Category Archives: Software Development

Suits you?

Last night I went to a ‘Product Tank Birmingham’ workshop on ‘Empathy Mapping’. As an exercise, we looked at ‘a product meeting group’ and tried to identify its customers. There was a brief discussion about ‘Product Owners’ (from agile software development) and ‘Product Managers’ who often have a more marketing-led approach. Someone then commented on what ‘Product people’ think. I found I didn’t agree. I reflected on the difference between Product Owners (in this context: me), who care about giving people the product they want and Product Managers, who seem to care more about people’s relationship with the product.

I realised there is a half-way house and I have not, to date, worked in it. My experience in agile software development has been about “custom” development of software products for small teams with a shared view of what they want. I’ve realised for a while that my experience is very different to those Product Owners who have to develop a more generic product to ‘optimise’ across a set of potential or actual customers who have differing needs. There is an extra role there which is far more like my understanding of Product Management. I think the key difference is the need to correctly judge the closeness of fit needed to achieve mass market appeal vs the bespoke tailoring trade that I’ve worked in.

Early in my career, I worked as a programmer on a software package for pharmaceutical companies. We coded to specifications provided by 2 people, a salesman and our technical manager, who both travelled the world visiting customers’ sites. Looking back, I think the salesman was much better at identifying the features that would be valued by most customers. Is marketing USEFUL?

Tooling for Clojure and ClojureScript

[:ChangeLog
(:v0.2
“recognise that ‘resolving dependencies’ and ‘build’ are different operations.”
“Add conversion tools between project.clj & deps.edn”)
(:v0.3
“Remove CLI tools described as a build tool comment.”)]

WARNING
I still have much to learn about ClojureScript tooling but I thought I’d share what (I think) I’ve learned, as I have found it difficult to locate advice for beginners that is still current. This is very incomplete. It may stay that way or I may update it into a living document. I don’t actually have much advice to give and it’s only about the paths that have interested me.

Clojure development requires:

  • a text editor,

and optionally,

  • a REPL, for a dynamic coding environment
  • dependency and build tool(s).

The absolute minimum Clojure environment is a Java .jar file, containing the clojure.main/main entry point, which can be called with the name of your file.clj as a parameter, to read and run your code. I don’t think anyone does that, after they’ve run it once to check it flies.

Based on 2 books, ‘Clojure for the Brave & True’ and ‘Living Clojure’, my chosen tools are emacs for editing, with CIDER connecting a REPL, and Leiningen as dependency & build tool. ‘lein repl’ can also start a REPL.
Boot is available as an alternative to Leiningen but I got the impression it might be a bit too ‘exciting’ for a Clojure noob like me, so I haven’t used it yet.
CIDER provides a client-server link between an editor (I’m learning emacs) and a REPL.

If you use Leiningen, it comes with a free set of assumptions about development directory structure and the expectation that you will create a file, project.cli in the root directory of each ‘project’, containing a :dependencies vector. Then magic happens. If your change the dependencies of your project, the config fairies work out everything else that needs changing.

Next, I wanted to start using ClojureScript (CLJS.) I assumed that the same set of tools would extend. I was wrong to assume.
Unfortunately, CLJS tooling is less standardised and doesn’t seem to have reached such a stable state.

In ‘Living Clojure’, Carin Meier suggests using cljsbuild. It uses the lein-cljsbuild plugin and the command:

lein cljsbuild auto

to start a process which automatically re-compiles whenever a change is saved to the cljs source file. If the generated JavaScript is open in a browser, then the change will be shown in the browser window. This is enough to get you going. It is my current state.

I’ve read that there are other tools such as Figwheel, now transitioning to ‘Figwheel Main’ which hot-load the transcribed code into the browser as you change it.
There is a lein-figwheel as well as a lein-cljsbuild, which at least sounds like a drop-in replacement. I suspect it isn’t that simple.

There are several REPLs, though there seems to be some standardisation around nrepl.
It was part of the Clojure project but now has its own nrepl/nrepl repository on Github. It is used by Clojure, ‘lein repl’ and by CIDER.

There is something called Piggieback which adds CLJS support to NREPL. There is a CIDER Piggieback and an NREPL Piggieback. I have NO IDEA! (yet.)
shadow-cljs exists. Sorry, that’s all I have there too.

At this point in my confusion, a dependency issue killed my tool-chain.
I think one of the config fairies was off sick that day. The fix was a re-install of an emacs module. This forced me to explore possible reasons. I discovered the Clojure ‘Getting Started’ page had changed (or I’d never read it.)
https://clojure.org/guides/getting_started

There are also (now?) ‘Deps and the CLI Tools’ https://clojure.org/guides/deps_and_cli and https://clojure.org/reference/deps_and_cli

I think these are new and I believe they are intended to be the beginners’ entry point into Clojure development, before you dive into the more complex tools. There are CLI commands: ‘clojure’ and a wrapper that provides line-editing, ‘clj’
and a file called ‘deps.edn’ which specifies the dependencies, much as ‘projects.clj’ :depencies vector does for Leiningen but with a different syntax.

I’m less clear if these are also intended as new tools for experts, to be used by ‘higher order’ tools like Leiningen and Figwheel, or whether they will be adopted by those tools.

[ On the day I wrote this, I had a tip from didibus on clojureverse.org that there are plugins for Leiningen and Boot to use an existing deps.edn,

so perhaps this is the coming future standard for specifying & resolving dependencies, while lein and boot continue to provide additional build capabilities. deps.edn refers to Maven. I discovered elsewhere that Maven references existed but were hidden away inside Leiningen. It looks like I need to learn a little about Apache Maven. I didn’t come to Closure via Java but I can see the advantages to Java practitioners of using their standard build tool. I may need to drop down into Java one day, so I guess I may as well learn about Java-land now.

Also via: https://clojureverse.org/t/has-anyone-written-a-tool-to-spit-out-a-deps-edn-from-a-project-clj/2086, there is a https://github.com/hagmonk/depify, which ‘goes the other way’, trying it’s best to convert a project.clj to a deps.edn. Hopefully that would be a ‘one-off’? ]

I chose the Clojure language for its simplicity. The tooling journey has been longer than I expected, so I hope this information cuts some corners for you.

[ Please let me know if I’m wrong about any of this or if there are better, current documents that I should read. ]

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?

The functional Pi Racket

I have a love/hate relationship with Clojure tooling.

I wanted to learn functional programming (FP) in a Lisp because:
1. There’s a thing I want to do and it felt like the right way to do it
N.B. ‘right’ is not always ‘easiest’
2. Lisp once beat me up quite badly. I’m bigger now. I wanted to go back and punch it on the nose
3. I won’t really ‘get’ immutability until I do some, with no option to cheat.
3. I find homoiconic functional programming conceptually elegant…

…then you try using the Clojure development environment and discover there isn’t one that everyone agrees on and the one used by expert requires you to learn a new language of keyboard hieroglyphs first.

I’ve done just enough Lisping to think that we are being as irresponsible teaching kids only object oriented programming as the BBC were in teaching them BASIC, but it would be actual child abuse to introduce them to FP via emacs and a language dependent on the underlying Object-Oriented Java Virtual Machine for it’s connection to libraries & reality.

This morning I realised I hadn’t plugged my Raspberry Pi in for ages. If you were a child who started coding with Scratch and a few drum loops on Sonic Pi then maybe a bit of the Squeak Smalltalk (Scratch is written in Squeak) or Python in a nice IDE, imagine being handed the ancient emacs scrolls and sent into a corner for a week to learn spells, before you could even start to learn to function. FP is going to initially make soup of your flabby imperative, ‘place is state’-damaged brain anyway. There is no need to make it harder. Teaching languages don’t have to train you for a job, only to think.

If we are going to raise functional children, we need a gentle slope up to Clojure. Clojure is probably the best practical language but it’s too hard. I’ve seen a few people suggest starting with Racket, which is a version of the Scheme Lisp dialect. This morning I poured DrRacket onto my Pi.

There was a minor hiccup with DrRacket not knowing what language I wanted it to read. Kids would need to be protected from that. I wanted “Determine language from source”, not to tell it I was a ‘beginning student’.

Because DrRacket is multi-lingual, the first line of the source code tells it what language to read:
#lang racket

You type in code then press the run button. This is not your grandfathers emacs REPL. Children should have no natural fear of their (parens). Ooh look, cats!

#lang racket

(define (extract str)
(substring str 4 8))

(extract “the cats out of the bag”)

;;-> “cats”

Reality has Levels

It’s been a while since I blogged. I’ve been busy.

A major theme emerging from ‘writing my book’ is that we humans are very bad at confusing our models of reality with the reality we are modelling.

I started planning with the ‘Freemind mind-mapping tool for hierarchical brains’ before finding my own creative process had a network architecture and discovering ‘concept mapping’ which uses graphs to represent concepts and propositions. I saw that graphs were what I needed and decided to experiment with building my own software tools from bits I had lying around.

I didn’t have a current programming language, so I set out to learn Clojure. Being a Lisp, Clojure uses tree-structures internally to represent lists and extends the idea to abstractions such as collections but the only native data structures available to me appeared to be 1-dimensional.  I confidently expected to be able to find ways to extend this to 3 or more dimensional graphs but despite much reading and learning lots of other things, I’d failed to find what I was looking for. I had in mind the kind of structures you can build with pointers, in languages like ‘C’. There are graph libraries but I was too new to Clojure to believe my first serious program needed to be dependent on language extensions, when I haven’t securely grasped the basics.

This morning, I think I ‘got it’. I am trying to build a computational model of my graphical view of a mathematical idea which models a cognitive model of reality. There was always scope for confusion. Graphs aren’t really a picture, they are a set of 1-dimensional connections and potentially another set of potential views of those connections, constructed for a particular purpose. I was trying to build a data structure of a view of a graph, not the graph itself and that was a really bad idea. At least I didn’t get software confused with ‘actual’ reality, so there’s still hope for me.

Yesterday, I used Clojure/Leiningen’s in-built Test-Driven Development tool for the first time. It looks great. The functional model makes TDD simple.

Things I used to be Wrong about – Part 1

I get very annoyed about politicians being held to account for admitting they were wrong, rather than forcefully challenged when they were wrong in the first place. Unless they lied, if someone was wrong and admits it, they should be congratulated. They have grown as a human being.

I am about to do something very similar. I’m going to start confessing some wrong things I used to think, that the world has come to agree with me about. I feel I should congratulate you all.

You can’t design a Database without knowing how it will be used

I was taught at university that you could create a single abstract data model of an organisation’s data. “The word database has no plural”, I was told. I tried to create a model of all street furniture (signs and lighting) in Staffordshire, in my second job. I couldn’t do it. I concluded that it was impossible to know what was entities and what was attributes. I now know this is because models are always created for a purpose. If you aren’t yet aware of that purpose, you can’t design for it. My suspicion was confirmed in a talk at Wolverhampton University by Michael ‘JSD’ Jackson. The revelation seemed a big shock to the large team from the Inland Revenue. I guess they had made unconscious assumptions about likely processes.

Relations don’t understand time

(They would probably say the same about me.) A transaction acting across multiple tables is assumed to be instantaneous. This worried me. A complex calculation requiring reads could not be guaranteed to be consistent unless all accessed tables are locked against writes, throughout the transaction. Jackson also confirmed that the Relational Model has no concept of time. A dirty fix is data warehousing which achieves consistency without locking by the trade-off of guaranteeing the data is old.

The Object Model doesn’t generalise

I’d stopped developing software by the time I heard about the Object Oriented Programming paradigm. I could see a lot of sense in OOP for simulating real-world objects. Software could be designed to be more modular when the data structures representing the state of a real-world object and the code which handled state-change were kept in a black box with a sign on that said “Beware of the leopard”. I couldn’t grasp how people filled the space between the objects with imaginary software objects that followed the same restrictions, or why they needed to.

A new wave of Functional Programming has introduced immutable data structures. I have recently learned through Clojure author Rich Hickey’s videos that reflecting state-change by mutating the value of variables is now a sin punishable by a career in Java programming. Functional Programmers have apparently always agreed with me that not all data structures belong in an object

There are others I’m still waiting for everyone to catch up on:

The Writable Web is a bad idea

The Web wasn’t designed for this isn’t very good at it. Throwing complexity bombs at an over-simplified model rarely helps.

Rich Hickey’s Datomic doesn’t appear to have fixed my entity:attribute issue

Maybe that one is impossible.

Agility vs Momentum

[ This post is aimed at readers with at least basic understanding of agile product development. It doesn’t explain some of the concepts discussed.]

We often talk of software development as movement across a difficult terrain, to a destination. Organisational change projects are seen as a lightening attack on an organisation, though in reality, have historically proved much slower than the speed of light. Large projects often force through regime change for ‘a leader’. Conventionally, this leader has been unlikely to travel with the team. Someone needs to “hold the fort”. There may be casualties due to friendly firings.

Project Managers make ‘plans’ of a proposed ‘change journey’ from one system state to another, between points in ‘change space’, via the straightest line possible, whilst ignoring the passage of time which makes change possible. Time is seen as distance and its corollary, cost. The language of projects is “setting-off”, “pushing on past obstacles” and “blockers” such as “difficult customers”, along a fixed route, “applying pressure” to “overcome resistance”. A project team is an army on the march, smashing their way through to a target, hoping it hasn’t been moved. Someone must pay for the “boots on the ground” and their travel costs. This mind-set leads to managers who perceives a need to “build momentum” to avoid “getting bogged down”.

Now let us think about the physics:

  •  momentum = mass x velocity, conventionally abbreviated to p = mv.
    At this point it may also be worth pointing out Newton’s Second Law of Motion:
  • force = mass x acceleration, or F = ma
    (Interpretted by Project Managers as “if it gets stuck, whack it hard with something heavy.”)

What about “agile software developments”? There is a broad range of opinion on precisely what those words mean but there is much greater consensus on what agility isn’t.

People outside the field are frequently bemused by the words chosen as Agile jargon, particularly in the Scrum framework:
A Scrum is not held only when a product development is stuck in the mud.
A Scrum Master doesn’t tell people what to do.
Sprints are conducted at a sustainable pace.
Agility is not the same as speed. Arguably, in agile environments, speed isn’t the same thing as velocity either.

Many teams measure velocity, a crude metric of progress, only useful to enable estimation of how much work should be scheduled for the next iteration, often guessed in ‘story-points’, representing relative ‘size’ but in agile environments, everything is optional and subject to change, including the length of the journey.

If agility isn’t speed, what is it? It is lots of things but the one that concerns us here is the ability to change direction quickly, when necessary. Agile teams set off in a direction, possibly with a destination in mind but aware that it might change. If the journey throws up unexpected new knowledge, the customer may wish to use the travelling time to reach a destination now considered more valuable. The route is not one straight line but a sequence of lines. It could end anywhere in change-space, including where it started (either through failing fast or the value of the journey being exploration rather than transportation.) Velocity is therefore current progress along a potentially windy road of variable length, not average speed through change-space to a destination. An agile development is really an experiment to test a series of hypotheses about an organisational value proposition, not a journey. Agile’s greatest cost savings come from ‘wrong work not done’.

Agility is lightweight, particularly on up-front planning. Agile teams are small and aim to carry everything they need to get the job done. This enables them to set off sooner, at a sensible pace and, if they are going to fail, to fail fast, at low cost. Agility delivers value as soon as possible and it front-loads value. If we measured velocity in terms of value instead of distance, agile projects would be seen to decelerate until they stop. If you are light, immovable objects can be avoided rather than smashed through. Agile teams neither need nor want momentum, in case they decide to turn fast.

Women’s Day Intuition

The first thing I did yesterday, on International Women’s Day 2017, was retweet a picture of Margaret Hamilton, allegedly the first person in the world to have the job title ‘Software Engineer’. The tweet claimed the pile of printout she was standing beside, as tall as her, was all the tweets asking “Why isn’t there an International Men’s Day?” (There is. It’s November 19th, the first day of snowflake season.) The listings were actually the source code which her team wrote to make the Apollo moon mission possible. She was the first virtual woman on the Moon.

I followed up with a link to a graph showing the disastrous decline of women working in software development since 1985, by way of an explanation of why equal opportunities aren’t yet a done deal. I immediately received a reply from a man, saying there had been plenty of advances in computer hardware and software since 1985, so perhaps that wasn’t a coincidence. This post is dedicated to him.

I believe that the decade 1975 – 1985, when the number of women in computing was still growing fast, was the most productive since the first, starting in the late 1830s, when Dame Ada Lovelace made up precisely 50% of the computer software workforce worldwide. It also happens to approximately coincide with the first time I encountered computing, in about 1974 and stopped writing software in about 1986.

1975 – 1985:
As I entered: Punched cards then a teletype, connected to a 24-bit ICL 1900-series mainframe via 300 Baud accoustic coupler and phone line. A trendy new teaching language called BASIC, complete with GOTOs.

As I left: Terminals containing a ‘microprocessor’, screen addressable via ANSI escape sequences or bit-mapped graphics terminals, connected to 32-bit super-minis, enabling ‘design’. I used a programming language-agnostic environment with a standard run-time library and a symbolic debugger. BBC Micros were in schools. The X windowing system was about to standardise graphics. Unix and ‘C’ were breaking out of the universities along with Free and Open culture, functional and declarative programming and AI. The danger of the limits of physics and the need for parallelism loomed out of the mist.

So, what was this remarkable progress in the 30 years from 1986 to 2016?

Good:

Parallel processing research provided Communicating Sequential Processes and the Inmos Transputer.
Declarative, non-functional languages that led to ‘expert systems’. Lower expectations got AI moving.
Functional languages got immutable data.
Scripting languages like Python & Ruby for Rails, leading to the death of BASIC in schools.
Wider access to the Internet.
The read-only Web.
The idea of social media.
Lean and agile thinking. The decline of the software project religion.
The GNU GPL and Linux.
Open, distributed platforms like git, free from service monopolies.
The Raspberry Pi and computer science in schools

Only looked good:

The rise of PCs to under-cut Unix workstations and break the Data Processing department control. Microsoft took control instead.
Reduced Instruction Set Computers were invented, providing us with a free 30 year window to work out the problem of parallelism but meaning we didn’t bother.
In 1980, Alan Kay had invented Smalltalk and the Object Oriented paradigm of computing, allowing complex real-world objects to be simulated and everything else to be modelled as though it was a simulation of objects, even if you had to invent them. Smalltalk did no great harm but in 1983 Bjarne Stroustrup left the lab door open and C++ escaped into the wild. By 1985, objects had become uncontrollable. They were EVERYWHERE.
Software Engineering. Because writing software is exactly like building a house, despite the lack of gravity.
Java, a mutant C++, forms the largely unrelated brand-hybrid JavaScript.
Microsoft re-invents DEC’s VMS and Sun’s Java, as 32-bit Windows NT, .NET and C# then destroys all the evidence.
The reality of social media.
The writeable Web.
Multi-core processors for speed (don’t panic, functions can save us.)

Why did women stop seeing computing as a sensible career choice in 1985 when “mine is bigger than yours” PCs arrived and reconsider when everyone at school uses the same Raspberry Pi and multi-tasking is becoming important again? Probably that famous ‘female intuition’. They can see the world of computing needs real functioning humans again.

Change Time

After some time trying to think about almost nothing, the last 24 hours have been an alarm call. As others come out of hibernation too, they post interesting stuff and Radio 4 provoked me with a discussion on facts and truth. Now Marc Cooper is at it, with difficult  links about computation and I’m all on Edge https://www.edge.org/response-detail/26733
Before I read about “discrete tensor networks”, I need to write down my own ideas about time, so I will know in the future what I thought, before my mind was changed.

I am ill-equipped for this task, having only 1 term of university maths to my name so I intend to talk in vague, abstract terms that are hard to argue with.

Much of physics is very dependent on Time, like almost all of computer science and business management theory. You can’t have change without time, it seems. Einstein talked about space-time, mostly in the language of mathematics. I can just about order a beer in math(s) but I can’t hold a whole conversation. I know what the first 3 dimensions are: left-right, up-down and back-forward. My personal model of the 4th dimension is that same space in continuous state-change through time. There are a few things I’m not happy about:

  • There is no evidence that time is either continuous or constant.
  • We only have evidence of time being a one-way dimension.
  • What the heck does ‘continous state-change’ mean? Is state a particle or a wave? Make your mind up, physics!
  • There’s that troubling many-worlds interpretation of the universal ‘WAVE’function (which I don’t understand either) which says that everything that might have happened did, in other universes. I don’t like this. Yes, that’s my entire justification – I don’t like the conclusion of a thought process I don’t even understand. It doesn’t feel right.

I’ve been learning about the functional programming language Clojure which does not ‘mutate (change) state’. It doesn’t have ‘variables’ like the more common imperative languages such as FORTRAN, BASIC, C, Java or Python. In Clojure, data flows through functions and is transformed from one form to another on the way. It is basically magic. In a pure functional program, no state is changed. State-change is called a “side-effect”. Sadly, side-effects are required to make a program do anything useful in the real world. Arguably, the purest magic is encapsulated in the world of mathematics and the physical world is a messy place that breaks things.

Clojure models time. It does not model the real world by replacing the current value in a variable and throwing the old value away but by chaining a new value onto the end of a list of all previous values.

Now let us extend this idea ‘slightly’ in a small thought-experiment, to a 3-D network of every particle state in the universe.

Space-time now has 2 regions:

  1. The past – all historic states of those particles as a theoretical chain of events
  2. The future – all possible future states of the universe; effectively an infinity of all possible future universes that could exist, starting from now.

Which brings us to what I mean by ‘now’ – a moving wave at the interface between the past and the future, annihilating possible future universes. Time becomes a consequence of the computation of the next set of states and the reason for it being a one-way street becomes obvious: the universe burned its bridges. Unless the universe kept a list, or we do, the past has gone. Time doesn’t need to be constant in different parts of the universe, unless the universe state ticks are synchronous but it seems likely to be resistant to discontinuities in the moving surface. I imagine a fishing net, pulled by current events.

It’s just an idea. Maybe you can’t have Time without change.

[ Please tell me if this isn’t an original idea, as I’m not very well read.
I made it up myself but I’m probably not the first. ]