Thursday 14 April 2011

A Blessing is ALWAYS A Curse (and Vice Versa)

I've recently started as Senior Architect at Savant Degrees, a Singapore-based Web consultancy. Quite often, I feel like my job is as much "Senior Curmudgeon" as anything. According to, a curmudgeon is "[a]n ill-tempered (and frequently old) person full of stubborn ideas or opinions." I'm undoubtedly the oldest person among any of my colleagues that I've met, and I was told fairly explicitly that I was being hired on the basis of the variety and depth of my experience — i.e., for my ideas and opinions. And, like most people, I think I'm only stubborn when I'm right.

Naturally enough, I'm doing a lot of learning, too. This is my first experience with Groovy, a nicely dynamic language which runs atop the Java VM. Like any language worth its weight, a rich ecosystem is growing around it. Like the ecosystems around most languages, there is at least one ultra-massive tool that takes new folk some time to wrap their minds around. With PHP, for instance, it's the Zend Framework, which arguably makes the C++ Standard Library look minimalistic. With Java, it's pretty much anything having to do with J2EE1 (to which Groovy itself is a reaction).

The biggest tool I've yet stubbed my toe on in the Groovy world is, unquestionably, Gradle2. In the grand Zend tradition, the PDF version of the user guide is nearly 300 pages long and, also like Zend, is considerably out-of-date. It's considerably easier to argue that Gradle justifies the bulk, however, since Gradle is a "let's build anything" build manager/dependency tracker/dessert topping/floor wax. The basics can be understood in half a day, even if you've only nodding familiarity with Groovy3. To truly master it, however, requires significant extra time — as much as you feel you derive benefit from.

And that (finally) brings me to the point of this post. The group I'm working with now has some very talented and moderately experienced developers in it; they're open to new ideas and new ways of doing things, more than is the local cultural norm. In our craft, that's not just a Good Thing™; it's necessary for continuing success4. But that enthusiasm is tempered by a keen consciousness of impending deadlines, particularly the "curse of success;" a month, later this year, when we will be spread extremely thin amongst several important projects. The ways we've done things have been successful, but we see the down-sides of success as well.

So, new ways of doing things, and the hope of new, increasing success. New things like continuous integration using automated builds and unit tests, among other such recently-popular tools and techniques. (They're popular because they generally work better than Ye Olde Ways.) I'm arguing for the team to use tools that will, at the click of a button or the tick of the clock, automatically check out, build, test and package the code and associated resources for our project. The team is new to this, having used "traditional" "waterfall" processes in the past. Knowing one is to be hanged, as Mark Twain said, tends to focus the mind wonderfully; a rational person (or team) will avoid being put in that position. My job, so to speak, is to make the tools that help us cut the hangman's rope, and teach their use. Presenting already-busy people with several hundred pages of documentation is probably not the most effective way to do that.

So, at the moment, the most pressing blessing is that we have such wonderful tools available, with more on the way. Most categories of tools have several at-least-usable alternatives available; it's very easy to go into information overload. When that happens, often you just choose to use what some exemplar, say a tool vendor, use themselves. It becomes tragically ironic when a development group pursuing a more agile process has their agility and effectiveness limited by their "agile" tools. (I don't mean to be commenting on any specific company or team here; I've seen this effect on numerous projects over the years.)

Choosing deliberately increases the odds that you will choose wisely, and those odds will increase along with your experience. Experience is perhaps the ultimate professional blessing-and-curse-combined; "you never learn anything from doing it right the first time." I prefer the Nietzsche:

That which does not kill you, makes you stronger.

We're not dead yet — so we must be strong, yes? Another "stubborn idea and opinion."



1. Now known as JEE, because "Java 2" (1.2) is so last decade; we're on 1.6 now. (Return)

2. No, I haven't looked at Grails yet. Being a close of Ruby on Rails, I expect that to be the proverbial "kitchen sink with subdivisions attached." Fortunately (?), we're a Tomcat shop. (Return)

3. But, of course, experience counts; Gradle rewards your groovy Groovy skills with more efficiently expressive power in your project automation. (Return)

4. There's another curmudgeonly opinion for you. (Return)

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