Friday 25 November 2011

Overlapping magisteria

I've written that unit tests and acceptance tests represent two non-overlapping magisteria. I've realised I need to revise this.

Unit tests and acceptance tests specify internal and external behaviour respectively. There is no inherent reason why external behaviour should be trivially translatable to internal behaviour, because the structure of the internals need not bear any resemblance to the model the system presents to the world.

However, that is only true of systems in general. Systems produced using a domain-driven design methodology deliberately enforce structural similarity between the system's implementation and the domain it represents.

Because of this, it's possible to make inferences between external and internal properties of the system. For example, if a
object returns
to the method
when its
field called
or greater, there's a good chance that if a user thrice enters the wrong password that their account will be disabled.

If we know something about a well-designed system's external behaviour, we can generally extrapolate about its internal behaviour (and vice-versa).

Monday 14 November 2011

Continuous receipt - sacrificing versions

Last week I received an email that convinced me that the way we think about versioning has irrevocably
changed. Here is the meat of the mail:
IntelliJ's Perforce plugin now has job support.
While this is a valuable feature for me in my current project, it's hardly a major event for software in general.

What struck me was the author's implicit assumption that IntelliJ is a single continuous entity that changes state. IntelliJ "now" behaves differently to what it did a month ago.

To a user, "IntelliJ" is becoming less a description of an immutable executable than the name of an evolving organism of features. Whereas once we spoke of the 2010 incarnation of a product verses the 2011 product, soon we will speak of how a piece of software behaved in 2012 compared to 2013.

Web applications like Facebook, Twitter and Gmail have been doing this for some time. It's becoming the norm for desktop apps too.

The frantic pace of continuously delivered versions is obliterating the end-user's concept of a version altogether. Where previously we expected to pull new features by explicitly choosing to upgrade, we now accept that our software will frequently be pushed changes - almost in real time.

This large number of minutely differing versions is similar to how animation generates the illusion of motion. The more frequent the changes, the smoother the effect. As video games have increased their frame-rates they have made older games look clunky and awkward by comparison. Publishing games with 1995's industry standard frame-rate would put a studio at a serious competitive disadvantage today.

Developers who are unable to embrace the concepts of continuous delivery will find users perceive their software in much the same way.

Sunday 21 August 2011

Designing Haskell

The other day I was struggling through quirk of Java's generics (which are implemented with type erasure). I pondered that it would have been wonderful if generics had been properly baked into Java from the start instead of being superficially retrofitted.

While I'm strengthening Java's type system, I thought, I should wish for type inference to cut out all those redundant type annotations. And if I'm going to do that, I might as well ask for closures!

Of course, some of the worst things about Java are awkward and commonly misused features, like nullability. I occasionally use it myself, but I'd prefer it if there were an alternative. And I'd gladly give up mutability, primitive types and implementation inheritance if only every other Java programmer had to give them up too.

But, I considered, would I just be imposing my personal taste on others? I mean, I like significant whitespace, but I know some other programmers inexplicably prefer curly braces.

If only there were already a magical programming language like this that I could switch to without disturbing the Java developers who are happy with things the way they are.

Friday 19 August 2011

Eco on over-engineering

This triumph of the mechanism produced a kind of giddiness, whereby the importance attached to what the machine actually produced was less than that attached to the extravagance of the mechanical resources required to produce it, and frequently many of these machines displayed a wholly disproportionate relationship between the simplicity of the effect they produced and the highly sophisticated means required to obtain it.

- Umberto Eco, On Beauty: A History of a Western Idea

Wednesday 13 July 2011

Procrustean sizing

Conventional agile estimation involves assigning story points based on the relative size of each piece of work. Most teams refuse to accept stories whose size falls outside a certain limit and send them back for further analysis. Teams using Procrustean sizing take this to the extreme and only accept stories of a single, fixed size.

Procrustes was mythical ancient Greek bandit whose speciality was capturing unwary travellers and making them fit his iron bed. If they were too short, he would stretch them. If they were too tall, he would cut off an appropriate section of their legs.

Procrustean has come to describe the coercion of data into an arbitrary container or structure. The term is often used perjoratively to refer to a simplistic, one-size-fits all approaches.

However, I believe that a Procrustean story sizing is a viable technique for teams using kanban to manage their work. Limiting all stories to a pre-determined size places extra restrictions on story formation but it provides stronger assurances about how work and value will flow through your team.

When all stories are of the same size it becomes easier to reason about the backlog as a whole. Adding up stories of different sizes is dangerous because teams sometimes have a tendency to over or under-estimate differently for larger stories. An eight point story might take more or less than four times as long as a two-pointer when there is not a strictly linear relationship between story points and effort.

This effect is stronger with greater variability. Some teams avoid the temptation to add up stories of different sizes by estimating in animals or some other arbitrary non-numeric scale. However, when there is only one size this complication is avoided and calculations of the total size of the backlog become more reliable.

More importantly, limiting variability helps to maintain a constant flow. Production levelling (as described by Taiichi Ohno in his account of the Toyota Production System) is essential for reducing waste because it ensures that all parts of the pipeline recieve work at a rate they can handle. Uneven flow (mura) results in work building up in some areas while other areas are forced to remain idle and disrupts feedback.

Setting limits on work-in-progress (WIP) is also simpler when there is no distinction between points and stories. A WIP limit of story points can mean that there are too few stories in development to usefully work on in parallel, but a WIP limit of stories can allow too much work to be in progress at once if large stories are in development. When there is too much WIP, it takes longer for problems to show. Also, it becomes difficult to change priorities because expedited stories are blocked by large pieces of work already in progress.

The most obvious disadvantage of the technique is that stories may need to be divided, even when the product owner envisages them as a single unit. This is a problem for any team that does not accept stories of an unlimited magnitude, but it happens more frequently when using Procrustean sizing.

Adopting Procrustean sizing is a tradeoff. If reliable flow is more important than the narrative integrity of stories, then it can assist a team's development process. If preserving stories in the form that product owners originally imagined them is important for communicating with stakeholders, then levelling your stories may not be good option.

Procrustean sizing forces teams to organise plan stories in the form that they can most easily be worked on. It's the software equivalent of Ohno's advice to reduce batch size in manufacturing and, like reducing batch size, takes discipline and effort. Procrustean sizing is a simple constraint, but kanban has already demonstrated the value and power of simple constraints correctly applied.

NB: I have not used this technique in its pure form on a real project. This post is intended as an RFC and exposition of the Procrustean sizing concept. I would be very interested in hearing others' experiences with this or similar ideas.

Saturday 18 June 2011

gets gets my goat

I'm participating in a virtual study group on the book Seven languages in seven weeks. The first week has been on Ruby, which has been a liberating and and frictionless experience - except for one glitch.

One of the exercises in the book involves writing a primitive grep in Ruby. This program reads text line-by-line from stdin and echos the lines that contain a fragment specified as a command-line argument.

My first attempt looked something like this:
while line = gets
    puts line if line.match ARGV[0]
But when I tried to run it...
> ./grep.rb foo
./grep.rb:3:in `gets': No such file or directory - foo (Errno::ENOENT)
 from ./grep.rb:3
After a lot of head-scratching, I finally figured out that gets behaves differently if there are command-line arguments. From the Ruby documentation on gets:
Returns (and assigns to $_) the next line from the list of files in ARGV (or $*), or from standard input if no files are present on the command line.
So, I actually needed to do this:
while line = STDIN.gets
    puts line if line.match ARGV[0]
After becoming a little frustrated at this seemingly inexplicable overloading of gets, I took a moment to think about why it bothered me so much.

One benefit that Ruby advocates often cite about the language is its adherence to the Principle of Least Surprise. So in the case of this particular unpleasant surprise, I felt cheated.

But then I realised that the strength of my reaction was a backhanded compliment to Ruby. The gets incident stuck in my mind only because it contrasts so strongly with the rest of my experience of Ruby as a consistent and well-designed programming language.

Saturday 11 June 2011

Agile teams need the same skills

There is occasionally anxiety about how project managers, business analysts, QAs and other traditional roles fit into agile projects. A project manager new to agile development might feel that their skills and experience aren't valued because they don't see their old job title explicitly mentioned in a description of an agile team.

Agile schedules still need to be managed. Agile requirements still need to be analysed. Agile codebases still need to be tested. The difference is that agile teams don't assume that these activities have to be done by dedicated team members.

A cross-functional team needs a wide variety of skills to succeed. Sometimes these will be provided by specialists and sometimes by generalists. The balance has to be struck for the specific needs of a project and can't be determined by a crude, one-fits-all rule.

Though agile is a great step forward in software development, it would be arrogant and unfair to think that there is no place in agile teams for software professionals that happen to come from traditionally structured organisations.

Monday 30 May 2011

Elastic teams absorb shocks

I've come across the idea that because cross-functional teams need a variety of skills, members of the team should aspire to be generalists. I think that is overstating the case somewhat.

Agile teams need to be able to handle workloads requiring varying mixtures of skillsets. In order to cope, teams need elasticity, that is they need to be able to temporarily boost their capacity in a particular kind of work as the situation requires.

This can be better achieved by a mixture of flexibility and focus than by either radical specialisation or radical generalisation.

Specialisation has the obvious drawback that if the specialist in a given area is at full capacity the team cannot take on any more of this kind of work. This leads to the situation where some team members aren't fully utilised but the team cannot commit to taking any more stories to "done done" in the current iteration.

Total generalisation doesn't produce idle team members, but it does prevent a team from reaching its maximum possible potential. Software development is full of difficult and technically-specific problems that may not be understood by someone who has not deeply immersed themselves in that discipline. Furthermore, it's hard for someone who isn't fully comfortable with a domain to coordinate others at the same level.

I prefer teams where there is an expert ready to take charge in the face of any given challenge and who can rely on the rest of the team to fall in behind them. This happens best when team members are specialists in their own discipline and generalists in everything else.

To return to the metaphor in the title of this post, effective agile teams have a definite shape but they have enough elasticity to absorb the shocks of atypical workloads.

Wednesday 18 May 2011

Domain-driven teams

I just watched Phil present on why enterprise architecture usually sucks, and it struck me that his talk resembled a formal argument:
  1. Design always reflects team structure (Conway's law)
  2. Design should reflect the business domain (Domain-driven design)
It seems to me that the following conclusion is inevitable:
  1. Therefore, team structure should reflect the business domain
Logically, Phil's maxim that "what’s easy to change in the business model should be easy to change in your architecture" can only be achieved by structuring teams around domain concepts and avoiding cross-cutting concerns.

Sunday 15 May 2011

Declarative management

Broadly speaking, programming languages can be categorised as either imperative or declarative. This post will explain the difference, and also argue that a declarative approach to management leads to better outcomes.

Imperative programming

Imperative programs are lists of commands. Here is a piece of C code that tells the computer how to make a meal based on a recipe. Get a bowl, start at the first ingredient, add and mix ingredients one at a time and stop when there are none left:
Bowl make_recipe(char** ingredients, int num_ingredients)
  int bowl_size = number_of_ingredients / 3;
  Bowl bowl = fetch_bowl(bowl_size);

  for(int i=0; i < number_of_ingredients; i++)
    add_ingredient(ingredient_list[i], bowl);
  return bowl;
For some recipes it doesn't matter what order ingredients are added. It wouldn't make a whole lot of difference to your pancakes batter if you add the milk before the eggs or the other way around. But this code doesn't trust the computer to decide when rearranging ingredients is safe; they must be added in the exact order that they appear on the list.

Declarative programming

Prolog is a kind of declarative language known as a logic programming language. I write Prolog code by declaring facts (Susan is Mark's parent) and rules (a grandparent is a parent of a parent):
parent(susan, mark).
parent(gerald, susan).

grandparent(X, Z) :- parent(X, Y), parent(Y, Z).
I can now ask Prolog questions based on these declarations:  
| ?- grandparent(gerald, mark).
| ?- grandparent(mark, susan).
I didn't describe how to arrive at those answers. I merely provided the necessary information and left the rest up to Prolog. If someone changes details in Prolog's algorithm it won't affect my program so long as it continues to interpret facts and rules in the same way. There are many different kinds of declarative programming language but they all focus on what needs to be achieved and leave the how to the implementors' discretion.

Declarative management

Declarative management describes the desired outcome but give the team freedom to achieve it in the way that appears best to them. One way that we encourage this on agile projects is to make sure that all our stories have a "so that" clause that explains their intent. This allows requirements to be much more concise, because we concentrate on the things that matter - in other words the what.

If the story says "As a user, I want the system to know my favourite colour, so that the site can be personalised to suite my aesthetic taste", then the team are free to bring their expertise on the problem. The solution they come up with might even surprise the person who originally came up with the story. In the agile world, we call this "delighting the customer".

On the other hand, imperative management is very specific about exactly how the things must be done. To follow the recipe example above, workers in a fast-food chain might be given exact steps on how to put together a hamburger.

There is a place for both imperative and declarative programming. Declarative programming is a good choice when it's important to make intent very clear or when the computer is in a position to make better optimisations than the programmer. Imperative languages are often the only sensible choice when the how needs to be tightly controlled e.g. to ensure high performance in a video game.

However, there is very little justification for imperative management. The only time that its helpful to give a team the how is when you believe that they would come up with a worse solution than you. If you think that's true, you're probably either wrong or you haven't properly trained your team.

I'm sure there are rare cases when imperative management can help the business. In the fast food example, the fastest possible way to assemble a burger might not be independently arrived at by every part-time employee. Just like a C++ programmer might use her detailed understanding of a PS3's hardware to force it to behave in a certain way, central management might find it advantageous to promulgate an optimised burger production process that's faster than what employees could come up with themselves. But as a general rule this doesn't happen, because while computers are naive and unable to show initiative, your employees are not.

Imperative management is micromanagement. Declarative management is empowerment. And since your employees are (hopefully) better at their jobs than you are, empowerment is more likely to achieve the results you are after.

Thursday 14 April 2011

The waterfall mindset

Some developers are reluctant to delete code. If I understand their logic correctly, it goes something like this:

Writing code takes effort. Therefore, removing code means wasted effort.

This relies on two fallacies.

Firstly, it assumes that code is valuable in of itself. But code is a liability, not an asset. Removing code while maintaining functionality creates value because it improves agility without costing anything that stakeholders care about.

Secondly, it assumes that code/functionality is the only purpose of development. But agile practitioners use development as a way of gaining information. So even if a change is fully backed-out and never restored, the process of developing that change yielded an improved understanding of the solution space.

I realise that deconstructing fallacies is somewhat of a fallacy itself. Counterproductive practices are more likely to be driven by psychological factors than by logical errors. In this case, I think that a reluctance to delete code is motivated by an attitude I call the waterfall mindset.

Within the waterfall mindset, coding proceeds through a series of decisions that are never revisited once made. It's very similar to a sequential development process, except that the phases can be in the mind of a single developer. Like normal waterfall development, it relies on the supremely unlikely possibility of getting decisions right the first time:
  • Generating reports is too slow? Let's cache them on the webserver.
  • Cached files are out of date? Let's write a cron job to renew them every night.
  • The webserver is under unacceptable load during the regeneration process? Let's delegate to a separate report server.
  • Report generation fails silently when there are network problems? Let's develop a custom protocol with failure semantics so that the webserver knows when to re-send messages to the report server.
  • And so on...
Or perhaps the report generation process itself could be profiled and optimised, eliminating the need for a caching mechanism altogether.

When I discover developers (including myself) in the grip of waterfall coding, I'm reminded of the nursery rhyme about the woman who swallowed a fly. It didn't work out well for her either.

Monday 28 March 2011

Acceptance tests make big claims

If we have good acceptance tests, why do we need unit tests?

Acceptance tests tell us a lot. When they pass, they tell us things like:
  • A feature works from an end-user perspective.
  • All the components required to serve user requests have been wired up correctly. 
  • The supporting infrastructure has been installed and configured in the test environment.
  • The user interface has not significantly changed since the acceptance tests were first written.
  • An intermittant network outage did not occur.
But when they fail, they tell us very little. They make such ambitious claims about the state of the software that failures could indicate a large number of disparate underlying issues.

Unit tests, on the other hand, claim very little. If a unit test fails, it is immediately obvious that there is a problem with a very specific section of code.

In general, the easier it is for a test to fail, the less it tells us when it does. Failures from tests that intermittently break for no reason at all aren't very informative. But if there's a little red dot next to that test that "couldn't possibly fail" then you've just discovered something startlingly new about your system.

Relying on acceptance tests makes sense if the code-base is relatively static, because failures will be relatively rare. But software that must change to remain valuable (i.e. almost all software) also needs fine-grained unit tests to give specific and actionable feedback on failures.

    Sunday 20 March 2011

    Eliot on projects without Continuous Integration

    What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
    Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
    You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
    A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
    And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
    And the dry stone no sound of water.

    - T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land

    Saturday 12 March 2011

    The value of the alternative vote

    As someone on the U.K. electoral roll, I want to give an ordered list of preferences when I vote, so that the outcome can reflect my opinion of all the candidates. However, I think the pro-A.V. campaign has made a serious mistake that compromises its chance of success at the May 5 referendum. By describing the proposed system as the "alternative vote" they are emphasising implementation details over the value that voters stand to gain.

    The alternative vote is so named because if a voter's highest ranked candidate is unable to win, their vote goes to their highest ranked alternative i.e. their next preference. In other words, the alternative vote is named after a detail of the algorithm used to resolve voters' preferences into an electorial outcome. In Australia, where the system is used to elect our equivalent of Britain's House of Commons, we refer to it as preferential voting. Technically, A.V. is just one possible implementation of a preferential system.

    The value of preferential voting is that it gives voters the opportunity to express their views on all the candidates - not just their most favoured. A supporter of the Conservative party living in a seat that is dominated by Labour and the Liberal Democrats should not have to vote tactically to have a say in the outcome. Rather, they should be able to give their first preference to the Conservative candidate and use their subsequent preferences to indicate which of the other two parties they prefer.

    The name "preferential voting" satisfies the need of the public to know why they should vote for the new system in the referendum. The name "alternative vote" satisfies the need of electoral reform wonks to discuss the technical details of their area of expertise.

    On software projects, we also have the problem that the how can overwhelm the why. Agile software practitioners address this issue by stating requirements as user stories which include the expected value of the proposed feature. Typically, these stories are expressed using the As a... I want... so that... template. The first sentence of this post is written in this format.

    By choosing a name that emphasises arcane details over delivered value, the Yes campaign has jeopardised its chances of success on May 5.

    Sunday 6 March 2011

    Freedom of movement

    One of the key disciplines of agile software development is avoiding Big Up Front Design. The conscientious XP developer will resolutely refuse to build anything that isn't required for the current iteration. Speculative code is poison to a project's agility, because it costs effort to build, effort to maintain and obscures the code that is performing useful functions. And often, as Ron Jeffries' adage goes, you ain't gonna need it.

    Quality is ensured by a kind of mathematical induction. The original version of the application is small, focused and well-tested, which makes it responsive to change. By writing the minimum of new code every time a new feature is added, developers ensure that the code-base never accrues excess baggage that might impede it in the future.

    This approach is counter-intuitive at first, because most people associate planning ahead with saving effort. The idea is that tackling future challenges before they arise can be cheaper. The first catch is that if a developer guesses wrongly they will have spent effort actively contaminating the project with detritus. The second catch is that the first catch happens every time.

    However, I do not take this to mean that a developer should never look ahead when making decisions about the present. Simplicity is merely a means to an end, which is the greatest possible flexibility to take the project where it might need to go.

    Flexibility must be evaluated relative to the needs of the project in question. If a website is likely to be promoted to a mass audience, then preserving code quality means maintaining the option to introduce caching in a later iteration. It would be a mistake to introduce any caching logic "just in case", because performance optimisations are notoriously hard to second-guess. But it would also be a mistake to take a decision that would make caching hard or impossible to implement.

    The minimal solution is not the one with the least files, classes or lines of code. Minimal code makes the least possible number of assumptions about the future. Developers need to interpret what that means for their particular project by maintaining an awareness of upcoming requirements.

    Freedom of movement is only meaningful if you know what moves you might need to make.

    Saturday 1 January 2011

    Clean coders are pragmatists

    Every now and again, developers are faced with the choice between "doing things the right way" and "just getting it working". Those who attempt to maintain their professional standards under pressure are occasionally caricatured as idealists, clinging to a quaint notion of purity at the project's expense.

    The clean way is the pragmatic way almost every time. To compromise code hygiene for expediency is to believe in a world where that doesn't catch up with you. Dirty coders have an incredibly naive and demonstrably false idea of what poor quality craftsmanship does to an application over time.

    I've written dirty code. I've gambled on everything going right just this once. But rarely have I not regretted it.