Monthly Archives: May 2010

Review “Frequently Forgotten Fundamental Facts about Software Engineering”

“Frequently Forgotten Fundamental Facts about Software Engineering” by Robert L. Glass (  summarizes in two pages at least 80% percent of the reasons why software projects fail, in an easy to understand – and easy to believe – manner.

Some conclusions:

  • “Good programmers are up to 30 times better than mediocre programmers”. “Most software tool and technique improvements account for about 5 to 30% increase in productivity and quality”.
    Then why is so much emphasis put on tools, and not on people?
  • “Efficiency is more often a matter of good design than of good coding”.
    Big Up-Front Design might be harmful, but watching the architecture “emerge” as you code is just as wrong.
  • “One of the two most common causes of runaway projects is unstable requirements”. The other is “optimistic estimation”.
    When “managing” means demanding lower estimates and more features, reality often refuses to budge.
  • “Estimation occurs at the wrong time” (that is, when the problem hasn’t been understood yet)
    But it is totally common to demand estimates after a cursory (three day glance) at a management summary, and then treating these numbers like cast in concrete.

It takes only 10 minutes to read the paper, and if you have been working as a developer everything will seem awfully familiar – it isn’t only you seeing the emperor wears no clothes.

Polishing mud

[This article is a little stab at the “state of the art” as it is often encountered in software development projects]

I enjoy reading books and articles about software engineering. Particularly I value the works of Tom DeMarco and Gerald M. Weinberg. There is clearly tons of advice available on how to improve team work, and how to create better software.

But I still have to find a project that adopts more than 20% of what is purported in the publications I read.

I mean – really. You can measure cyclomatic complexity according to McCabe, apply agile methods or RUP, but as long as code contains methods named “validateOrder()” that delete stuff in the database the primary problems lie somewhere else. Where to start?

You wouldn’t polish your car before you hosed down the mud from your last SUV trip through inner Iceland. You wouldn’t use fine grit sand paper when you still have to take off a millimeter or two from a table you built. You would start with the easy things that bring a lot of effect first!

So, begin with the 20% of the effort that gives you 80% of the result:

  • Document design decisions to provide an overall picture for everybody (don’t waste your time with JavaDoc saying that “getFoo()”, well, “gets foo”)
  • Give classes, methods, parameters, and members meaningful names (that will avoid a lot of explaining via JavaDoc)
  • Keep methods and classes reasonably short (which furthers understanding, and will quite likely improve cyclomatic complexity, too)
  • Ensure that humans can easily understand what’s going on in the code (no, it is not sufficient the compiler is happy)
  • Remember: Programming is something that humans do (a lot of time is wasted when people have to reverse engineer unnecessarily difficult code)

These measures are easy to implement (especially since all IDEs support refactoring), and help a lot.

Book Review: “Beginning Java EE 6 Platform with GlassFish 3: From Novice to Professional”

Beginning Java EE 6 Platform with GlassFish 3: From Novice to Professional” by Antonio Goncalves (Apress)

Though Java EE never has been an easy subject – 28 JSRs need to be covered – this book is a great introduction and tutorial into Java EE 6. I would rate it the best book on Java EE I’ve read so far, and I’ve read a few (often with considerable pains).

The book is suitable

  • for beginners, because many easy-to-follow but usable examples that build on each other dot the book,
  • and experts (in example, I have EE 1.3/4 experience), because the author points out the changes from previous Java EE versions in summaries and in each chapter

The chapters can be read separately for reference (enough redundancy has been provided), or as a well choreographed read from beginning to end. The book has a good balance between overview and detail: The author spends enough time on complex subjects to enable the reader to understand what is important (in example, object relational mapping is covered by a few chapters) without getting lost in fine details that don’t help comprehension much and that “can be looked up later”.

Keep in mind, though, that to implement Java EE 6 implementations you probably will need more technical information. That is only natural and owed to the complexity of some JSRs: it is simply impossible to cover – in example – JavaServer Faces in a single chapter when there are entire books on the subject, and that for a good reason. But you’ll get pretty far with this book.

I have to admit I never heard of author Antonio Goncalves before, but I sure hope he writes some more books! His writing style is concise, clear, and easy to understand; what a relief. That really is a gift, and makes reading up on EE 6 a breeze.

If you need a book on Java EE 6, buy this one first.

[Taken from my review at Amazon]

How Much Should a Developer Cost?

I recently went through the process of finding myself a new project and once more realized that at least 75% of the decision making for hiring a developer seems to be based on price. “You want – how much? Hey, I can easily find people who do it for 10 or 20% less!”

I am sure they can, for the whole “10 or 20% less”, if they just compare keywords like “Java”, “Oracle”, and “Maven”. Just as you can buy a car for $50.000, $20.000, or $5.000. While people are well aware that the price they pay has a substantial influence on the car they get, that fact seems to be ignored when it comes to hiring people.

The general assumption seem to be that once the overall skillset fits all developers are more or less the same. Well, that assumption is not supported by fact. How much does productivity vary really, you might ask? 10%, or maybe even 30%?

Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister conducted annual public productivity surveys with over 300 organizations worldwide in their book “Peopleware” (which I strongly recommend). Here is what they found out:

  • The best people outperform the worst by a factor of 10 (that’s a whole order of magnitude)
  • The best people are about 2.5 times better than the median person
  • The better-than-median half of the people has at least twice the performance of the other half

And the numbers apply to pretty much any metric examined, from time to finish to number of defects.

Source: “Peopleware”, Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister (Dorset House)

Wow! I am pretty sure that even a variance in salary of “only” 30% for the same job is rare, a factor of two is unheard of, and an order of magnitude is a feverish dream. And yet the performance of people you hire will probably vary by that much.

I originally had planned to continue with a long comment on what that means for the industry, for people who hire developers, and of course for the developers themselves. I am going to cut this short by simply suggesting a few things to employers and developers.

To employers

Keep the described facts in mind when you hire people. If you pay attention to quality even a larger difference in price is easily offset by substantially larger productivity – scientific research has proven that this is the case.

Think about how to interview for quality aspects. Comparing keywords or checking for certifications will not be enough, or will be even misleading. What does it mean if somebody says “I know Java”? What is their approach to programming? How would they define “good code”? How do they ensure they are a good programmer? What books do they read? What does the customer say about there work?

Regarding certifications: Certifications are mostly about being able to recall fact knowledge, and say nothing about practical experience and craftsmanship. In my personal opinion certifications mostly ensure that you looked into all corners of a specification, that you have seen the whole thing.

Taking Java as an example: It is good to know that you have Collections, Sets, Lists, and Maps in various implementations to your disposal. On the other hand, why would I need to know whether class Foo resides in package or – it is completely sufficient that my IDE knows, or that I know where to look. That kind of knowledge doesn’t give anyone an edge over others, while practical experience in a number of different projects really does.

To developers

Highlight not only the technologies you have mastered, but also the quality of your work and your personal traits. Explain your approach to implementing a solution, what you value in good software, the books and publications you read to stay up to date and to develop your skills.

Provide some customer references that highlight your craftsmanship, that you write well structured, easy to understand, working code that comes with a high level documentation, that you are creative, innovative, professional, self-motivated, a team worker, easy to get along with.

On the Use of Tools

[Warning: This is going to be somewhat of a rant] My professional experience now comprises of 18 years (as of 2010) in companies of various sizes and industries.

Regarding the use of tools I found

  • In companies with well educated employees and good practices, the use of tools mostly increases efficiency and, to a lesser degree, quality
  • In companies with not-so-well educated employees and suboptimal practices, the use of tools doesn’t change a thing (other than now a tool is used to produce the same bad results)

And that not really is a surprise.

Example: The creation of use cases. You get good use cases when the creator has thought about

  • What is the goal of the whole thing, the purpose?
  • Who is going to read it (in the sense of “what is their role”)?
  • What information does that person need in order to do their job?”.

That is the education part. It is very helpful, too, when the company provides a standard form for use cases and explains in detail what should go into which section for what reason/ purpose. That could be called process or practice.

This all may sound trivial, but check for yourself: most use cases look like “somebody” had to fill out “some form”, just to get rid of all that empty space.

It gets especially colorful when a number of people have been writing use cases without clear guidance. Each person has their own ideas about what information goes into which section of the form.

Additionally, the level of detail and context provided varies wildly. While some will clue you in that “an order is going to be updated in the database”, the next one will jump straight into the matter and tell you to “change fields foo and bar in table baz”.

Both descriptions might lead to the same implementation, but the latter approach leaves you to reverse engineer the original intention, and robs you of the opportunity to choose a different, possibly better approach to achieve the same result.

  1. To write a good use case you don’t need a tool. Educating your employees will be your best investment, and provide the largest benefit.
  2. The use of a tool will not make a badly written use case better. See point 1. Quality won’t improve just by using a tool. What you can and should expect from a tool: to make your processes more efficient, in example by improving the organization of information you have (better overview, faster access, new views)
  3. It’s easy to write a bad use case with a tool. Again, see points 1 and 2.

You may replace “use case” with “code”, “DB design”, whatever.

Agile Projects in Design Troubles

More and more reports indicate that larger agile projects are running into design problems. In order to deliver functionality fast in small increments code gets written without too much thinking about overall design.

The code gets deeper and deeper in “technological dept” (I like that term), resulting in slower and slower speed regarding the implementation of new features, and increasing costs per feature.

Is seems to me that the term “architecture” is poopoed by proponents of agile methods, and it is being derided frequently as “big upfront design” that is never finished.

Even big names in software engineering are only very carefully suggesting (not to look like a SW engineering relic in an modern, agile world) that thinking about overall design before you start is not generally a bad idea.

I do agree with the statement that “big upfront design” often happens, delays implementation, and is never finished. But that does not mean you should have no upfront design at all, or that you should not write any code before the design is completely finished.

When you start implementing software without planning and agreeing on a general layout of your application (aka architecture) you keep adding pieces that eventually will form a structure, one way or another.

That structure could be called an architecture – some call it an “emergent architecture” – but isn’t that just a nice technical term for something that rather “somehow happened” opposed to “has been systematically constructed”?

Having a structure makes it much easier to guess where functionality has been implemented (in example, to fix a bug or add a feature), just like sorting a list makes it easier to find an item.

Sorting is an additional effort that doesn’t even change the items. But it adds information to the data that is useful. When you know the overall picture, it is fairly easy to determine where a puzzle piece needs to go.

The compiler is happy with anything that compiles; architecture is mostly there to help humans to understand how the system works and how it can be extended.

So: Architecture is there to help you to get the job done, not another bump in the road that needs to be flattened.

Do spend some time on thinking about architecture when you know enough about the requirements to do so.

Make sure that newly added code fits that architecture. Adapt the architecture if it doesn’t fit new requirements. Treat architecture like a feature of the system.

The Cost of Quality: Two Hands, Two Bodies

Paying attention to software quality does pay off. Anybody who ever had to understand, repair, or extend existing software knows that lack of documentation (preferably on higher than code level), architecture, and coding guide lines, can turn maintaining even small amounts of code into a lengthy, risky and thus costly adventure.

Then why is software quality the first thing tossed over board, long before scope or – often arbitrary – deadlines?

Well, software works even with very low quality, if left untouched.

Having worked with a few large companies I found that the people benefiting from higher software quality are often not the same people that develop the software originally. Here is one concrete, real-world example.

Department A is responsible for initial software development. Department B is responsible for maintaining the software. B would clearly benefit from good documentation, architecture and so on once other developers than those comprising the original team are making changes to the software. But it is A that has to pay for additional quality that has little or no value to A.

What happened? Shortcuts taken by A mushroomed into exponentially rising costs for even the smallest changes by B, much to the dismay of the customer (department B, that is). Unfortunately there was no instance at the customer controlling cost of A and B in the context of the project they worked on.

That this won’t work is obvious – A has no incentive to spend extra money, and B has no influence on original development. Sounds contrived, unrealistic, and exaggerated? I wish it was…

So: If you find yourself in a similar situation try to find a sponsor that sees both sides, and inform him or her that investing in software quality pays off when the whole process is taken into account. Or at least inform somebody responsible for departments A and B that major and easily avoidable money wasting is in progress…

Prerequisites for Offshoring

One of my clients was trying hard to outsource software development, and has implemented processes for identifying candidate projects. The rules were pretty reasonable:

  • Existing software is documented in a suitable way (from requirements over specification and design to programming and rollout). “Suitable” means “competent people without prior knowledge of the project have access to enough information to extend the software successfully with reasonable effort”. That, by the way, is a pretty good definition of the quality any documentation should have.
  • The customer is aware that development is being done offshore, is willing to live with that, and accepts that documents provided by him to the project and documents produced by the project are written in English.
  • Processes are in place that allow for clear specification of stable requirements, and clear separation of phases and responsibilities.
  • The offshore workforce is reasonably stable so trained personnel is available over a longer period of time.

The problem was that pressure to increase the amount of offshored projects was so high that projects got moved to India, no matter the cost – ironically.

Here an example of a gone wrong (= more expensive then before) project transition:

  • The existing software was developed under high pressure, meaning “coding before design” and “we’ll do documentation when we have time”. That meant no overall design, and no documentation.
  • The customer did neither produce nor accept documentation written in English. All documents exchanged with the customer had to be translated at additional cost that couldn’t be billed to the customer. Translation was done in India, and results had to be proof-read by German personnel.
  • Because of sluggish processes a of lot of time got wasted between the customer voicing a request and the production of usable requirements.

The offshoring guidelines were very reasonable, but they were completely ignored. I can’t give any other advice than to “stick to the plan”, if the plan is reasonable.