19 June 2008

Damager or Manager?

Since Open Letters to Management seem so flavour du jour, I thought I'd save the following fine rant from oblivion. Names and project details changed to protect the guilty, of course.

DumbTribe is a small startup in the mobile space. They have started seeing some good traction for their product, but are completely chaotic in their "management" of the company. The company is 100% reliant on IT, yet, whilst they're willing to spend an ordleplex of money on fancy new offices, they're astoundingly short of cash when it comes to things like buying another server to act as failover for their single server. Said server is the sole source of income for the business.
What [ManagerX] calls a "blogger tool" is really a form of Content Management system that ends up providing (among other things) Atom and RSS feeds...

[ManagerX] wrote:

> This has certainly taken longer than we initially thought it would. I
> think it was over a few of months back that we were expecting a
> finished blogger tool.

You seem to have forgotten that there were other tasks that YOU prioritised ahead of the "blog" tool -- development of the feed aggregator and the [BigClient] pilot, not to mention system administration tasks more numerous than I can recall, design and coding assistance to my colleague, installation and maintenance of essential technical infrastructure indispensable to organised development (some of which runs on my own servers, at no additional charge to [DumbTribe], simply because that was the fastest way to get the tools in place.) I regret that I am unable to work on more than one thing at a time, but these are rather complex systems dealing with some very erratic, "dirty" data coming-in, and, like most men, I don't multitask well.

> It is of zero use in it's present state(just like the blogger tool you
> created was in it’s 'unskinned' state(to me the level of things that
> fell under 'skinning' was surprising.

First: I warned right from the start that installation of the necessary software was the quick and easy part, but that changing templates -- "skinning" as you call it -- would take at least several days for someone expert in the templating system. I also made it clear that such templating was NOT in my sphere of competence. Evidently nobody was listening to the bits they didn't want to hear.

Second: I will not take responsibility for your inability to produce a coherent specification for the tool. Lack of any technical specification underlies the several misdirections and false starts. A powerpoint does not BEGIN to form a clear technical specification.

Example: I, at one stage, asked you how many "blogs" it is necessary for the system to support. At that time I had in mind to use a particular piece of software as the foundation infrastructure. Your answer to my question was "thousands!" which answer had a significant impact on my technical decision-making, since the tentatively-chosen solution is unsuited to such large volumes. I certainly made it clear that I was unfamiliar with the more suitable tool, and, indeed, the "skinning" -- the writing of custom templates -- turned out to be more problematic than I anticipated. I made a poor guess in the face of inadequate information, a misleading business requirement and insufficient time to evaluate alternative technical solutions.

In the long run it turned out that a "blog" system is just what [DumbTribe] does NOT need. What IS needed is an article/story management system for providing Atom/RSS feed output. This is in the final stages of development.

You seem to have forgotten that using a blog-system was initially mooted merely as a temporary stopgap solution to provide a mechanism for getting article content into feeds; it was never intended to be the "real" solution. What I have been developing is such solution. Assuming you don't sabotage delivery with yet another interruption.

I would have been finished 10 days ago had [my colleague] had enough spare hours to assist me on areas where I do not have the deep knowledge of data structures and code she already has in place, and if the "specification" had not been changed on a number of occasions. Unfortunately other more pressing issues have had to take precedence on her time, with resulting delays on the "blog" project. Furthermore the assistance I have (gladly) given [said colleague] on other projects has also had the effect of taking several days from "blog" development.

> I am sure you understand what this looks like from our end. It just
> feels like you can’t give us what we need.

Yes, I am pretty sure I DO understand. It seems to me that you think one of two things; either:

1. That I am incompetent to produce working software, or

2. That I am dishonest and lie to you about my activities.

I am neither, and find either accusation hurtful, denigrating, and completely unprofessional. Software development, unlike so many other jobs, does not allow one to delude oneself about the limits of ones knowledge or abilities, so the charge of incompetence is easier for me to dismiss when I consider its source; I know exactly how good I am.

Clearly you have absolutely no clue how software development works, nor what is a "normal" pace of production for software systems. The fact that your most-recent experience of software development is exemplified by [colleague], who is prepared, for reasons I cannot comprehend, to endanger her health and wellbeing by working outrageous hours in order to meet ridiculous, unrealistic and arbitrary deadlines does not alter the truth of what I am saying. Nor is it my place to attempt to teach you how software development works; for that sort of work I charge considerably more than you pay me.

The fact that you have badly under-resourced this area of the business is hardly my fault.

> I am so frustrated and feel if I have to explain what we need again I
> will go mad.

Unfortunately software is all about the detail. If you do not tell a developer all the detail that they need, they will guess, and likely guess wrong.

Therefore, where details are lacking I will ask again and again and again. I have on occasion asked users to describe their requirement from beginning to end as many as 8 times in a single day in order to be sure I understood the requirement. Then I asked them a couple more times the next day. I am deeply sorry if my need to know what you want in full detail drives you mad -- I certainly do not wish to cause such mental anguish.

> Please can you confirm that you understand and accept all the
> functionality that we need

No. I do not believe I understand what you need, particularly as you keep changing the requirements. I am not a mind-reader, and you have not produced a comprehensive technical specification.

Example: Your comment on Monday, "Make sure we can direct the 'see original story' link to a site of our choosing (e.g. [ClientA] sites or [ClientB] sites)" This directly CONTRADICTS the requirement laid out in your powerpoint that NO such link be present. What am I supposed to do with that? I can put such a link in (though linking to what, I have no idea, nor do you say -- another missing detail) or I can leave it out (as is done at present.) I am happy to do either, or to make any changes you require, since I understand that business requirements can and do change from time to time. However, changing what is already implemented does unfortunately take some time and cannot simply be done with a wave of a magic wand.

Example: The original requirement was for articles to have a single image attached. Then an image or a URL. Then multiple images or URLS. Then it became "unusable unless we can upload video". Then we didn't need video any longer. Then we were back to one image/URL. Currently I am informed that multiple images/URLS are a non-negotiable requirement. Every time a change such as this is introduced it costs me hours or days in the attempt to comply.

And you wonder why there have been delays.

My current aim is to get the system in place with the capability to upload ONE image or attach ONE URL, either of which shall appear at the tail-end of the feed content (another detail not specified.) It is my belief that it is better to get SOMETHING up and running, even though we all agree that it is NOT the end-product desired. Then we evolve it to the state we desire. After all, that is why it is called "soft"-ware.

> and let me know what *date* we can expect a working tool to start
> testing.

In the absence of a full, clear, comprehensive specification, no such estimate can be made by anybody. In effect you are waving your hands about, saying "build me a Tudor-style house over there" and then demanding that I tell you how long it is going to take without giving me the plans for the house, specifying the building materials, size of the house, number of bedrooms, etc. When you supply me with a proper User Requirement Specification -- for which I will gladly supply a Word template outlining all the necessary information it should contain -- I may consider beginning to make estimates.

> I don’t think it is unreasonable for me to ask you to commit to a
> deadline, the brief is surely clear now after all these emails back
> and forth and the very easily accessed example of blogger.com which I
> asked you to use as a starting point.

On the contrary I think it thoroughly unreasonable to make such demands. The "brief" (whatever THAT is) is non-existent. To point to blogger.com and claim that that is what you want is ridiculous, since blogger.com is totally unsuited to your needs. If it were suitable there would have been no need to build anything else and we would not be having this conversation.

I will remind you that I am contracted to deliver 40 to 80 hours per MONTH of work -- not per week. This was deliberately and clearly negotiated up front. Consequently I do not work full 8-hour days on DumbTribe activities, which, too has its effect on delivery schedules. The fact that I consistently seem to end up working more than the agreed number of hours per month seems to be taken for granted, or alternatively is regarded by you as an attempt to rip you off. On the contrary, it is a good-faith attempt to come some way further than I strictly, am contractually obliged, in an attempt to help DumbTribe meet its goals.

A lack of planning on your part does not constitute a crisis on my part.

In the extremely unlikely event that I elect to extend/renew my contract, should DumbTribe wish to do so, please be assured that I will require a considerable tightening-up of the conditions relating to all of these issues.

13 June 2008

Otherwise Occupied

Spending my time preparing for a course -- "Introduction to Java Programming" -- for a Major Corp in CT next week. It's a course I must have presented dozens of time. Perhaps hundreds. But its been about 5 or 6 years. Actually, I did teach it once a year or two ago... I'm sure the company I did the work for were satisfied. I'm pretty sure my students were mostly happy. I wasn't. The break from teaching had left me rusty. God knows how many tiny but important details I left out by mistake. Did I talk about volatile variables?

In a 5-day "intro" course, there's not much time to fuck about. There's a certain set of Java's features that you simply have to talk about, at least in a simplified and superficial way, simply because your students are guaranteed to trip across them almost immediately they walk out of the classroom.

On the other hand -- let's be honest -- there's a limit to what the human brain can absorb in 5 days!

This time around its a little different. I'm teaching for a single company. The Program Manager's focus seems to be quite squarely on getting her people up-to-speed, and not on any other corporate ass-covering or thinly-veiled-reward-holiday-for-week sort of bullshit. Believe me, I've seen that crap all too often!

I was able to stretch the course schedule to 6 days instead of 5 -- a huge relief and I can take things at a slightly less frantic pace. I frankly don't quite know how I would fit the basics into a 5-day course anymore, given that one has to cover (at least at a shallow level) enums, annotations and generics. I guess that maybe the modules on threading and concurrency would have to fall away, but how the hell do you justify doing that when you absolutely know that your students are -- willingly or un- -- going to confronted with those as soon as you can say "Boo"?

Well, I've been working hard at getting my teach up to scratch, updating the (Day 2) OO module to include enums, and the (Day 4) module on the Collections API to teach generics, etc., etc. Of course my (development) contract customer is a little miffed that I'm not putting in 18 hour days for them... Tough Tittie -- their time is worth about 1/4 what I'll earn from teaching, and they've hardly made any effort to improve the disgusting working conditions!

I think it will be a killer course. I'm certainly aiming to make it so!

Along the way, Jason and I have been having some very entertaining discussion about the deeper, occult details of Java concurrency and system design. Something clicked last night; we both reached the conclusion that it would be fun (and probably educational for all concerned) to get more people in on that conversation, so we've revived my idea-of-many-years-standing -- a workshop/seminar format gathering, aimed at top-level, ten-years-plus-experience OO designers, architects and senior developers: A general framework to guide and channel discussion, aiming for an honest sharing experiences and learning. No fluff!

I facilitated (I would hardly dare claim "taught") one such many years ago, and, in my own humble opinion, it was the best course I ever led! I think that quite a few of the participants would agree with me. Certainly a majority of them kept in touch with me for an otherwise inexcusable number of years afterwards! After all this time, there still exists a huge gap in the professional-education space... beyond a certain level, expert practitioners (and I think it is true of any field, not just software design) have nobody to talk to -- nobody around them who is at a level where they can meaningfully push back on ideas -- nobody to brainstorm with. Or at least, far too few. The Advanced Practitioner Workshops would aim to try and (partially) fill that vacuum.

So maybe its back to teaching again for a while! It could be fun to focus on actually delivering actual deep learning for a change instead of just aiming to be Brilliant Clown For A Week!

03 June 2008

UI Design Encourages Mistakes, Boosts Profits

Having just finished my banking and tax admin for the month, I fire up the bank's online system to fork the money over to the various landsharks, fatcats and leeches.

Bank payment UITo make the various tax payments I first have to select which of my accounts to use for paying.  Then I select who I want to pay.  (For some value of "want".) The system insists that you click the "Search" button to check that you have entered the corect payee account details, but, of course, it only tells you this after you navigate away to the next page, and, when you return to the payment details form, it throws away all the details you have already captured.

I also have to enter a 19-digit reference number and, guess what, if I get it wrong (as I am likely to do with such a long number) it only tells me on the next page, and, again, throws away all the work I have done to fill in the form, forcing me to redo it from scratch.  Including forcing me to redo the payee "Search", despite the fact that my browser has captured the field details perfectly.

The real kicker is that it also ditches the account-number from which I want to make payment, substituting the "default" account (which happens to be my personal account and not the business account)  Of course, the account number is metres away up at the top of the web-page, so I don't notice that I'm making payment from the wrong account.

As a result I pay business taxes out of my personal account.  When I eventually discover my mistake, I have to transfer the money over from my business account to fix things.  And I am going to get hit with the withdrawal fees again.  To add insult to injury, the payment pushes my personal account into overdraft.  Bam!  Overdraft fees!

This UI is so wrong, in so many way, you would think that the bank  would have "inspired" and "motivated" to fix this monstrosity years ago.  Do you wonder why Standard Bank can't be "bothered" to fix their broken user-interface?  Do you wonder why they make incredible profits?

Did you think the two facts are unrelated?
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