What is Software Engineering in the 21st Century?


In February of 2001, 17 people met in Colorado to discuss how to move the Software Engineering discipline forward.  They were frustrated that their more lightweight, adaptive methods were not being tried while watching heavier methodologies continue to fail with over budget and over schedule projects.  They correctly surmised that a revolution would be needed to make the Software Engineering community hear and, more importantly, implement their solutions.

They could have left in disagreement and disarray over non-essential questions like: What’s better, Scrum or Feature Driven Development?  Fortunately for the Software Engineering field, they didn’t.  They wrote a Manifesto which is shown below:

We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it.
Through this work we have come to value:

Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan

That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more.

Their Manifesto worked beyond their wildest dreams!  Like any revolution, there was resistance, especially in the establishment.  But after 10 years, it was clear that they had won the war.  The establishment could not resist any more and all discussions on Software Engineering now have to include Agile practices.

After the American Revolution, the American founding fathers were faced with a whole new set of problems that were in many respects bigger and more complex than winning the revolution in the first place.  The Agile Revolution finds itself today in a similar situation.  Questions such as, “What is the best way to scale Agile to an entire Enterprise?” are what need to be answered today.  The Agile movement would be wise to not throw away everything that came before it in Software Engineering, but rather mix and modify it to set our discipline on a new course.  This is what the Americans did when they took the King concept, mixed it with democracy, and came up with the modern presidency.  I’m looking forward to the next 10 years to see where this mixture leads us!

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Why is Healthcare.gov not working? (from a technical perspective)


Most web applications have a architecture like the below.  There are of course nuances and exceptions, but for the layperson, this will suffice.

The “Presentation Layer” handles all the graphical packaging of content in web pages presented back to the user.  This article in the Atlantic has a good description of the Presentation Layer for Healthcare.gov.  This is definitely NOT the problem as pages of just content come back very fast without problems.  Clicking 90% of the links in the Healthcare.gov sitemap come back in under a second.  BUT, a web application with just a good Presentation Layer is like a book with a nice cover design and nice pictures inside; no one will care if the text is not good.  The rest of the Healthcare.gov web application is the text and is seems to be horribly bad at the moment.

The next part of the system is the “Business Logic” layer.  In Healthcare.gov this is called the “Data Hub” and is described here.  There is a tremendous amount of coordination between different web services (Social Security Administration, IRS, Insurers, etc.) to make sure you get the insurance you’re supposed to.  Unfortunately, this is where the software engineers for Healthcare.gov have the least control over what happens, because they are dependent on these other services to relay data back to them quickly.

Finally, we have the “Data Access Layer” and “Data Source”.  This is where all the data is stored (e.g. your name, address, age, etc.).  The data that Healthcare.gov has to collect and then connect to other relevant pieces is tremendously complex and it is very possible that many of the problems lie here as well.  Fortunately, this is one place where you can “throw more servers at the problem” to alleviate performance problems somewhat.

While the answer to the question why healthcare.gov is failing is not entirely clear, I hope you have gained an appreciation for the complexity of this very important web application and how one problem in any of it parts can make the whole application slow down.  Unfortunately, I predict that many of these problems will not be fixed quickly because of their logical complexity.  Throwing servers at the system will only alleviate a small percentage of the problems and ultimately does not substitute for quality software.  Throwing more people at this problem violates one of the few laws we have in Software Engineering — “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later”.

So, What is Requirements Work?


Interesting article from the Spring Issue of IEEE Software entitled, “So, What is Requirements Work?”.  The author, an obvious expert in the field, goes on to conclude that Requirements Work is basically helping people help themselves.  I like this definition.  As a Requirements Analyst, you cannot know every single domain you will be parachuted into as your career progresses.  No one can be an expert in Medicine, Law, Accounting, Botany, etc.  Instead, “smart” Requirements Analysts depend on the domain experts that already exist to guide them to the problems that need to be solved.  Then, they are able to get out of domain experts/stakeholders the specifications of those problems.  Finally, the requirements analyst can specify those requirements in formats that are decipherable by multiple stakeholders (developers, customers, etc.).

I’m not sure I agree that Requirements Work involves coming up with solutions though.  It seems to violate some central core of Requirements that were taught to me, “Concentrate on the problem, not the solution.”  But, I’ll admit as a former software developer, I can’t help to think of solutions when I hear problems.  I have to be judicious, though, about when I bring them up.

Check the article out yourself when you get the chance!

Software Requirements Evolution


Software Requirements are evolving to keep up with users’ demanding appetite for applications. Simple “The system shall” statements have grown into User Stories and Storyboards. It used to be that talking about the GUI was verboten when gathering requirements. We software practitioners knew how to use the magic of creating software and the lowly users just needed to tell us what they needed and we would pull the software solution out of our proverbial hat. Not so anymore. Practically everyone has a smart phone or smart device (even my 3 year old) and the word “app” is universal thanks to the iPhone. Can I really gather requirements from my 3 year old for her new drawing app using Use Cases? Obviously no. Granted,the use cases may be used by the software developers but my 3 year old can’t even read for Christ’s sake.

Most users now know if they want a mobile app, web app, or desktop app. They know the differences and strengths of using these from years of experience. That’s why I think a more agile way of gathering requirements where quick prototypes and storyboards are used to gather feedback are meeting users’ requirements much better. If it’s a web app, well you have obviously constrained the application down to what HTML, JavaScript, CSS, etc. can do. So why not make a quick prototype of that? If they want an iPhone app, well there’s a pretty set style of doing that set by Apple. Obviously, we software professionals still have a part to play by asking, “Are you sure you won’t want to eventually have an app on the Android too?”. This leads to conversations about different architectures, technologies, and the cost/benefit analyses of each. But older ways of doing Software Requirements are becoming decreasingly beneficial with the changing “tech savvy” of users.

Please don’t get me wrong, there are still places to use Use Cases for certain kinds of projects. They are a tool in any good Software Requirements professional’s toolbox. But newer tools are coming out that need to be considered much more to keep up with software professionals’ ever changing user base.

Best Practices when customizing Work Items in Team Foundation Server (TFS)


So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to customize work items while still making sure the TFS instance is able to upgrade smoothly to future versions. In my Internet research, I actually came upon a good article on this from of all sources, Rational (Microsoft’s main competitor). This is due to the fact that they use almost the exact same data model for work items in their product (Rational Team Concert) as TFS does. They both even call them work items! Anyways, the article does a good job of dividing customization’s into “Safe”, “Cautious”,and “Harmful”. Based on my experience and expertise, these are some good principles to follow when customizing work items in a process template. You don’t want to over customize and be stuck on TFS 2005 for the next 10 years!
Enjoy!

https://jazz.net/library/article/1002

A son is born!


Wanted to post to my blog that my family just had our third child, a son finally! ;) John Dunn Woody was born on February 1st, 2013.

A Review of TeamSpec – a TFS plug-in for MS Word


Two years ago I did an evaluation of TeamSpec and pointed out some areas of improvement. I’m very happy to report that the company took these to heart and updated their product to address these. Here is my updated review based on TeamSpec v.4.2.1.

TeamSpec is a 3rd-party add-in for MS Word that connects it to Team Foundation Server.  It works with the newest version of TFS 2012 and Office (2013).  It is the only commercial add-in for Word currently on the TFS platform. There are other companies that have add-in’s as part of their overall suite or solution, but TeamSpec is the only product to concentrate on just Word and it does it quite well.

How It Works

Work item attributes are linked to sentences or words in your Word Document.  This is a bi-directional sync between TFS and Word.  For example, say you have  a requirement work item with the ID of 3 and the title is “Login to system”.  You could create a line in Word with the tool like so:

REQ ID 3 – Login to System, State: Proposed

When you changed the state of the requirement work item from “Proposed” to “Active” in TFS, the line would change in Word to:

REQ ID 3 – Login to System, State: Active

This could also be done the other way by changing the state in Word and publishing the change to TFS.

Additionally, you can create “Skins” which are basically pre-defined layouts for work items. You could say that you want the state of work items to always be in bold and italicized in a skin for example.

Added Functionality

The new functionality that I really like and makes it a valuable product is the ability to use work item queries from TFS with Word. Writing custom reports in Reporting Services for Word is not easy, especially since the HTML fields are not stored in the TFS Data Warehouse. This product makes it a cinch! No more writing a huge SRS! Just generate it! :)

Linked worked items are supported in queries and test cases are supported as well!!! So you can do your testing documents here as well.

The documentation has improved tremendously, but a few more “behind-the-scenes” articles in the documentation would be nice. I also hold some small reservations about the long term stability of the company as it appears to be small, so be sure to ask for the source code when you buy the product. But to be fair, they have been in business since 2005.

Conclusion

I highly recommend you look at this product if you are using TFS as your ALM platform. Microsoft majorly overlooked Word integration in TFS (although they got Excel and Project), but alas, this is where partners like TeamSolutions step in! Thank you TeamSolutions for stepping in so well!

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