Arguing Data

People have a lot of different reasons for posting blog entries. These reasons vary from financial, to personal, to professional, to I'm afraid to know more. For me, one reason I take the time when I could be doing something else is that I like to put my ideas out there to be tested. I don't really care if a majority of people agree with me so much as I want to see what other people have to say for or against certain things. The downside to this is that I'll sometimes find that an idea isn't as good as I had originally thought it was. The upside is the opportunity to refine something to be better or to discard an idea that turns out simply to be bad.

Which is why I'm glad to see Karl Seguin's response to a post I had made about DataSets. Karl's a bright guy and he has a good background in the problem domain associated with DataSet objects. He displays class, too, even when he feels I've been a bit rough in a point or two.

The School of Hard Knocks

I empathize with his experience where DataSet misuse caused much pain and suffering. I've been in similar situations and it's no fun. In a full-blown business transaction environment, DataSets have some liabilities that make them ill-suited for business-layer usage. The thing is, the opposite problem exists as well, and it's one that is more serious than people want to give it credit for: a layer of specialized, hand-crafted business objects that don't actually do anything.

I'm currently working at a place that has an extreme case of this problem. We have four entirely separate ASP.Net applications for our internal invoice processing. All four of these applications have their own set of substantially similar custom objects that are completely unique for that application. Each object doesn't do anything more than contain a group of properties that are populated from a database and write changes back to it.

I shudder to think how many hours were wasted on this travesty. It's over-complex, can't leverage any type of automated binding, doesn't track row state, and testing and debugging changes is an unmitigated pain. It's like someone attended an n-tier lecture somewhere and never bothered understanding what the point of having one actually was. Frankly, I'd prefer if the previous developers had simply put all the data access right in each individual page--at least that'd be easier to fix when something blew up.

Learning Your Craft

The thing is, my experience no more proves custom business objects wrong than Karl's experience proves DataSets wrong. That's the trouble with anecdotal experience: it feels more important than it is (it doesn't help that pain is such an efficient teacher).

The trick of learning a craft is in gaining experience that is both specific and broad. This can be tricky in a field that is as immense as software development. You really have no choice but to specialize at some point. Even narrowing it down to ".Net Framework" isn't nearly enough to constitute adequate focus for competence.

Unfortunately, Karl's point that there are a lot of lazy programmers out there is true. Anyone who has had to hire or manage programmers will confirm this. Too many developers don't bother learning enough of their craft to be considered actually competent. Faced with the need to specialize carefully, many simply give up and learn only enough to get by (and sometimes not even that much). They're content to learn the bare minimum needed to get hired. They'll learn enough of the "how" to create a program without ever bothering to learn any of the "why".

Teaching Others

I have a minor problem with Karl's explanation, though. He says, "I advocate against the use of DataSets as a counterbalance to people who blindly use them." While I understand this position, I'm not sure I can be said to appreciate it. It smacks a little of the "for your own good" school of learning; which works well enough in a parent-child or even teacher-student relationship. I'm not sure it works so well in public or general discourse.

It is hard to correct bad habits, particularly habits as widespread as DataSet misuse seems to be. As one who often has the bad habits to be corrected, though, I think that I'd prefer having the problem explained and given the context so I can understand the trade-offs being made. That would give me the opportunity to know why something is wrong, not just that something is wrong.

That'd require discussing DataSets in specific instead of general terms. I'm not sure if Karl would really want to do that, though. I mean, his specialty at CodeBetter is really ASP.Net. Expecting him to tackle ADO.Net is not just unrealistic, it could have the effect of diluting his blog posts and alienating his regular readers or getting him embroiled in things he's less interested in.

I would like to see someone respectable and wider-read than I am take on Strongly-typed DataSets in a more complete fashion, though.

Professor Microsoft

Which is why I have to agree with Karl that the blame for DataSet misuse lies squarely in Microsoft's court. I stopped counting how many official articles and examples from Microsoft included egregious misuse or abuse of DataSets. And I have yet to see any that describe how to do it right or what kinds of things to look for in determining the trade-offs between a Strongly-typed DataSet and a more formal OR/M solution, let alone ameliorating factors for each. The only articles about DataSets that I can remember that don't actually teach bad habits are articles about how bad they are. Which isn't helpful. It'd be nice to have something, somewhere that talks about using them wisely and what their strengths actually are. Maybe that should be a future blog post here...

26. February 2007 18:33 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

Two Things I Regret

Have you ever been in an interview and gotten some variation on the question "What do you regret most about your last position?" Everyone hates questions like that. They're a huge risk with little upside for you. You're caught between the Scylla of honesty and the Charybdis of revealing unflattering things about yourself.

Still, such questions can be very valuable if used personally for analysis and improvement. In that light, I'll share with you two things I regret about my stay at XanGo. Since I've ripped on the environment there in the past, it's only fair if I elaborate on things that were under my control at the time--things I could have done better.

Neglecting the User

Tim was the Senior IT Manager (the position that became IT Director once XanGo had grown up a bit). He was the best boss I ever had. His tech skills were top-notch (if somewhat "old school"). In addition, he knew his executives and how to communicate with them on a level they understood. It was a refreshing experience to have someone good at both technology and management (and since he's no longer my boss, you can take that to the bank :)).

After a little break-in time as the new Software Development Manager, Tim and I discussed what we needed to do for the organization. Tim's advice was to establish a pattern of delivering one new "toy" for our Distributors each month. He said that the executive board are very attached to the Distributors and that keeping things fresh and delivering new functionality and tools to them each month would make sure that we had enough of the right kind of visibility. Goodwill in the bank, so to speak.

This sounded like a great idea, and frankly, "toy" was loosely defined enough that it shouldn't have been a hard thing to do. It turned out to be a lot harder than expected, however. In my defense, I'll point out that we were experiencing between 15% and 20% growth per month and that we had done so since the company had started a year and a half before. That growth continued my entire tenure there. Now, if you've never experienced that kind of growth, let me point out some of what that means.

First off, using the Rule of 72 (the coolest numeric rule I know) will tell you that we were doubling every 4 to 5 months (in every significant measure--sales, revenue, Distributors, traffic, shipping, everything).

In case you've never experienced that kind of growth, it feels like ice-skating with a jet engine fired up on your back. Even good architecture will strain with that kind of relentless growth. When this happens, you become hyper-vigilant for signs of strain. This vigilance has sufficient reality to be important to maintain. Unfortunately, it also makes it easy to forget your users.

Developers like to live in a pristine world of logic and procedure. Unfortunately, life, and users, aren't like that. If they were, there'd be less need for developers. Users don't see all the bullets you dodged. They take for granted the fact that a system originally designed for a small start up is now pulling off enterprise-level stunts. They don't see it, so it doesn't exist. It is very easy to get caught up in the technology and forget that often it is the little touches that make your product meaningful. Sometimes the new report you spent an hour hacking together means more than the three weeks of sweating out communication with a new bank transaction processor. And by means more, I mean "is more valuable than".

Not that you can afford to neglect your architecture or needed improvements to sustain the needs of the company and prepare for foreseeable events. If you ignore that little glitch in the payments processing this month, you have really no excuse when it decides to spew chunks spectacularly next month.

What I'm saying here is that you have to balance functionality with perceived value. You have to know your users and their expectations because if you aren't meeting those expectations, no amount of technical expertise or developer-fu is going to help you when things get rough. In the case of XanGo, I could have afforded to ease up on the architecture enough to kick out monthly toys for the users. Yeah, some things would have been a touch rockier, but looking back there was room for a better balance.

Premature Deprecation

When I arrived at XanGo, our original product (a customized vertical market app written in VB6 on MS SQL Server) was serving way beyond its original specifications. We'd made some customizations, many of them penetrating deep into the core of the product. Our primary concern, however, was the Internet application used by our Distributors in managing their sales. We spent a month or two moving it from ASP to ASP.NET and ironing out bugs brought on by the number of concurrent users we had to maintain. We also removed the dependence on a couple of VB6 modules that were spitting out raw HTML (yeah, I know. All I can say is that I didn't design the monster).

Anyway, after that was well enough in hand, we gave a serious look to that VB6 vertical market app. Since VB6 wasn't all that hot at concurrent data access and couldn't handle some of the functionality we were delivering over the new web app, we decided that it should be phased out. Adding to this decision was the fact that we had lost control of the customizations to that app and what we had wouldn't compile in its present state.

Now developers (and for any management-fu I may have acquired, I remain a developer at heart) tend to be optimistic souls, so we figured "no big", we'll be replacing this app anyway. And we set to work. Bad choice. In a high growth environment, the inability to fix bugs now takes on a magnified importance. Replacing an application always takes longer than you expect if only because it's so easy to take the current functionality for granted. Any replacement has to be at least as good as the current application, and should preferably provide significant, visible improvements.

The result of this decision was that we limped along for quite some time before we finally came to the conclusion that we absolutely must have the ability to fix the current app. We paid a lot of political capital for that lack. In the end, it took a top developer out of circulation for a while but once it was done, it was astonishing how much pressure was lifted from Development.

It's the Users, Stupid

No, I did not mean to say "It's the stupid users." When it comes right down to it, software exists to serve users, not the other way around. As developers, it is easy to acquire a casual (or even vehement) dislike of our users. They are never satisfied, they do crazy stuff that makes no sense, and they're always asking for more. It's tempting to think that things would be so much better without them.*

I got into computers because I like making computers do cool stuff. Whatever gets developers into computers, though, it's a good idea to poke your head up periodically and see what your users are doing. Get to know who they are. Find out what they think about what you've provided for them. Losing that focus can cost you. Sometimes dearly.

*I think one of the draws of Open Source is that the developer is the user. It's also the primary drawback. But that's a post for another day.

 

17. November 2006 20:10 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

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