The Competence Debt
May 03, 2014
I just finished reading The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. As technology management books go it’s by far the most refreshing, honest and illuminating thing I have read in years. I strongly recommend buying the book. The profits go to a good cause too. I didn’t know much about Ben Horowitz, other than an awareness that he’s half of the VC power duo Andreessen-Horowitz, but he clearly deserves all the plaudits he gets. Plus, he likes rap music and, in addition to my love of jangly in ...
December 03, 2013
Software projects cost a lot of money. Some of them stretch to sums that would have made Howard Hughes cry like a two-year-old being babysat by Marilyn Manson. It’s lucky that so many are funded by big companies and government institutions with deep, continuously-filled, pockets because otherwise nothing would ever get finished. Yet a lot of very good software is also cheap, even free. Part of the reason projects are expensive is because businesses view software in all the wrong ways and part of ...
The Big Data Deception
February 10, 2013
You can’t go to a conference, read a blog (ahem) or open a tech mag without someone talking about Big Data these days. Now I’m as excited the next person whenever new techniques, approaches, tools, frameworks, whatever come along, but equally, given our industry’s penchant for hype, it’s important to keep one eye out for denuded emperors keen to show off their new wardrobe or vendors with sales targets to hit. About three seconds after it was announced that Barack Obama had won the US election ...
The Inevitability of Evil
February 07, 2013
Google’s code of conduct begins with the phrase “Don’t be evil”. If you work for, or with, Google you’re meant to follow the code. Google’s management enforce the code to the extent that you’re even protected from retaliation if you blow the whistle on someone who is being evil. Staff rarely looked forward to the team building offsite I have a pet peeve with codes of conduct, missions statements, HR policies and (my favourite) architectural principles. They nearly always state the bleeding obvi ...
The Grand High Order of the Easter Bunny
September 01, 2012
I ‘ve talked, rather a lot, about my views on the use of open source software in the big fat corporate enterprise. Because these rambles have been at conferences or in occasional blog posts, the pitch has been aimed at enterprise developers: Use open-source where you can, but do not think of it simply as a “free” resource; give something back to community through promoting it, patching it, extending it and paying for support. Everyone wins. The argument is partly idealistic (make softwar ...
The New New Tool
November 05, 2011
Bob and Alice sit in a cubicle at the end of the floor. For much of their working day they are pissed off. They are forced to do their job using a tool implemented by The Project some years ago. The Tool was an over-complex inappropriate hulk when it was selected. The Tool is made by The Big Vendor. We’ve all heard of The Big Vendor. They market The Tool to many industry segments and have a specialist pre-sales team for each segment. The Tool was very expensive. Because of its complexity it’s ...
Freedom from the Tyranny of Schemas
July 30, 2011
Time flies - it was nearly two years ago that I wrote ‘Strained Relationships’, an article extolling the potential benefits of NoSQL data stores. My main point then, and now, was that certain features of the new wave of non-relational products looked a promising solution (in part) to improving speed-of-change in large enterprises. Sadly, too many articles in the NoSQL space still focus their attention on drooling fanboi speed and whilst it’s true that NoSQL products are generally faster than thei ...
The Attraction of Laws
June 05, 2011
I noticed last week just how many half-written articles I have queued up for completion. Postwise, the last twelve months has been heavy on ideas but light on completion. Sorry about that. Unless you think my stuff sucks in which case “you’re welcome”. It’s been a very busy period and writing time has been hard to find. But when I look at some of those half-formed works I see that they lack a narrative sense of beginning, middle, and end. Ideas are great but I find it hard to summon up the enthus ...
January 30, 2011
So I have a question, or at least I think I do, because maybe the answer is obvious and any sense of there being a question is redundant. Why do so many articles on software development these days (and for some time) start with outlining how truly awful, and late, and expensive it always is? I’ve said it too, often. But it’s getting boring. Statistically, if you were to parachute into a randomly selected IT development project today, the odds that it’s building the wrong thing, or the right t ...
Ungoverning the Business
November 13, 2010
If there’s one aspect of enterprise IT guaranteed to get the dander up it’s Standards and Governance. Some time ago I wrote a short piece on governance called The Governance Apparition making the point that governance should never really be seen as separate and distinct from ‘doing things’. If a company has a process for ‘doing things’ and an internal body (usually architecture) tries to ‘govern’ the outputs of that process the governance will fail. It will fail because it’s almost impossible ...
May 17, 2010
Whenever anyone gets caught up with, or overly excited about, a software product, design pattern, or piece of technology, the phrase most often used to warn us over-using it is: To a man1 with a hammer, everything looks like a nail It’s a tired and worn out phrase but, on the surface at least, it seems like good advice. One tool cannot do all jobs, there are no silver bullets. It’s not wise to artificially constrain your effort by starting out with an inappropriate implement. But how can ...
November 03, 2009
About four years ago I sat in a meeting that had finished early. We were chatting away and the subject turned, as it always does, to the lamentable state of IT. In the preceding weeks I’d asked finance to run me off a number of reports showing just what we were spending on various aspects of our integration architecture. They made pretty scary reading. Wherever we had invested significant funds to improve and mature our infrastructure we were now spending significantly more and taking longer per- ...
Law and Order
August 29, 2009
In the technology justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the architects who investigate standards and the developers who commit the offences. These are their stories. <doink doink> INT. COURTROOM - MORNING The case before us has troubled me deeply over recent years. It’s a question that periodically pops up in various online forums and one which often invites heated debate - probably why it never seems to achieve any sense of resolution. ...
July 25, 2009
It’s intervention time. You know on TV, whenever they show a meeting of alcoholics/gamblers/narcotics anonymous, the first thing a member has to state before they get to address the group is “Hello. My Name is name and I’m a whatever”? Admitting you are a whatever is step one of the so-called twelve step program. It’s powerful because, regardless of the story or anecdote that follows, you must begin by facing the reality of things. No excuses. You may have just had a great week but there’s no res ...
The Estimation Game
April 05, 2009
In trying to put down some words on project estimation I’ve had to come to terms with an internal contradiction which I guess goes all the way back to the origins of software engineering. Logic tells me that because the ultimate goal of a software project is a series of machine instructions that perform some useful task, and because at the lowest level these are almost wholly predictable in their nature (strange microcode bugs notwithstanding, although these are far more rare than they used to be ...
Was that Tactegic or Stractical?
March 08, 2009
You’ve been assigned to a project. The requirements are well understood and they make sense. The team is capable and the project manager reasonable. The one thing you don’t have, because we never do, is time. This is a project with a David Beckham date. The David Beckham date is a term I use for an immoveable launch target. I once worked on a project where David Beckham had been booked to do the release publicity. That pretty much fixes when you need to be done. Firstly, he isn’t going to be abl ...
Planning the Plan
January 25, 2009
Wherever you are in the world and whatever business you are in, 2009 is going to be a tougher year than usual. If you aren’t at the pointy end of the economic downturn then your customers will be. For a lot of IT departments that’s going to mean less to spend. For the lucky ones without budget cuts there’s going to be a higher expectation of return on that spend. As it’s January, and the start of a new year, I thought an article on planning what to do with those budgets might be both useful and ...
Brewer's CAP Theorem
January 11, 2009
On Friday 4th June 1976, in a small upstairs room away from the main concert auditorium, the Sex Pistols kicked off their first gig at Manchester’s Lesser Free Trade Hall. There’s some confusion as to who exactly was there in the audience that night, partly because there was another concert just six weeks later, but mostly because it’s considered to be a gig that changed western music culture forever. So iconic and important has that appearance become that David Nolan wrote a book, I Swear I Was ...
The Event-Driven Architecture
December 07, 2008
Michelangelo famously said that he didn’t just take a piece of stone and sculpt it into the shape he wanted, but rather he believed that every hunk of rock already has a sculpture inside and the job of the sculptor is simply to remove all the pieces that aren’t it. He added that the way to distinguish between that which should go and that which should stay is to “obey intellect” and understand that even the greatest of artists cannot conceive of anything more beautiful than that which already exi ...
Wife Swapping and the Art of Conflict
November 22, 2008
The problem with books on management is they rarely address what actually makes teams successful. One of the best books I’ve come across is The First Ninety Days by Michael Watkins, which explores how to guard against common mistakes leaders make when they start new roles. A big theme with Watkins is how not to bring your last job with you, however successful you may have been in it. He points put that many managers, even good ones, will often rush to make decisions too soon because they believe ...
Role Models and Services
November 09, 2008
SOA - an architectural style centred around the concept of a service. It’s a popular approach though not without a few difficult questions if you want to get it right, chief amongst these being: what exactly is a service anyway? Next time someone is trying to tell you that SOA is the answer to all your technology problems try asking them a few simple questions. What is a service? What’s the difference between an interface and a service? How many services will I have when I am done? SOA ma ...
October 28, 2008
In Anger Management and the Enterprise Design Debt I took Ward Cunningham’s excellent Technical Debt Metaphor and applied it to the enterprise. I proposed that all those little bits of debt from each project get wrapped up and become a kind of currency to aid communications with the business. The notion of Enterprise Debt is important for two reasons: It is very real. Just because most businesses ignore it doesn’t make it go away. Like real debt, it gathers interest and hampers business ...
Dancing with the Reuse Fairy
August 13, 2008
Not long after graduating from college I went on my first skiing holiday with a large group of work colleagues. I managed to get a couple of lessons on a dry slope beforehand and turned up at the resort just about able to put my boots on, do a fairly hopeless snow plough, and carry my skis without thwacking anyone in the head every time I turned around. We were all new to the sport and so block-booked lessons for every morning of our ten-day stay, but after two days of tuition I cancelled mine an ...
Embracing the Third Way
August 04, 2008
I had the honour recently to be invited to sit on the judging panel of the OpenSpaces Developer Challenge, an international competition to encourage the creation and open-source sharing of innovative ideas in grid, cloud computing and next-generation middleware, based around the GigaSpaces eXtreme Application Platform. If the objective of the organisers was to illustrate just how diverse the uses are for this kind of technology it certainly succeeded in that respect. Unfortunately, for the judge ...
10 Reasons Change is an Antipattern
July 09, 2008
My list of top-ten irritating phrases of recent times, somewhere after “leverage” and “we’re a people company”, would have to include “embracing change”. Shelves in the business sections of major book stores groan with the weight of manuals that profess to be able to tell you how to change, guide you through change, and how to deal with change. Frankly, there are a lot of people out there in need of a smacked bottom. It’s not that the desire to change for the better is wrong, but in line with th ...
Strategy for the Irretrievably Pragmatic
July 05, 2008
My Dad used to say that the reason many politicians are so totally ineffectual is because of the ironic and paradoxical fact that to be a good politician you need to be able to wield power wisely, and yet those who are drawn to power are often, by that fact alone, the worst people to be given it. He still says it, but these days I might counter with the thought that it’s just possible some of them go into politics to make the world a better place and get corrupted along the way, having to deal wi ...
Magnificence in the Mundane
June 14, 2008
It’s a complex old business maintaining relationships these days. Like many people I end up managing friends like some perverse to-do list. If I haven’t seen someone for a while I might remember to send them an email, they might reply, more time passes and we might repeat the process before saying “Crikey - it’s been ages since we had a beer.. let’s go out”. So we do. A good time is had by all and we swear we won’t leave it so long next time. And yet life dictates that we do. But one of the hallm ...
The Interview - Part One
June 05, 2008
I can’t watch The Apprentice on TV any more. This week they did the ‘interviews’, where each contestant (for they surely cannot be considered job applicants given the game-show styling of this series) is questioned by a succession of Alan Sugar’s smirking self-made self-satisfied buddies. It’s not that I object to putting the remaining goofy wannabes through a bit of discomfort - I mean you have to question whether the defining profile of the ideal candidate would really include a desire to engag ...
May 16, 2008
There are many things to love the Discovery Channel for: a sense of having expanded your knowledge with a broad but shallow series of details about Sharks, Egyptian Mummies, the Nazis and the bewildering array of household items you can make with injection moulded plastic for one. But I think most of all I love those shows where some would-be professor type, who more often than not is bearded and English, goes in search of one of the great quested-for items of deepest history - the Ark of the Cov ...
What would Scooby do?
March 21, 2008
It would be hard to find a cartoon that better exemplifies formulaic plotting than Scooby Doo. I have a three year old son and am consequently something of an expert in the exploits of Scooby and his colleagues. When not in the office I am lucky enough to spend all my time (and I mean all) watching episode after episode over and over again. If it weren’t for the munificent schedulers at the Boomerang Channel I’m not sure what I would do with my free time. Ask not for whom the consultant bills. H ...
The Retep Principle
March 11, 2008
My first job after university was as a unix performance consultant working on now-defunct product called Officepower for a now defunct company called ICL. Being largely inexperienced on day one, I had an intellectual mountain to climb to be effective in the role. But persevere I did. I printed out every page of the unix online manual, read every book I could find on the operating system internals, learned to program in C, got to grips with scheduling, partitioning, subnets and all manner of arcan ...
February 12, 2008
A few years ago I did a long freelance stint for one of the big oil majors. In the last week of my tenure there I found myself sat in a presentation on their new IT strategy. Interesting stuff, perhaps, but with my exit only days away, I confess I wasn’t paying all that much attention. The presenter was making the point that the following year would be all about getting the foundations right for business growth, and to make sure this initiative got the appropriate attention from the executive sp ...
The Analysis Business
January 30, 2008
We left off last time with the idea that although software projects can go wrong for lots of reasons that tech folks can’t control, there are some ideals we can (and should) strive for in the areas we can control. We don’t control market forces, competitors, or business needs, and we rarely control dates or budgets (we may be tasked with spending what budget there is wisely, but corporate economics are certainly beyond our purview). We do control the way we build software and the way we operate ...
The Nature Of Functionality
January 16, 2008
I consider myself inordinately lucky to have fetched up in a career that would otherwise have been an expensive hobby. Software development can be a frustrating roller-coaster ride, but every now and then you get to be involved with something that genuinely, and rather beautifully, succeeds. Projects get canceled, derailed, or otherwise slip into oblivion for all sorts of reasons, but it’s very satisfying, once in a while, to be able to point at something in production and know you played a part ...
The Trouble with Transformations
December 11, 2007
Transformation time. “Dr Chilton does enjoy his petty torments” “What did you mean by ‘transformation’, Doctor?” “I’ve been in this room for eight years now, Clarice. I know they will never ever let me out while I’m alive. What I want is a view. I want a window where I can see a tree, or even water. I want to be in a federal institution far away from Dr Chilton” I can’t hear the word “transformation” without thinking about that scene from Silence of the Lambs. Buffalo Bill, the psycho ...
The Governance Apparition
November 26, 2007
I first noticed the word governance being sprinkled liberally into IT conversations sometime in the late nineties. It was (and still is) used as foundational prop to suggest that, if you have it, all will be well. The word appeared first, as far as I can remember, in Finance and Investment Banking IT - not surprising as financial governance is all about the appropriate exercise of authority and control. The word itself means a method or system of management and so I guess it’s no surprise that yo ...
Enterprise Design Debt
October 08, 2007
I think the question I get asked most often is how to manage the constant struggle between IT trying to deliver something to quality and budget, and the business wanting everything yesterday. When a project is late, I have yet to see a business representative say that they want the good version next week, over the not-so-good version today. In fact the conversation tends to go along the lines of we’ll take the tactical version and launch that today, and install the strategic version later. Except ...
The Requirements Delusion
September 29, 2007
Is it me or is all corporate IT suffering a debilitating emotional crisis? The response I thought I would get to The Business Alignment Fallacy was one of hostility and general disagreement. Far from it. I was pleasantly surprised to hear that most people are tired of the annual pretence of business alignment only to watch everything get steadily more complex over the following year. One common criticism I heard was that whilst it’s all very well trying to get ahead of the business and take a ...
The Business Alignment Fallacy
September 19, 2007
I did a Google search for the phrase “business aligned” recently and got more than 54,000 page matches. I thought the figure would be much higher; there’s hardly a presentation or initiative these days that doesn’t mention it in somewhere. The theme of Business Alignment is a constantly recurring one, designed to keep you on your toes in case you were thinking that IT was all about.. well.. IT. But what is Business Alignment? Is it possible? What would it look like? As you may have guessed from ...
Kill Your Children
August 14, 2007
A classic sign of inexperience in creative endeavour (or perhaps any undertaking) is the inability to ‘let go’ of your best ideas. Rookies, will come up with a concept, lovingly craft their baby, and refuse to be budged even as the world around them changes. Despite market forces, advice from experts, they continue to add ever more baroque extensions to their now irrelevant core, never questioning whether their foundations are still appropriate. What often results is largely unintelligible and di ...
August 07, 2007
One of the serious dilemmas you face after working in software for a bit is the management/technical career choice. On the one hand you want a big salary, fancy car, funds for your particular vice/hobby, etc. but on the other hand it’s hard to let go of actually cutting the code and seeing things happen. As an ex-manager of mine once said - you don’t see many fifty year old programmers. Personally I think that’s a shame, because hackers that have been around the block a few times are so much more ...
The Idiom and the Idiot
April 21, 2007
The concept of, and quest for, an ‘Agile Architecture’ is a hot topic these days, and as far as I can tell, it’s a debate that will continue for some months. Probably the term Agile will go the way of so many other buzzwords, and fall into disrepute, but I hope the premise that it’s good to work flexibly and reactively with your customers outlasts the current hype. I’m fairly optimistic that it will because once you’ve tried it, more traditional prescriptive approaches can feel awfully limiting. ...
Outsourcing we will go
April 14, 2007
Here’s how the story goes. There’s a meeting of all the big cheeses at our favourite company, Gristle and Flint. It’s quite usual for the other directors to vent their frustrations at the CIO - the desktop hardware refresh is running late, IT personnel costs are on the rise, the web site was down all weekend, new budget requests are coming in to support stuff with weird names like ‘middleware’, you know the kind of thing. But today the CEO is incandescent. The competition is having a field day. ...
Are You Sitting Comfortably?
April 05, 2007
How is it that you can sit through a film, even a fairly tedious one, that last ninety minutes to two hours, and yet frequently become arse-numbingly twitchy less than ten minutes into a PowerPoint presentation? I grant you, even fairly dull movies are vastly more interesting than most presentations on SOA governance, but should they be? You get paid to do something during the day that for much of the time you (hopefully) care passionately about, and yet when someone else wants to get a message ...
Seeing the Spoon
April 01, 2007
This article is something of a preface for the whole site and, as with other posts, will be updated from time to time. The intention for the site is to create a kind of holistic view of what can be done about the current malaise in software development in medium to large companies. That there is a problem is in no doubt. If you work somewhere that experiences a multitude of difficulties in making your business happy by giving them what they want within reasonable parameters, then I hope it’s not ...