How to win or fail when writing software: A car analogy

Posted: August 20, 2012 in architecture, methodology, Programming
Tags: ,

I realized a common analogy would be a useful tool to help non-engineers and non-developers… why not a car? A modern vehicle is a feat of engineering. Rolling down the highway at 70mph means all sorts of vibrations and harmful oscillations must be damped out to prevent the vehicle from destroying itself. Modern vehicles like my truck actually have a LAN-like network called a CAN(Controller Area Network) that connects everything from the transmission to the radio on a single digital bus. A lot of research and development goes into making a vehicle, so how does that compare to software development? Engineering a vehicle has many phases, the early stages being definition, planning, and experimentation; lets focus in on a few of these.

Definition

The first step of any development process should be definition, or creating a vocabulary for the problem space. The goal is to make sure everyone is talking about the same thing. For instance, in web application development, a user and a customer can be different people!

While designing a car, there is driver, passenger, steering wheel, e-brake, and many more. These terms must be used consistently in the development lifecycle. Ambiguities must be sought and destroyed. For instance, is a driver also a passenger? Or perhaps driver and passengers are both occupants? This critical step is glossed over by Agile methodologists that want to jump right into coding.

A great (and free) resource on how to create a business vocabulary is Domain Driven Design Quickly, by Eric Evans. Eric steps through the process of creating an air traffic control system. Nearly an entire chapter is spent defining the actors, nouns, actions, and relationships in the air traffic control ecosystem before introducing any DDD concepts.

If you’re a non-engineer, you should demand your developers create this vocabulary with you. As you’re painfully aware, communicating what you want with developers is difficult. Creating a vocabulary is a communication channel. Do not skip straight into development or design without it!

Planning

When GM had automotive engineers design the Chevy Volt, it’s unlikely they that put a bunch of sticky notes on a board that said, “A user should be able to steer the car in a particular direction,” then ran off willy-nilly and built out the steering rack from modern hydraulic actuators. Later on, in sprint 25, when they got around to building the engine, they realized that a hydraulic steering rack isn’t ideal for an electric car. Turns out, hydraulics require a constant pressure from a turning pump, and an electric vehicle’s motor isn’t turning at red lights.

They didn’t spend 8 years drawing on paper either, then started building the car. Each time they designed a component of the vehicle, they had to change the plans for the rest of the vehicle. Their design was iterative and if you look at the early prototypes, they look nothing like the final product.

Neither extreme is healthy and unfortunately Agile developers tend to want to get started quickly without thinking of the big picture. Old school waterfall developers like to think that once they develop a plan, they should never ever change it, and also think that they can foresee all the problems that would arise with a particular design.

Software engineers should fall somewhere in the middle. After user stories are somewhat complete, a domain model should be developed that shows object attributes and how they relate to the rest of the domain. After the domain design is created, an architecture plan should then be developed that shows how objects stored, processed, and shuffled around the system. Cross cutting concerns, such as logging, monitoring, and auditing should be introduced at this point.

Unfortunately, there is not easy road for non-engineers here. Your developers should have a technical plan, and they should be able to explain it to you in a way you understand. Each iteration the technical plan and model should be updated and changed. If your developers actually keep the same technical plan between iterations, this should be a red flag: No one gets it right the first time. During development, your engineers will encounter business scenarios and technical problems the team simply didn’t think of. Each iteration should be a refinement, or even a roadmap change if you really just “got it wrong.”

Experimentation

As I said earlier, GM didn’t spend 8 years drawing the design out on paper until they thought they solved every possible problem that popped into their heads. After they defined their vocabulary and came up with a basic design, GM experimented with 25 different battery chemistries in real life using various test platforms to validate their design. Turns out, some manufacturers had no idea that their batteries tended to explode.

Research and development is something you can actually write off on your taxes. R&D should be done at the beginning of every iteration, after design, before development. Creating, measuring, and analyzing the performance, productivity, and maintainability of a particular design will help you weed out expensive mistakes. Developers should concentrate on creating specific goals, and communicate effectively to their peers what they did, why they did it, and what happened. A wiki is a great place to store R&D results and later, when creating the tax writeoffs, accounting can show that actual R&D was done.

This is an area that developers love, and business managers don’t understand. Business managers tend to think playing with shiny development toys is a waste of time when ‘real work’ implementing requirements should be done. (If you work for a company like this, I encourage you to quit your job. These types of factories deserve to be talent starved and are not worth working for)

The trick to making sure that real work is done is timeboxing R&D and setting goals. Specific goals should first be defined, then an appropriately sized timebox is allotted proportionately to the experiment. Specific goals might be evaluating one framework over another, or one design over another. Large R&D boxes should be allocated at the beginning of the project, with small ones at the end. Again, the goal here is to avoid waste. Being proactive rather than reactive, while counterintuitive, will only make your project succeed.

…there are things that we now know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we do not know we don’t know

-Donald Rumsfeld (An odd person to say such a quote)

The ultimate goal of R&D is to discover the things you don’t know that you don’t know. Discovering failures proactively saves you time and makes developers happy.

Conclusion

The difference between “coding” and “engineering” is that engineering wants to be deterministic and predictable. Coders tend to jump straight into things without giving long-term business goals thought, then jump ship when the waters get rough. The solution is to follow all steps of an engineering lifecycle while producing engineering artifacts such as models and plans. Finally, just like a car, models and plans require maintenance, and should be changed and upgraded frequently during the engineering lifecycle.

In the comments, how about some stories where upfront design was skipped? Also, lets hear some stories where management locked engineers into a failing design!

Comments
  1. […] Since we’ve been here at JavaOne, we couldn’t help but notice how many people were here for the first time. For such a massive event, it’s nice to see that: there is no blood and interest in Java. Maybe it’s just Android, or maybe it’s the fact that Java continues to be the platform of choice. Either way, Java is here to stay for a long while, and the huge amount of innovation in the space has been quite evident while here. One of our users and guest bloggers, Jonathan Fisher wrote a pretty great piece recently on writing software. If you are new to coding or you’ve been at it for a while, it’s a good read. Quite often, it’s good to stand back, look at the big picture and make sure you are where you want to be. Jonathan’s article does of good job of that with respect to big picture in software development. The original article was posted on his blog here. […]

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