Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Things to dislike about Java

Back in August I started working with Java the majority of the time. I still do a bit of Ruby, but the vast majority of my work these days is in Java. Java is good for a lot of reasons, but that is absolutely not what this post is about. This post is, in no particular order, the things about Java that I really dislike.

Closed Classes
I'm not sure if there's a term for this, but it's the opposite of what Ruby calls Open Classes. Open Classes allow you to define or redefine behavior on any class at any time. Java does not give me this ability. Let's look at a simple example, say I want to define a method that checks to see if a string is null or empty. In a language with Open Classes you can add behavior directly to the String class, so you could check to see if a string is null or empty by asking the string itself.


In an Object Oriented language, where objects are supposed to have appropriate behavior, I like having the ability to add the correct behavior to the correct class.

In Java, I'm stuck doing something very different. I could import some class defined in some library that has way more than I actually need, or, more likely, I'll just define my own StringUtils class and create a static method. In Java 6 I can static import this method, which makes my code procedural, joy.

If you are in the .net camp, don't laugh too loud. Your extension methods are flawed. Until you can override existing behavior, you're only halfway to the solution.

Lack of Closures, Blocks, Anonymous Methods
Whenever I manipulate a list of items I find Java severely lacking. In Clojure I can double each element in an array by simply calling the map method with an anonymous function and a list.

(map #(* % 2) [1 2 3])

In Java I'm stuck with iterating over the array, and adding the results to a temporary collection that is appended to with each iteration. I find that ugly, but it hardly compares to the absolute disgust I have for classes like Comparable and Runnable. An anonymous class instance that has one method is an obvious sign that the language is severely lacking in the area of closures, blocks, or anonymous methods.

Army of NNPPs
Java is currently the "one language to rule them all". This brings about several problems, one of which is the number of terrible programmers writing Java code. I'm lucky enough to work for a company that wants to "build the best software development teams in the world", so I don't work with a single person that writes code I find ugly. Unfortunately, that doesn't save me from the Java NNPP zombie army. Java NNPPs flood the forums and mailing lists with elementary questions and incorrect answers. The amount of signal to noise is so low that I find myself unsubscribing from every public mailing list, and avoiding all Java related forums. It's a shame that I generally have to stick to private mailing lists just to ensure I receive relevant answers.

Literal Arrays & Hashes
Arrays and Hashes are used so frequently, there's really no excuse for not having a literal syntax. In production code this is somewhat painful, but it really shows up in tests. Java does have a few solutions, two of them can be found in the following example.

asList(1, 2, 3, 4)
new Integer[]
{1, 2, 3, 4}

While these do offer "options" they both end up causing problems. The asList method works for about 75% of situations, but leaves me disappointed at least 25% of the time. Far too often there seems to be a method that doesn't like the return value of asList; therefore, I end up doing something significantly uglier to build a "correct" collection. The second example, the traditional Java array also works, but it's ugly to create and often to limited to work effectively with.

Command Line Execution for Snippets of Code
Sometimes you need to do something quick and simple. A command line interface (Ruby's IRB, Clojure's REPL) makes you more effective by seconds or minutes, millions of times a year. That wasted time adds up.

Java (the programming language) is so amazingly verbose (I'm talking about Java, the programming language)
Java forces me to repeat things all the time.

public class NewOrderHandler {
public void onNewOrder(NewOrder newOrder) {
// handle new order

In 2 lines of code I managed to type "NewOrder" 4 times. Even with a fancy IDE this gets very tedious. When writing Java code I don't actually write anything, I just keep hitting [Ctrl + space] and [Alt + Enter] all day long. When I'm writing code this tends to not be such a problem. I use IntelliJ for all my Java programming and I'm comfortable admitting that I can write Java code as fast as I was writing Ruby code.

The problem is, I don't spend all my time writing code. I spend a fair amount of my time reading code, code someone else on my team wrote, or code I wrote a few months ago. While I can write Java (or at least [Ctrl + Space] Java) as fast as I can write Ruby, it takes me at least 3 times as long to digest the responsibilities of a class written in Java as compared to Ruby.

These days I spend far more time trying to digest a class that takes 4 other classes as dependencies and each of those classes combine with the original class to solve one problem. Unfortunately it takes so much code to get something done that the simple behavior had to be split among 5 classes. To make matters worse everything has to be injected via the constructor because it's the only reasonable way to write testable software. So I end up reading pages of code to understand how each piece collaborates to do one simple task, awesome.

Extensive Tool Support Raises the Barrier of Entry for Tool Builders
I find the Java testing frameworks, much like Java itself, to be a generation behind. There have been steps forward elsewhere and the Java testing frameworks haven't yet caught up. I'm not one for complaining without providing a solution, so I started toying with building a testing framework. Does it integrate with IntelliJ? Of course not. Does it integrate with Eclipse? Absolutely not. Would anyone use it without integration? Emphatic No.

So now it's not good enough to create a good library, now I have to learn about IDEs also. Or (in my case anyway), drop the idea for more interesting pursuits, like finding the language I can replace Java with.

Java's not all bad. In fact, it might be the best tool for the work I'm doing these days. It's definitely tops in the areas that I need to be successful overall. But, I really do miss the things listed here, and all the other things that I've forgotten to write about but consistently swear about at work.

Happy New Year! Here's to a year where I find a suitable replacement for Java.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Targeted Languages

The vast majority of actively evolving business software is written in Java these days. Java has long enjoyed the title of One Language to Rule Them All. However, in a previous post, The Next Big Language, I mention that I'm skeptical that there will be one language that is perfect for solving all possible problems in the future.

I might be overestimating the speed at which our profession is maturing. One of the reasons Java became the enterprise standard was because the wrong people were making decisions based on inadequate information and swarms of terrible programmers. I like to believe that we're moving away from those days, but then again, we definitely still have far too many NNPPs that need to be encouraged to find other employment. However, I do think it's inevitable that we move to languages targeted at specific domains and problems eventually.

We've already taken the first step. Games are a form of business software. Games are consumer products. However, game development has never been dominated by Java. I won't pretend to know about the game industry, but from what I hear it's been largely dominated by C++. However, these days Lua has enjoyed great popularity in the videogames industry.

The game industry has been using the right tool for the job for some time; however, other business are also starting to catch on. Many companies are using Ruby and Rails to build websites. There's no question that having a good group of programmers building your website using Ruby and Rails can provide a significant competitive advantage. Erlang is another language that targets a specific class of applications, and it provides huge advantages over the alternatives for those applications.

I think targeted languages raise some new interesting questions.

For the professional software developer, targeted languages may make it harder to switch domains. These days it's easy to get a job doing Java development in insurance, banking, advertising, and many other domains. If in the future all the banks are using a functional language focused on low-latency, you may find it harder to make the switch to an advertising agency with a shop that's using an object oriented dynamic language. It may not be long before selecting a language implies selecting a domain as well.

There will be implications for firms also. The pools from which companies hire from will get much smaller. It's very hard to hire a good Java developer these days, imagine what the picture is going to look like when there are 5-7 targeted languages that are widely accepted and the developer pool is split 5-7 ways.

There will also be questions about how many languages your organization will support. If you're a bank and you write your trading applications using the best language for the job, would you allow the intranet dev team to use a completely different language?

Companies are already facing these questions. At DRW Trading we use C#, Java, C++, Python, Ruby, Perl, etc. I hear that Google only allows C++, Java, Python, and Javascript. There's definitely a balance between leveraging existing knowledge and using the right tool for the job. However, finding that balance isn't an easy task.

Like it or not, we're headed towards more targeted languages. It's probably worth considering the implications sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Ubiquitous Assertion Syntax

One thing that really bothers me about testing is having various different assertion syntaxes. Take a look at the following JUnit examples. (don't worry, I'll be picking on Ruby and .net frameworks as well)

@Test public void simpleAdd() {
assertEquals(2, 1+1);

@Test(expected= IndexOutOfBoundsException.class) public void empty() {
new ArrayList<Object>().get(0);

In both tests I want to verify something; however the two tests use different mechanisms for verification. This adds pain for anyone reading or maintaining the test. When determining what a test is verifying you need to look for assertions as well as expected exceptions in the annotation.

When you start adding behavior based tests the situation gets even worse.

Mockery context = new Mockery();

@Test public void simpleAdd() {
assertEquals(2, 1+1);

@Test(expected= IndexOutOfBoundsException.class) public void empty() {
new ArrayList<Object>().get(0);

@Test public void forWorksCorrectly() {
final List<Integer> list = context.mock(List.class);

context.checking(new Expectations() {{

for (int i=1; i < 3; i++) {

Testing 1.0
3 different tests, 3 different ways to verify your code does what you expect it to. To make matters worse the mock expectations live in the body of the test, so there's no guarantee that when looking for assertions you only need to look at the last few lines of the test. Every time you encounter a test you must spend time looking at the test, top to bottom, and determine what is actually being tested.

The tests above are simple, it's a much bigger problem when a test uses a few different forms of verification.

Mockery context = new Mockery();

@Test(expected= IndexOutOfBoundsException.class) public void terribleTest() {
final List<Integer> original = new ArrayList<Integer>(asList(1, 2));
assertEquals(2, original.size());
final List<Integer> list = context.mock(List.class);

context.checking(new Expectations() {{

for (Integer anOriginal : original) {


Okay, it would be terrible to run into a test that bad. You might work with people who are smart enough not to do such a thing, but it's very common to see tests that have both assertions and methods that are mocked. You may not consider mocked methods to be a form of verification, but if one of those methods isn't called as you specified it should be called, your test will fail. If it can cause your test to fail, it's a form of verification in my book.

In Java, there are at least 3 ways to define expected behavior, and often a test mixes more than one. This is not a good situation for a test reader or maintainer.

In the Ruby and .net worlds, the story isn't much better. The state based assertions are specified differently than the behavior based assertions; however, both Ruby and .net have a superior way of handling expected exceptions: assert_raises and Assert.Throws.

Below are similar tests in test/unit with mocha (Ruby), with an example of assert_raises for handling the expected exception.

def testState
assert_equal 2, 1+1

def testError
assert_raises(NoMethodError) { [].not_a_method }

def testBehavior
array = []
[1, 2].each do |number|
array << number

And, for the .net crowd, here's the NUnit + NMock version of the 3 types of tests. As previously mentioned, NUnit provides an assertion for expecting exceptions, but there's still a mismatch between the state based and behavior based assertions. (full disclosure, I don't have Visual Studio running on my Mac, so if there's a typo, forgive me)

private Mockery mocks = new Mockery();

public void Add()
Assert.AreEqual(2, 1+1);

public void Raise()
Assert.Throws<ArgumentException>(delegate { throw new ArgumentException() } );

public void Behavior()
IList list = mocks.NewMock<IList>();


for (int i=1; i < 3; i++) {

Testing 2.0
In each language there have been steps forward. Both Java and C# have moved in the right direction regarding placement of behavior based expectations. Ruby still suffers from setup placement of mock expectations, but at least the behavior based expectations follow the same assertion syntax that the state based assertions use.

In Java, the Mockito framework represents a step in the right direction, moving the mock expectations to the end of the test.

@Test public void forRevisited() {
List list = mock(List.class);

for (int i=1; i < 3; i++) {


Likewise, in .net, Rhino Mocks allows you to use "Arrange, Act, Assert Syntax (AAA)". The result of AAA is (hopefully) all of your tests put their assertions at the end.

public void ForRevisited()
var list = MockRepository.GenerateStub<List>();

for (int i=1; i < 3; i++) {

list.AssertWasCalled( x => x.Add(1));
list.AssertWasCalled( x => x.Add(2));

These steps are good for the big two (Java & C#); however, I'd say they are still a bit too far away from ubiquitous assertion syntax for my taste.

RSpec represents forward progress in the Ruby community.

it "should test state" do
2.should == 1+1

it "should test an error" do
lambda { [].not_a_method }.should raise_error(NoMethodError)

it "should test behavior" do
array = []
[1, 2].each do |number|
array << number

RSpec does a good job of starting all their assertions with "should", (almost?) to a fault. It's not surprising that RSpec was able to somewhat unify the syntax, since the testing framework provides the ability to write both state based and behavior based tests. Looking at the tests you can focus on scanning for the word "should" when looking for what's being tested.

Unfortunately the unified "should" syntax results in possibly the ugliest assertion ever: lambda {…}.should raise_error(Exception). And, as I previously stated RSpec still suffers from setup placement of the mock expectation "should" methods. Perhaps RSpec could benefit from AAA or some type of test spy (example implementation available on

# this doesn't work, but maybe it should....

it "should test behavior" do
array = Spy.on []
[1, 2].each do |number|
array << number
array.should have_received << 1
array.should have_received << 2

Next Generation Testing (Testing 3.0?)
Eventually I expect all testing frameworks will follow RSpec's lead and include their own mocking support, though I'm not holding my breath since it's been two years since I originally suggested that this should happen. Today's landscape looks largely the same as it did 2 years ago. When testing frameworks take that next step, the syntax should naturally converge.

In the Ruby world you do have another option, but one with serious risk. I've been looking for ubiquitous assertion syntax for so long that I rolled my own framework in Ruby: expectations.

Expectations standardizes on both the location of your assertions (expectations) and how you express them. The following code shows how you can expect a state based result, an exception, and a behavior based result.

expect 2 do
1 + 1

expect NoMethodError do

expect do |obj|

As a result of expectations implementation you can always look at the first line of a test and know exactly what you are testing.

Full disclosure: Before you go and install expectations and start using it for your production application, you need to know one big problem: there's no support for expectations. I'm no longer doing Ruby full-time and no one has stepped up to maintain the project. It's out there, it works, and it's all yours, but it comes with no guarantees.

In the .net and Java worlds, the future of testing looks less... evolved. In the .net world, the ever focused on testing Jim Newkirk has teamed up with Brad Wilson to create represents evolution in the .net space, but as far as I can tell they haven't done much in the way of addressing ubiquitous assertion syntax. In Java, I don't see any movement towards addressing the issue, but can it even happen without closures (anonymous methods, delegates, whatever)?

I'm surprised that more people aren't bothered by the lack of ubiquitous assertion syntax. Perhaps we have become satisfied with disparity in syntax and the required full test scan.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Specialize in Something Relevant

generalist: a person competent in several different fields or activities
If you read my blog entry on Language Specialization you might have concluded that I prefer generalists. If, in our industry, generalists were what the definition describes, then I would prefer generalists. Unfortunately, business software developers seem to have created their own definition of generalist.
business software developing generalist: I know how to do the simplest tasks with many different languages/tools, but I can not be considered competent with any of them.
I blame Scott Ambler. To me anyway, it seems like the daft generalist movement started when Scott wrote Generalizing Specialists.

Our industry has always been saturated by bad programmers. I'm on record stating that at least 50% of the people writing business software should find a new profession. The problem with bad developers is that they take good ideas and turn them in to monstrosities.

I remember reading Generalizing Specialists and being inspired. I thought Scott gave fantastic and relevant advice. Unfortunately, many bad or junior developers heard: Don't bother to deeply understand anything, instead, you're agile if you know a little about everything. Suddenly, when I started interviewing developers I ran into situations like this.
  • me: So, I see you have Erlang on your resume, how do you like the language?
  • candidate: I like it's concurrency handling, but I'm a bit weary of it's syntax.
  • me: (thinking - okay, do you have any original thoughts on Erlang?) I can understand those points of view, what problem were you trying to solve with Erlang and why did you think it was the right tool?
  • candidate: Oh, I really only got through the 2 minute tutorial, you know, hello world basically. But if you guys have Erlang projects you want me to work on I'm happy to, I'm a generalist, I like all languages.
  • me: Okay, so what language would you say you know the most about?
  • candidate: I don't bother to specialize, I do a little bit with each language, you know, hello world or whatever, so I can use the right tool for the job. That's the best part of being a generalist.
  • me: (thinking - this interview is already over) Okay, so tell me about the languages/tools you've had to use at your different jobs?
Inevitably, the candidate doesn't even have a deep understanding of the tools they've used at work, because they are too busy doing hello world in every language invented. They also love to say that they take the Pragmatic Programmers advice to extreme and 'learn' several languages a year.

The truth is, these generalists have little in the way of valuable knowledge. They provide their projects with little more knowledge than a Google search can bestow in 30 minutes. In short, they're worthless, if not destructive.

I don't actually blame Scott Ambler. In my opinion he was right then, and he's right now. Become a Generalizing Specialist is still the advice that I currently give developers.

Specializing in something makes you an asset to the team. If I'm building a Web 2.0 website, I want everyone to have an understanding of HTML, CSS, Javascript, Ruby, & SQL. However, I also want each team member to specialize in one of those areas. Knowing IE quirks is just as important as knowing how to optimize MySQL. And, I want to make sure I have team members that can get into the deep, dark corners of delivering highly effective software. That doesn't mean everyone needs to know what a straight join in MySQL does, but at least 1 person should. The rest of the team isn't entirely off the hook though, they better understand how to write basic SQL statements that are maintainable and at least semi-performant.

Becoming a Generalizing Specialist takes time, but the first step is becoming a Specialist. Once you deeply understand one language/tool, you can move on to the next relevant language/tool. How do you know when it's time to move on? When you start having answers to questions that people aren't asking. If you're constantly looking up answers to common questions, you aren't a specialist. However, if you start providing more (relevant) detail in your answers than people are looking for, you're on your way to possessing the deep understanding that a Specialist should have. At that point, it's probably time to start looking deeply into something else.

One painful mistake to look out for is specializing in something less relevant. If you work for a trading firm that writes only thick client applications, understanding why Chrome's Javascript VM is better than Firefox's Javascript VM is probably not the best use of your time. It's true that you may move on to a web application at some point, but by then your information will probably have become stale anyway. Stick to specializing in things that you work with day to day. Your language, your IDE, the Domain Specific Languages you use in your applications (regular expressions, SQL, LINQ, etc), or the frameworks you use (Spring,, etc) are things you should specialize in to increase the value you provide to your team.

Eventually, you become competent with several different tools and languages. You've become a Generalizing Specialist and as such you are significantly more valuable to your team.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Language Specialization

Didn't you just totally sell out? -- Obie Fernandez @ Rails Summit Latin America
Obie and I are good friends. He wasn't trying to insult me. I was talking about how much I liked my new job (at DRW Trading), and the different aspects of the job. One aspect of my job is that I spend a fair amount of my time working with Java. I do some C# and some Ruby also, but these days it's more Java than anything else. I believe Obie was genuinely curious if I felt like I sold out since I'm not doing Ruby full-time anymore.

It's an interesting question, but it comes packed with all kinds of assumptions. For the question to be valid, I would have had to trade something I truly care about for the combination of something I did and did not like. Luckily, that wasn't the case.

Obie isn't the first person to be surprised that I'm no longer working full-time with Ruby. Truthfully, I find it a bit funny that people think I would base a career move on a language. Ruby is my favorite language, but it's not the correct choice for every problem that needs to be solved. And, languages have never been my primary concern when deciding what job to take.

My first job primarily used Cold Fusion. When I joined AOL Time Warner I gave up Cold Fusion for PHP. When I joined IAG I gave up PHP for C#. And so on. As you can see, I've never been too tied to a language. I've always been most interested in learning and growing. I love jobs that help me improve my skills.

Chad Fowler talks about something similar. In the section "Don’t Put All Your Eggs in Someone Else’s Basket" of My Job Went to India, Chad says the following:
While managing an application development group, I once asked one of my employees, “What do you want to do with your career? What do you want to be?” I was terribly disppointed by his answer: “I want to be a J2EE architect.” ...

This guy wanted to build his career around a specific technology created by a specific company of which he was not an employee. What if the company goes out of business? What if it let its now-sexy technology become obsolete? Why would you want to trust a technology company with your career?
I think Chad got it right, but it's not just companies you shouldn't trust. I wouldn't base my career on any technology, whether it was produced by a company or an open source community.

I prefer jobs that allow me to learn new things. Think of it as job security -- I shouldn't ever be out-of-date when it comes to technology experience. Think of it as an investment -- everything I learn creates a broader range of experience that I can leverage for future projects or jobs. Think of it as experimenting -- by trying many different solutions I may find ways to combine them and innovate.

I've turned down several jobs that paid more or offered comfort. I've never regretted it. Your career is long and (as Chad says) you should treat it as a business. When you look at it from that perspective it obviously makes sense to spend the early years learning and deciding which is the best direction to take.

The truth is, if you focus on one technology you'll never be as good as your teammates who have more experience mixing technologies to produce the best solution.

As I told Obie, I definitely don't feel like I sold out. In fact, one of the reasons I joined DRW was because they use Java. I've never worked with Java, messaging, or the financial domain. Having experience with those 3 things will make me better. And, diversifying your experience will make you better as well.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Testing Dynamic Web Applications

At RailsConf Europe, in the Q & A portion of my talk on Functional Testing someone asked what I recommend for testing Javascript.

Ugh. Testing Javascript. Is it possible to recommend something when everything you've seen is terrible? Usually I'm cool with picking the tool that sucks the least, but when it comes to Javascript testing the only words that come to mind are: epic fail.

In the past I've failed in two different ways.
  • Selenium: Too slow and to brittle for any decent size test suite. There's more on that if you wish.
  • Some javascript unit testing framework. I can't even remember the name. The syntax was ugly, the tests weren't easy to write, and the runner didn't integrate with any automated tools we used -- lame.
My response in Berlin was "The pivotal guys are smart, so if I were going to try something new it would be Screw Unit." Of course, I just googled and found the RubyForge project and two with the same name on GitHub. I'm sure one of those is the current trunk.

A few days later it occurred to me what the correct answer was -- Don't use Javascript and you won't have to test it.

No, I'm not suggesting that we should all go back to mostly static websites. Static content is fine for some things, but GMail is an obvious example of a site that is better done dynamically.

However, Javascript isn't your only choice for highly dynamic websites.

These days, if I were writing a website that required any dynamic interaction I would absolutely use Flex or Silverlight. I've done Flex, and it was nice to work with, but I must admit that I'm lured to Silverlight because it's going to (or does already?) support Ruby.

I'm not sure what the Silverlight testing story is, but I found Flex (and ActionScript) to be quite testable. The single biggest win (as I've said before) is that I no longer need to do in-browser testing. Removing the browser from the equation is huge. No more IE bugs causing your tests to fail, no long start up times as the browser is run, etc.

Testing with FlexUnit (with it's drawbacks) is an order of magnitude better than any experience I've had testing Javascript.

I'm comfortable saying that I would still use Javascript for trivial features that provided so little business value that they did not warrant testing. However, any features that provide noticeable business value must be tested, and I would move to a RIA solution instead.

In my experience, the benefits of switching to a RIA solution are dramatic, one of the largest being: you no longer need to worry about testing Javascript.

Monday, September 22, 2008

When To Retire Your Brand

Building a brand takes a lot of effort, but I think the payoff justifies the investment. Having a strong brand definitely helped me find a fun and very well paying job. So now that I have a dream job (@ DRW Trading), what should I do with my brand?

I have to confess, I didn't start writing because I wanted share information. I started writing because I wanted to build a big brand, find a great job, and enjoy life. Somewhere along the way I began to enjoy writing and the positive results that came from knowledge sharing. Someone once said to me "I write better tests because of your blog". Obviously I was happy to hear that kind of feedback. At the same time it wasn't the reason I got started down this path.

I love to program. I also love to be in shape (which I'm not) and learn other languages (which I haven't been doing lately).

Now that I have my dream job, I've been spending more time doing the other things I love. Unfortunately, I found that between learning an interesting domain, going to the gym, and learning Italian, there's not much time left for blogging. I also find that since I'm doing all the things I love, I don't really like to be away presenting at conferences.

I thought it might be time to declare success on the brand building project, and move on to new pursuits... But, I was wrong.

The largest reason I can't quit writing and presenting is that I enjoy giving back to the community. Seeing a blog entry get 8,000 hits in one day causes an amazing feeling. Giving a presentation and getting feedback that says "Probably the best presentation at the conference" definitely makes you feel good about what you are doing. Seeing an idea become committed as the way to do something will definitely make you smile. I truly enjoy spreading ideas (or at least attempting to spread ideas) that help the community evolve.

Blogging and presenting also help me personally improve. The easiest way to get feedback on something is to put it out there. I considered several of my testing ideas to be "the right way" for far too long. Putting them down as blog entries resulted in further evolution of the ideas as well as a greater understanding of how context determines the correct approach. Simply writing about my ideas improves them. One thing we aren't short of is people to tell you you're wrong.

Your brand is also valuable to your employer. Employing people with name recognition improves your organization's ability to recruit talented new hires. This also directly benefits you, since you'll be given the opportunity to work with more talented teammates. At the moment, DRW is looking to hire the absolute best people in the industry. I wish I had an even stronger brand, so I could help attract the top talent.

Ultimately I came to the conclusion that building a brand is a career long activity. You can stop at any time, but getting that free time back comes at cost to your profession.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Is Distributed Development Viable

I've never seen distributed development succeed. However, before we get into what I've seen, I need to be specific about what I'm describing.
Distributed Development: A group of individuals who work across time, space, and organizational boundaries with links strengthened by webs of communication technology
The link above for Distributed Development redirects to Virtual Team. Wikipedia also has an entry for Distributed Development; however, I found the description of Virtual Team to be much closer to what our industry generally labels Distributed Development.

Just to be clear I'm not talking about outsourcing (subcontracting a process, such as product design or manufacturing, to a third-party company) or what you might call off-shoring.

This entry will be written with that in mind.

Take 1
Several years ago I worked with one of the nicest and most talented developers I expect I'll ever encounter: Badri. We worked together for about a month before he was forced back to India to deal with US visa issues. We knew this was going to happen and decided that it was so important to keep Badri on the project that we were going to give distributed development a shot. Badri knew the code, the team, and he was great on so many levels that the choice couldn't have been more obvious.

After just a few weeks, we gave up on distributed development. Ever since that experience, I've been highly skeptical of the feasibility of distributed development. I had actual experience working with one of the greatest developers I'd ever encountered, and we still failed.

Failure can be good. There are always lessons to be learned when you fail. Here were a few that I picked up from that project.
  • Time difference is probably the single largest contributing factor to failure. Badri was in India, and we were in Deleware, USA. There was almost no time overlap to our workdays.
  • Having the local or on-site developers feed requirements back to the off-site team equates to an order of magnitude efficiency loss.
  • Having the on-site developers decide what pieces are going off-site quickly translates to the off-site team being pissed off about getting the boring work
  • Businesses expect the same level of quality and productivity from the on-site members as the off-site members.
Given those circumstances, we definitely failed. Epic failed in fact. And, to make things worse, I was the one that had to tell Badri that we were going to give up on distributed development. Imaging having to tell someone you have nothing but admiration for that "it's just not working out". I still feel guilty about it to this day.

The time difference was a huge killer. Every time we spoke to Badri either he was half asleep or we were. I think Badri was working 12 hour days also, just so he could try to talk to us at the beginning and end of his day. It also meant no wine with dinner or having a bit of a buzz for the 11pm stand-up. Either of those options is unacceptable. Worse, if we didn't communicate what we needed in detail, the off-site team would be off in the wrong direction for up to 12 hours straight. We threw away several days worth of code because we hadn't given them enough detail to go in the right direction.

Truthfully, we (the on-site developers) shouldn't have been deciding what they were going to work on in the first place. It was a tough project and we were all learning. None of us felt like we had the time to do both the development required of us, plus the analysis required to give the off-site team good direction. Instead, the off-site team got minimal direction and delivered code that was of minimal use to us. It was beautiful code, but it wasn't what we needed. Again, epic fail.

Even though we clearly were not functioning well, the business expected that the off-site team deliver at the same pace as the on-site team. The business had met and loved Badri. No one could understand why our pace had suddenly dropped off. Not good. More on this later.

Take 2
A few years later I joined a project that was just beginning to give distributed development a shot. I hadn't been there 3 days and I was already in the CEO's office explaining why I thought it was a bad plan. Of course, I was gun-shy, so that was to be expected. Luckily, Fred George was also there and he was more optimistic. In the end we went to an on-site team, but Fred showed me that distributed development is possible.... maybe.... eventually.

We experienced several obstacles, and we overcame some. Again, there were plenty of lessons to be learned.

Time difference was less of a factor. This time I was working in London and the off-site team was in India. Our workdays overlapped fairly well. This was obviously a huge move in the right direction. We also collaborated on who would work on what, which helped ensure that everyone was happy with what they were working on. And, the analysis came from a BA that collaborated with both portions of the team. The BA even traveled to India occasionally.

However, things were still quite broken.

Some members of the team had never met other members of the team. There's something about working, collaborating with someone in person that is almost impossible to replicate over a phone or IM conversation. It wasn't that we didn't want to get everyone together, but there were visa issues that couldn't be overcome. It was a big mistake with no good resolution. Some long time team members couldn't travel, but if we replaced them with people who could travel we would lose domain knowledge and context.

Communication was a constant problem. The telephones on both ends presented problems. I have plenty of Indian friends that I have no problem understanding, but with the off-site team speaking into a bad connection and it being sent out of our bad connection, I caught every other sentence, if that. To make matters worse, people weren't talking nearly as often as they needed to be. We tried to address this by creating a chat room and mandating daily checkpoint phone calls. Both ideas were abandoned due to lack of buy-in. In the end we never did solve the communication issue -- in my opinion. I think the reality is that most programmers are introverted, and being off-site just gives you one more excuse for not talking to the business, even when you really should.

Connectivity was also an issue. If you're in the US, you don't really even think about the reliability of your internet connection. However, in many other places in the world connectivity is much less certain. There were several occasions where the off-site team was simply unable to check-in their code. We never did figure out if the problem was on their side, our side, in our vpn, or some other bizarre location. If your off-site can't check in, IM you, or get to the wiki, you obviously lose productivity.

There was one common problem: the business expected the same level of productivity from both teams. I'm not sure there's a way around this issue. Have you ever heard that programming is about people? Of course you have, and you obviously believe it. But, does the business know that? Even if they've heard it, do they believe it?

I doubt your business does. Frankly, I doubt most of your colleagues in the industry do. I still know far too many programmers who think that their only responsibility is to write code that creates features. If that were true, if we were nothing more than line workers delivering feature after feature, it would be plausible that productivity shouldn't suffer no matter where the factory exists.

But, it's not true. Being a software developer is about communication, collaboration, analysis and coding, at least. Being a phone call away instead of a face to face conversation away impacts communication and collaboration. Thus, productivity is impacted. There's no getting away from that.

How can you convince your business of that? I haven't solved that problem yet, unfortunately.

What could be
I do think Fred had the right ideas. He described scenarios that had previously benefited from distributed development, and what made those situations succeed.

The first suggestion is to get everyone together. You want the team to gel as one entity. Do version one entirely on-site if possible. However, don't do it with all local resources. Bring people from the desired off-site location to work on-site for the first release. The team members will build trust and friendships that last up to 6 months.

Once you are on version two you can move the desired team members back off-site. However, the travel isn't over for anyone. The off-site team should always have at least one member from the on-site team with them, likewise the on-site team should always have at least one member of the off-site team present. These aren't week long trips either. Each member of the team should visit the other location for a month, once every five to six months. That level of in-person communication should lead to high levels of trust and understanding.

The travel situation is even more drastic for the analysts and stakeholders. They should split their time between the two teams, if possible. Neither team should feel like the A team or the more important team. Any implication that one team is above the other team will lead to negative productivity impacts.

That might sound drastic, but it's the price of doing off-site development. The cost doesn't stop there.

Both team locations are going to need to invest heavily in infrastructure. The best video conferencing software and highly reliable bandwidth will also need to be purchased. The idea is to foster communication in every way possible. Without communication and collaboration, the project is doomed.

Open Source
Before anyone points out that it's hard to argue with the success of Open Source, I'd like to be clear -- I'm not. Open Source is obviously successful and developed most often in a distributed manner. However, there are a few differences that, I believe, make it a different situation entirely.

First of all, most people aren't paid to work on Open Source. When someone isn't paying you, you can often do whatever you feel like, whenever you feel like it. If someone is working in the same area of the code as you need to, you can just put off your changes until they are done.

However, the reality is that most people aren't usually working in common areas when they work on open source. Most open source projects are maintained by a few people who work within specific portions of the codebase. If changes need to happen in "your" portion of the codebase, you often queue them up to work on after you finish your current task.

Since there's little conflict between what you work on and what other team members work on there's significantly less communication and collaboration required, and what is necessary can happen at a much slower pace. If you need to make a change, it doesn't often need to happen right away. It can be put off until the team member on the other side of the world wakes up.

The codebase also evolves at a much slower pace. Six to ten people working in the same codebase 8 hours a day move much faster than the average Open Source project that sees 3 developers working a few hours a day.

Distributed development does work for Open Source, but that's not what I'm talking about.

I have heard of companies successfully doing remote pair programming and distributed development. One recipe I've heard is that everyone is off-site in different locations. I can see how that would work since it requires everyone to adopt a new work routine and make the best of it. While I believe it's possible to be successful, I think it's still bleeding edge at this point. You probably don't want to "try this at home" quite yet.

I think Distributed Development is probably the way of the future. As bandwidth and experience is more available the industry will continue to evolve in that direction. However, I think it's still probably about 5-10 years from being mainstream.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Monday, September 08, 2008

Domain Specific Languages don't follow the Principle of Least Surprise

Ola Bini gets it right, as usual, in Evil Hook Methods?, but I think you can actually take the idea a bit further.

DataMapper allows you to gain it's methods simply by an include statement.

class Category
include DataMapper::Resource
# ...

Ola points out that the include method should not add class methods. At least, that's not what it was designed to do. Include should (by way of append_features) add the constants, methods, and module variables of this module to the class or module that called include.

The problem for me is: Should DataMapper add it's methods to your class when you use Ruby methods as they were originally intended, or when you use DataMapper's Domain Specific Language (DSL).

If DataMapper is a framework and should be used traditionally then you should add it's methods in the following way.

class Category
include DataMapper::Resource
extend DataMapper::Resource::ClassMethods
# ...

However, you can't blame DataMapper for following the pattern that's been around since long before DataMapper. At this point I would consider the trick to definitely be an idiom even if it is an anti-pattern. The reality is that include has been stolen by those that prefer the simplest possible Domain Specific Language for adding their behavior.

Martin Fowler describes how a framework can have a traditional API as well as a thin veneer that allows you to use the framework in a more fluent way.

Unfortunately, in the Ruby world we've designed our veneer in a way that doesn't allow for traditional usage.

The other day I noticed something that I thought was equally interesting in the Java world. I was working on a test that used JMock and IntelliJ formatted my code as shown below.

    1 class PublisherTest extends TestCase {
2 Mockery mockery = new Mockery();
4 public void testNamesAreAnnoying() {
5 final Subscriber subscriber = context.mock(Subscriber.class);
7 mockery.checking(new Expectations() {
8 {
9 one (subscriber).receive(message);
10 }
11 });
13 // ...
14 }
15 }

Unimpressed by lines 8 and 10, I changed the code to look like the following snippet.

class PublisherTest extends TestCase {
Mockery mockery = new Mockery();

public void testNamesAreAnnoying() {
final Subscriber subscriber = context.mock(Subscriber.class);

mockery.checking(new Expectations() {{
one (subscriber).receive(message);

// ...

Mike Ward said I shouldn't do that because the IntelliJ formatting properly shows an initializer for an anonymous class. Which is absolutely correct, but I don't want an anonymous class with an initializer, I want to use JMock's DSL for defining expectations. And, while the second version might not highlight how those expectations are set, that's not what I care about.

When I write the code I want to create expectations in the easiest way possible, and when I read the code I want the fact that they are expectations to be obvious. I don't think removing lines 8 and 10 reduces readability, in fact it may improve it. Truthfully, I don't care what tricks JMock uses to define it's DSL (okay, within reason), I only care that the result is the most readable option possible.

Back to DataMapper, I believe there's a superior option that allows them to have both a clean DSL and a traditional API. The following code would allow you to add methods as Ola desires (traditionally) and it would allow you to get everything with one method invocation for those that prefer DSL syntax.

class Object
def data_mapper_resource
include DataMapper::Resource
extend DataMapper::Resource::ClassMethods

class Category
include DataMapper::Resource
extend DataMapper::Resource::ClassMethods
# ...

class Entry
# ...

The obvious drawback is if everyone starts adding methods to Object we may start to see method collision madness. Of course, if the method names are given decent names it shouldn't be an issue. It's not likely that someone else is going to want to define a method named data_mapper_resource.

Don't worry. For those of you who prefer complexity "just in case", I have a solution for you also.

module DataMapper; end
module DataMapper::Resource
def self.instance_behaviors

def self.class_behaviors
module DataMapper::Resource::InstanceMethods
def instance_method
"instance method"
module DataMapper::Resource::ClassMethods
def class_method
"class method"

class Object
def become(mod)
include mod.instance_behaviors
extend mod.class_behaviors

class Category
include DataMapper::Resource::InstanceMethods
extend DataMapper::Resource::ClassMethods
# ...

class Entry
become DataMapper::Resource

Entry.class_method # => "class method" # => "instance method"
Category.class_method # => "class method" # => "instance method"