månadsarkiv: november 2012

The distinction between requirements and technical work

Let me tell you a little story from my current assignment.  I have a gig as a developer in a project.  A few days ago I was about to start on a new piece of functionality that nobody had thought much about beforehand.  There were no requirements and only vague ideas of what the functionality was good for.  Given that I have much experience in working with requirements I thought that I was certainly capable of finding out the requirements myself and this would be a much faster way to do things than to wait for an analyst to show up.  So, I started asking questions, trying to get further down in the details of what this new functionality should do, why it should do it and how it should be done.

I have been in that situation many times before.  This time, just as practically all other times, the response from the people around me was not positive.  Instead it was along the lines of “what, you are a technical person; you should not do that work; that is for analysts to do…”

Why is that?  Why have most organizations put in a very high wall between requirements people (analysts, business people) and technical people (architects, developers)?  Why are people so afraid to “break” this boundary?  My latest employer even had distinct lines of organization for analysts and architects and it was very odd to be somebody like me (who is somewhat of a mix between analyst and architect/developer).  Also, since many organizations have this wall in place, there tends to be a focus on some kind of formal handoff from requirements to development.

To me it is obvious that there are great benefits of working on both sides of this distinction simultaneously.  Requirements without the understanding of what really can be done and what is easy and hard in the current environment tend to focus on the wrong things and not reaping the benefits that the technical environment gives you.  Architecture/development without the understanding of what is really needed and why tends to build great technical solutions that few people want.

Ruby on Rails

Lately I have been playing around with Ruby on Rails, mostly to learn a new technology and also to be inspired on what more modern development environments have to offer.

My main source of information is the excellent Ruby on Rails Tutorial by Michael Hartl, who incidentally have made some interesting work on why Pi is wrong, but that’s another topic.

Anyway, these are my reflections on Ruby on Rails…

My first thought is that Ruby on Rails is an example of where we have come quite far with standardized architectures for a domain that is somewhat large, but nevertheless specific.  Over the years there have been many attempts of creating a standardized environment for a specific type of system where the intention has been that developers should only focus on functionality and design, whereas the more technical and architectural issues are left to implementers of some sort of framework.  My latest post was about model-driven-development and this is one (or actually several) example of this kind of idea.  But mostly these attempts have fallen short in one of two ways.  Either the framework is not detailed enough so that any real applications cannot be created without significant framework tweaking/development which defeats the purpose.  Or the framework has been too specific which makes the sweet-spot for applications developed by it very small and therefore few systems benefit from it.  Of course one could argue that Ruby on Rails is an example of a very specific framework for a specific type of system, but that specific type of system (OLTP systems on the web) is indeed quite large in terms of number of applications currently being developed.

Secondly, Ruby on Rails have many variations on how specific things are done.  I guess that this is more a feature of the language Ruby more than the framework Rails.  This is both good and bad.  It is good because it allows for flexibility in development and also allows for a much larger focus on the readability of code.  But it is also bad because it makes the environment hard to understand for beginners.  If two things that look different are actually examples of how the same problem is solved, this could be quite hard to see and this makes the learning-curve steeper.

Third, on a more personal level, I have not quite yet gotten used to using a non-typed language such as Ruby.  Sometimes the old Java-developer in me have a hard time seeing the things that can, and should, be done by using the type-system more creatively.