Why have group meetings in software development?

Why have group meetings in software development? I think there are only three good reasons.

The first good reason is when several people need to come to a consensus. The outcome of these meetings are decisions. Ideally, everyone comes to the meeting prepared for the discussion. I like for a proposal to be written and distributed before the meeting. This means that at least one person has thought through the decision's context and ramifications, and that the meeting's participants have time to read and ponder it beforehand. Jeff Bezos has an interesting workaround to unprepared participants and that is to have meetings start with several minutes dedicated to reading the prepared materials. That Inc. article has several other good tips. I can't help myself and so must include a reference to Tufte's The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint. Thankfully, slide decks have been mostly absent from my last several years of professional work.

The second good meeting is the daily standup. It is too easy for a developer to not ask for help soon enough, and standups quickly stop that situation from worsening or the developer going dark. My manager at Cadre used a system of green, yellow, and red work status. If the work was going well then it was green. When there were complications the work was yellow. When it was red it was blocked. It is useful to use this system even in a standup. The first part of the standup has all participants give a brief status. The second part deals with yellow statuses with a brief description of problem and assignment of who is best able to help. Red statuses are dealt with outside of the standup. In all cases, however, don't solve problems in the standup. Giving solutions might not derail the standup the first few times, but has been my experience that by not maintaining the standup's principles it will soon devolve into a group chat and finally abandonment.

The third good meeting is for celebration. I am most interested in celebrating the group's achievement as a whole. Generally, everyone contributes as they are asked and as they are able, and so I see no need to single out individual contributions. The one exception is for someone who has shown marked growth. Pizza in the conference room can work, but you will have more success if you take everyone out to lunch.

Awesome Java list of exceptional, reusable Java libraries

Andreas Kull is doing a good job of curating the Awesome Java list of exceptional, reusable Java libraries.

Some more comments about a healthy software development organization

That last posting was a little to high level. Especially for someone like me that likes things to become grounded — at least for one day! Most of my career has been in small companies building small products. Apart from places like Lotus and Geac my employers have had less than 20 developers. This organization size has shaped my expectations of what is useful for a project to succeed.

The first document any project needs the "Product or Feature Digest" A template of which is here. This document organizes the other documents. It is the one place everyone can read and get a grounding on the product and its implementation. If what is being built is very small then it might be the only document. Most sections of the document have an obvious purpose. However, the first two require further explanation.

I have never worked on a product or feature that did not change its goals. I doubt you have either. Most changes are refinements due to a better customer understanding, or due to initially unforeseen constraints, or revisions to feature priorities, or features removed or added, etc. The reason we keep product management's original document is that it was the locus of everything that happened afterwards. The differences between it and the current revision gives the reader an understanding of the maturation of what is being shipped. For senior management, where their attention to the project is periodic, it helps bridge their previous understandings to a current understanding.

I like my projects to have this kind of documented grounding, but this does not make me waterfall methodology advocate. I agree completely with Kent Beck's statements in Extreme Programming that software change is cheap. I like the agile methodologies that stem from this seed. I draw the line, however, that product management and software development is nothing more than reorganizing and implementing the backlog. Developers need to know that what they are doing is coherent and concise. Otherwise the work becomes little more than hacking at the coal face — an endless drudgery.

Within a project I don't care much what tool you use to enumerate the work items and their dependencies. What I do care about is that the discussions related to these work items are located in that tool. If the tool's commenting interface is cumbersome then don't select it. If you do, your staff will not use it. Let me repeat that. Your development staff, as a whole, does not like to write stuff down, and if you make it inconvenient to do so they will attempt to make progress without using it [1]. When this happens the only record you will have of the obstacles found and decisions made will be in heads. When the project ends and the staff disperse you will have little from which to draw on to hold a successful postmortem. Worse, however, is that your development organization is doomed to remain, at best, at Level 2.

Lastly, for now, where do instant messaging tools sit in a software development organization? For me, at the bottom of the communication modes. What message is so urgent that it can't wait until tomorrow morning or some other synchronization time[2]? For smaller organizations where one developer might have multiple roles the interruptions will be harder to control, but they can be controlled. The head of development needs to take control of them.

The other problem with instant messaging is that it becomes the primary mode for discussions and decisions. Instant messaging is technically an asynchronous form of communication, but it is rarely used with that expectation. Instant messaging has become akin to oral communication with all of its concomitant weaknesses. It is too easy for a senior staffer to initiate, for example, a Slack conversation to come to a decision than it is to open an issue and discuss it there or simply wait until a next meeting. Or the developer who interrupts everyone to ask a question that could have been answered elsewhere with a little effort on his or her part.

At this point I am sure you are thinking I am a madman. I have the developers sitting alone at his or her desk coding and communicating only online & only asynchronously. It would be a lifeless place without actual face to face communications. Hallway conversations and meeting are vitally important to a development organization. Important enough to write about separately in another posting.

[1] Jira is a good example of a bad interface. Atlassian has put so much effort into enabling customizability that its has made the hourly effort of interacting with issues & comments to be on a par with the one time effort of creating a set of project "status" tokens.

[2] For example, place all announcements on the kitchen refrigerator or on the bathroom mirrors.


Some comments about a healthy software development organization

I have been thinking a lot about healthy software development organizations recently [1]. I have never headed a development organization. I have always been an individual contributor working as an architect, a principle engineer, a team leader, or one of the many other roles on my the way to these. So I work within an existing organization and have some command to shape it. There are limits to this command, however. The shape is principally formed and administered by the department's head.

I have worked for several heads of development. All were good people. All managed differently. Some were curt, some loyal, some inclusive, and some neglectful. I have learned much from working with them. Here is some of what I have learned.

A healthy development organization is one that has
  1. Staff with a range and overlap of skills & experiences.
  2. Work that is finished when all steps are complete.
  3. Communication is balanced between structured & unstructured.
  4. Achievements are celebrated.
In a larger organization these points are easier to achieve, but even a small organization must position itself to attain them.

You need to have a staff with a range of skills & experience and without large gaps in either. For example, having three junior developers and an architect is not healthy. Beyond the one bus problem is the problem that the larger the gap the more likely the organization will create a implementation that is of irregular consistency. Consistency enables an organization to potentially use many more of its staff to resolve bugs and add improvements. You don't want to have anyone say "Andrew wrote that. I don't touch it without his input."

The work of a software product is not just code. We all know that, but the pressure to release the implementation alone is great. I am a firm advocate in documentation and testing. Testing is easier for developers to accept as it is a channel for more coding; coding is something they want to get good at and enjoy doing it even when the effort is going badly. Getting development documentation written is an uphill struggle. 

I have only ever worked at one organization where developers prepared documentation without acrimony and that was the CASE company Cadre. I was an apprentice programmer at the time and ready to accept, without question, everything I learned there. I have since come to be more selective, but the importance of documentation has remained. Documentation is a part of my third point about communications. Communications includes all its in-person and online forms. Communication is about coming to a common understanding and then achieving consensus.

A software project has a product goal and an implementation goal. The product's goal, ie having an implementation that works, is the easy part of software development. Having an implementation that the development organization can support is much harder. The initial expression of the implementation is not code, but a written design. This written design might only consist of a few diagrams and an enumeration of constraints and problem areas, but having it written down means that someone made the effort to attain a comprehensive grasp of the product implementation and to communicate it to others. From that the development staff can begin to come to a common understanding. There are other documentation needs, but for now, lets start with an upfront design!

My last point is one coders and heads of development publicly dismiss, even belittle, but privately value when it is done well. So much of a developer's work is unseen. The reviewer finds problems. Who finds successes? (We don't even have a title for such a role!) Developers want others to know about their trials (their stories), and for their accomplishments and improvements to be acknowledged. None of this is needed for the product. All of this is needed for a healthy development organization.

[1] I am going to use the term software development and not software engineering. My ego is buffed by the engineering term, but, frankly, software development is far from an engineering discipline as the term is used in other inventive organizations. Our work is, with the best of meanings, craft.

The best way to think about Silicon Valley is as one large company

"The best way to think about Silicon Valley is as one large company, and what we think of as companies are actually just divisions. Sometimes divisions get shut down, but everyone who is capable gets put elsewhere in the company: Maybe at a new start-up, maybe at an existing division that’s successful like Google, but everyone always just circulates. So you don’t worry so much about failure. No one takes it personally, you just move on to something else. So that’s the best way to think about the Valley. It’s really engineered to absorb failure really naturally, make sure everyone is taken care of, and go on to something productive next. And there’s no stigma around it."

-- Valley of Genius

Found at Stuff The Internet Says On Scalability For August 3rd, 2018

Gaming with Alexa

I am an armchair tabletop wargame and broadgame geek. I say armchair as I mostly seem to read and speculate about games far more than I play them. In part this is due to available opponents and in part to simply not making the time. Nevertheless, I persist. 

When my children were very young I noticed that they would spend long periods of time studying the details of intricate pictures. This was their "dinosaur period" and so it was mostly illustrations of Jurassic flora and fauna. I had the notion of a game set on a large rug sized illustration they could scamper around on. The rug was pressure sensitive so the children's location was known. The rug would speak and listen. The children would respond to its directions either alone or in small groups. They could be the hunters, the hunted, the treasure seekers, the jungle veterinarians, etc.

The game remained speculative, but the ideas of location aware game boards, audio interaction, and physical game pieces has continued to interest me. I explored using old school pen digitizers, old school touch screens that used infrared interference for locating, magnets and mechanical switches, RFID, image pattern recognition with and without QR-codes or colored dot markers, etc. 

Gaming in wild came under scrutiny. How would LARPing or scavenger hunts change with augmented reality? What about audio only games? What would a naval or starship strategy game require from a driver stuck in commuter traffic? How much of the map or simple orientation could the player keep in their head? Clearly, these would not be realtime games or there would be high likelihood of distracting the driver into actual vehicular combat.

When Amazon's Alexa was introduced I read the SDK documentation with excitement. Amazon had done the hard work of creating a conversational model for audio interaction. I think a small, jet fighter combat oriented over the driver's car roof is a game well within the skills of even a moderately skill programmer. Now to make the time.

When getting it to work is the least of your problems

There are 3 important traits of good software implementation
  1. It works.
  2. It is maintainable.
  3. It is reusable.
We have heard many times over the years how a language, a framework, or a methodology are better (and often "the best".) And I don't doubt this for a minute, but over time their betterment is very unlikely to prevail. Three examples are in order.

The developer that creates a data driven implementation that only he or she can understand is not gong to be maintainable by your low skilled, procedural developers. The implementation works, but it can not be considered maintainable and reusable if these activities are limited to one developer.

The development team that picks a language that has a passionate following and generally good library coverage for implementing the initial product release, but it does not have broad acceptance in the development organization. This implementation is not going to have staff readily available for maintenance. So the original staff become its maintainers and these are, very likely, the most expensive developers on your staff.

The development organization that eschews using anything but in-house developed tools and frameworks. No matter how well it is architected, systems designed, used in implementations, and available on-boarding training it is never going to be better than what is available outside. The longer your staff remain, the less employable they become, and so the more anxious they are to leave or, worse, hunker down into survival mode.

When you are creating a product for a one-time use then by all means use whatever it takes to get it working. Remember that these products are gadgets. Even if the gadget is critical to success of some other endeavor -- eg, it specializes in an island's one-time disaster response logistical problems -- it is still a gadget and so expendable. When you are creating an appliance then getting it to work is the least of your problems. Maintaining it and making its parts reusable are central to the development organization's success and repeatability. This requires that you be able to continually staff your organization with the range of developers with costs appropriate to the lifecycle stages of your products.

Slack and "Operation Crossfire aftermath"

I was watching Operation Crossfire aftermath and another use for Slack came to mind. Lindybeige was coordinating a miniatures wargame with several dozen people, across the world, over a 4 hour period using email. It was a logistical nightmare trying to keep track of each conversion and the materials needed to be gotten and sent to each participant -- half of whom were called "Steve"! As I watched it occurred to me that had Lindybeige instead used Slack and created, for example, a channel for each participant and a channel or two for general purpose it would have been logistically much easier. Channels in bold have unread messages, messages are organized chronologically, messages could include maps or command and control documents, messages can be pinned for easier reference, etc. Lindybeige still would have been exhausted by the effort, but, hopefully, in good spirits throughout.

I should note that using Slack in this way is not the same as using a messaging platform such as Skype, IRC, etc. In a messaging platform you are talking with an individual within the context of the rest of their life's conversions. Instead, a Slack workspace is being using to gather individuals for a shared purpose. The rest of their life happens outside of the workspace. When the individual is in the workspace they are, for all intents and purposes, the character they are playing. This is reinforce by their communicating via the named channel. I am no long Andrew Gilmartin, but instead I am #Second Lieutenant Anderson.

[1] This is a follow up to Slack for One.

[2] I know next to nothing about who is Lindybeige. I do enjoy his YouTube channel.

Slack for One

I have a deep background thread running in my head that started when I read in The Year Without Pants: WordPress.com and the Future of Work about how Automattic, Inc. created a new Wordpress site for every bug. I tend to think of blogs as having weight. They are heavy. However, this is psychological response to how blogs have been used. Technically, they are not much more than a column value in a database table. One of the lightest datum there is. Slack is no different in this regard than is Wordpress; Slack's Workspace is no more than a column value in a table.

Recently, I had the idea that you could use a private Slack site for personal projects and journals. Each channel is a new project or a journal. Slack's chronologically organized messages allow for text, images, (simple) formatting, and the inline inclusion of external content such as from Google Apps. There are many bots for managing each project's actions and reminders, for example. And if you do need to share the project you can. As I thought about this more there seemed no end to how to use Slack as purely a personal information tool rather than a group communications tool. I wonder if anyone has actually used Slack this way?

So, how little data are too few?

Don't use percentages when the data you have are too few. If you have 3 data points then saying "%67 of reviewers gave it 5 stars" is both accurate and misleading. It is better to say "2 out of 3 reviewers give it 5 stars." Doing this assists the reader's intuitive grasp of the usefulness of the rating. When I was following the local school district's quantitative heavy presentations it was obvious when they chose to use percentages and when they chose to use counts in order to give a positive depiction of bad news. Don't cause your reader to doubt your trustworthiness.

So, how little data are too few? I would say anything less than 100 data points.

Four at a time

My miniature painting has not gone well. I am deep in guilt. A fellow gamer gave me all his 28mm dark age armies when he decided that he was not going to play that period any more. It was a very generous gift and I am grateful. I did not like his Norman army's painting, however, and so decided to repaint them. I stripped 27 figures and primed them. I used a priming method I had not used before on the advice of another gamer I trusted. The primer is a mixture of black gesso and a medium used for painting on glass. My results were not so good. I am sure it was my fault. The consequence was that the figures sat on the worktable for months. My guilt set in. I had made the gift useless.

Months later I was reading about primers, as you do, and was inspired by the article on using Krylon ColorMaster ultra flat black primer. I stripped all 27 of the figures again and applied the primer. My results were not so good. I am sure it was my fault. Again, the figures sat on the worktable in limbo. My guilt grew heavier.

This weekend I stripped all 27 figures again. They are, as I write this, sitting in a second round of stripper. Each of my successive primings seems to have actually added tooth to the figure's surface and so has made cleaning them more difficult!

I have learned a few useful lessons form this experience. The small lesson is that the primer I have used for years works and I really don't need to experiment. The big lesson is I can't work on so many figures at once. If I had only worked on 4 figures at a time then by the end of each week I would have 4 painted figures. Within two months all the figures would have been painted and have been on the table killing the Anglo-Saxons.

When the second round of stripper has eaten away at the bond between primer and figure I am going to pack them away. Too much bad karma has enveloped them. I and they need to rest. Instead, I am going to paint some old Warhammer 40K space marines. 4 at a time.

Getting Things Done for Teens

My children are off to college in the Fall and so my mind has been on what will help them succeed. I have always liked GTD and so I read the recent publication of Getting Things Done for Teens. The book does a good job of using a voice that it is not too young and not too formal. The GTD advice is laid out as any other GTD tutorial and is supported with some useful illustrations. I don't mind the two cartoon characters that are used to distinguish the impulsive and the steady centers of the brain. Monkey brain and Owl brain are useful mnemonics, but, perhaps, a little childish.

The book is composed of 3 sections. The 1st section is the GTD framework. The 2nd section is life planning with GTD. The 3rd section is troubleshooting with GTD. The 1st section is required reading. The 3rd section is useful, but its advise could have been rolled into the 1st section. The 2nd section is a mistake. Few American teens are mature enough to use the advise in this section. The 2nd section adds a considerable page count to the book's total. And here is the rub; the book is useful, but at 288 pages it is 200 pages longer than most American teens are willing to read without a clear & present need.

I don't doubt that the authors know their audience. I suspect they would agree that a shorter book is more likely to be read than a longer one. So why included the 2nd section at all? I suspect it has more to do with selling a standard sized product than helping the teens. My advise is to tear the book into front and back parts and then throw away the back part.

Graphviz online

I like Graphviz for quickly creating network graphs. Xin Huang compiled the code to JS and created this useful online editor. https://github.com/dreampuf/GraphvizOnline

JNDI, Tomcat, and ClassLoaders

If you want to use JNDI within a servlet container than you need to be careful to use the corresponding class loader for your shared resource. So, ensure that you have only one copy of the class in your JVM and then when you want to bind or lookup the resource use the resource's classloader. For example,
public <T> void bind(String name, Class<T> valueClass, T value) throws NamingException {
    ClassLoader cl = Thread.currentThread().getContextClassLoader();
    try {
        Context c = new InitialContext();
        Thread.currentThread().setContextClassLoader(valueClass.getClassLoader());
        c.bind(name, value);
    } finally {
        Thread.currentThread().setContextClassLoader(cl);
    }
}

public <T> T lookup(String name, Class<T> valueClass) throws NamingException {
    ClassLoader cl = Thread.currentThread().getContextClassLoader();
    try {
        Context c = new InitialContext();
        Thread.currentThread().setContextClassLoader(valueClass.getClassLoader());
        return (T) c.lookup(name);
    } finally {
        Thread.currentThread().setContextClassLoader(cl);
    }
}
I am passing the valueClass to bind() so that an interface can be used if wanted.

Problems of a modern, digital, open office

Never liked open plan offices. Lots of studies going back to the 1960s on their problems. This new, small study shows the problems of a modern, digital, open office. Summary at Open Offices Make You Less Open.

Off-shore oil rigs

When I was a kid in the 1970's I was fascinated with off-shore oil rigs. I was living in the UK and there was much news about developing the North Sea oil reservers. I would see short snippets on the TV of rigs on maiden voyages, and exciting photographs in magazines highlighting their intricacies. By today's availability of information these few images were as ephemeral as smoke on the wind. So off-shore rigs had a mystery and a fantasy around them. Earthbound space colonies. Nevertheless, I was, and continue to be, inspired by their engineering and the unmitigated confidence needed to build them.

Now, of course, an internet search finds enough information to become an armchair expert in the off-shore oil industry. There are models to build. There is even, it seems, a sub-culture of 3D renders of them and other industrial sites (eg).

Photograph is of Norway's Draugen Oil Platform (src).

Computer assisted support for historical wargames will happen if...

My favorite wargames podcast is Meaples & miniatures. The hosts are all wargaming butterflies, and I mean this kindly, and so there is a good amount of new and old discussed and compared. Their 250th episode is their last of the Summer as they take a break to, well, rest and renew like the rest of the northern hemisphere. For this episode they are answering questions from their audience. I've not finished listening yet, but felt the need to bring a different perspective to one of their answers.

The question was whether or not an assistant computer application would be used in historical wargaming? Apps are appearing more regularly now for boardgames. Some of these boardgames have game mechanics and parts that are very close to those of miniature wargames. Even the forthcoming X Wing 2 is supposed to be app assisted. So, there is a trend in apps and there is a trend in wargames to be more like boardgames (in their initial costs and time commitments). An overlap is inevitable.

The hosts' common answer was one having to do with implementation rather than game play. They discussed how an app is dependent upon a general device, and a large networking and computing infrastructure. The general device being your phone which, for all practical purposes, you own but have little control over its OS or applications suite. The infrastructure being mostly the publisher's backend servers in data centers that run the core of the game programming; which, again, you have no practical control over. The hosts see these dependencies as the achilles heal of apps. They suggest that only large publishers have the money to continue to support a game that has passed its peek sales and so must sustain the game's implementation on smaller, incremental sales. While not said, and I expect that the hosts would agree, that it is optimistic to expect that any publisher would continue to support a game beyond its suitable profitability; ie, if profitability is too small then the company is better of discontinuing the game and use the freed-up resources on higher profit games. So apps are doomed!

Not so. There are implementations that do not require the publisher's continued support. First, some assumptions.

1. A phone or tablet is cheap enough to have a single, specialized use. The device is the game and it is the "rule book." Rule books are around US $15 to $50 these days. The device would be the same. The device will never be upgraded so the apps on it will continue working baring mechanical failure.

2. The device needs access to a messaging network. The messaging network is one where every device has a unique address and that a message can be sent to that address. If players are not colocated then a wide area network would be needed. The Simple Message System (SMS, ie texting) is one such network. There are others, but SMS is by far the most common, well supported, and almost future-proof given the world's telecoms commitment to it.

In many ways, the Kindle with 3G is an archetypal example of this device and network.

With such a device and network you can implement a multiplayer game very successfully. All the algorithms needed, eg peer to peer and modular co-operating services, are battle tested and open. The device's computational and storage requirements are minimal. The networking bandwidth needed is small, eg a few kilobytes, irregularly sent around to all player devices [1]. Embedded systems manufacturers have been designing and massively deploying just this kind of environment for years.

So, if you consider this different implementation of computer assisted support for historical wargames then the answer is yes, just as soon as gaming companies have lead engineers and architects that have a broader view of the devices and their communication. Now the real and important question can be asked, is historical wargames game play enhanced by having this assistant?

See my earlier posting $0.43 for Psychotherapist Barbie services about funding backend servers for toys.

[1] MMOs, massive multiplayer, online games, is a different beast. These systems do need a central or federated infrastructure.

Fourier Transform & Dubstep Drops

Two of my favorite recent finds.

But what is the Fourier Transform? A visual introduction.

Encoding data in dubstep drops

12 years training for this role!

So far, my children's senior year of high school has been mostly wasted time. This is especially so as their graduation day comes ever closer. I propose that we alter senior year from one of listening from the back of the classroom to one of teaching from the front. It should be year when the seniors go out into all the lower grades, K through 11, and be teachers's assistants. Who else has a better understanding of how to be useful and successful in schools than do these young adults that have spent 12 years training for this role?

Sleeping dogs

Sometimes you forget those services that quietly run for months at a time in a corner of the datacenter. I am thinking of using gRPC to replace the communication layer for our micro-services. They currently use a home-grown RPC over HTTP that, while successful and simple to use for new services, is home-grown, non-streaming, and Java specific. One of our earliest micro-services handles over 2B requests per month. Perhaps I should let sleeping dogs lie....