Tuesday, November 30, 2004

ORM Instead Of ER?

I have been playing around with ORM for my modeling. I really like the simplicity of the model. I have the misfortune of relying on Visio for my modeling tool, but it isn't so bad. I do not have all of the ins and outs of the ORM down, and I am not sure I dig having to create an object for each attribute and labeling it as a value. I have been struggling with reverse engineering this model into SQL Server, too. I have not succesfully tagged my entities as tables.

So has anyone else used ORM instead of an ER diagram for database design? What do you think about ORM? Will you leave ER diagrams in the dust?

Monday, November 29, 2004

Free Market

My previous post brought up an interesting, and hopefully not overly discussed, conversation topic: outsourcing software engineering to India.

This topic has been hot for the past number of years, and I think I fall in the minority when I say that I am not against outsourcing to India if the market in India can produce the same quality software products that are being produced here at a fraction of the cost.

I am not saying that I hope to have my job outsourced to India. What I am saying is that in a world where I believe in free markets, when competing for business, the company that can offer a product or service of equitable quality at the lowest price should win the business.

If I am unable to compete with the engineers from India, should I be angry with disloyal American companies who outsourcing? If my salary is much higher here than it would be were I living in India, should I fight for laws to prevent money from flowing out of our economy and into another? As a local consultant, am I offering services that can be easily replaced with foreign labor? Should I, instead of trying to stop open competition, figure out a way to offer a service to US companies that cannot be outsourced?

And if the implementation of a design spec can be outsourced, can the initial analysis also be outsourced? How about the project management? Are there things that we, as software engineers living in the United States, can offer that cannot be outsourced? Should we, as an engineering community, focus on growing our unique skills and ensuring our place in the world market?

So the question is this: can India offer the same quality software end-product that a local consulting company can offer at a lower price? I am leery of the possibility because on the projects in which I work, constant communication with my customer is paramount to success. I wonder how the communication barrier is overcome when dealing with an implementation team that lives in another culture. I am curious if anyone out there has experiences, good or bad, with outsourcing software engineering to India.

Monday, November 22, 2004

What's in a Title?

I work for a consulting company. I have worked for consulting companies for over five years now. I am not sure what my title is, and I am not sure I care. It seems that when I am needed to do analysis work, I become a Business Analyst. When I am needed to design a database, I become a Database Administrator. When I am needed to lay out the foundation for a project, I become an Architect. I like this about consulting. As a result, I am not sure of one title that could fit my job. I am also not sure that it matters what my official title is.

I have heard of companies that use titles in lieu of paying their talent well. "We cannot afford a large raise for you this year, but how about we give you this fancy title of 'Senior What-a-ma-bob'." So what is the point of a title? Do titles help define our skill set? Do titles help communicate our level of excellence? Or are titles a way for management to placate us into feeling important without giving us monetary reward? What if we did away with titles all together?

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Agile Methods vs. the Waterfall Method

I was taught about many different approaches to the software life cycle while I was in college. The waterfall approach to software projects was seen as the wisest way to go, since this approach addressed the concern that a change made at any phase of the life cycle ought to also affect previous phases’ documentation and testing. One of the last courses I took at school included a section that quickly covered agile approaches. In my great enthusiasm over these new ideas, I went to work and shared my enthusiasm with my co-workers. Wouldn’t it be great if we could skip over the weighty documentation phases and start producing a working solution while the business needs are still fresh in our minds? Wouldn’t it be great to work closely with other team members to help each other proof our architectures and brainstorm complex issues as they arise and before struggling alone? My co-workers laughed at my na├»ve enthusiasm. Who want to sit next to someone else and watch while they code all day? In our profession of high intellect and large egos, who wants to be dragged down by being forced to pair up? How can we start to build a solution before every detail of the problem is fully defined?

As some years have passed, or maybe as my employer has changed, the agile methods have really seemed to catch on. Iterative approached are being tested, and in my experience they are successful. I do not claim to be a guru on agile methods, and I do not claim to know the ins and outs of SCRUM versus Extreme Programming. But what is the key difference between the agile methods versus the traditional methods to software engineering?

I think the difference can be summed up in one word: communication.

While communication has always been an important part of software engineering, I fell that the traditional approaches encourage us to lay everything on the table from the start. Go through a phase of requirements gathering. Go through a phase of specification writing. Go through a phase of writing a detailed design document. Finally, build what you planned. Plan your work and work you plan, right?

I say wrong! To me, the key to the success of the agile projects I have worked with lay our ability as a development team to admit that we cannot ask all of the questions up front. Besides the fact that requirements change with time, so does our understanding of the business problems. And I have never seen a requirements document that is not laden with holes and ambiguities. A small detail missed in the requirements phase can be the downfall of the entire project.

Agile methods appreciate this risk and mitigate it through constant communication. There is no one phase where meetings are held with the end users. The end users are involved in meetings with the development team throughout the life of the project. The end users are part of the team and play an active role in communicating with the development team and working with the seeds of the end product from its infancy to its completion.

As a result of my experiences, I hope to never spend a year working on a functional specification again. I hope to never face another deployment phase of a project that follows a year of closed-door development. I hope to say goodbye to the waterfall approach once and for all and hello to agile development.

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Education?

A question was posed to me asking how much education I expect a software engineer to have before I would consider hiring them. I don't like questions like this one, because it begs for a general answer to a question that I think deserves more careful scrutiny. I am not a fan of hard and fast rules for anything in life. Place two candidates in front of me, and the person with the formal education does not necessarily beat the high-school graduate in intelligence or skill.

While I do believe that education is important, I believe that education can come in the form of reading books, working, traveling, and just living life in general. Albert Einstein was a high school drop-out (okay, later in life he squeeked his way past earning a degree) who wrote his amazing papers without any academic instruction while working as a patent clerk. He hated the rigid structure of the classroom setting.

So in my estimation, a person's worth should be measured by their ability to present themselves, by their passion, and basically by their performance rather than by a piece of paper signifying their diligence to show up to and pass college level courses. Don't get me wrong, you can get a lot out of college. You can also get very little.

Visual Studio Solution Files

I have been having problems with Visual Studio. I am running a solution file that has 20 projects. When I try to debug the web project in my solution, I often get an error about a missing assembly. Once I get this error, I have to at least shut down and restart Visual Studio, and often I have to restart my computer to resolve the issue. I did some research and found that there is a known error in Visual Studio when you have both project references and file references in your solution. There is a hot fix, but you have to call Microsoft to get it, and the hot fix sounds pretty unstable.

Has anyone else come across a similar problem? Has anyone installed the hot fix? Has anyone fixed this issue by getting rid of the solution file and only using file references?

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Visual Designers?

Java Kid talks about visual designers, and asks if people rely on them too much. Here is what I have to say to that…once upon a time people coded on punch cards. I do not have first hand experience with punch cards, but I have heard that they were a treat. They were especially fun if you accidentally entered an O instead of a zero or if the cards got out of order.

When people started programming in DOS instead of using punch cards, I bet some people were up in arms. I wonder if the argument flew around that real engineers did not use DOS. Where is the discipline in DOS? Anybody can write programs in DOS, it takes someone with training and superior intelligence to program on punch cards! Look at all these rag-tag new-fangled youngsters with no experience hopping right in to the development community!

I also have known people who love notepad. All you need to write a good application is a text editor and a compiler, right? Visual Studio is for sissies, and intellisense is for people who are not careful enough to spell correctly when they are typing and for people who don’t already know which assemblies house which classes.

To that, I say bah!

I think that using visual designers fall right along side using intellisense while coding. If intellisense helps you work faster and cleaner, then I don’t buy the argument that we should experience a certain amount of pain in order to be respected as intelligent software engineers. In my opinion, visual designers sometimes come in handy. I use the visual designers when I would otherwise be writing a bunch of repetitive HTML. I can drag a control onto a page and position it with a click. In short, tools such as the visual designer can help me with simple and repetitive tasks and leave me more time to focus on my programming logic.

Monday, November 01, 2004

User Acceptance Testing

Back when I started developing, my company followed the good old-fashioned waterfall method. We provided our customers with a rigorous requirements gathering phase, followed up by a design phase. Each phase resulted in a document detailing the findings, often in a numbered format so we could easily refer back to the requirement. There was sign off at the end of each phase, often followed up by a plethora of change orders as the next phase began.

When the design was solidified and approved by the client, the implementation phase was next. Our implementation phase was followed by deployment, and we were paid and the project was wrapped (theortetically) when the client gave us final sign off by agreeing to and walking through the user-acceptance tests to validate that each requirement was met and user interface was bug-free.

Nowadays I find myself working with agile approaches to software development, but I do still find value in client testing. I am not talking about handing the product over to the client and asking them to start using it. I am talking about creating some test scripts to help the users cover each logical path in the application, and building validation testing into the scripts. Since my company does not have a test team, I recently took a stab at writing a test script myself. How do the rest of you do this? Do you rely on the use cases that are created during design as your test scripts? Do you use an automated testing tool alone to test the user interface, or do you use an automated tool in conjunction with user-acceptance testing? Is user-acceptance testing out-dated?

Visual Studio .Net 2.0

What would you like to see in the new version of Visual Studio? The Java Kid points us to a forum where the Microsoft team asks developers to vote on new features.