Lessons of Failure
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TAG | seven habits

Our last installment today is about the Great Ivory Tower of Standards and Architecture.  In case you missed the previous bunch:

Seven Habits of Highly Dysfunctional Enterprise Developers:

  1. Blame Everyone But Yourself
  2. Confuse Motion With Action
  3. Use Complexity To Demonstrate Intelligence
  4. Keep Important Information Secret And Safe
  5. Fix It Later
  6. Reuse Is Overrated
  7. Principles Are More Important Than Results

Principles Are More Important Than Results

ivory_tower

Beware the Ivory Tower

Ever work on a project where some group (or some person) in your company espouses standards above all?

“You absolutely must follow our standards to the letter.  We’ll be having daily code and design reviews, anything out of compliance will of course, be refactored to meet the corporate standards immediately”

Principles and best practices are great things to engender on a project.  A highly respected architect friend of mine said to me over and over, “It’s better to be consistent than right”.  Consistency gives predictability to people looking at code for the first time.  They learn what to expect and it reduces up-to-speed time for new developers.  It also creates mini “code templates” in your work patterns to speed things up as you develop.

You can take this too far.  Projects where standards are used like a whip are demoralizing and turn action into motion purely for the sake of consistency.  Remember:  Your goal is to ship a finished product that meets the customer’s requirements, on time and under budget.  Following standards is part of that but creating painfully complex standards and then demanding absolute adherence in this fashion is just torturing your developers.

Have standards, but keep them simple.  Standards exist to create consistency, not some absolute right-or-wrong litmus test for code.  Balance is important–shipping a product ad-hoc without any standards is a recipe for disaster during your first bug fix or maintenance release, but following each and every standard down to the comma is just wasting cycles.  Don’t err on the side of extremes either way.

In summary:

A good developer knows that there is more to development than programming.
A great developer knows that there is more to development than development.

Got a habit that I missed?  Sound out below!

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Nov/09

20

Habit 6: Reuse Is For Wimps

Today’s Habit is brought to you by the letter “R” and the number 1.

Seven Habits of Highly Dysfunctional Enterprise Developers:

  1. Blame Everyone But Yourself
  2. Confuse Motion With Action
  3. Use Complexity To Demonstrate Intelligence
  4. Keep Important Information Secret And Safe
  5. Fix It Later
  6. Reuse Is Overrated
  7. Principles Are More Important Than Results

Reuse Is For Wimps

recycle

Not Just For Plastic, Glass and Cans

Feeling that urge to rewrite qsort?  Convinced you can write a better Hibernate than Hibernate?  Positive that there is no XML parser out there that will suffice for your project?  Um.  Put down that Erlang compiler a sec and listen.

I completely understand why these urges come up.  We love to solve problems.  And sometimes, writing a billing application isn’t nearly as fun as say, creating a custom persistence layer that converts XML to binary ZIP and inserts it into a BLOB in the database.  But you won’t get a promotion because you reinvented the GOTO in your custom Haskell extension.  You might get a promotion because you shipped a working product on time, under budget that delighted your customers.

The goal of every software project is to launch.  Anything that gets you to launch quicker is good.  Previously developed libraries, even beta-grade ones, can be a win for you and your team.  That’s not to say you should create a Frankenapp by bolting every Open Source project together within reach.  But making judicious use of the right technologies can substantially reduce your time to market.

The one (and I do mean ONE exception) is creating something that is part of your core competency.  If you’re Intuit, then accounting software is your core competency and you’d better write some cool 401(k) prediction algorithms to help people use Quicken more effectively.  But what about a web framework?  Intuit isn’t in the business of creating frameworks.  Should they write a brand new one?  Probably not.  Understand what you’re in the business of doing, and write THAT.  Find help for everything else, as much as you can.

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Nov/09

19

Habit 5: Fix It Later

We examine the power of procrastination in today’s post, and why you should never underestimate the impact on your future.  If you missed the early habits, they’re linked here:

Seven Habits of Highly Dysfunctional Enterprise Developers:

  1. Blame Everyone But Yourself
  2. Confuse Motion With Action
  3. Use Complexity To Demonstrate Intelligence
  4. Keep Important Information Secret And Safe
  5. Fix It Later
  6. Reuse Is Overrated
  7. Principles Are More Important Than Results

Fix It Later

How many times have you said to yourself,

“Bah…I don’t have time to do that now.  I’ll fix it later…

bug_costs

Anything is More Believable When It's Graphed

Yeah, I thought so.  I do it too.  But a disciplined developer will stop right then and there, think about the future cost of that mistake and then correct it on the spot.  It’s the difference between knowledge and wisdom.

Comp Sci majors are taught from basic coursework (usually in their ONE software engineering capstone course, sadly) that the cost of fixing errors goes up non-linearly as you move forward in a project to later phases–fixing a bug in the requirements during say, design, is cheaper than fixing the same bug in production.  A practiced engineer will apply that knowledge to fix problems BEFORE they get into the next phase by proactively understanding the consequences now and altering the course of history.

The temptation (and sometimes the stick that is whacking you on the backside) is to say you don’t have time because of The Schedule.  The Schedule will always be there.  You’ll almost never work on an open-ended project with infinite time to “get things right.”  You will have to ship, eventually.  That comes with compromises.  We defer changes out of fear.  Fear of impacting others.  Fear of being wrong.  Fear of having more work to do.  What’s that you say?  “I’m the exception!  I can’t just go changing that class because it’s already in production and I don’t know what it will break.”   Thank you, that’s the point.  THAT bug made it to production because someone said, “I’ll fix it later.”  So fix it now.

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Nov/09

18

Habit 4: Never Share Information

Lessons from Lord of the Rings, why you really did learn all you needed to know in Kindergarten and the value of opening your kimono.

Seven Habits of Highly Dysfunctional Enterprise Developers:

  1. Blame Everyone But Yourself
  2. Confuse Motion With Action
  3. Use Complexity To Demonstrate Intelligence
  4. Keep Important Information Secret And Safe
  5. Fix It Later
  6. Reuse Is Overrated
  7. Principles Are More Important Than Results

Keep Important Information Secret And Safe

All that knowledge you’ve worked hard to acquire over the years…it should be jealously guarded, like a treasure in a cave.  Never shared.  My PREH-SHUSSSSS!

Filthy Colleagues-es!  They wants the Precious!

Filthy Colleagues-es! They wants the Precious!

Who are you, Gollum?  You may remember it didn’t work out so well for him.

The best developers actively share and disseminate their practices, tricks, tips and past pitfalls with everyone and anyone who will listen.  They teach and mentor new developers, write good documentation (OK, they at least write it…), send emails to the team letting them know about new tools and techniques for making things better.  They do Brown Bag seminars talking about the latest project and how it was useful to them, the company, or their peers.  They see problems in training and make up for it by creating Wikis for new team members.

There is no point in holding on to useful information that could make others better developers.  That is, unless you’re trying to stay in the same job forever.  Ask yourself, who do you want to work with on your next job?  The person who helped you write that complex algorithm on their lunch break, or the guy who hissed at you when you walked into his cube:  “Mine!  Stay away, filthy Hobbitses”.

Yeah, I thought so.

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Smart people naturally create…chaos?  Today’s habit is about the value of parsimony in your work.  Previous habits linked here:

Seven Habits of Highly Dysfunctional Enterprise Developers:

  1. Blame Everyone But Yourself
  2. Confuse Motion With Action
  3. Use Complexity To Demonstrate Intelligence
  4. Keep Important Information Secret And Safe
  5. Fix It Later
  6. Reuse Is Overrated
  7. Principles Are More Important Than Results

Demonstrate Your Intelligence With Complexity

escher-relativity1

Ow, my head hurts...

Project complexity creeps in from two paths.  First, there’s accidental complexity.  As developers we love solving ALL kinds of problems–that’s usually why we choose this field.  Often times we start solving the problem before thinking about it first.  The result is stream-of-consciousness code, where even YOU won’t understand it in six months.  With comments.  As Mr. T would say, “I pity the fool”.

How about the developer that actively accidentally obfuscates their code by using counter intuitive algorithms, poorly named variables, or seven levels of indirection.  This intentional complexity is even more insane.  I’m not sure if this comes from some Napoleon complex in software, lack of training/experience or just a naive repertoire of coding tools.  Either way, it sucks for everyone else down the line from your code.

Simple code is easy to read, easy to maintain, and a joy to work on.  Sometimes, simple code will naturally evolve from complex code during the course of code reviews or pair programming efforts.  The best programmers I’ve ever worked with have one thing in common:  making complex things simpler.  And despite what I read about this Python library experience, simplicity pays for itself down the road.  Being afraid that a simple solution makes you appear less smart is crazy.  Want to prove how smart you are?  Try teaching some training class to your peers instead.

There are some easy ways to help fight both kinds of complexity:

  • Google the problem before you attempt solve it.  See if a solution already exists.  Understand that solution first.
  • If you only understand one solution to a problem, ask someone else for a different perspective, especially if you struggled with that answer.
  • Refactor if you don’t like it the first time.
  • Actively seek to reuse existing libraries.

Endeavor to make things easier for yourself and others.  The sanity you save may be your own.

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Nov/09

16

Habit 2: Confuse Motion With Action

We explore the difference between work and heat in today’s habit.

Seven Habits of Highly Dysfunctional Enterprise Developers:

  1. Blame Everyone But Yourself
  2. Confuse Motion With Action
  3. Use Complexity To Demonstrate Intelligence
  4. Keep Important Information Secret And Safe
  5. Fix It Later
  6. Reuse Is Overrated
  7. Principles Are More Important Than Results

Confuse Motion With Action

Lots of people misunderstand the difference between motion and action.  Or in physics terms, the difference between work (energy put into a system that increases the potential of an object) vs. heat (energy expended but with no future value, like friction).   Steve Blank recently made a memorable post on it:

sisyphus

Sisyphus Enjoyed His Daily Routine...right?

Steve: Jim, how are we doing with getting Ansys ported?
Jim: Great, I have a bunch of calls into them.
Steve: How are we doing on the Nastran port?
Jim: Wonderful, they said they’ll get back to me next month.
Steve: How about Dyna 3D?
Jim: It’s going great, we’re on their list

Putting in the effort to look busy is not the same as making real progress towards a goal. I’ve sat in countless meetings listening to this sort of status reporting (at all levels, not just for developers either) and I’m sure you have too.  Oh, wait…you’ve given a status report like that?  Yeah, me too.  Next time you’re tempted to do that, look at the problem differently:

  • What goal do I need to accomplish?
  • What is in my way of doing that?
  • How can I get rid of those obstacles?
<li><a href=”http://www.lessonsoffailure.com/software/seven-habits-highly-dysfunctional-enterprise-developers”>Blame Everyone But Yourself</a></li>
<li><a href=”http://www.lessonsoffailure.com/software/habit-2-confuse-motion-with-action”>Confuse Motion With Action</a></li>
<li><a href=”http://www.lessonsoffailure.com/software/habit-3-complexity-demonstrates-intelligence”>Use Complexity To Demonstrate Intelligence</a></li>
<li><a href=”http://www.lessonsoffailure.com/software/habit-4-never-share-information”>Keep Important Information Secret And Safe</a></li>
<li><a href=”http://www.lessonsoffailure.com/software/habit-5-fix-it-later”>Fix It Later</a></li>
<li><a href=”http://www.lessonsoffailure.com/software/habit-6-reuse-wimps”>Reuse Is Overrated</a></li>
<li><a href=”http://www.lessonsoffailure.com/software/habit-7-principles-important-results”>Principles Are More Important Than Results</a></li>

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With apologies to Steven Covey and Jack Ganssle, who have their own lists on the topic, I bring you the

Seven Habits of Highly Dysfunctional Enterprise Developers:

  1. Blame Everyone But Yourself
  2. Confuse Motion With Action
  3. Use Complexity To Demonstrate Intelligence
  4. Keep Important Information Secret And Safe
  5. Fix It Later
  6. Reuse Is Overrated
  7. Principles Are More Important Than Results

Blame Everyone But Yourself

finger-pointing2

Who me?

There’s always plenty of people on enterprise software projects.  Everyone shares the responsibility…and the blame.  Developers often use this situation to deflect the blame.  I call this the Code Kingdom Problem.  That’s not MY code, it’s YOUR codeI didn’t write that module, S/HE did…And so on.  Maybe this statement rings a bell:

“Hey Bob, since you wrote that parsing module and the bug that came up seems to be a parsing error, why don’t you fix it?

Tempting though this may be, consider the collateral damage caused by this causal remark:

  • Bob may resent you pointing out his failures
  • Bob may not want to collaborate with you on future work
  • Bob may not recommend you on future jobs
  • Bob may spit in your coffee when you’re not looking

Rather than risk Bob’s heinous salivary wrath, why not proactively fix the problem (Cooperative Code Sharing), or help Bob find it and suggest a fix if Bob is struggling with it? (Pair programming).  Bottom line:  Their is no MY code vs. YOUR code.  It’s OUR code. If you’re on the project, you share it all–failure, success, or mediocrity.  You can’t have pride of ownership without ownership.

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