Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Software management - The Oregon Trail model

OK, forget reading Peopleware and The Mythical Man-Month. If you want to manage developers, there's only one - no wait! - two things you need to do.

  1. Be born in the late 70's/early 80's
  2. Play The Oregon Trail on an Apple II

That's it! If you can make it to the end of the trail, you know everything that you need to know about successfully managing software, so go successfully manage the shit out of a project or three!

Wait. You're still here? I should go on? OK.

You have your hunters, guys who strike out in hopes of lucking into a bounty of delicious, delicious meat. Speaking authoritatively as someone who's never hunted or caught anything of note while fishing, I'll say that a good hunter operates off of instinct, innate ("animal") intelligence, skill and luck. Legends tell the tale of the hunter who struck off into the deep of the jungle with nothing but a knife and came back carrying a gorilcopterous (work with me people, I live on the edge of the tundra) or some big tasty animal that lives in the jungle0.

Then you've got the gatherers who plant crops and (hopefully) eventually got to harvest the bounty. It takes a deep investment in time and resources to see a field from seed to harvest, and even then there's any number of natural disasters that can beset you along the way. This isn't to say it's easy. On some level, we all understand how plants grow. They eat sunshine, water and carbon dioxide and crap oxygen and chlorophyll, right? On another level, there's a hell of a lot that goes into it - seeds cost money. Machines to till and harvest cost money. Irrigation costs money. You've got to know when to plant. What to plant. When to rotate your crops.

Developers are an impatient bunch, which means that we don't generally have the patience for the small, far-off, rewards and repetitive work that it takes to grow a crop. But we get hungry, so we're going to strike out and hunt, hoping to bag the next seminal idea. OK, it's probably not a seminal idea by any stretch of the imagination, but for a brief moment in time, you really feel like you've crafted something brilliant and have found something more than you could have hoped for, something that's somehow bigger than you could have imagined.

cup overfloweth

But eventually, the quarry of the once-fertile plains and forests of imagination!!!!!!! will run dry. Your hunters will pick up on the fact that there's no more ideas to be hunted, only tedious fields that demand regular, monotonous maintenance, and they'll migrate elsewhere. This is all well and good, but every now and then wouldn't you like a steak to go with those potatoes?

But again, I get ahead of myself - let's take a step back to see what a dated educational game has to do with any of this.

In The Oregon Trail, you're in charge of seeing a family1 make the trip on the Oregon Trail from Missouri2 to Oregon3.


You notice how they emphasize "try"? It's because of a simple fact that you don't want to admit to yourself - no matter how simple it seems like it should be, that shit is fucking hard to accomplish4. To the outsider, it's as simple as getting from point A to point B. That's really all there is to it, right?

when to leave

Go figure - there's nuances that you hadn't even considered when you started out. Could this mean that you'll eventually discover that there are nuances upon nuances? This makes the decision of something that seems as simple as when to leave a dizzyingly difficult one.

Leave early and you'll be freezing and making slow, painful, progress5. Leave too late and you'll face the unenviable, super-difficult, task of over-wintering6. Face it - you've tried to make a trip like this before and you've probably still got the bruises and scars from the last one, but you keep telling yourself that this time will be better.


You need supplies to make the trip. Oxen to move your cart7, clothing to keep you warm8, food9, replacement parts10... and bullets for hunting11. And naturally, you're constrained to a budget that's tighter than you'd like.


Making matters worse (you mean it gets worse?), you're probably making the trip with a bunch of egomaniacal (wo)man-children. I mean, we all strive to be egoless in our tasks, but we all take an undue amount of pride in an elegant solution and invariably take it the wrong way when someone points out the glaring flaws in our implementation. Or maybe I'm the only one, who knows?


But... about those supplies. Some of them are effectively interchangable. If you've got a good hunter (you have a good hunter, right?), you can exchange bullets for food in the wild - that's the biggest bang (pun unintended) for your buck. Then you can trade food for just about anything else you need along the way12. You can run pretty lean-and-mean13 but you need enough food to keep your bellies full.

You're going to want to hunt (because it's fun!), but not every hunt can be a winner.

hunting is tough

What can I tell you? Times is tough out there. Even with a gang of elite hunters firing on all cylinders and a pile of food (ideas!) as high as the eye can see, sometimes nature just doesn't smile on you. As in any pursuit, it's entirely seemly that you can do everything right and still fail.

times is tough

Not only are times tough as hell, but you're fairly constantly reminded of your own failures and the failures of others in a big, somber way.

einstein's grave

Is there any wonder why Einstein up there didn't make it? Wasn't cut out for it. You can't teach people how to hunt - they're born with it or they'll never get it, now matter how blue in the face you get trying to explain it to them.

The trip itself? It's possible that your people are entirely happy in Missouri right now. You can crack that whip all they want, but if you don't instill a powerful longing in them to reach the promised land of Oregon, you'll never make it. In fact, you might find yourself unwillingly invited to a Donner Party. And not to ruin the surprise, but everyone at the party will be eating but you.

0. you know, your run-of-the-mill whispered about in legends superhacker
1. your development team
2. the start of the project
3. the project's end (you do have a concrete end-point in mind, right?)
4. #9 on Software's Classic Mistakes - Wishful Thinking
5. sometimes you have the toolchain you need to complete your project, other times you're kind of winging it as you go along - bootstrapping too much of your own technology stack only shrinks the chances that you'll ever make it
6. running out of funding
7. computers
8. technology stack - compiler, language, yadda yadda
9. ideas
10. source control and the other niceties of modern development (build server, unit tests)
11. ain't nothing more dire than running out of bullets - there's no metaphor here
12. dumbest way of describing the point of open source ever?
13. agile??!?

Saturday, June 21, 2008

This week's dispatch from the seventh circle

"I don't understand why FxCop is complaining about this static property on a static class."

"Probably because static classes are stateless, so exposing properties doesn't make a whole lot of sense."

"Yeah, but I want to expose properties so that a caller can set the values that they want."

"But that's really not such a great idea. Either overload methods with the parameters you're trying to read from properties or let callers instantiate the class and set the properties themselves."

Why did I find this so disturbing? Probably because it took two days for the chap to make the change.

The other reason I found it disturbing? I did the math in my head and decided that there would be approximately zero point in trying to get him to understand why globally mutable state can quickly lead to misery (false negatives/positives) when you're dealing with the MTA that NUnit runs in.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Design patterns as religion

I've come to an understanding of and guarded appreciation for design patterns.

They're not at all useful in and of themselves, but they are useful at a level of abstraction - they give us a common language to explain our implementations with ("...so basically, the model objects are just kind of structs and we cajole them into doing interesting things by Decorating them...") and, more importantly, they let us learn about the boundaries, limitations and realities of the design space that we're working in by revealing the problems that get solved and solved again and again and... you get the picture.

If your objects start to look like a pattern, it's a curiosity. Patterns were discovered "in the wild" to begin with, so don't tire your arm out patting yourself on the back for rediscovering one. No gold star for knocking out a Flyweight, sorry. On the flip side, don't flagellate yourself when you realize that you've implemented a Singleton - if it emerges from solid design, why would you throw it away?

It doesn't matter if you're blindly implementing a pattern or blindly rejecting an implementation because it looks like a pattern that someone on the Internets doesn't like - it's cargo cult programming either way.

Design patterns are there and were there before anyone started looking for them or writing about them. People have classified subroutines as a design pattern - like other "patterns", this isn't a reason to use or not use them, it's further establishing where they come from - introspection on how we make programs work. There's something to be said for taking a stroll through that meta-field, but I don't linger there too long. Most of the time.

All this is a long-winded way of explaining why my monocole absolutely popped out the other day at work. I was busy doing something or other at the time (transliterating objects to an XML format I don't control using unhealthy amounts of Reflection, I think?) when I saw one of the other developers explaining something or other. I popped out my earphones to catch the explanation midway through.

He had the Head First Design Patterns book open on his desk and was walking through his ideas.

"Why are we bothering with inheritance? The domain model you guys put together is too convoluted and doesn't work in this case."

"If there's something we missed, it's not like it's set in stone. If it's really hairy, we can walk through it and see if there's some reasonable way to get it factored in and if there isn't, we can go further back and see how we can make the model work for us."

"The <I forgot already!> pattern says that you can use hashtables to store the data for your objects, rather than inheriting from a base class."

"Well, yeah. But think about why we use objects and I think you'll see why that's probably a bad idea."


"For our model objects, we're use them not only to encapsulate associated data but to make it easily discoverable - when you're working with them internally, it may seem pretty convoluted that your parent base Foo class has property Bar that's exposed by a child Buz object (which has more properties and methods from the IBaz interface that Foo implements), but that's all readily discoverable by anyone who's consuming a Buz object. They could kind of care less how it works, they just need access to have access to its state and be able to send it messages to have it do interesting things."

He was not sold by my explanation and the discussion closed in on arguing (something about our respective tones and the other developers in the office getting quiet and looking uncomfortable) about whether it makes more sense to have the classes representing data internally like a struct or as a hashtable - I scoffed (and still scoff!) at the idea but told him that he was the one implementing it, so if he had a good reason for properties exposing a hashtable behind the scenes, I was fine with it.

I started to look up hashtables and figure out whether he was really on to something or whether my gut feeling that it was adding an unnecessary level of complexity to the design (OK, I was premature optimizing in my head and wondering about the relative weight of sparsely-populated hashtables, too) when, a few minutes and pages in the book later, he announced to another developer in the office (!!!) that the book said that you should only use hashtables when you're dealing with a lot of inheritance and a lot of properties.

I don't think there was any amount of selling I could have done to get him to walk away from the curious implementation - it was design pattern as dogma. Blinders on, reject facts, implement on faith and The Pattern will see you through.

I'm still trying to figure out if I was wrong (probably, yeah) for knee-jerking away the use of hashtables or not. I'll let you know when I turn that page.