Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Is Your Dev Team Having Performance Problems? Try Niagra!

Have you ever thought “why do the companies I work at have so many problems with developing software?” Well, I can tell you from interacting with literally thousands of software development organizations that most development organizations have problems with reliably and predictably producing high quality software. What I hear over and over again is “if only we could hire the right people” or “if only people could be more disciplined.” The other thing I hear over and over again are various tweaks to traditional development that people believe will fix things but that “other people just don't get it.”

Well, there are only so many people out there to hire so unless we find some magical place to hire more of “the right people” from, we are going to have to figure out how to use the people we have. And I hate to break it to you but you just aren’t going to get more discipline out of people. Whatever discipline that exists today, that’s all you are going to get. So what’s left? Changes to the way we do things.

Let’s say there was some combination of techniques which would mean that most development groups could use traditional development to reliably and predictably produce high quality results. Let’s call it the “Niagra” method. Furthermore, you (or whoever wants to make this claim) get to define the Niagra method. It works every time. Just use Niagra and performance improves overnight (when used as directed).

If the Niagra method existed, it would have become widespread by now. It would have become the #1 prescribed solution to project performance problems. If it existed and produced the claimed results, people would start referring to it, and it would spread rapidly. That’s how C++, Java, and HTML became mainstream. People rapidly adopted them because they provided benefits that anybody could realize. In fact, there are many proposed Niagra methods, but none of them have become mainstream because they only work under special conditions.

This raises an obvious point. If traditional development is so bad and is such a big failure, then why has the software industry done so incredibly well? The software industry is an incredible success, that’s absolutely true. It is incredible how much of our daily lives runs on software and how much software has positively influenced our quality of life. The benefits of software, when it does finally ship and it does finally have a high enough level of quality are worth waiting for. Otherwise, of course, there would no longer be a software industry.

There have been incremental improvements to the software development process which have produced incremental improvements and have become widespread. Examples are: the use of software development tools such as source control and issue tracking, breaking down large tasks into small tasks, nightly builds, one-step build process, moving from procedural programming to object-oriented programming and many others. The important point here is that each of these improvements have become widely adopted and made things somewhat better, but still didn’t solve the root cause. The process is still unpredictable and unreliable.

This is akin to the O(n) approach to problem solving. If you have an algorithm which takes 100*n^2 operations, then getting that down to 50*n^2 is a good thing, but changing the algorithm to (for instance) be 200*n is much better. To date, changes to the software process have been of the first variety, shrinking the constant.

Perhaps Agile development is the answer. But isn’t Agile “yet another fad” which will blow over any day now? After all, we have had CMM, 9001, TQM, Critical Chain, and many other “next big thing” ideas in the past. What makes Agile any different? Previous ideas have all been centered around the idea that the framework underlying traditional development is fine, it is the implementation, discipline, people, or management of the people that is the problem. No, it is the underlying framework that is the root problem.

Certainly, people issues are important. Getting a team gelled and working well together with the right combination of skills is essential. But the success rates of these teams isn’t exactly stellar either! Yes, it is better, but they have similar problems with predictability and quality. A root problem remains. I do not claim that solving this problem means that suddenly teams that have insufficient skills and hate each other will start pumping out high quality software on a regular basis. But I do claim that Agile development has the ability to dramatically increase the potential of any team. And to truly succeed you have to do both: create a good team, and use Agile development.

Let's take a deeper look at the fundamental problems with traditional development.

Next: Traditional Development is a Chinese Finger Trap

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