Archive for the ‘Development’ Category

The Power of the Backchannel

February 21st, 2010 44 comments

Last week, I spoke at the New England Java Users Group, one of the biggest and best around. I had a rocking good time, the audience was outstanding and Dave Klein (author of the outstanding Grails: A Quick-Start Guide) was even there! Anyway, one of the attendees, Deborah Hamill (VP Engineering at Accordare, Inc.), was kind enough to collect up all the links I referenced during the talk – including ones that weren’t even on my slides! Many thanks Deborah, I appreciate it. By the way, said slides can be found here.


Others Deborah found while searching for my topics:

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Persistent Data Structures and Managed References

October 28th, 2009 12 comments

Speaking of interesting videos, Stuart Halloway has been beating the drum pretty hard for Rich Hickey‘s talk: Persistent Data Structures and Managed References. I was actually in the audience (along with Glenn Vanderburg) when Rich gave this talk at QCon London and I concur with Stu – this is something you’re going to want to watch. A couple of times. Then watch it again. You’ll thank me (and Stu) later. Oh, and you really should go to QCon. I mean it, it’s a great show with some unique talks.

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Rich Web Experience 2009

September 27th, 2009 8 comments

Where would rather be this December, adjusting to winter or spending a few days in Orlando learning about what’s new and exciting in JavaScript, Ajax, CSS, HTML, design and a host of other topics? If the later appeals to you, book your seat today at The Rich Web Experience! In addition to some great talks by some of the best speakers in the industry, you’ll also have access to the JSF Summit. I think Neal Ford has been listening in on some of my Ajax talks – I call it a seasoning, he calls it a spice, but either way, the user experience is a key to making great applications. See you in Orlando!

I'm speaking at the Rich Web Experience 2009!

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Ajax: Tools of the trade

May 26th, 2009 13 comments

Over on JavaWorld, you can see my latest article: Ajax: Tools of the trade. If it’s been a while since you looked at client side development and you still think alerts are the end all be all of web debugging, you might want to give it a read. Here’s the official summary:

Where JavaScript developers were once tool-deprived, today we’re often overwhelmed with the abundance of options. In this article, Foundations of Ajax author Nathaniel T. Schutta reviews development environments, debuggers, testing tools, and utilities that elevate JavaScript to first-class status in the Web development world. If you’re still programming JavaScript in a text editor, this survey of the modern tools landscape should open your eyes — and could make your life much easier.

If you like the article, you might also want to listen to the podcast of Andy Glover and I chatting about Ajax, JavaScript, testing and more. Enjoy!

Categories: Ajax, Articles, Development, Software Tags:

Good Ideas Aren’t Always New

April 21st, 2009 16 comments

At QCon, Glenn Vanderburg, Michael Feathers and I (there may have been others, as I recall some ESB was involved…) were talking about Mike’s 10 Papers Every Programmer Should Read post (if you haven’t read it, please do so now, I’ll wait. No really, go on.) A lot of programmers aren’t particularly well read, a fact that Mike laments, and we kicked around some theories as to why that is – here’s mine.

Why don’t we look at our past? I believe it has to do with the natural (10 year or so) cycle of language dominance. People who’ve never programmed in language n-1 look at the syntax in a book from, say the early 90s and scoff; they complain that they don’t know that language thus they can’t read the book. I’ve heard more than a few developers dismiss Design Patterns because the code wasn’t in Java, of course Java is starting to wane – a couple of days ago I was researching a book and noticed it had a bunch of negative reviews because the example code was Java!

Many developers are essentially Blub programmers and they can’t imagine life in any other language. Further, they firmly believe that anything that existed before Blub is the modern day equivalent of the Pony Express, antiquated and useless. To some, all the good ideas are new, and we have nothing to learn by studying our past, I suspect many of these people have never seen the mother of all demos (though maybe we have something new to rival that now.) A typical Blub programmer assumes that any book that doesn’t use Blub isn’t worth his time and thus misses out on a wealth of learning. They almost willfully ignore the past which explains some of the reactions to Mike’s post.

I’ve been doing my best to read my way through 10 papers and this afternoon I came to Kent Beck and Ward Cunningham’s A Laboratory For Teaching
Object-Oriented Thinking
. Now, many people assume the whole agile software thing is just a few years old but here we see waaaaaaay back in 1989, a reference to YAGNI and a plug for teamwork:

We stress the importance of creating objects not to meet mythical future needs, but only under the demands of the moment. This ensures that a design contains only as much information as the designer has directly experienced, and avoids premature complexity. Working in teams helps here because a concerned designer can influence team members by suggesting scenarios aimed specifically at suspected weaknesses or omissions.

Great ideas then, a great ideas now. We’re a young industry, one that is further hamstrung by the belief that the language/technology/process du jour is all that plus a bag of chips. We’ve obviously made some huge strides, but in so many ways we’ve barely moved. But for the video quality, Engelbart’s demo could have just as easily been from 1988 or even 1998; sure, we’ve all got a mouse on our desk, but what about that 5 fingered keyboard? Not so much. Heck, every language is just trying to reinvent Lisp, and that’s more than 50 years old! Don’t be afraid of the past, those old guys knew a thing or two. We only hurt ourselves by ignoring the lessons they have to teach us.

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Vendors are Risky Too

April 13th, 2009 4 comments

“We’re not a software company” is a common refrain these days; ever since Nicholas Carr’s “IT Doesn’t Matter,” it seems like more and more companies are bending over backwards to prove they don’t do IT. In the process, some consultancies have made a ton of money, often by “replacing” a given company’s IT department with the newly hired agency replete with people from….the company’s former IT staff. More than a few of my friends went to work one day as an employee of company X only to enter the office the next day via a contractor badge. As companies aped one another, we heard more and more about “core competencies” and how smart companies stuck to what they did best.

Implicit in this arrangement is a transfer of risk – and many (on both the business and IT side of the shop) equate vendors with risk free, or at least, if things go south we have a throat to throttle. While it can be empowering to scream at a vendor rep, that doesn’t mean you’ll get your problem solved – or that they’ll even be inclined to try. Vendor priorities mar or may not line up with yours and more often than not, that service contract entitles you to the C squad, not the A players they showed you during the courtship.

Make no bones about it, when you saddle up with a vendor, it’s a commitment, one you best enter into with your eyes open. Just like with your spouse, year two is rarely the same as the first date and having a phone number to call doesn’t mean you’ll get an answer you’ll like – or even an answer at all. Sure, you can open a problem ticket, but when will it be resolved? Don’t hold your breath, unless your CIO calls their CIO at least. Oh, and never assume the vendor’s developers write higher quality code than you do – some of the worst smelling balls of mud were slung by people working for “software companies.”

While we’re on the topic of software companies, don’t automatically think that the vendor is anymore of a “software company” than you are. It may *seem* like they’re in the same camp as Microsoft or Oracle, but take a look at their income statements – does “professionals services” make up a large percentage of the bottom line? Odds are it does, the software is the modern day equivalent of razors; they’ll darn near give it away (OK, if you call 7 figures “give”) so they can line up a nice fat services contract (mmm, smell the subscription fee!) In some cases, your odds of successfully implementing the project rapidly approach zero without a significant investment in contractors at $250 an hour and up. Nice work if you can get it.

Speaking of contractors, before you pull the trigger on that shiny box of vendor joy, take a look around the job boards to see if anyone is looking for developers with that skill set. Better yet, have your HR people look over recent job applicants to see how many boast time with your new love. Staffing models aren’t always at the forefront, but if you can’t hire people to twiddle the vendor bits, take a look around your cube farm and be sure you’ve got something people will want to train up on. Don’t be surprised when your techies aren’t thrilled by the notion of babysitting a piece of packaged software.

Once you’ve committed to a vendor, you live life on their schedule. Occasionally you might be able to nudge things but chances are you’ll be treated like the rest of the huddled masses. In some cases this might be just fine, but in others it can have a significant impact on your business. Found a critical bug? Odds are that won’t be fixed until the next release…sometime next year. You’re also stuck with their priorities and again, while you might have some influence here, more often then not, your pet feature isn’t so important to the decision makers at Vendor Co.

When you bring in a vendor, expect a platform play – and not all platforms are created equally. The excitement in Java land these days isn’t over Java the language, it’s Java the platform that gets the much deserved press for housing the likes of Clojure, JRuby, Scala, Groovy (hint, your developers would love to play with any of the preceding) and a host of others. While the Java platform (and it’s peer from Microsoft) offer a slew of choices, the vendor’s platform is probably designed like the Hotel California; once a company has invested time, effort and money, they will usually continue to throw good money after bad.

I’m not saying you should never purchase a vendor product – far from it. You shouldn’t write your own database server, you own app server, your own OR mapper or your own build framework (OK, maybe as a replacement to Maven, sure I can see that.) But when it comes to core competencies, the things that make your company special, that’s not something you should be too keen on farming out. As my friend Neal Ford is fond of saying, smart companies understand that IT is strategic.

When it is time to purchase some software, perform a true evaluation – and one that’s up to date. Just because the Foobaz team gave the product the thumbs up three years ago doesn’t mean they’d say the same thing today. Heck, that team might not have even considered the same criteria you are. Too often, we either run through a script that is oddly similar to the vendor’s demo or we try out a couple of hello world size examples; you’ve got to spend some quality time with a product to figure out when Dietzler’s law kicks in. Regardless of what you’re evaluating there are certain things you should pay extra special attention to:

  • The testing story. If a tool doesn’t have a good *automated* testing story, fail, or as we say in the project room, frog in a bag (FIAB for short).
  • Version control. Repeat after me: copying the files to the LAN isn’t version control. Life without source code management just isn’t worth living, if the tool doesn’t fit within something like Subversion or Git, your evaluation is over.
  • Can you diff the artifacts? I’m a fan of pictures, but show me the tool that can diff that fancy BPEL visualization. Oh and good luck with those massive XML files.

I’m sure you have other criteria too (Neal has a good list in part three of his SOA series) but these three are absolute deal breakers for me. Again, I’m not saying you should build everything, but when you do choose to purchase, be sure you know what you’re getting into. Can you live with the constraints? Are you comfortable with the tradeoffs? If so, I wish you all the best. But don’t blithely assume vendors aren’t risky.

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Speaking at QCon London

February 7th, 2009 2 comments

Just a quick note to say I’ll be speaking at QCon London in March – I’ll be giving a talk on DSLs in JavaScript. Looking at the schedule, it should be a heck of a show and I’m really looking forward to spending some quality time in London! Oh, I have a discount code if you’re interested in attending…

I'm speaking at QCon London 2009!

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It Isn’t the Uniforms

January 18th, 2009 1 comment

If you’re a football fan (American style) this is a big weekend – the AFC and NFC championship pit (pun intended) a couple of six seeds vs. a two and a four respectively. Much will be made in the off-season of just how the Cardinals made a Giants like run or how the Ravens went so far with a rookie quarterback and you can bet your morning mocha that a couple of hundred coaches will be dissecting everything the champions did to win today’s games. Yes, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and many will attempt to copy the winning formula.

It isn’t just sports franchises that imitate each other and raid the winner’s coaching staff, no, companies do the same thing. From performing the same morale sapping rifs to utilizing the same bland beige decor, corporate entities love to ape one another. Even within an organization, the “successful*” (however that is defined) VPs will find their ways quickly copied.

While we should certainly ask ourselves what’s working and what’s not, we need to make sure we understand what actually is working. Take Arizona’s success for instance. It may make sense to look at their offensive approach (as well as their coaching staff) to see what gems one might find. However, it takes a great deal of effort to find the golden nugget and most won’t put in the time. No, many will take a shortcut and insist that the Cardinal’s owe their Cinderella year to the color of their uniforms or the fact that Kurt Warner wears a glove on is throwing hand. Not only is the superficial easier to find, it is far easier to implement. Uniforms can be changed in a few days, establishing a winning tradition can take years.

In the technology space, it’s tempting to just copy a specific technology stack and it’s certainly easier to just buy the same vendor supplied vaporware than to hire better developers. But chances are you won’t be capturing the true essence of their success, you’ll just change the color of your uniforms.

So before you run off and decide that all new software in your organization should be written in that awesome new CASE tool that’s Bob’s team uses, be sure that’s the real secret sauce and not an ancillary fact. Odds are if you dig a little deeper you might find something else, something actually worth replicating.

* Unlike the sports world where a win is a win, success in the corporate world can be defined and then redefined especially when someone’s bonus is involved. Worse, sometimes one area’s success comes at the cost of the overall organization.

Categories: Development, Off Topic, Rants, Software Tags:

Speaking at CodeMash

December 29th, 2008 2 comments

I’m a bit late in announcing this, but along with fellow Fluff Talkers Ken Sipe, Andy Glover and Venkat Subramaniam, I’ll be speaking at CodeMash 2009 this January! I’ll be talking about Dynamic Languages and the JVM as well as Test Infecting the Legacy Organization. The show is sold out and I’ve got to admit the idea of hanging out at a water park in the middle of winter sounds darn appealing! Hope to see you there!

I'm speaking at CodeMash 2009!

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Rewrites Are Like Moving

December 14th, 2008 1 comment

Moving is one of those things that (hopefully) we don’t have to do that often; it takes a lot of time and energy plus it is a real pain in the behind. But, every so often we have to pick up stakes and when we do, we’re usually amazed at just how much stuff we’ve accumulated. This is particularly obvious when you’re in college – I distinctly remember packing for the summer wondering how the heck I’d get it all home; I’d only needed one trip up in the fall, why would I need so many in the spring? And then it would occur to me. I’d made several trips during the year, where I’d innocently bring one or two items, maybe even a bag of stuff. Over time, the bits built up.

Software works the same way. Over time, a feature is added here, refined there and before you know you’ve got a mature product. And a messy codebase. Eventually this will lead to a rewrite often accompanied by a technology change of some sort or another (this time we’ll get it right!) Rewrites can be pretty good projects but they’re not without their perils. For one, customers usually won’t spend much time defining requirements. I’ve often heard “it needs to work just like the old system…only better” with better being some vague hand-waving around a pet peeve or two.

In addition to vague requirements, rewrites tend to suffer from estimation fatigue. Customers are convinced that they need to have all of the old system’s functionality (plus all the new doodads they thought up over the last 20 plus years) and they need to have it *right now*. Like my college aged self in the spring, many customers loose site of the gradual build up in functionality of the existing systems and many will insist that the new one won’t be useful until it fully replicates the old. That last statement doesn’t hold water but good luck convincing someone that feels otherwise; the old system didn’t have all its features on day one either but that’s not the anchor point for the people asking for the new system.

Rewrites are an excellent opportunity to do some process reengineering and, if done right, usually results in a vastly improved workflow. Of course this requires us to look past the angry monkeys in our systems and think of how things could be rather than how they currently are. This step is often skipped though, and we simply end up further codifying the legacy approach. But at least it’s in a new technology stack.

Whenever I’ve moved, I’ve used it as an excuse to prune some of the stuff I’ve accumulated over the years (hint – look for boxes that you didn’t unpack the last time you relocated.) When you encounter a rewrite, see if you can’t do the same, try to eliminate some features, reports or screens. Most customers will scream bloody murder when you suggest clipping things, but half a product beats half-assed any day of the week. Writing code is like writing prose, the important bits are the ones you cut – applying this approach leaves you with a smaller codebase that’s easier to maintain. Besides, the code we don’t write is bug free.

So, next time you’re staring a rewrite in the face, see if you can’t cut some of the detritus; odds are you don’t really need all 283 “views.” But instead of using words like eliminate, try defer – most customers will see that as less scary. Be sure to remind them that you can always add that in later when you have a better sense of what you actually need. Odds are those “must haves” will slip quietly to the bottom of the backlog.

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