Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Churn, Churn, Churn

A tongue-in-cheek blog posting (Desecrating Rails For A Brighter Tomorrow) laments the increasing popularity of Ruby on Rails because it is eroding the "competitive advantage Rails affords"; the "gorillas" ("legacy web companies that have payrolls 100x greater" than "a programmer or two") are catching on and becoming "nimbler", restoring order to the world. "The horror."

While entertaining, the author unintentionally illuminates an unspoken ugly truth about software development:

Many developers, if not most, are attracted to the software business because of exclusivity, that is, being able to do something that relatively few others understand how to do. This trait, however, is damaging the overall industry in many ways.

Within the software business, developers engage in a continuous cycle of seeking out and immersing themselves in brand-new, leading edge technologies to maintain and enhance that exclusivity, with little regard to any non-technical project considerations such as risk management, robustness, return on investment (ROI), etc.

The manifestation of this cycle is the churn of software tools, and it affects all stacks (Microsoft, LAMP, J2EE, at al). Software developers are under (peer) "pressure" to upgrade, switch or otherwise drastically change their development tools every two or three years, or risk "falling behind", becoming "obsolete" or, worse, being seen as a "legacy" software developer (the horror). Sometimes they reason that it's for "job security" (an argument without any teeth), but it's really about "coolness", a component of which is exclusivity.

One of the most insidious side-effects is promotion of the “not invented here” syndrome, where some developers will spend tens of man-hours or more building something that has been built many times before and can be acquired, completely tested and supported, for little or no cost. The Open Source movement is largely a manifestation of this, under the guise of promoting ABEM (Anyone But Evil Microsoft), but is really just a way to (1) avoid paying for tools and (2) creating a very large sandbox for software developers to play in under their own rules. "But", you may say, "these tools are helping us manage objects and other reusable components better in team environments", which sounds great in theory but there's little real evidence supporting this contention, borne out by the continuing state of poor performance in the software development industry.

Another side-effect is, simply, investment loss (lowered ROI). The most destructive churning occurs when the developer swaps out hard-won habits and knowledge with entirely new ones. There are many examples of this (the evolution of Visual Studio, for example), but we need look no further than Microsoft Office and the new ribbon bar. Over the years, many of us have learned that maximzing use of the keyboard over the mouse dramatically increases efficiency (even more so for software developers working in their IDE); the ribbon bar forces the user in the opposite direction.

Regardless of what you think about the ribbon bar, the point is this: it changed dramatically how I have to work in the tool; my investment in learning how to use the tool goes largely out the window. I have to spend (invest) significant mindshare on thinking about how to do things that were second-nature before. A major league shortstop does not have to think about every little possibility that could occur when a ball is hit to him; he's got so much repetitive experience, he only has to react, and nearly always reacts correctly (the all-time worst fielding percentage for a shortstop is .935, that is, a 6.5% error rate). What would happen to that error rate if tools and rules of the game changed every three years, if the basepaths were extended, gloves were removed and grass was replaced with concrete? Think the error rate would go up?

With reduced ROI comes reduced skill levels. A person who works day in and day out with a tool for six years is more than likely to significantly outperform a person who has worked in it half that time. Tool churn, however, never lets us get that far; few ever really gets good at maximizing the use of their toolset. No wonder there's little predictability in the software development process.

All of this weakens the overall software development industry, especially the commercial side. While many developers hold their own skill levels in high esteem, in fact they are mostly amateurs because they never work with a given tool or set of tools long enough to really attain expert status; what they’ve really attained is expert status relative to their fellow developers. These “experts” are invariably those who get early looks at upcoming technology releases, giving them a temporal head start: they simply have gotten significantly more time earlier with a product than have most developers.

Disregarding jokes about government projects, at least some of these folks get it. Take a look at just about any software development endeavor in the space program, where real money is at stake, as well as lives, political consequences and national prestige. Consider The Software Behind the Mars Phoenix Lander, which describes the antithesis of modern commercial software development practices. In the interview with the project manager, this telling exchange:

Pete McBreen, for example, had a great book a couple of years ago called Software Craftsmanship, where he said that about the only place where you can sit down and design all of your software up front is where you actually have the hardware; you know your exact constraints, and you know you're not going to be able to update the software once you deliver it. What's the process look like there for getting software to get 700+ pounds of metal and equipment to another planet?
"Generally what we do with these proposals, particularly with these kinds of missions, is we try to rely on — in order to cut costs, we try to rely on software that's been previously established and proven to work. So in this case, this is part of a line of spacecrafts that Lockheed Martin has produced, and the software has heritage literally going back to the Mars Pathfinder mission."

The Pathfinder mission landed on Mars in 1997; surely software development on that project preceded the landing by many years. There’s an interesting story about a software problem encountered during that mission here.

This is a project that used, as its base, software developed and tested probably nearly 20 years ago! How uncool is that!

How different would your approach be if it was very hard and expensive to change any code or hardware after putting the system in production? Would you take as many risks with unproven tools with which you only have a few years experience, and bet your career on that?

Some commercial developers may say that “well, we have tighter timeframes and market pressures, we couldn’t do that”, a specious argument at best; interplanetary space travel projects (where the laws of planetary physics rule the schedule) can apply more pressure than just about any commercial endeavor I know. The point is, software developers on any project face the same issues: how do we do more with less, knowing that problems are going to happen. How do we design systems that are truly fault-tolerant. The folks on the Mars missions have to do that; in the commercial space, it seems to be a choice, one in which developers themselves have a disporportionate say.

So, who's making the better business decision here? Who's taking the longer-term view? Who's protecting the large, costly investments made in matering the software development toolset?

To me, the answer is clear: we have met the enemy, and he is us.

It's time to get the foxes, who have failed miserably and consistenly, out of the henhouse; we need technical leaders who put business and project needs (way) ahead of technical considerations, who also extend the shelf-life of the investment made in these very complex endeavors.

What do you think?

5 Comments:

Blogger Dave Bernard said...

Just saw an old article on "gold plating" by none other than Steve McConnell. It (and the comments) reinforce some of my points.

http://www.codinghorror.com/blog/archives/000150.html

2:07 PM  
Anonymous Scott Burkett said...

Hey Dave.

One observation. From the top down (CIO/CFO), cost and reliabiliy are the two drivers. From the bottom up, developers are driven by a ton of different drivers, which you've laid out. Sometimes, these are not in sync.

It took Linux a while to crawl from the basement R&D shops to line items in enterprise development plans. But it happened because eventually there was a convergence between the top and bottom.

I wouldn't characterize software developers as being driven by "exclusivity" per se. By and large, most modern software developers are driven by two things: A) what skills do I have now? and B) What is the best tool for the job.

It is exponentially easier to pick up a new language now, because they are many generations removed from legacy models. We have tools, APIs, open-source, web services, etc. Things are good. The switching cost for small projects is in some cases practically nonexistent from the developer's standpoint.

But developers are also driven by the sleekness, the creativity behind a solution, the artfulness, if you will. This is huge. Many programmers are also painters, artists, and musicians. They want to explore - create - and push the edge of the envelope. This marries directly with emerging technology. In fact, any developer that doesn't share these traits is probably not someone I want on my team - they are a change management nightmare waiting to happen :)

Cheers.
Scott

3:30 PM  
Blogger Dave Bernard said...

Thanks for the comment, Scott. I think you give developers more credit than they deserve. More often, I see "which tool is better for my resume" than "which tool is better for my job." There's more perceived esteem derived from working with the "very latest" than from truly mastering technology tools. In the Microsoft world, perhaps, this is even more exaggerated.

Working with the latest tools and getting certifications are common ways that developers attempt to differentiate (which creates exclusivity) and rise above others; I've done it myself. There's nothing wrong with change itself, I'm concerned about the pace of change and the ROI of that change.

I'm also not really talking about languages, as much as development environments (IDEs). I agree that languages themselves are fairly neutral, but an IDE is where you live if you're a developer.

My biggest issue is that any given developer rarely stays with an IDE long enough to truly master it, to really reach an effective level of accomplishment. I've seen what a single master can do, vs. whole teams of "amateurs"; we're not doing ourselves any favors with tool churn.

7:00 PM  
Anonymous Steven Black said...

Amen, brother.

1:33 PM  
Blogger Paul James said...

As a Rails developer, I would quickly disagree with you... until I remember that I am also a C, VB, VFP, (name a language) developer. I still use VFP on an almost daily basis and I instantly recognize its contours in my mind and remember its feel in my hands. If that sounds slightly romantic, then you "get" how a developer views his/her development tool.

For developers, these are religious arguments and leaving behind a language you have mastered is akin to the death of a loved one. But, developers are also the most fickle of beau's. They can't help but openly stare at that sexy new language with it's natural long variables and cute indentations. We do have a wanderlust "programmed" into us.

I blame Microsoft for much of the actual "churn" you describe (also called the "treadmill"). They only make money if they can sell us on their newest inventions (which is like a college girl asking a high school geek out for a date). Unfortunately, they have such a stranglehold on the corporate development world that it's almost career suicide not to buy 3 books a month from Microsoft Press. And talk about fickle! They hone a very sharp cutting edge, and they are not afraid to turn that edge to catch the next big breeze.

Corporations buy into the marketing bluster and decide that they better lie down with the big dog (just to be safe). So, they start only accepting resumes from .Net 8.0 gurus who have been developing in X++Sharp for at least 5 years. This is one reason I really enjoy working with smaller to mid-size companies. They don't care what the technology is, as long as it runs solidly every day, has all the features they want plus some, doesn't cost them a kidney, and can be implemented/updated as quickly as their business changes. Gosh, that almost makes sense in some parallel universe...

Nah, back to "As The Tool Churns"... oh lookit, "Diamond On Maglev"... shiny!!!

9:22 PM  

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