Upgrades, upgrades, upgrades everywhere

Posted in: Enterprise Java

We are bombarded with hype about new versions of tools (like IDEs), or new libraries (like a new JDK), or a new software package (like a new object-relational mapper) all day long. But do we even need them? Can’t we basically create what we need to complete these mundane everyday tasks with the tools we already have? Aren’t most of these new releases just a way to sell new software licenses? Even when it comes to opensource software, upgrading to a new release has an inherent cost that needs to be weighed.

Here is a real world example. I am currently invovled in a project that involves upgrading the code base from JDK 1.4 to JDK 5 as part of the scope. My Engineer brain says that this upgrade is not only necessary, but just a plain good idea. There are some new language features in JDK 5 that we can take advantage of, so there is a benefit. But what are the costs? There is definitely a cost involved in doing an audit of the existing code and seeing if there is any code that is incompatible with the new JDK and putting together a plan and effort estimate to address those issues. There is also a optional cost of retrofitting the existing code to take advantage of the new language features (like enums for example). There is a learning curve cost. Perhaps there is a confusion cost for some junior engineers (I am thinking of the autoboxing feature). There is a cascading cost that we now also have to consider upgrading our application server environment to support the JDK 5 code.

So is all of this cost worth it? Will the benefits outweigh the risk and give the company some kind of ROI? I think in most cases, the answer is actually a defiinite yes.

Take the Java 5 upgrade example. Apart from the obvious technical benefits, there are a whole host of trickle down posiitve benefits. For starters, I think many companies underestimate the importance of keeping the geeks happy. Engineers like to use new tools and stay on the cutting edge. They like to be able to read articles in the latest journals and be able to apply the lessons learned straight away. Happy Engineers are good employees. They are more productive. They are more collaborative. They tend to not be looking quite so hard for that next dream job. They tend to be more forgiving of working conditions that might not be ideal. Engineers are creatures who like to learn and keep learning. Working on the same code and project and tools for year after year will be the death of an Engineer and you will end up with just mediocre Coders left on your team as the Engineers will be long gone.

So before you decide on your next upgrade, think about all of the costs involved, there are many hidden ones you may overlook at first glance. But then make sure you also think about all of the benefits (both short and long term). Not every upgrade will make sense, but I bet that a majority of them will.

Better the devil you know

Posted in: Software Development Best Practices, Software Development Team Leadership

It seems nearly everyday a new technology or pattern or paradigm bursts onto the scene. Lately we have seen things like AJAX and Ruby and other web-oriented technologies getting a lot of buzz and plenty of people jumping on the bandwagon. And don’t let me get started on SOA!

But what about the trusted tools we already know. Do we need to be ever pursuing the mastery of these new technologies and applying them to each new project and retroactively applying them to existing (already functioning) projects? What value does that bring? It really only makes sense if the benefits of the new technology outweigh the costs of adoption – these costs can be higher than you think.

To illustrate the point, lets take a team of engineers working for an internal IT shop. They have worked to identify a core set of tools and technologies that they are going to specialize in. They have recruited for those skills and their training dollars have been spent to improve those skills. In addition they have wisely created coding style guides, they have documented their own best practices they have chosen to follow, and best of all they have a continuous integration server set up, that is building and testing their code as fast as they can commit it. All in all, they are quite comfortable in their chosen domain and are working to maintain their skills appropriately.

Now for some reason they are asked to consider technology “X”. This could happen for a bunch of reasons – maybe somebody writing the functional requirements was over zealous and mentioned it in those documents, or a customer has heard of “X” and simply wants to have their project developed with it for no other particular reason except that they have heard of it and want to “contribute” to the process.

Assuming the team is a reasonably mature team with a good mix of senior and junior talent and have a grasp of fundamental engineering principles (quite rare possibly?) then what is the cost of using “X” on the new project instead of their existing tools?

As in most organizations that practice some form of waterfall process, they start by asking the engineering team for a detailed estimate of how long the new project will take to implement. Ignoring the fact that this is a gross error to attempt such an estimate at this stage of the project, the team dutifully works to create the estimate. But now they are faced with the problem that they are not really sure how long it takes to do things with “X”. They are comfortable with their current set of tools and could probably come up with a good estimate if given enough time, but now they are really going to struggle. So they scramble to find some documents, but of course “X” is the new sexy technology with a lot of buzz but no solid documentation or best practices defined. The team’s only true choice (assuming the estimate is needed quickly) is to SWAG it and then likely pad the SWAG to allow for the unfamiliarity of “X”.

So the first issue we have is a wildly unreliable effort estimate due to a lack of experience and confidence with “X”.

Now its time for design. But of course the team has no inherent knowledge of “X” so they get nothing for free in the design phase and have to start from scratch on every detail. So the design phase progresses and the team is able to make some progress, but there are some nagging questions that the team simply cannot find answers for. The team identifies these issues and decides that the only real way to resolve them is to engage some external help from the only people who know “X” – the vendor that just launched it. The vendor is of course more than happy to help, but since they are in great demand (because they are the only ones with any skills in this area), their rates are astronomical. The team reluctantly engages the external resources and embarks on a Proof Of Concept to help finish the design phase.

So the second issue we have is a design phase that takes an incredible amount of time, most of which can be considered more “learning” time than design time and we also have a huge cost outlay for professional services.

Time to implement.

The team is trying to be as agile as possible within the bounds of their company’s tollerance so they are quite commited to unit testing and continuous integration, but pair programming and other practices are still just “crazy talk”. Unfortunately “X” dosen’t have a good toolkit for writing unit tests. The vendor says they are working on it, but it is not on the release calendar yet. Looks like unit testing is out. The team starts implementing, but their preferred IDE dosent support “X” so now they have to run 2 large IDE applications on their (already underpowered) machines at the same time so they can creat the “X” parts, while still having access to the rest of their projects. Additionally, the team has been committed to creating repeatable builds and strict release processes for a while now since some code slipped out to production a while back without being tested or put into there code versioning system. Technology “X” builds fine within the customized IDE the vendor has provided, but there is no support for compiling from other command-line based build tools. So the team assigns resources to write the necessary build tool plugins so that they can appropriately build, tag and release the project.

There is a lot of additional overhead in the implementation phase when using a brand new technology. Over time these overheads reduce on each subsequent project, but the cost on the first few is quite significant. The lack of integrated tools really does hamper the team and the costs incurred because of the extended development time will add up quickly.

Eventually the team finishes implementing, but since no automated unit or integration tests have been running, the quality is questionable. Never the less, the QA team comes along and wants to test the project. But once again, “X” is so new that there are no tools for the QA team either. But even if there were tools available, the QA team would have never used them, so there would be a training and ramp up cost involved. So QA is going to be a manual process. As a result, some of the regression testing is not applied consistently and a lot of bugs slip through the cracks and make it to production.

The cost here is of course an extended QA time line. But possibly more costly is the low quality of the end product.

The project finally goes to production, but of course there is the immediate flurry of bugs and feature enhancement requests that are associated with a 1.0 release.

So the team starts again with the requirements gathering phase. But when it comes to the design and implementation phase, it turns out that in hindsight the code wasn’t really architected as well as it could have been now that the team knows more about “X”. So it is difficult to add the new features because of this. They hack the new features in, and so begins the downward spiral of building more and more features on top of an constantly degrading base. Technical debt increases exponentially.

This cycle of adding features and then fixing the bugs the new features introduced continues for a while. But now 2 of the team on the project are leaving for greener pastures (its surprising they lasted this long really). So the HR person comes by your office and gets a detailed job description from you, which includes all of the skills from the other technologies but now also includes “X”. The HR person not knowing any better says thank you and goes off to do the best keyword matching process they can.

A day or two latter they come back looking frustrated. They are having trouble finding anyone with the mandatory skills you described. Turns out that the two skill sets you must now support are really not common bedfellows and so recruiting is going to be an issue. You really only have one choice – recruit for one skill and spend the money and time to train them on the other.

So here is an ongoing maintenance cost that will be higher than before. Recruiting for skills that don’t usually show up together can be a big issue. If you are lucky enough to find people with the skills, they are likely to be higher priced just because they have that uncommon combination.

So before you choose to adopt the latest sexy technology because all of the weekly e-newsletters you get are mentioning it, think about what it is truly going to cost your team and company. Is it worth it? I propose that in the majority of cases, it is not.