Udi Dahan   Udi Dahan – The Software Simplist
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Archive for the ‘Management’ Category



People, Politics, and the Single Responsibility Principle

Monday, May 26th, 2014

PeopleIn one of Uncle Bob’s recent blog posts on the Single Responsibility Principle he uses the example of using people and organization boundaries as an indication of possible good software boundaries:

When you write a software module, you want to make sure that when changes are requested, those changes can only originate from a single person, or rather, a single tightly coupled group of people representing a single narrowly defined business function. You want to isolate your modules from the complexities of the organization as a whole, and design your systems such that each module is responsible (responds to) the needs of just that one business function.

This is something that often comes up when I teach people about service boundaries when it comes to SOA – organization boundaries are the most intuitive choice.

And, once up on a time, that intuition might have indeed held up.

Stepping back in time

In the age before computers, organizations had a very specific way of structuring themselves.

People who had to work closely together sat in close physical proximity to each other. Data that was required on an ongoing basis would be in file cabinets also physically co-located with the people using that data, and it would be structured in a way that was optimal for their specific purposes. All of this was due to the high cost of communicating with people farther away.

If you needed data from a different department, you had requisition it by filling out a special form, put it in your outbox, and then some guy from the mail room would pick it up, and physically schlep it to the right department, putting it in their inbox, and then someone there would get your data for you – putting it together with your original request, and then the mail guy would schlep it back. This inbox/outbox style of communication should ring a bell from the messaging patterns I talk about with NServiceBus.

As a result, different departments had to have very clearly delineated responsibilities with minimal overlap with each other. The organization just couldn’t function any other way.

And then a bunch of us geeks came along.

Enter the age of computers and networks

By introducing this technology, the cost of communication across large distances started falling – slowly at first, and then quite dramatically.

When anyone in an organization was able access data from anywhere in the blink of an eye, an interesting dynamic started to unfold. All of a sudden, the division of responsibility between departments wasn’t as critical as it was before. When an employee needed to do something, there wasn’t this “that isn’t our job, you need to go to so-and-so” reaction. Because things could be done instantly, that’s exactly what happened.

And then came the politics

By removing the cost of communication, it became possible for more power-hungry people in the organization to start making (or trying to make) decisions that they couldn’t have made before. The introduction of computers into an organization was heralded as a new way of doing business – that the old organizational boundaries were a relic that we should leave behind us.

And thus can the re-org (the first of many).

Responsibilities and people were shuffled around, managers vied for more power, and politics took its’ place as one of the driving forces in the company structure.

Nowadays, if you want a decision made in a company, there isn’t just one person who has the authority to sign off on it anymore. No, you need to have meetings – and more meetings, with people you never knew existed in the company, or why on earth they should have a say on how something is supposed to get done. But that is now our reality: endlessly partially overlapping responsibilities across the organization.

So, what of the Single Responsibility Principle

This just makes it that much harder to decide how to structure our software – there is no map with nice clean borders. We need to be able to see past the organizational dysfunction around us, possibly looking for how the company might have worked 100 years ago if everything was done by paper. While this might be possible in domains that have been around that long (like banking, shipping, etc) but even there, given the networked world we now live in, things that used to be done entirely within a single company are now spread across many different entities taking part in transnational value networks.

In short – it’s freakin’ hard.

But it’s still important.

Just don’t buy too deeply into the idea that by getting the responsibilities of your software right, that you will somehow reduce the impact that all of that business dysfunction has on you as a software developer. Part of the maturation process for a company is cleaning up its’ business processes in parallel to cleaning up its’ software processes.

The good news is that you’ll always have a job :-)



#NoEstimates – Really?

Saturday, April 19th, 2014

estimatesThere has been some discussion online recently about the issue of estimates in software development, specifically under a meme called #NoEstimates.

This came up when I was in London for the DevWeek conference at the speaker dinner with Austin Bingham, Rob Smallshire, and Allen Holub and I wanted to share some of the ideas that came up, as well as some of my personal opinions on the matter.

Context matters

When you’re in an organization that is continuously developing and evolving a product, platform, or suite, your context is quite different than when you’re working on a project either for an external client or an internal one.

In short: product vs. project.

While in both contexts you’ll want frequent releases, the main difference is that a project is meant to achieve a certain state of “done-ness” in a bound period of time. A product is not ever meant to be “done” in that way. A successful product is one that continues to evolve over time, with that success (arguably) resulting in more resources being dedicated to its development.

If we were to zoom out our scope beyond that of the project, we’d probably see certain product-ish qualities at the level of a client’s entire IT environment – no state of “done-ness” and similar consequences of success.

Where estimates are needed

Whether you’re in a product development organization or the CIO of an enterprise, there are a certain number of features/projects (FP) that people in “the business” want done. Let’s assume that each FP has a certain amount of business value that its implementation would result in and that that value is known in advance.

Sidebar: Clearly, the business value of any feature or project can not be known with much certainty in advance of it being implemented. Still, for the purpose of keeping the analysis simple for now, let’s table this issue for a bit.

While you might think it’s reasonable to perform the work on these FPs in order of decreasing value, that is mistaking revenue for profit/return-on-investment (ROI).

In other words, we need to know roughly how much each of them costs to be able to calculate its predicted ROI (value – cost).

Only then can we decide in which order to do the work.

So, we need somebody technical to give an estimate.

High-level estimates

In this context, sometimes it’s enough to provide 3-4 buckets describing the amount of work – I like the approach of using shirt sizes: S, M, L, XL.

This can help the organization decide quickly to charter the development of the FPs with very high value and very low cost. These low hanging fruit are great for getting started, but when you’re done with them, then you have to decide between a bunch of FPs whose predicted ROI are all very close to each other.

Before doing that (!), it’s important that no projects with an XL size are fully chartered as is – no matter what the value.

When a technical person gives an XL estimate, that means “this is so big, I really have no idea how long it’ll take”. The variance can be huge here – in some cases, they might not even be certain if the request is doable without being given some time to do additional research first. And that is exactly why you need to carve out a certain chunk of time and resources for doing that research.

“But you don’t understand, Udi! We need this done ASAP.”

Believe me when I say that that ship has already sailed.

There’s a pretty good chance that before that extra-large FP is half-done, so much time will have gone by that business priorities will have shifted. Unfortunately, by that time so many resources will have been invested in it that nobody will have the guts (or political capital) to pull the plug on it. The best people will start leaving – sometimes to other FPs but, more often, the company as well. Even when these nightmarishly large missions are eventually done – they end up being something of a Pyrrhic victory.

So, what to do?

Well, beyond financing a certain amount of directed and scoped research and development to get a better handle on that beast, let me suggest this:

Enter the “Lean Startup”

If you haven’t heard about it yet, and regardless of whether you’re actually working at a startup (I’d say that it is even more important for large organization), you need to check out the Lean Startup.

While I won’t be able to do justice to it here, let me use this admittedly gross oversimplification:

You are mistaken about the predicted business value.

Really.

So what you need to do is to start applying the scientific method – a series of experiments in which you are looking for proof to validate your hypothesis about the predicted value, where the outcome of one experiment is used to formulate another hypothesis to be tested in the next experiment.

Let me say this differently – until you are as rigorous in evaluating the predicted value of a given initiative as you are in estimating its cost, with that rigor increasing with the size of the initiative, you have no business starting to work on it.

And this is what’s missing from most of the software development world.

Portfolio management

I don’t really care what you call it, but the portfolio of potential investments and the risk analysis around them needs to be handled properly.

Based on the language I’ve chosen, you can see parallels to the world of finance. Now, before your mind starts going to the news of all the shady crap that’s been going on in the world of finance, understand that there are both positive and negative outliers in every domain.

That being said, I won’t point you to books on finance (at least, not for starters).

I suggest reading Manage your project portfolio, by Johanna Rothman (one of my favorite people in the world). She also has a couple of blogs, and that can help you get started.

This has already gotten quite long, so I’ll skip a bit and talk about what you should do if you’re “just” a developer being asked to give an estimate.

How to give a good fine-grained estimate

Here’s the format to use:

This will take a team of N between T1 and T2 and I am P% confident in that range, with the following assumptions (1, 2, 3), and most importantly, that the team does not work on anything else during that period of time.

Let me repeat that important bit again:

Assuming the team does not work on anything else.

Most of the kinds of people who ask for estimates aren’t going to like that kind of answer. You may get some pushback, “don’t be clever – can this be done by the end of the year, or not?”. In other words, they’re asking you for a commitment – not an estimate. This is common with certain types of dysfunctional organizations – the project management people are only measured on adherence to schedule, not on whether the system solves the right problem. You, the developer, want to make sure you’re solving the right problem – you want to be Agile. But that’s not the point.

Let me repeat – Agile is not the point.

If the organization around you is dysfunctional, be smart – don’t try to be right. Solving the right business problem is the right thing to do, but often it’s not smart thing to do. If you don’t like having to deal with this kind of organizational politics, you had better find yourself a different organization – otherwise, you had better be smart.

How to receive good estimates

Assuming you’re a team lead, project manager, product owner, or something similar, here’s how to respond when someone gives you an estimate in the above format.

  1. If P is subjectively high enough and T2 is subjectively low enough, give them the green light.
  2. If P isn’t high enough, or the range of T1 to T2 is too broad:

    1. If you have previously given them time to do research (RT), double the value of RT.
    2. Make sure they are only doing research during this time (no other development).
    3. The purpose of the research is to increase P, or decrease the range of T1-T2
    4. When receiving the new estimate, go back to the beginning.

To be clear, “research” does not mean navel-gazing. It can and often will involve writing a bunch of code as well as on figuring out what the requirements should have been in the first place.

“But Udi, won’t this end up wasting time that could be better used on actually building the system?”

No.

In reality, this will end up paying back all the time that should have been spent up-stream on portfolio management and requirements analysis activities.

Which brings me to…

Working software over comprehensive documentation

Sometimes, writing high-quality working software is the last thing you want to do.
Specifically, the earlier you are in the project, the less likely that you should be focusing on code.

Often, the most cost-effective thing to do is some rapid-prototyping like creating UI mock-ups to verify what the system should really do.

This really deserves a blog post of its own (with thanks to Geert for finding the link), but suffice it to say that this is a skill-set all its own that should exist in every software development organization.

On other word on small startups – I often hear from people who are doing their own startup that want to do DDD, CQRS, SOA, and a bunch of other three-letter-acronyms they picked up on various blogs and books, because this time it’s up to them; this time they’re going to do it right.

No, no, no – stop that. Go read the Lean Startup. Then do it. And if you’re extremely lucky, you will be so successful that in a couple of years you will be in the position to rewrite the system – the only difference is that now you’ll REALLY know what the system is supposed to be.

In closing

OK – so that’s well over 1500 words I’ve spilled on the topic.

While the hashtag #NoEstimates makes a great soundbite, estimates are an important part of the information that needs to flow around the organization to help quantify and mitigate risk. Too often there are various organizational dysfunctions tangled up in the same areas as estimates which, I suppose, could give the impression that the estimates are to blame.

While I wish I could tell you that all you need to do is find an organization that doesn’t have any of these dysfunctions and all will be well for you, unfortunately there aren’t any organizations without them. Just like all families are dysfunctional in one way or another, so too are organizations. This is simply because each of us human beings is somewhat dysfunctional.

Well functioning organizations are made up of highly aware individuals – people who have become able to see and mitigate some of their personal issues, and thus can be patient as the people around them similarly work through their issues. Together, these individuals continuously create and adapt their working processes and systems to compensate for the various dysfunctions in the group.

Under these iteratively growing conditions of mutual trust, various kinds of estimates are performed at different levels and times and are just a normal part of communication and decision-making.

Please, don’t throw out the baby with the bath-water.



Thoughts on a career in software development

Friday, December 27th, 2013

helping_handFor much of the history of computers, programmers really only had one path to take – upward into management.

While you could go from Junior Programmer to Senior Programmer, sooner or later you were faced with the choice of becoming a Team Lead or having your career stagnate.

The primary difficult with becoming a team lead is that the skills that made you an excellent Senior Programmer didn’t really carry over to leading a team.

On leading teams

Much ink has been spilled (and keyboards been pounded) on this topic, so I’ll just give the common solution that is proposed to this issue – having a parallel technical career track to the traditional management track.

After being a senior programmer, developers can grow into architects and upwards. IBM, for example, has the title “Fellow” reserved for this ultimate level.

An IBM Fellow is an appointed position at IBM made by IBM’s CEO. Typically only 4 to 9 IBM Fellows are appointed each year in May or June. It is the highest honor a scientist, engineer, or programmer at IBM can achieve. –Wikipedia

All that’s well and good, but I have a feeling that something is still missing.

Why does it have to be either/or?

What if we allowed, nay – encouraged, developers to try both types of roles as they advance in their career?

After your first year as a senior programmer, you are then assigned to be a mentor to a junior programmer. You don’t assign them work, but take responsibility for some of their professional development. During this time, you also start learning what it takes to be a good team lead and developing your soft skills – yourself being mentored by a more senior team lead (probably not a good idea for it to be the team lead on the project you’re working on). From there, you take on a team lead role on a small-ish project leading 2-3 other developers.

During your time as a team lead, architects in the company work with you to deepen your technical knowledge of larger system concerns – grooming you for your next role: an architect. Your experience as a team lead gives you new found appreciation for managing technical risk.

Later, as an architect with developed soft-skills, you are now much more capable of getting teams to adopt your ideas and to want to do “the right thing”, rather than just deliver the project any way they know how. Even as you develop your expertise in various technological areas, the organization has an eye on bringing you back to being a team lead, this time on a larger project.

In praise of the zigzag

I think this has actually been happening more than just a little in our industry, although I believe it usually happens as people move from one company to another.

Is it possible that the limitations of the structures in their previous companies contributed to their choice to move to another company? Well, I wouldn’t discount it.

I don’t think companies should pigeonhole developers – either you’re an X or a Y.

Human beings thrive on variety and occasionally stretching out of their comfort zone.

I believe this model optimizes for people’s personal growth and can be tuned quite easily.

I think this is also very much in alignment with the Software Craftsmanship movement and can make it easier for companies to develop and hold on to the talent they’ve been lucky enough to hire in the first place.

In closing

While I believe this model is workable for a lot of the software industry, both for consulting companies and internal development organization, it’s clearly not going to be applicable for small startups. That being said, if the startup is successful and starts growing, it might not be such a bad idea to lay the groundwork for the team early on.

I don’t claim that this is the “best model” out there, and I haven’t tried it myself (yet), but I do believe that it has potential and would love to (re)spark the conversation about processes and structure that has seemed to die down under the Agile maxim of “Individuals and interactions over processes and tools” (though I believe that Agile as a whole *has* gotten us pointed in a better direction than where the industry was before).

What are your thoughts?

Write a comment or, even better, write something on your blog and spread the word!



The right methodology for your project

Sunday, August 4th, 2013

certified_agileIn this day and age where “Agile” is kind of the default in many organizations, I thought I’d point this out:

I’m on record that every project needs its own methodology; further, that for most projects, the beginning, middle, and end are different enough to need their own; further, that every team ought to reexamine, alter and experiment every month.
Alistair Cockburn – one of the authors of the Agile Manifesto1, 2

Allow me to say that again:

Every project needs its own methodology

And that that methodology should not be statically adhered to – instead you should expect to adjust that methodology monthly, to the level that an external observer seeing the middle of your project would identify that you are, in fact, using a different methodology than the one you were using at the beginning of the project. And the same would go for the end of the project.

And if you don’t know Alistair yet, let me tell you – he really knows what he’s talking about.

Read more of Alistair’s work.



Leveraging irrationality towards success

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

irrationalWe’ve all seen good ideas emerge in the software space – from objects, to components, to services, to domain models, and the *DD approaches. Yet, in most organizations, it is very hard for these ideas to get traction.

I’ve heard from countless developers and architects over the years about their frustration in getting everybody else to go along with them. “Can’t they see how much better [new approach] is over what we’re doing now?!” they ask, believing that things could and actually would be evaluated on their merits, especially in a rational field like IT.

The usual explanation I give has a couple of parts.

Conway’s Law

In 1968 Melvin Conway penned what later became known as Conway’s Law which stated:

“organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.”

An important corollary of that law is that if you wish to have a significant impact on the design of a system, you would need to have a similarly significant impact on the communication structure of the organization making that system.

The main problem is that the people that tend to be pushing for DDD, IoC, CQRS, SOA, etc are usually not as strong when it comes to the soft skills that are so necessary for bringing about organizational change. The thing is that, at a minimum, these types of changes take 3 to 5 years so it really takes a long-term commitment, both from the individual and the organization.

On the rationality of people in IT

First of all, people are a whole lot less rational than they’d like to believe – or that they’d like other people to notice. In fact, people will go to great lengths to maintain the appearance of consistency and rationality, even at the cost of harm to themselves. How’s that for irrational?

Don’t take my word for it – there’s a great book on the topic: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. The somewhat scary thing about it is that not only are we irrational beings, but that that irrationality can be predicted and, yes, even manipulated.

Once you can understand that the people you’re trying to convince aren’t Vulcan, you have a much better chance of being effective. I’d say that, for myself, understanding my own modes of irrationality increased my effectiveness as well, and made me quite a bit happier in life too.

Why you need to bring in a consultant

This isn’t me hawking my wares – believe me, I’m busy enough as it is, but let me know when this starts to sound familiar to you.

There’s a problem in your organization – could be that you’re not delivering software fast enough, high enough quality, whatever. Suffice it to say that Management isn’t happy. You’ve been living this pain for a while and know exactly what the source of the problem is (more often than not, management has at least a hand if not a whole arm in it). You come up with some recommendations, bring them to the higher-ups, but ultimately are ignored, dismissed, or don’t even get into the room.

Some time later, management brings in a Consultant (that’s right, with a capital ‘C’) who is there to figure out what’s wrong and come up with recommendations. In some cases, especially in larger organizations, they bring in a whole bunch of them from a brand name like McKinsey or Ernst & Young.

If these guys are smart, they listen to you, ultimately presenting your analysis and recommendations to management. Of course, those higher-ups are in awe of how quickly these guys were able to understand the inner workings of their organization. That awe lends instant credibility to their recommendations which are then adopted and given powerful political backing.

And you’re sitting there thinking, “but… but… but that’s what I was saying!!”.

It’s not the message – it’s the messenger.

Let me put it another way, explained from the perspective of management – we’re having problems, you work here, ergo you’re part of the problem. Also, you don’t make that much money (compared to management), so how smart could you be? Those brand-name consultants, well, they cost a LOT, so they MUST be good (good enough to know not to work here too).

Therefore the more the consultant costs, the more likely management is to listen, which ultimately creates the conditions for success, which makes the change happen, which proves to management that they were right to bring in an expensive consultant. A vicious (or virtuous) cycle – depending on how you look at it.

Now, it doesn’t always work this way, but it does often enough to perpetuate management’s world view.

In Closing

I do hope your organization and its leaders aren’t trapped in this kind of dysfunction, but if they are, know that you’re not alone and that you can get help – either via consulting or in some books:

Some good books include Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die and the grandfather of the field: How to Win Friends & Influence People. There are countless others and there isn’t any right place to start – the most important thing to do is to start.

It’s been over 40 years since Melvin Conway’s observation and, as an industry, we’re still relearning these things – usually through the school of hard knocks. But there is an upside here – I’m pretty sure that, knowing these patterns, you could pick up on some signals during the interviewing process and find a company that’s outgrown many of these issues – one that would be able to have more meritocratic discussions on technical choices.

In the worst case, you could become a consultant and make a living off of all this irrationality :-)



Change is hard

Sunday, January 8th, 2012

diamondOrganizational change is hard – like the way a diamond is hard.

So, don’t try to change the organization. It’s too big anyway.
Instead, focus on changing one person at a time – that’s hard enough.

Don’t necessarily take the “one person as a time” too literally, though.
You don’t need to completely and utterly have one person won over before starting on the next.

Understand that for someone to change, that may require them admitting (either implicitly or explicitly) that the way they were doing things before was wrong. In some organizations, this can be suicide. Even if it isn’t, psychologically speaking, there are a huge number of barriers to overcome.

So, if at all possible, massage the situation in such a way that it’ll sound like they were right all along, and no-one really understood. It’s easy for someone to play along with the “misunderstood genius” story.

Next time – how to do just that.

Stay tuned.



Enterprise, SaaS, and Platforms

Sunday, June 19th, 2011

mission_impossibleSo it’s been about a year and a half since my promise to follow up on my Non-Functional Architectural Woes post. Just to give you a short summary, in that post I talked about the fact that many of today’s “best practices” for software design (like layering, ORMs, and web services) don’t actually provide the promised flexibility when requirements end up changing.

Since that post I’ve blogged about many techniques and approaches to identify better boundaries (like with SOA and DDD) and I’m seeing more and more developers starting to apply them.

This post will be slightly different.

You see, occasionally we technical people will get requirements that can’t easily be broken down by functional boundaries. Sometimes the business calls this a “platform” – here’s an example:

“We want a flexible, customizable workflow-driven platform that allows end-users to add their own columns to any screen able to support massive datasets for large enterprise customers that will also be intuitive and easy to use for our SaaS push to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) – oh, and then it needs to be multi-tenant too. Did I mention that we promised this would be ready for our most important client by the end of the year?”

There is only one reasonable answer to the above:

“I know you want it but, I’m very sorry, you can’t have that. It isn’t possible to do that with one system.”

It’s really rare for a technical person to say something like that. The simple reason is that in software, we believe that almost everything is fundamentally possible – given enough time/money/resources. So, when someone in business comes to us with the requirements above, we say “It’s *possible*”, loosely translated to “We can’t prove that that’s impossible”.

There are many reasons why you can’t be SaaS and Enterprise at the same time – not all of them dealing with software. The marketing, sales, and support stories of each of those markets is VERY different. In the enterprise you’re usually working with professional services people that customize the generic product – which then becomes a backwards-compatibility requirement for new development. This will hinder the development team’s ability to roll out the new shiny features needed to remain competitive in the SaaS space.

In the cases where I’ve been brought in to help clients with these kinds of systems, I try to work my way up to the person in management who is in charge of the project/product – often the CEO. Then, in the nicest way possible, I explain that really the only way to have your cake and eat it too is to create 2 companies – each one focused on its own space – Saas and Enterprise; each one with its own development team, feature set, release schedule, etc.

There’s a reason that there’s an SAP *and* a Salesforce – it’s because no one can be all things to all people. It’s hard enough to become a market leader in just one space. Trying to do both is VERY expensive, and increases the chance of the project failing from the average 60-70% in the industry to probably about 99.9%.

Hope that will save you some grief.



Server Naming and Configuration Conflicts

Saturday, June 5th, 2010

ConfigurationIn my work with clients the topic of how to handle the movement of software from one environment to another inevitably comes up. Sometimes this is in the context of NServiceBus but the problem is more generic. The faster that an organization is able to get software out the door, the more agile they can be.

Unfortunately, there is one tiny little mistake that I see almost everywhere that gets in the way, and that’s going to be the topic of this post.

The Problem

Let’s say you have a standard web app environment – some web servers, application servers, and a database server. Your web servers need to send messages to the application servers. So far, so good.

In your test environment, you have an application server called AS_01_Test, and your web servers are configured to send it messages. However, in your staging environment the application server fulfilling that same role is called AS_01_Stage. This creates a configuration problem – you need to change the config of your web servers as you move the web app from Test to Staging.

I’ve seen companies doing all sorts of creative things to get around this problem – some of them involve putting all configuration settings in a database so that they can be centrally managed and visualized. I’d like to suggest an alternative approach.

What if…

What if server names were the same across all environments?

Well, you wouldn’t need to change configuration as you moved the system between environments. That’s a good thing.

But how can that be? Wouldn’t there be a conflict if there were two machines with the same name?

The answer is that there wouldn’t be a conflict if the machines were on different networks. Not all machines have to be on the same network. We can set up as many networks / virtual networks as we like. And it is clear that we don’t need machines in one environment / network to talk to machines in another environment. I mean, under no circumstances would we want web servers in our test environment to talk to application servers in the production environment.

These separate networks provide much needed isolation, beyond solving the server naming problem.

In closing

It’s really a tiny thing when you think about – multiple networks. But that’s exactly why software developers overlook it so often – because it’s not a “software solution” to the configuration problem we perceive as a “software problem”.

I wrote about related multi-environment configuration issues in this earlier post: Convention over Configuration – The Next Generation

I’m happy to say that this functionality is now in NServiceBus called “profiles” and you can read more about how they work here.

How are you handling the flow of moving software through to production? Leave your comments below.



CQRS isn’t the answer – it’s just one of the questions

Friday, May 7th, 2010

dont panicWith the growing interest in Command/Query Responsibility Segregation (CQRS), more people are starting to ask questions about how to apply it to their applications. CQRS is actually in danger of reaching “best practice” status at which point in time people will apply it indiscriminately with truly terrible results.

One of the things that I’ve been trying to do with my presentations around the world on CQRS was to explain the why behind it, just as much as the what. The problem with the format of these presentations is that they’re designed to communicate a fairly closed message: here’s the problem, here’s how that problem manifests itself, here’s a solution.

In this post, I’m going to try to go deeper.

The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy

In this most excellent book, one of the things that struck me was the theme that made it’s way through the whole book – starting with the answer to life, the universe, and everything: 42. By the time you get to the end of the book, you find out that the real question to life, the universe, and everything is “what do you get when you multiply 6 by 9″. And that’s how the book leaves it.

To us engineers, we can’t just accept the fact that the book would say that 6*9 = 42 when we know it’s 54. After bashing our heads on the rigid rules of math, we realize that not all math problems are necessarily in base 10, and that if we switch to base 13, the number 42 is 4*13 + 2 = 54. So, the book was right – but that’s not the point.

What’s the point?

The hitchhiker’s guide is an example of a teaching technique which presents an apparent paradox, leaving the student to dig up unspoken and unthought assumptions in order to resolve it. Key to this technique are rigid rules which do not allow any compromise or shortcuts on the student’s part.

The purpose of this technique is not for the student to learn the answer, but to gain deeper understanding, which in turn changes the way they go about thinking about problems in the future.

So, when given the problem 4*5, we do not just immediately answer 20, instead we clarify in which numeric base the question is being phrased, and only then go to solve the problem. In base 13, the answer would be 17. In hex, the answer would be 14.

The externally visible change is that we know which questions to ask in order to arrive at the right answer – not that we know the answer ahead of time.

Making an “ass” out of “u” and “me”

Let’s start at the end – one of the unspoken assumptions that has been causing problems:

All businesses can be treated the same from the perspective of software.

In our previous example, we assumed that all math problems use base 10. It turns out that different bases are useful for different domains (like base 2 for computers). We can say similar things about degrees and radians in geometry. The more we look at the real world, the more we see this repeating itself. There’s no reason that software should be any different.

Base 10 is not a ubiquitous best practice. We shouldn’t be surprised that there really aren’t best practices for software either.

Here’s another problematic assumption:

“The business” can (and do) tell us what they need in a way we can understand.

So many software fads have been built on the quicksand of this assumption. OOAD – on verbs and nouns. 4GL and other visual tools that “the business” will use directly. SOA – on IT business alignment. I expect we haven’t seen the end of this.

Some of you may be wondering why this is false, others are sagely nodding their heads in agreement.

The myth of “the business”

Unless you have a single user, who is also the CEO paying for the development, there is no “the”. It’s an amalgam of people with different backgrounds, skills, and goals – there is no homogeneity. Even if no software was involved, many business organizations are dysfunctional with conflicting goals, policies, and politics.

To some extent, we technical people have hidden ourselves away in IT to avoid the scary world of business whose rules we don’t understand. With the rise in importance of information to the world, we’ve been pulled back – being forced to talk to people, and not just computers. Luckily, we’ve been able to create a buffer to insulate ourselves – we’ve taken the less successful technical people from our heard and nominated them “business analysts”. No, not all companies do it this way, but we do need to take a minute to reflect on how information flows between the business Mars into and out of the IT Venus.

On human communication

Even if we made this insulation layer more permeable, allowing and encouraging more technical people and business people to cross its boundary, we still need to deal with the problem of two humans communicating with each other. There are enough books that have been written on this topic, so I won’t go into that beyond recommending (strongly) to technical people to read (some of) them.

Rather, I’d like to focus on the environment in which these discussions take place. IT has been around long enough, and users have used computers long enough, that a certain amount of tainting has taken place. If the world was a trial, the evidence would have been thrown out as untrustworthy.

When users tell you what they want, they’re usually framing that with respect to the current system that they’re using. “Like the old system – but faster, and with better search, and more information on that screen, and…”

At this point, business analysts write down and formalize these “requirements” into some IT-sanctioned structure (use cases, user stories, whatever), at which point developers are told to build it. Users only know what they didn’t want when developers deliver exactly what was asked.

How can that be?

These are not the “requirements” you are looking for

Users ultimately dictate solutions to us, as a delta from the previous set of solutions we’ve delivered them. That’s just human psychology – writer’s block when looking at a blank page, as compared to the ease with which we provide “constructive criticism” on somebody else’s work.

We need to get the real requirements. We need to probe beyond the veneer:

  • Why do you need this additional screen?
  • What real-world trigger will cause you to open it?
  • Is there more than one trigger?
  • How are they different?
  • etc, etc, etc…

This is real work – different work than programming. It requires different skills. And that’s not even getting into the political navigation between competing organizational forces.

But let’s say that you don’t have (enough) people with these skills in your organization. What then?

Enter CQRS

CQRS gives us a set of questions to ask, and some rigid rules that our answers must conform to. If our answers don’t fit, we need to go back to the drawing board and move things around and/or go back to “the business” and seek deeper understanding there.

For each screen/task/piece of data:

Will multiple users be collaborating on data related to this task?
Look at every shred of raw data, not just at the entity level.
Are there business consistency requirements around groups of raw data?

If “the business” answers no – ask them if they see that answer changing, and if so, in what time frame, and why. What changing conditions in the business environment would cause that to change – what other parts of the system would need to be re-examined under those conditions.

After understanding all that and you find a true single-user-only-thing, then you can use standard “CRUD” techniques and technologies. There are no inherent time-propagation problems in a single-user environment – so eventual consistency is beyond pointless, it actually makes matters worse.

On the other hand, if the business-data-space is collaborative, the inherent time-propagation of information between actors means they will be making decisions on data that isn’t up-to-the-millisecond-accurate anyway. This is physics, gravity – you can’t fight it (and win).

The rule for collaboration

Actors must be able submit one-way commands that will fail only under exceptional business circumstances.

The challenge we have is how to achieve the real business objectives uncovered in our previous “requirements excavation” activities and follow this rule at the same time. This will likely involve a different user-system interaction than those implemented in the past. UI design is part of the solution domain – it shouldn’t be dictated by the business (otherwise it’s like someone asking you to run a marathon, but also dictating how you do so, like by tying your shoelaces together).

Many of the technical patterns I described in my previous blog post describe the tools involved. BTW, hackers can be considered “exceptional actors” – the business actually wants their commands to fail.

In Summary

The hard and fast rule of CQRS about one-way commands is relevant for collaborative domains only. This domain has inherent eventual consistency – in the real world. Taking that and baking it into our solution domain is how we align with the business.

The process we go through, until ultimately arriving at one-way-almost-always-successful-commands is business analysis. Rejecting pre-formulated solutions, truly understanding the business drivers, and then representing those as directly as possible in our solution domain – that’s our job.

After doing this enough times and/or in more than one business domain, we may gain the insight that there is no cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all, best-practice solution architecture for everything. Each problem domain is distinct and different – and we need to understand the details, because they should shape the resulting software structure.

The next time the business tell us to implement 42, we’ll use CQRS along with other questioning techniques until we can get “6 x 9″ out of them, learning from the exercise what are the significant and stable parts of the business – ultimately helping us to “build the right system, and to build the system right”.

Don’t Panic :-)



On MS, OSS, and Java

Saturday, May 1st, 2010

JavaIt appears that my last post caught a lot of people’s attention, with responses online and offline from people in the community as well as inside Microsoft. Some read it as a criticism of Microsoft. Others found it rang true with their experiences, particularly in their interactions with technological decision makers. One thing I’d like to do in this post is to broaden the scope of the discussion to include the Java side as well, as many in the enterprise space are working in a multi-platform/multi-vendor environment. Let’s start with some history.

Java takes the enterprise

When Java originally came out, it was an interesting language that you could use to write applets – code that would run the same everywhere, in the browser, on the desktop, etc. SUN was the keeper of Java. And then came this concept of a container – the thing that would run your Java code, which then grew to handle things like transactions, and became the Enterprise Java Bean – EJB, and that came out of IBM, with SUN adopting it later.

The adoption of Java at that point was important enough that the specs were opened up, and many EJB technologies blossomed. With backing from big companies already inside the enterprise, the only possible fight came from COBOL around Y2K, but that was a dying gasp. Microsoft wasn’t in the game as Windows NT wasn’t competition for UNIX or mainframes.

Multi-vendor as a way of life

With multiple big and medium-sized vendors offering similar, competing, and complementary technologies, all tied together by the promise of backwards compatibility in Java and the specs demanding interoperability, customers could safely go for best-of-breed solutions. This forced technological decision makers to truly evaluate the offerings on merits, not just lineage.

Many attribute the rise of OSS in Java to the fact that the existing containers were so heavyweight. I believe that was a secondary effect. As a result of the fact that the industry had embraced and internalized the values of thinking and choosing for itself, it was willing to look at alternatives with much humbler lineage, ultimately using them on their merits. It was the culture.

The Microsoft ecosystem

This culture was practically nonexistent on the Microsoft side of the border. As the only vendor, Microsoft was put on a pedestal – it was the best, period. The industry hungrily looked to Seattle not only for technology, but also for guidance and leadership. If a developer could get a job at Microsoft, they were “hot stuff”, the best of the best. This isn’t a bad thing – it was just a thing.

This enabled technological decision makers on the Microsoft side to have much shorter thought and decision processes than their counterparts on the Java side.

All of these things got baked into the culture.

About Microsoft

Like all that were ever on a pedestal, the fall was a matter of time. Expectations being that high, it was inevitable. You can’t make all people happy all the time, and the conditions in the industry were changing, and the company had to change to remain competitive.

Let me say this clearly: Microsoft was not at fault.

Sure, it’s easy to say in retrospect they should have communicated more clearly about this, or built that technology differently. If you haven’t yet worked in a big company, you may not know this, but big companies aren’t just bigger small companies. It’s a hodge-podge of competing agenda, initiatives, politics, people, and power. There’s a saying that things only get done despite the organization’s best efforts.

For a company Microsoft’s size, what they manage to get done is incredible.

On acquisitions and OSS

Microsoft has come under fire over the years for offering their own implementations of open source technologies- as if the vendors on the Java side didn’t do this. The Java world was ultra competitive, the big vendors would eat promising upstarts in order to win back lost contracts to key customers. This made the technological decision makers broaden their thought processes to include risk management as a part of managing their technological portfolio. To a large extent, this actually justifies the existence of a C-level role related to technology – the CIO.

Chief Officers of Information and Technology

I found it interesting to see the difference in age, experience, background, and thought processes between people holding the CIO title at organizations that were Microsoft-centric and those with a more heterogeneous technology investment. This was likely influenced to a large extent by the history of technological evolution, age and size of organizations with the resulting culture and hiring practices, among other things. This pattern continued with the CTO as well.

Obviously one wouldn’t expect the same thought processes in the CTO of a 20 person IT shop and the CTO of Ford Motor Company (for example). They shouldn’t be the same.

It appeared that as Microsoft became more focused on innovation they started listening more to the technology leaders of smaller companies, not a bad thing by itself. Choosing A means not choosing B, and in order to stay competitive, a choice must be made.

Fast forward

I think that what happened was necessary, and will be good for the industry and Microsoft. Technological decision making in companies that were traditionally Microsoft-centric has evolved. This has clarified Microsoft’s role as a platform vendor who can be trusted, and whose tools can be used or not used as the situation dictates, with comparable commercial and OSS tooling evaluated on the same criteria.

Just as IBM reinvented itself and now occupies a sustainable role in a combined commercial and OSS ecosystem of platforms, tools, and services, Microsoft appears to have made several big strides partnering with the community in much more productive ways, yet with more strides to be made as well.

A challenge to OSS on the Microsoft platform

In this new and more mature environment, OSS can’t remain the same either. Some code a developer whipped up in their free time and put in an online accessible repository with a decent license just won’t cut it any more.

In my previous post I called out the Linq2Sql support story – the same goes for OSS. Active development is required, and so is support, and so is documentation. The commitment needs to be much more serious.

Also, until usage reaches some critical mass, it is unlikely that a single developer or even a small group of committers will be able to do it without the help of the community. Really the only alternative is for there to be some commercial story that can fund it – support, consulting, training, commercial add-ons, etc. A combination of community (both dev and use) and commercial cash-flow is probably most sustainable.

If you are running an OSS project, understand that these criteria will be used to evaluate it.

In closing

I think I’ve managed to alienate previous supporters from all sides.

I believe we are entering some interesting times, where not only are vendors and OSS projects being evaluated differently than in the past, but that traditional architectural paradigms are changing as well.

Regardless of what the answers are, I’m happy that more of us are asking more questions. Some questions are the right questions, some are the wrong ones, and sometimes we just ask at the wrong time, but as an industry I think that we’re getting better.

Thanks for reading.



   


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“Udi has helped PCLine on projects by implementing architectural blueprints demonstrating the value of simple design and code.”

Rhys Campbell Rhys Campbell, Owner at Artemis West
“For many years I have been following the works of Udi. His explanation of often complex design and architectural concepts are so cleanly broken down that even the most junior of architects can begin to understand these concepts. These concepts however tend to typify the "real world" problems we face daily so even the most experienced software expert will find himself in an "Aha!" moment when following Udi teachings.
It was a pleasure to finally meet Udi in Seattle Alt.Net OpenSpaces 2008, where I was pleasantly surprised at how down-to-earth and approachable he was. His depth and breadth of software knowledge also became apparent when discussion with his peers quickly dove deep in to the problems we current face. If given the opportunity to work with or recommend Udi I would quickly take that chance. When I think .Net Architecture, I think Udi.”

Sverre Hundeide Sverre Hundeide, Senior Consultant at Objectware
“Udi had been hired to present the third LEAP master class in Oslo. He is an well known international expert on enterprise software architecture and design, and is the author of the open source messaging framework nServiceBus. The entire class was based on discussion and interaction with the audience, and the only Power Point slide used was the one showing the agenda.
He started out with sketching a naive traditional n-tier application (big ball of mud), and based on suggestions from the audience we explored different solutions which might improve the solution. Whatever suggestions we threw at him, he always had a thoroughly considered answer describing pros and cons with the suggested solution. He obviously has a lot of experience with real world enterprise SOA applications.”

Raphaël Wouters Raphaël Wouters, Owner/Managing Partner at Medinternals
“I attended Udi's excellent course 'Advanced Distributed System Design with SOA and DDD' at Skillsmatter. Few people can truly claim such a high skill and expertise level, present it using a pragmatic, concrete no-nonsense approach and still stay reachable.”

Nimrod Peleg Nimrod Peleg, Lab Engineer at Technion IIT
“One of the best programmers and software engineer I've ever met, creative, knows how to design and implemet, very collaborative and finally - the applications he designed implemeted work for many years without any problems!

Jose Manuel Beas
“When I attended Udi's SOA Workshop, then it suddenly changed my view of what Service Oriented Architectures were all about. Udi explained complex concepts very clearly and created a very productive discussion environment where all the attendees could learn a lot. I strongly recommend hiring Udi.”

Daniel Jin Daniel Jin, Senior Lead Developer at PJM Interconnection
“Udi is one of the top SOA guru in the .NET space. He is always eager to help others by sharing his knowledge and experiences. His blog articles often offer deep insights and is a invaluable resource. I highly recommend him.”

Pasi Taive Pasi Taive, Chief Architect at Tieto
“I attended both of Udi's "UI Composition Key to SOA Success" and "DDD in Enterprise Apps" sessions and they were exceptionally good. I will definitely participate in his sessions again. Udi is a great presenter and has the ability to explain complex issues in a manner that everyone understands.”

Eran Sagi, Software Architect at HP
“So far, I heard about Service Oriented architecture all over. Everyone mentions it – the big buzz word. But, when I actually asked someone for what does it really mean, no one managed to give me a complete satisfied answer. Finally in his excellent course “Advanced Distributed Systems”, I got the answers I was looking for. Udi went over the different motivations (principles) of Services Oriented, explained them well one by one, and showed how each one could be technically addressed using NService bus. In his course, Udi also explain the way of thinking when coming to design a Service Oriented system. What are the questions you need to ask yourself in order to shape your system, place the logic in the right places for best Service Oriented system.

I would recommend this course for any architect or developer who deals with distributed system, but not only. In my work we do not have a real distributed system, but one PC which host both the UI application and the different services inside, all communicating via WCF. I found that many of the architecture principles and motivations of SOA apply for our system as well. Enough that you have SW partitioned into components and most of the principles becomes relevant to you as well. Bottom line – an excellent course recommended to any SW Architect, or any developer dealing with distributed system.”

Consult with Udi

Guest Authored Books
Chapter: Introduction to SOA    Article: The Enterprise Service Bus and Your SOA

97 Things Every Software Architect Should Know



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