Category Archives: Information Revolution

A new target for Software Developers: Sensei.

I originally wrote this as an answer to a question on Quora but I’m increasingly concerned at the cost of higher education for young people from families that are not wealthy. I had parents who would have sacrificed anything for my education but I had clever friends who were not so fortunate. The system is bleeding talent into dead-end jobs. Below, I consider other models of training as I hope it might start a conversation in the technology community and the political infrastructure that trickles money down into it.

Through learning about ‘Agile’ software development, I became interested in related ‘Lean’ thinking. It borrows from Japanese cultural ideas and the way the martial arts are taught. I think the idea is that first you do, then you learn and finally you understand (as illustrated by the film ‘Karate Kid’.) That requires a ‘master’ or ‘Sensei’ to guide and react to what s/he sees about each individual’s current practice. It seems a good model for programming too. There may be times when doing is easier if you gain some understanding before you ‘do’ and advice and assistance with problem solving could be part of this. I’m not alone in thinking this way, as I see phrases like “kata” and “koans” appearing around software development.

I’ve also seen several analogies to woodworking craft which suggests that a master-apprentice relationship might be appropriate. There is even a ‘Software Craftsmanship’ movement. This could work as well in agile software development teams, as it did for weavers of mediaeval tapestries.

A female Scrum Master friend assures me that the word “master” is not gendered in either of these contexts. Of course, not all great individual crafts people make good teachers but teams with the best teachers would start to attract the best apprentices.

If any good programmers aren’t sure about spending their valuable developer’s time teaching, I recommend the “fable in novella form” Jonathan Livingston Seagull, written by Richard Bach, about a young seagull that wants to excel at flying.

Small software companies ‘have a lot on’ but how much would they need to be paid to take on an apprentice in their development teams, perhaps with weekly day-release to a local training organisation? I’d expect a sliding scale to employment as they became productive or were rejected back into the cold, hard world if they weren’t making the grade.

Model Software

Today, I had to stop myself writing “solving the problem” about developing software. Why do we say that? Why do software people call any bounded area of reality “the problem domain”?

My change of mind has been fermenting for a while, due to modelling business processes, learning about incremental, agile software development and more recently writing and learning functional programming. In the shower this morning, I finally concluded that I think software is primarily a modelling medium. We solve problems using the models we build.

Wanting to create another first-person shooter game or to model the fluids in a thermo-nuclear reactor are challenges, not problems. We build models of systems we have defined and the systems don’t even have to be real. I read a couple of days ago that a famous modern philosopher said our world is made of both reality and our ideas. Assuming the computer hardware is real, the software can model either reality or our imagination; our chosen narrative.

‘Digital’ gets everyone working with software models instead of reality. Once everyone lives inside the shared model, when does it become our reality?

Or when did it?

I’m through the Digital looking-glass

I think I’ve ‘got’ for the first time what the “DIGITAL” thing is.

I’ve been searching to find the meaning of the phrase “digital transformation”, which I assumed encompassed a change from ‘analogue’ to ‘digital’. I finally understood yesterday – that’s not what it’s really about.

The transformation happened slowly to me, over most of my life. My first programming was planned on paper then character boxes were filled-in with a graphite pencil on cards. They were shipped by road to a punch machine that punched the binary codes onto the cards which were then were fed into a computer by operators I never saw. A week later I got some printout back, usually telling me what had gone wrong.

Soon after arriving at university, I had access to GEORGE 3’s Multiple On-line Programming system: a terminal. I used a line editor to create a card-image file which was stored on disk then later submitted to the batch queue. Undergraduates were only allocated space to store one program at a time. There wasn’t room to keep things permanently on-line because of the price of disk space. Some of the research students still walked around with boxes of cards. It was easy to copy a card-stack on one of the card punches and keep it in a safe place. They could probably store more code that way.

I’ve been mostly digital since the 1970s but I saw my digital world as a binary virtualisation of a physical medium. I moved very slowly from dependence on physical to online-only artifacts which had always been representations of digital data.

I realised yesterday that most people have only recently moved their business objects: files, documents, photographs, drawings, 3D-models and social network connection information into the digital realm – from atoms to bits. That frees those objects from their bindings at a single, fixed physical location, leaving them to roam in more than the 3 dimensions of our visualisable reality. This paradigm shift has suddenly hit many without warning, like a revolution, whereas I experienced it as a series of small increments. I’ve been greatly underestimating how disorienting it has been for other industries to reluctantly release their tight grip on physical objects and how worrying it may be for those still facing the cultural adjustment.

I remembered the other day that I used to jump off a shed roof at 5 years old. I could see the spot where I would land. I can’t imagine throwing myself out of a plane into free-fall and that’s why there are ‘digital coaches’. My empathy has been retrieved from an old backup tape. I’m sorry if my lack of understanding ever inconvenienced anyone.

A Functional Mindset

When I started learning Clojure, I thought I knew what functional programming was but I’ve learned that the functional paradigm is now more than I expected.

Everyone agrees that it’s a computational model based on evaluation of mathematical functions, which return values. This is generally contrasted with imperative programming languages such as FORTRAN, C, JavaScript or Python, which are also procedural and some of which are object-oriented but may make functional coding possible, in a hybrid style. I wouldn’t recommend learning functional concepts in a language that gives you short-cuts to stray back  to more familiar territory.

Clojure is a member of the Lisp family, first specified in 1958. The unusual feature of Lisps is their homoiconicity – code and data are the same thing. Learning Clojure has informed my thinking about business process change.

Some modern, functional languages such as Clojure use immutable data whenever possible, to eliminate side-effects. This allows better use of multi-core processors but requires a complete change in thinking, as well as programming style. ‘Variables’ are replaced by fixed ‘values’, so loops have to be replaced by recursive functions. New data can be created but it doesn’t replace old data. Yesterday’s “today’s date” isn’t automatically wiped when we decide today has happened.

Objects with their methods and local data were designed for simulating the current state of real-world objects by changing (mutating) object data state. The object model, like relational databases, has no inbuilt representation of time. Functional programming splits these objects back into separate functions and data structures and because values can’t change, they may be transformed by flowing through networks of functions, some recursive, to keep doing something until a condition is satisfied. Eventually, code must have a side effect, to tell us the answer.

Rather than computation being a conditional to-do list with data being moved between boxes, it becomes a flow of data through a network of ‘computing machines’; and the data and machines can be transformed into each other.

I hear that map, reduce & filter data transformation functions will change my world again.

Moderately Grouped

One of the rules I try to live my life by is: “Small pieces, loosely joined”

Then this happened.

http://phys.org/news/2015-06-social-networks-group-boundaries-ideas.html

I don’t know who I am any more. I already feared de-selection from the cult of Unix and now this.

Then I realised that although I favour hi-fi separates, I don’t  design my own amplifiers and hand-wire the components. I don’t compile Linux from source every time. I’m not a fanatic.

Popular Scrum tweaks

Contentious, I know, but the Scrum framework for agile software development may not be completely perfect yet. That’s fine because because we can improve on it, like science.
A few problems that often come to light are:

  • Very few people agree what Agile is. I’m one of them.
  • Few people agree exactly what Scrum is (despite it being defined by a very short document, The Scrum Guide.) “Like chess, Scrum is very simple.”
  • There is a lot of common agile practice that is used by Scrummers and taught on courses but isn’t part of Scrum.
  • Many people think they are ‘doing’ agile and/or Scrum but may not be. Who knows? The rules are: there are no rules.

In my last post I mentioned pragmatic changes to Scrum. Below are some that seem common and I’m not sure are always wrong. I think they come from the fact that Scrum makes assumptions about the mere humans who fill the Scrum roles that are, to be polite, idealistic:

  • The use of Business Analysts to supplement the Product Owner’s knowledge and skills and the developers ability to listen and ask the right questions. Developers are not all good at dealing with people or at business analysis. The people who are, are not all good at development. Part-people who add up to a whole role may be the best a team can realistically achieve.
  • The use of stakeholders who know areas of business better than the Product Owner (PO.) Product Owners need to be super-human: trusted by whoever is paying, knowledgeable, decisive, able to write good stories and constantly available. The PO is there to make dangerous business decisions, so the Team don’t have to. If they make bad decisions, it isn’t the Team’s fault. They are allowed to have help. By this logic, any BA who helps the BA should be outside the Development Team because business process is not “IT”. I have not yet seen any organisation with a business process department. I think we will soon. Process design is often considered a management responsibility but very few managers have appropriate experience.
  • The use of technical/engineering/architecture specialists to supplement the skills of the Development Team. One small team is assumed to consist of generalising specialists with knowledge of everything that will be necessary to complete the project, though you don’t know what that is yet, so ‘be lucky’
  • Network communicators/organisational specialists. Scrum assumes autonomous teams but at scale, organisational efficiency considerations start to apply pressure to centralise scarce and expensive skills. Co-ordination of networked teams becomes necessary. Traditionally, managers are likely to have filled similar roles but in future there may be more collaboration than typical managers have experienced while fighting for influence and resources inside a hierarchical organisation.

Agile as something you do

I have spent the last 2 evenings in Birmingham listening to talks by @diaryofscrum at @ScrumUK and @stevejpitchford at @bcsbrum about management and ‘Agile’ software development, which brought some of my own concerns into sharper focus, particularly about the Scrum framework. In many discussions with practitioners over the last couple of years, I’ve heard the following phrases:

“Agile is an adjective not a verb”
“Agile isn’t something you do, it’s something you are”
“Agile is a philosophy not a method”
“Agile isn’t a process”

Someone who ISN’T agile has to start somewhere. They typically need to DO something, to write software. Would we claim,”Scientific” is an adjective not a method? We wouldn’t, because it is both. The scientific method is a function which delivers what we call “scientific knowledge” as its value. If it didn’t, it would be pointless.

Managers are generally trying to get things done. Each team must agree its own Agile Operating Model (thanks to BCS’s ‘Agile Foundations’ book for that useful phrase.) What came out of the last couple of evenings was pragmatic application of philosophy. Many organisations take Scrum as a starting point, without realizing that “framework” is to be taken very literally. Scrum doesn’t paint the complete picture. It is (part of) a process to organize work. It says almost nothing about how to do that work. It is an alternative to writing a project plan “up-front”, when you know least.

An Agile Operating Model is a process which delivers a value, so it is a function. My scientific hypothesis is that it delivers valuable business function change, sometimes in the form of software. It is itself a business function. Agility has business functions as first class citizens. It doesn’t meet general expectations of a process because it can recursively self-modify. That doesn’t mean it isn’t one. As the kids say, “get you an agile function that can do both”.