Friday, May 25, 2007

Max Planck and the TCO

In "Pitching Agile to Senior Management" (DDJ June 2007), Scott Ambler presents tactics for introducing agile approaches to management. Besides the necessity of talking the right talk, Scott emphasizes the importance of avoiding an "us versus them" way of thinking and, for this, to recognize the virtues and values of management.

In this article, Scott presents how quickly agile software development starts to provide value and how this factor can help pitching the positive bottom line impact of agile. There is though a parameter that management will also consider in this board game: an agile team is significantly more expensive than a traditional one. Agile teams are usually staffed with seasoned developers who are generalizing specialists: these species are more expensive that the usual programmers and analysts traditionally managed projects are used to deal with. And this is without mentioning the folly of co-located teams when you can have cheap and qualified labor near or off management shores!

Hence the comparison graph of the total software project costs will probably look like this...
... with the green line showing the cost of agile approaches while the red one shows the cost of traditional ones. So this is good news: agile still beats traditional over time! Yes, but the big question is how far in the product life time line will management look when making their decision. It might sound obvious that the whole life time will be considered always but it is not.

There are situations where management will have a narrow sight on this:
  • Organizational reasons: Maintenance of the product will be handed-off to a different unit, unconnected with the current managers. This happens in large structures and the point in the hierarchical pyramid where development and maintenance management chains meet is so high that no-one will look into how decisions on one side affects the other.

  • Personal reasons: upcoming promotion or retirement can make a particular manager not inclined into looking too far in the future. Though this might sound unprofessional or rare, with the baby boomers now on the departure, this situation will occur more than you think.
In these situations, you might end-up hitting a wall harder than Planck's one. And if this wall happens to be before the point where agile starts to deliver its financial goodness, as shown here...
... your pitch might be very difficult! In that case, you will have to be agile and re-factor the pitch to focus it more on time to market or quality aspects rather than sticking to the money side.

Monday, May 21, 2007

ANTLRWorks Works For Me

Alright, so writing XML really put Uncle Bob in rage. Of course, he is right: XML should be limited to machine to machine exchanges and should never be forced down the throats of human beings, let alone geeks of all sorts. The natural consequence of that is I decided to start looking into adding DSL support to NxBRE, as writing RuleML is really not a fun task.

In my wildest dreams it will remotely be as good as the DSL support of Drools (including a code-assist driven full text editor). The harsh reality of (a busy) life will probably limit the scope of this addition to NxBRE but should anyway give the rules authors a better way of expressing themselves.

To build the grammar I decided to use ANTLR and its great companion tool: ANTLRWorks. I came to this choice thanks to Martin Fowler's current exploratory works on DSLs.

ANTLRWorks has proven really useful in this endeavor: the immediate testing and debugging of the grammar is complemented by a tree representation of the exploration graph that simplifies the detection of syntax goofs and other mistakes.

I have committed the embryo of a rules grammar in the trunk Misc directory. Capturing is still to implement. Then a translation table of plain English format blocks to RuleML atoms will have to be added.

ETA is obviously N/A ;-)

Thursday, May 17, 2007

For French Readers Only

Sorry for the segregative title but, alas, this post only concerns those of you who can read French.

Indeed I am happy to invite those of you who can to subscribe to Zeskyizelimit, a witty blog from IT industry samurai Jean-Luc Ensch. Sometimes impertinent and always pertinent, this blog will give you a different view on what is going on in our beloved professional field and also on what happens in this part of the galaxy.

I am saying alas because, unfortunately, no translation tool will be able to provide English readers with a fair rendering of Jean-Luc's humor and bonts mots.

Enjoy the reading!

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Microsoft 2.0?

So this is it. Microsoft has started its long demise... Maybe not yet, but the company has clearly started a new strategy of betting on the wrong horses and doing it in a very visible manner.

For example, remember the recent introduction of an open XML office document specification while the world already had one or, two days, the asinine take on open-source community supposed patent infringements.

For this last fumble, several industry notables replied, including Linus Torvalds, but to my sense the most sensible analysis of the situation came from software maven Alan Zeichick who clearly balanced Microsoft's lack of innovation with its preference for litigation.

It is really time for Microsoft to realize that time has changed: we have entered a new era where the operating system and the office productivity suite are not fully in their hands anymore. With on-line solutions and open source alternatives, these two components of a personal computer are not so critical as they used to be. In fact, it is obvious that Microsoft is aware of this trend change as Windows and Office are their two traditional cash cows.

What should they do? Instead of trying to push a new office standard, why not build the best office suite for the existing open format? Users are now educated enough to recognize and appreciate a highly usable piece of software: they would certainly be willing to pay a reasonable amount of money for a productivity suite that would not lock their data in the playground of a vendor.

They could also start to innovate. Really. I can not quote any innovation from Microsoft: they have drastically improved existing things but what have they really invented? Well, many things I am sure, by the look at the really cool stuff they are doing in their labs. So where is all the cool stuff going?

Well, I guess the crux of the problem is that it goes through the "bully filter" that still exists at the top level of the company. This filter is in fact a transformation that turns innovation into products that lock users in and forces them to buy the full stack of Microsoft delicacies. And this, for ever.

Even after the stepping back of the master of bully, Bill Gates himself, the company is still run by thugs who do not realize that they can not continue walking this bloody path. Even Redmond products enthusiasts are starting to look elsewhere.

Can Microsoft change and enter into redemption? Considering that IBM succeeded in its conversion from an insipid consulting firm and dinosaurish hardware maker into a vibrant community daring to stuff Cell/B.E.s into mainframes, I think there is hope that they will leverage their army of bright engineers and their deep pockets to build a new version of themselves!

Edited 31-MAY-07: Old habits die hard: Microsoft is still a bully who do not care about slapping people who create value on their technology if these people do not play according to their rules.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Business Under The Sea

With his "Mobilis In Mobile" motto, was Captain Nemo the first modern agilist?

Whatever is your reply to this question, I think the famous sub-mariner deserves a little tribute. So what could be more enviable to proudly wear Captain Nemo's motto and crest? I guess nothing and if you agree then go shopping like frenzy in the newly open Nautilus Warehouse, a dedicated shop I have created on Cafepress.

Oh and if you wonder what is the outrageous $2 cap on each item for, then you will be happy to learn that the true tribute to this tormented humanist resides in this tiny cap, which will invested Kiva micro-loans. So this is for fun and a good cause.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

The Four Lifes Of The Geek

A few days ago someone asked on Slashdot this very question: "Where to Go After a Lifetime in IT?".

If you filter the trolls out, you will find that the asker was left with these two categories of replies:
  • Do not change anything and keep cashing until you can enjoy your upcoming retirement,
  • Do not be afraid of a drastic change: not doing it will turn into a millstone of regrets.
All this is common wisdom. What can the life of exceptional people tell us about this? Consider the life of Thomas Kailath, recent recipient of the prestigious IEEE Medal of Honor. During his career, he was never scared of exploring new fields: indeed, he done it four times, which sounds like a good way of using a standard human working lifespan.

What could be the conditions for having four professional lives? If you look at the watermark underneath Professor Kailath's professional path, you will discover that:
  • Passion and curiosity must be the main drivers,
  • Excellence and rigor must be constantly sought,
  • Courage and optimism should be nurtured.
Is this reserved to IEEE's cream of the cream? I happens more and more. Look around you: people are daring to experiment their next life. But, of course, nothing come close to our feline companions and their nine lives.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Adaptative Parallelization Shall Rise

In a recent post in his blog, software guru Larry O'Brien talked again about the pitfalls of code parallelization and concluded with a truly insightful line:
This is a great example of why neither of the simplistic approaches to parallelization ("everything's a future" or "let the programmer decide") will ultimately prevail and how something akin to run-time optimization (a la HotSpot) will have to be used.

Like many of us, I have explored parallelization of different process intensive tasks and found that, most of the time, my efforts to chunk and parallelize them was just adding a processing overhead leading to worst performances. Even when using pooling to mitigate the expense of thread creation, the cost of context switching and synchronization needed ultimately to build the final state of the computation was still dragging the overall performance down.

In more subtler attempts I have done, like piping XSL transformations instead of chaining them, the results were sensitive to the amount of data processed (the more, the better) and the way the XSL were behaving (one that would start to output results early would lead to better performances when involved in a flow). Hence the context itself was of great importance for the result.

All in all, this lead me to think the following as far as parallelization and concurrency is concerned:
  • Let us write correct code regarding to thread safety,
  • Let us write efficient code as if only one thread was available,
  • Let us write readable code and avoid "clever" programming.

When Larry's vision of run-time automated parallelization optimization algorithms will become reality, such code will certainly fly and, if not, will be easily refactored to do so. And if you think this idea of adaptive optimization is far-fetched, read about out-of-order processors and Java Hotspot optimization: today, we take all these for granted but a few decades ago, this was sci-fi.

Thursday, May 03, 2007


I certainly think that professionalism is very important....To be a proper professional you need to think about the context and motivation and justifications of what you're doing...You don't need a fundamental philosophical discussion every time you put finger to keyboard, but as computing is spreading so far into people's lives you need to think about these things....I've always felt that once you see how important computing is for life you can't just leave it as a blank box and assume that somebody reasonably competent and relatively benign will do something right with it.
Karen Spärck Jones
Emeritus Professor of Computing and Information
at the University of Cambridge