This, ladies and gentlemen, is one of them. If you are at all interested in Java, in high-quality software development, or in managing a group of software developers under seemingly impossible schedules, and if you are fully literate in the English language as a means of technical communication, then bookmark this page, go grab yourself a copy, read it, come back, and reread it tomorrow. It's not perfect — I would have liked to see the author use TestNG as the test framework rather than its predecessor, JUnit) but those are more stylistic quibbles than substance; if you go through the lessons in this book, you will have some necessary tools to improve your mastery of the craft of software development, specifically using the Java language and platform.

I immediately started talking up the book to some of my projectmates at Cilix, saying "You gotta learn this".

And then I stoppped and thought about it some more. And pretty much gave up the idea of evangelising the book — even though I do intend to lead the group into the use of test-driven development. It is the logical extension of the way I have been taught (by individuals and experience) to do software development for nearly three decades now. It completely blew several of the premises I was building a couple of white papers on completely away — and replaced them with better ones (yes, Linda, it's coming Real Soon Now). TDD may not solve all your project problems, cure world poverty or grow hair on a billiard ball, but it will significantly change the way you think about — and practise — the craft of software development.

If you understand the material, that is.

There are really only three (human) languages that matter for engineering and for software: English, Russian and (Mandarin) Chinese, pretty much in that order. Solid literacy and fluency in Business Standard English and Technical English will enable you to read, comprehend and learn from the majority of technical communication outside Eastern Europe and China (and the former Soviet-bloc engineers who don't already know English are learning it as fast as they can). China was largely self-reliant in terms of technology for some time, for ideological and economic reasons; there's an amazing (to a Westerner) amount of technical information available in Chinese — but English is gaining ground there too, if initially often imperfect in its usage.

Coming back to why my initial enthusiasm about the book has cooled, for those of you who aren't actually from my company, I work at an engineering firm in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia called Cilix. We do a lot of (Malaysian) government contract work in various technical areas, but we are also trying to grow a commercial-software (including Web applications) development group. Until recently, I managed that group; after top management came to its senses, I am now in an internal-consulting role. As Principal Technologist, I see my charter as consulting to the various groups within the Company on (primarily) software-related and development-related technologies, techniques, tools and processes, with a view to make our small group more effective at competition with organisations hundreds of times our size.

Up to now, we've been in what a Western software veteran would recognise as "classic startup mode": minimal process, chaotic attempts at organisation, with project successes attained through the heroic efforts of specific, talented individuals. My job is, in part, to help change that: to help us work smarter, not harder. Enter test-driven development, configuration management, quality engineering, and documentation.

Documentation. Hmmm. Oops.

One senior manager in the company recently remarked that there are perhaps five or six individuals in the entire company with the technical abilities, experience and communication abilities to help pull off the type of endeavour — both in terms of the project and how we go about it. Two or at most three of those individuals, to my knowledge, are attached to the project, and one of these is less than sanguine about the currency of technical knowledge and experience being brought to bear.

Since arriving on the project, I have handed two books to specific individuals, with instructions to at lesat skim them heavily and be able to engage in a discussion of the concepts presented in a week to ten days' time. Despite repeated prodding, neither of those individuals appeared to make that level of effort. This is not to complain specifically about the individuals; informally asking developers within the group how many technical books they had read in the last 18 months averaged solidly in the single digits. A similar survey taken in comparable groups at Microsoft, Borland, Siemens Rolm or Weyerhaeuser — all companies where I have worked previously — would likely average in the mid-twenties at least. So too, I suspect, would surveys at Wipro, Infosys or PricewaterhouseCoopers, some of our current and potential competitors.

While American technical people are rightly famous for living inside their own technical world and not getting out often enough, that provides only limited coverage as an excuse. In a craft whose very raison d'├Ętre is information, an oft-repeated truism (first attributed, to my knowledge, to Grace Hopper, that "90% of what you know will be obsolete in six months; 10% of what you know will never be obsolete. Make sure you get the full ten percent." If you don't read — both books and online materials — how can a software (or Web) developer have any credible hope of remaining current or even competent at his or her craft?

That principle extends to organisations. If the individual developers do not exert continuous efforts to maintain their skills (technical and linguistic) at a sufficiently high level, and their employer similarly chooses not to do so, how can that organisation remain competitive over the long term, when competitiveness may be directly linked to the efficiency and effectiveness with which that organisation acquires, utilises and expands upon information — predominantly in English? How can smaller organisations compete against larger ones which are more likely to have the raw manpower to scrape together a team to accomplish a difficult, leading-edge project? "Learn continuously or you're gone" was an oft-repeated mantra from business and industry participants in a recent Software Development Conference and Expo, an important industry conference. What of the individuals or organisations who choose not to do so?

Those of us involved in the craft of software and Web development have an obvious economic and professional obligation to our own careers to keep our own skills current. We also have an ethical, moral (and in some jurisdictions, fiduciary, legal) obligation to encourage our employers or other professional organisations to do so. There is no way of knowing whether, or how successfully, any given technology, language or practise will be in ten years' time, or even five. How many times has the IT industry been rocked by sudden paradigm shifts — the personal computer, the World Wide Web — which not only created large new areas of opportunity, but severely constrained growth in previously lucrative areas? I came into this industry at a time when (seemingly) several million mainframe COBOL programmers were watching their jobs go away as business moved first to minicomputers, then to PCs. History repeated itself with the shift to graphical systems like the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft Windows, and again with the World Wide Web and the other Internet-related technologies, and yet again with the offshoring craze of the last five years. What developer, or manager, or director, has the hubris to in effect declare that it won't happen again, that there own't be a new, disruptive technology shift that obsoletes skills and capabilities?

But whatever shift there is, whatever new technology comes along that turns college dropouts into megabillionaires, that changes the professional lives of millions of craftspeople... it will almost certainly be documented in English.

Tuesday, 18 October 2005

About me and my work at Cilix

I'm working on a lot of things for my work at Cilix, an engineering firm in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. First off, let me be clear on one thing: this blog is not officially sanctioned in any way by Cilix; this is 'just me'.

We call ourselves "A Knowledge Company". What that means, at least in my understanding, is that we apply professional knowledge and experience, augmented heavily by technology, to solve customers' knowledge-management and IT challenges. As such, we do a lot of writing — documents, Web pages, software, ad (nearly) infinitum.

We're a small shop as these things go, and our competition comes from much larger organisations with instant multinational name-brand recognition. Like any small firm, we have to win our first projects with a given client by promising — and delivering — a better value proposition than our competition. Where we get repeat business — again, like any similar firm — is by being agile, efficient, and above all, competent to the point of being unquestionably the least risky vendor for a particular solution.

Those attributes, in turn, lead us to consider issues like process, quality, and superlative knowledge of everything we are about. These issues, and how we as an organisation work through them, were what originally attracted me to the Company when I was approached and offered a position here. These issues are also the foci of what I expect to accomplish with this blog and the related collaboration tools (such as the Wiki).

I am also trying to evangelise and lead the implementation of open documentation and data-format standards at Cilix. This involves, among other things, migrating away from proprietary, binary formats like Microsoft Office documents to open, preferably text-based formats. As it happens, many of these open, text-based formats are based on XML vocabularies, such as Docbook and SVG.

Wby are text-based formats preferable? Lots of reasons:

  • They are usually much more compact (and compressible) than comparable binary formats. Converting mostly-text Microsoft Word documents to Docbook equivalents often yields size reductions of 80% or more (think how much more convenient email attachments would be);
  • They are usable with a wider variety of tools. I can throw a text file on my PalmPilot and fiddle with it far easier than a Microsoft Word document, for instance;
  • The are more amenable to most version-control systems, particularly cvs and subversion. Instead of making copies of each version of a binary file, all that is required is to take the difference between two different versions of a text file — a much easier and more reliable operation. I have seen version control systems of all flavours — SourceSafe, cvs, Atria/Rational ClearCase — irretrievably corrupt binary files when insufficient care was taken by the configuration manager in dealing with binary files;
  • They are more amenable to being stored in databases. Many databases (such as MySQL can return result sets packaged as XML fragments; this, combined with an XSLT parser and stylesheet, opens the door to some truly compelling presentation capabilities.

By taking advantage of these capabilities, we should be able to create better products with more predictable (and shorter) schedules without either greatly expanding the development team or pushing the present staff to the point of burnout. There is a saying in Silicon Valley in California, only partly tongue-in-cheek:

It isn't a startup until somebody dies
Here's hoping that's one "tradition" that's not exported anywhere outside the Valley.

The Vision, Forward through the Rear-View Mirror

The vision I'm trying to promote here, which has been used successfully many times before, is that of a very flexible, highly iterative, highly automated development process, where a small team (like ours) can produce high-quality code rapidly and reliably, without burning anybody out in the process. (Think Agile, as a pervasive, commoditized process.) Having just returned (17 October) from being in hospital due to a series of small strokes, I'm rather highly motivated to do this personally. It's also the best way I can see for our small team to honour our commitments.

To do this, we need to be able to:

  • have development artifacts (code/Web pages) integrated into their own documentation, using something like Javadoc;
  • have automated build tools like Ant regularly pull all development artifacts from our software configuration management tool (which for now is subversion)
  • run an automated testing system (like TestNG) on the newly built artifacts;
  • add issue reports documenting any failed tests to our issue tracking system, which then crunches various reports and
  • automatically emails relevant reports to the various stakeholders.

The whole point of this is to have everybody be able to come into work in the morning and/or back from lunch in the afternoon and know exactly what the status of development is, and to be able to track that over time. This can dramatically reduce delays and bottlenecks from traditional flailing about in a more ad hoc development style.

Obviously, one interest is test-driven development, where, as in most so-called Extreme Programming methods, all development artifacts (such as code) are fully tested at least as often as the state of the system changes. What this means in practice is that a developer would include code for testing each artifact integrated with that artifact. Then, an automated test tool would run those tests and report to the Quality Engineering team any results. This would not eliminate the need for a QE team; it would make the team more effective by helping to separate the things which need further exploration from the things that are, provably, working properly.

Why does this matter? For example, there was an article on test-driven development in the September 2005 issue of IEEE Computer (reported on here) that showed one of three development groups reducing defect density by 50% after adopting TDD, and another similar group enjoying a 40% improvement.

All this becomes interesting to us at Cilix when we start looking at tools like:

  • Cobertura for evaluating test coverage (the percentage of code accessed by tests)
  • TestNG, one successor to the venerable JUnit automated Java testing framework. TestNG is an improvement for a whole variety of reasons, including being less intrusive in the code under test and having multiple ways to group tests in a way that makes it much harder for you to forget to test something;
  • Ant, the Apache-developed, Java-based build tool. This is, being Java-based and not interactive per se, easy to automate;
  • and so on, as mentioned earlier.

A Lever, or a toothpick?

Any modern development effort which is complex enough to be commercially and/or technically interesting requires active, continuous collaboration between professionals and craftsfolk of various disciplines and specialisations. For instance, most organisations developing computer software have, in addition to the designers and coders of the software itself, several other interested stakeholders: quality engineers, documentation authors and editors, sales and marketing specialists, and various flavours of managers. Each of these individuals and groups have different capabilities and roles with regard to the project being developed, each of the groups have different perspectives, different needs — but one need that all share, knowingly or not, is the ability to communicate effectively and efficiently with each other. This involves the creation or acquisition of information, its refinement, analysis, discussion and use within the context of the project. The end goal, of course, is the completion and delivery of some sort of artifact that meets the needs of the organisation and delights that product's customers, without sending the development organisation on a death march in the process.

"But wait", you might reasonably say, "we already do this. We have meetings, minutes are taken, transcribed and emailed about, lots of other emails get sent back and forth, we have documents like functional specifications and design documents and whatnot to keep ourselves organised — what do we need all this gimcrackery for?" All of which is perfectly true, just as you can put harness and bit on your horse, hitch up a carriage, and travel from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore — or you could catch an airline flight instead. There are countless organisations, and a depressingly high proportion of smaller ones, who continue to solve earl-21st-century problems with early-20th-century tools and practices. We know better. One of the points that many leading authorities, such as Steve Maguire in his excellent book Debugging the Development Process, make is that for each hour of meetings which a knowledge worker attends, it takes at least another hour for him or her to regain the level of productivity in work product creation which would have been effected had the meeting not taken place. So, for a typical large-corporate developer who spends an hour every day in meetings that could have their purpose accomplished through less intrusive means, the company is taking a 25% hit in productivity for that individual. Take 1/4 of the payroll of, say, Maxis, or even my own company Cilix, and that starts to add up.

The Lever That Rocks Our World

The ancient Greek philosopher Archimedes is quoted as having said:

Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.

We're not here to attempt anything on that scale, but being involved in IT often feels that way.

This blog is one of the vehicles which I intend to use to record, discuss and build upon various projects, ideas and memes which I believe important in the context of a modern software-development organisation. By the term "software-development organisation", I am also including groups which create Web applications and content, podcasts, or similar "media" artifacts which rely on some form of computer or other electronic technology for distribution.