If you can’t name it, you can’t write it

Some people in my company have recently decided that they need some some more layers in their architecture. They are right, as it happens; but they are going about it all wrong. They are attempting to create a framework and we all know what happens when you put on your architecture hat and start building frameworks. Architecture astronauts only. Rather than solving specific problems and rolling them up in a framework they have started with the idea that they want a framework that wraps the database up and produces objects. And it should use LINQ. And it should do all sorts of cool stuff.

Unfortunately, since they don’t know what cool stuff it will do, they didn’t know what to call it so they held a little competition for people to suggest a name. And that is the problem, if you don’t even know what a thing should be called, how do you know what it is? If you don’t know what it is, you cannot sit down and write the code.

Of course, I pointed this out and made them very unhappy. A quick browse throught the source control history revealed that they had not started coding without any requirements. Of course, there were lots of empty interfaces with one object implementing the interface with only the method signature! And they really funny thing is that they have already changed the name.. When they started they called it ClientAPI (actually the “client” refers to the customers of the business, not client as in “client-server”). The later they changed it to ClientBusinessObjects. Great name.

And the really, really funny thing is that they aren’t business objects, they are actually database objects and that factory classes from the database! It will be really fun when they start reading pattern books too!

XP since the beginning…

I had an interesting conversation with someone the other day on the subject of XP. I told him that I’d been involved in an “early attempt at doing XP” back in 2001. We chatted a little about how it was only a couple of years after some of the books on XP were published but that, of course, there were many things about the attempt that were not perfect. He then casually mentioned that he used to work for ThoughtWorks and asked if I’d heard of it. I said, of course – because of Martin Fowler – he then told me that he was lucky enough, while at ThoughtWorks, to have been taught XP by Kent Beck. I asked him how and he said that he was lucky enough to go on the second ever ObjectMentor “total immersion” XP course.

Wow. Pretty impeccable agile credentials.


Extension methods are interesting

Not my idea, but it amused me. Thanks Dave.

namespace ExtensionMethodsAreEvil
 class ExtensionMethodsAreEvil
 public static void Main()
 string myNullString = null;
 Console.WriteLine("Is the string empty? " + myNullString.IsNullOrEmpty());

 public static class ExtendString
 public static bool IsNullOrEmpty(this string s)
 return string.IsNullOrEmpty(s);

spec#: a framework I can get behind

I’m generally not in favour of frameworks. I think that what the world needs is less frameworks to help programmers be productive. A competing API is one thing, but so many people offering competing paradigms make things hard. And no community traction means that things only ever get to “alpha” quality. And let’s be honest, most of them are unecessary; replacing tricky to understand code with tricky to understand config files to set up your abstract factory-factory? That isn’t progress, that is being an architecture astronaut.

But spec# from microsoft is an exception.

For one, you need something like it, even if you don’t think you do. Programming by contract is good stuff. If you roll your own by having a coding standard that checks validity of parameters and throws known exceptions or sort of attribute decoration on the properties of parameter objects then that is great. But you could do it with a framework like spec#.

For two, this is real framework territory. This stuff can be used on maybe 50% of all code that you write. Ok, not every method on every class needs to have a contract, but anything that you start to reuse would benefit and anything that you start thinking of a library or a common class needs it.

For three, this isn’t some fly-by-night on sourceforge where some CS student has checked in their year end project thinking “when I apply to Google I can show them this and they’ll love me” this is Microsoft. And looking at the dates on the Spec# page they have been at this a long time. Since 2004? My goodness, whole OSs have come and gone in that time!

Quality is a feature, not a constant

I can hear you objecting already! Quality, says the Agile handbook, is non-negotiable. If you want feature X, then you have to have it with 100% quality as determined by the developers. No user/customer is allowed to say “Oh I want features x AND y this iteration.. and I know you can’t do them properly but I’m sure you can think up some quick fix”. What they are asking for is a hack. And we don’t do hacks, do we? So the response is to say.. well you can have feature x1 and y1 this month which is half the work and features x2 and y2 next month, which will complete the other half.

That is not the sort of quality I’m talking about.

The sort of thing I’m talking about is application quality not about code quality. So the user can ask for things like “the server can never be down for more than 5 minutes in a year”. This kind of user story is a type called a constraint story, which is different from the usual feature-led type. This is an odd kind of user story as even though is has the user experience at its core, it still knows about “the system”, which is generally not the way user stories work. In any case, this story will clearly require work, so it will need to becosted and included in an iteration at some time. Although we might prefer to put this kind of story near the end, if the constraint story was “The server must never lose an order request” then we might want to know about that up front. In fact, given the word never we might want to start looking for another job!

In any case, that kind of request is not only a feature it is a very expensive feature. To get something like “..never lose..” working you will not only need to implement some serious enterprise code but you will need some serious test capability that will go way beyond what you can get out of unit testing (although, of course, unit testing will provide the “atomic” tests and give the safety net to refactor towards this incredible reliability). So this is a lot of work. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this kind of unconstrained constraint story will provide a near infinite 😉 amount of work. It will be difficult to time-box the work because until you can break it you can’t know the limits and when was the last time you broke SQL server?

So lesson #1 is don’t accept constraint stories that don’t have some sort of limit, even if they are crazy  (like the system will not lose more than one order in 100 million).

The other interesting thing is, where is this quality coming from? Clearly, this kind of “enterprise” strength quality won’t come from having a full set of unit tests. Although that might be necessary it is not sufficient. Code quality will provide the basis for refactoring towards our mega-reliable, ultimately scaleable solution but it won’t do it alone. However, can those building blocks of those “enterprise” applications be developed in an agile way? I’m not sure, but it worked for Linux. I know, it is a special type of programming and you wouldn’t expect a electrical engineer who can build a power grid for a country to be able to design an audio amplifier for a TV, but I can’t even see where to start when it comes to things like creating an middleware application like MSMQ or SQL server. Still a long way to go before I get that journeyman badge. Sigh.

Why team development is a must

It should be obvious why working in a team is good. Things like when you start measuring the amount of work in an interesting project you come up with a figure in man-years, that tells you that you might need a little help on this one. Of course, there are instances – mostly back in the grand old days of personal computer and minicomputer development – where wonderful things were made by one or two developers. Like the ‘C’ language compiler, the Altair BASIC compiler, VisiCalc and so on.

So why shouldn’t we all develop that way? Well, those people who developed those things were incredibile geniuses whose passion and ambition for developing unbelieveably good software was matched only by their skill at actually doing it. They had incredibly deep and broad knowledge that went all the way down to the hardware, and now, with applications involving graphics, the web, databases, messaging middleware etc etc, body of knowledge is now so vast that it is hard to imagine one person knowing it all in depth and keeping it current. You’ll also notice that the list of one-person miracles is rather short. No doubt there will millions of young keen developers out there writing language compilers and dBase variants and most of them are long gone; most of them never even compiled. Have you ever browsed around at sourceforge and seen the huge number of projects that have never produced a single working version of their product or even checked in anything that compiles? That is the normal fate of the work of the lone developer, oblivion.

When we allow lone developers to work for a long period of time in a company the result is almost as bad. Eventually we will want to integrate the efforts of all these lone developers. When  we do we end up with a system that is only as good as the worst developer. In terms of stability, maintainability and usability having each new developers learn lessons in their own time rather than being taught by an expert is a waste of time and money.

With a small amount of review or pair-programming we can spread our knowledge into the team in such a way that the less-expert developers learn from the more experts ones and everyone ends up getting a little better at only a small cost in extra work. Also, the system that results is as good as the best developer. The sad truth is that there is only one way to really learn the hard bits of programming, and that is by doing hard things. The hard things might be super-high performance, it might be backwards compatibility, it might be working with 25 year old legacy code or it might be, for the business programmer, coping with code complexity and being under pressure to do things as fast as possible. With the latter case, we have all kinds of books and patterns and practices, but you’ll never understand patterns by looking at example code; you have to look at things like 20,000 line classes or enterprise applications with 200 different screens or databases with 600 stored procedures and 400 tables. You have to look at code that has years of complexity hammered into every line. You have to look at code that has been written by people who have never told themselves no more hacks.

When code becomes a database

I saw some code recently that made me think “that person has lost their mind”; it was a class with a public enumeration in it with 15,000 (yes fifteen thousand) members. I noticed it when using resharper; mostly it takes a few seconds to open a solution when it works through all the files, but in this case it gets hung up for minutes. My first reaction is that this was mad, but I did at least try to understand why they had done it.

The enumerations were clearly imported in bulk from some external file (they were Bloomberg terminal commands). My first reaction is that this was not code, it was a database, and should be stored in a database. Any claim that the enumeration could be used for Intellisense is clearly rubbish as there are so many members that you need to know the thing you are looking for, thus eliminating the purpose of having the enumeration prompt you with the right options. I’m not really sure what it is good for. Of course, as soon as things go anywhere but in code, then we are in some sort of late-bound, text-based nightmare when we are just tossing strings around and hope we have the right string and we won’t know until runtime whether things will work. So, damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.

Obviously all the members aren’t used, but maybe having them all in one place is useful, so where should they be? In a relational database? Seems a little excessive to put them in a database as a) the data isn’t really relational, it is just a list and b) all the other features of a relational database – shared access, powerful query and update language, centralised management – don’t really seem that useful. The really key feature of a database is that it stores data. What is data? Well, one way to look at it is that it isn’t logic. If the logic is the same for all the inputs then the inputs are data. So these commands aren’t really data, as they all do different things that mean we get different results.

So if it is not data, what is it and where else could it be. In an XML file? Is that list of commands “config” for my program? I have some logic and I want to issue a certain command and so I store the command in a config file. Of course, normally one would store only the commands that you needed, and tightly bind the config file to the logic so we’d be more hopeful that we wouldn’t get run time errors when logic and config didn’t connect.

In general, I’d say that we have some sort of hierarchy that goes from code to config to database. We expect that order to work for size and changeability. If the enumeration of 15,000 is huge but never changes is it code or database? I don’t know but it is definitely a hack.