Friday 2 December 2005

What You've Known Since You Were Six: Sharing Helps Everyone

By the mid-1980s, it became virtually impossible to write a technically and economically interesting, large-scale application in a market-friendly period of time by a single developer. Likewise, by the mid-1990s, it became unusual to find application-level software which did not make use of some sort of database, both as part of the application itself and (for relatively mature development shops) as an integral part of development tools (configuration management, defect tracking and so on).

I would argue that, by 2004, it became infeasible to do development work — commercial or otherwise — in a craftsmanlike manner without the pervasive use of collaboration software. These systems — wikis, blogs, message boards/discussion software, and so on — dramatically improve the capability and effectiveness of a development team. (All of these applications, incidentally, make heavy use of databases.)

Any craft, arguably especially the craft of software development, lives by the traditional medical manifesto, "if you don't write it down, it never happened". Too often, however, information is written down (captured), but there is no means for organising and retrieving that information effectively. These collaboration tools each address that need for capture, (flexible) organisation and presentation of information in subtly, but importantly, different ways.

wikis are great for organising documents in a way that they can be shared, collaborated on, retrieved, and massively hyperlinked, with attachments, comments and so on. blogs (also look at are where individuals can write about anything and everything, with links to outside pages and other resources of interest. Most blogs, including this one, support readers posting comments to blog entries, or to other comments. (So please let me know what you think!) This differs from a wiki in a manner similar to the way that newspaper columns differ from journal articles or books; mainly in the semantics and scope and style of information being presented. Also, while blogs can be edited after the fact, they rarely are, whereas a wiki with a good community around it has its content change regularly.

Finally, we come to discussion software, sometimes referred to as message boards or bulletin boards. These are the latest form of a general system as old as networked computing itself. Systems like phorum, phpBB and vBulletin are all Web-based systems which allow users to post messages in forums, which contain discussions of a particular subject. These can be searched, attachments can be made, and so on. If a group needs to have a discussion, come to a consensus, and see how it got there later, this is a better tool for that sort of thing than a wiki or a blog would be. (Documents which are created in response to whatever decision was taken can be collaborated on in a wiki; individuals can expound on related opinions or useful information in their blogs.)

Another bonus to all of this is that all of these applications involve databases, with most of the information being text or (hopefully) relatively small binary files. The means to do backups and restores, as well as formal version control, for each of these is well known. Often such facilities are supported directly by the administrative interface for the software. Thus, development organisations can record, preserve and recall vital information without having it locked up in people's heads, or (possibly worse) written down haphazardly on random bits of paper and requiring significant decoding effort by people other than the author who wish to read them.

These tools also, combined with email and instant messaging, almost completely remove the need (or even benefit) for teams to be located in the same physicall location, working at the same time. Development teams now have the tools to be highly effective regardless of the physical location or time-zone differences of the team members. Indeed, this writer has participated in such distributed teams, developing both commercial and non-commercial software systems, and can enthusiastically vouch for its effectiveness.

In short, within a very short period of time, we can exxpect the adoption of collaborative tools by software development teams of all environments and domains to increase dramatically. Use of these tools is, or shortly will be, an effective discriminator for success, especially in explicitly competitive environments. If you are participating in a team developing software, Web sites, or similar systems and you're not using these tools, why not? Your competition probably is.

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