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.

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