Freedom For Ideas

Sharing ideas, concepts and thoughts, mainly about Information Technology – and consulting

Archive for the ‘IT’ Category

Poor, transparent tools

Posted by Yannick Martel on October 26, 2009

Poor, transparent bike

Coming back to Tools for Conviviality, I want to share some thoughts on software architectures. Software products and associated frameworks on which we build them are tools. As such, the criteria of choice is usefulness to our goals. They should be servants.

Ivan Illitch advocates that “the simple, poor tool is a humble servant; the elaborate, complex, secret tool is an arrogant master”. How many times have we seen choice of tools which we do not master? Which are “elaborate, complex, secret”, and the more fascinating because they are? Can we mention:

  • Complex, poorly understood architectures, based on new concepts which are barely understood?
  • Huge packaged products, which contains the expertise of generations of analysts and programmers, but which you don’t pretend to master in a lifetime?
  • Sophisticated frameworks, which are supposed to do it all and are the best you can get. But cannot sometimes the best be too much?
  • Assembly of “best of breed” products, which can turn into “poorest of suite”?

Have you seen these? For myself, I have seen them too many times. With Ivan Illitch, I want to advocate a preferred choice of “simple, poor tools”, which can be mastered and are not too much for our hands, and this apply too well to our software architectures. Thanks to Tools for Conviviality, we have guidelines for selecting them when KISS is not enough. Guidelines which show us how to put at the center the human beings who are going to run, use and rely on them.

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Towards post-industrial IT

Posted by Yannick Martel on October 20, 2009

Modern railways station

After reading Tools for Conviviality from Ivan Illich, it seems to me that the large IT organizations I know are some of the best examples of industrialization gone wild.

Ivan Illitch introduces a maturity model for the industrialization of a product or process. Before the first threshold, the costs of industrializing exceeds the benefits. It is like transportation with the very first steam machines: noisy, filthy, not much good for anything. Then maturity arrived, and usefulness exceeded the costs – when steam power was mature enough to be applicable to helping in the real life. In this way, many products and services were industrialized successfully and transformed the world: medecine, transportation, education, food…

But then the cost of industrialization in terms of energy, human life, environment, excessive complexity, indirect costs can become too high and exceed the benefits, at least considering the overall society – some people or groups can still benefit by concentrating wealth and power. Ivan Illitch defends the case that many services in in developed countries have exceeded this second threshold, the threshold of decreasing marginal usefullness.

In large IT organizations, industrialization has been used as a set of methods for tackling complexity and volume. Up to a certain point, we have seen some success. New, more complex, more ambitious software applications are being developed, improved, and are to a certain extent serving the business. But as a method for improving the efficiency of the business, the industrialization of large IT systems seems to me to have exceeded the second threshold. Every new aspect which is submitted to industrialization and centralization, turned over to experts, adds a cost which is out of proportion with the benefits the company gets from the move. This added cost takes many forms: human life essence, efficiency, resources, indirect cost on users or customers…

What should we do? Turn to industrialization with the same tool which has helped in the beginning: rationality. We have used rationality to industrialize, but are not applying rationality anymore if we consider the tools of industrialization as mandatory, as an ends in themselves. We should realize that it is not rational anymore to go on applying these tools without any discrimination, that we should better add some new tools, the tools of conviviality to be able to develop a post-industrial IT.

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You don’t need a damned e-shop, your customers deserve more!

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 24, 2009

Going shopping?

I admit it, I am a telco guy, having worked in that sector for longer than I care to count. It is thus a pleasure for me to see telecom operators transform and adapt, when they do it for good. I appreciate seeing new ideas take form and shape for the benefit of all, vendors and customers. But it seems to me most telcos are struggling with their Internet strategies. They have a hard time setting up nice enough Internet site, keeping them up and running and attracting customers to them.

Probably that’s the reason why I want to share here what I would like to tell them, especially after reading Jeff Jarvis.

1- Stop calling the Internet site where you promote your products and sell them an e-shop or an Internet boutique.

Once you know a thing’s name, your control it. That’s the nice side of the coin. The other side is: you name it wrong, you get it wrong. Naming your selling site a boutique means it will be only this, a copy of a physical shop, where you only expect to sell at a reduced cost – to you. Thus at best it will provide a slightly worse experience than a physical shop. Don’t ask why your customers are still going there.

Instead, you should find what else it could be, and try to do it. But that should be something better, unique, which can be done only via the power of Internet – and we know that we can do many new things thanks to Internet. If you don’t, just take a tour before building your web site.

2- Stop positionning it as a competition to your physical shops

A bit of a competition is good, too much can be dangerous, especially inside a firm. Build your business relationships, most of all with your colleagues, on trust and cooperation, not competition – don’t worry, competition will come by the side, even if not encouraged. This means you should develop the Internet media as a new, original one, which has its own niche, and is complementary to shops. If your Internet presence compete with your physical shops, it means that you are not promoting at their best the advantage of each channel. And don’t forget: while your are busy managing the devastating effects of internal competition, others might be taking care of your (old) customers.

3- Create a community and hand it control

The Web 2.0 is all about communities. We are lucky in that mobile phone and even Internet access are already community-oriented. Mobile phones are trendy gadgets, and for many accessing the Internet via an operator is being part of his community. Not for everybody, but you only need a small critical mass to start with it.

So the advice is, straight from What Would Google Do?: make your on-line presence a platform on which communities can live and flourish. As a side-effect, these communities can help you sell your products, or better use them. If you take care to listen and cooperate with them, they can help you improve your products, get better support, package them the right way or price them the right way. First, you accept to be influenced, and then you give them some control. Then they can help you and work for you – by working for themselves.

4- Don’t do it all yourself

If this program sounds pretty difficult, you are on the right way. But don’t do it all yourself! You can build the minimum infrastructure, hand them the tools, and then get ideas and help from the masses. Your devoted users can help you design your next best-selling products. They can also build many aeras of your next successful community platforms (aka web sites). Allow and encourage plug-ins and links.

5- Provide them access to your best deep resources

That’s the best of true SOA and SSOA. If you really want to get help and you are serious about it, you should do your best to those people devoted to help you. You should give them access to your most valuable resources, to the depths of your IT, network and service infrastructure. And the best part of it: be happy if they are using it better than your own guys.

And now, where do we start?

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The failure of Agile?

Posted by Yannick Martel on August 17, 2009

Is this yet another blog post about the failure of agile? No, not really. More about the failure of Agile adoption, that is failing to notably improving the development process and its effectiveness in delivering features.

A major roadblock with Agile adoption is that Agile is more than a new project management methodology. It is a new approach to product development and application management, based on a number of principles and values, many of which related to management, not just project management. Thus an effective adoption requires new management methods, and its adoption can be gravely impaired by attitudes from decision-makers outside of the project if too far from Agile values.

This means that for an effective adoption (you want results, don’t you?) managers need to also change their attitudes and expectations. They need to change how they interact with their teams and what they expect from them, both explicitely and implicitely.

What if they don’t? Agile will just pass as another fad, but might be an occasion for your competition to benefit from huge productivity improvements and gain an edge. And as Edwards Deming mentionned: “It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

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Willing

Posted by Yannick Martel on June 12, 2009

Without a good product owner, a project can go that bad!

Without a good product owner, a project can go that bad!

I expressed on a recent post that the activities done upstream from software development where amongst the most difficult ones in producing a quality software product. Specifically, I was thinking about the role of the product owner.

A software developer has a very creative job, implementing requested features, within the boundaries of time and the constraints of language, framework, existing software and knowledge. Still, the job is pretty clear, even if difficult at times. Then tests, automated or not are there to help declare a job is done.

The role of the product owner in an Agile project on the other hand, is to will something and communicate his willingness. He is to produce a view of the software which would be the most useful for the company or organization, define a trajectory, negotiate with peers, feed this view iteration after iteration to the development team and interact on a daily basis to adjust. It is a bit like the job of a captain guiding his ship through a difficult passage, but without the ability to be happy about your job even if you reach a “correct” destination.

As a ship captain, a good product owner must listen, and then decide – I repeat as it is very important: listen and then decide. We concentrate here two major risks, on which the whole project might flounder: listening without deciding or deciding without listening. This is willing with being helped. Alas, in many corporations willing is not encouraged amongst managers, as it goes with taking risks, and accepting help is seen as weakness.

Is that an obstacle to truly benefiting from Agile methodologies? Yes, but indeed no project can go right without somebody assuming this charge, whatever the method – as for many things Agile only help making it more apparent.

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Working on the bottleneck – the right one

Posted by Yannick Martel on June 12, 2009

Are you attentive?

Are you paying attention?

From Lean Management and The Goal, you know where to look for when you wish to improve a complex process: you need to search for bottlenecks in the process flow, and first of all the major bottleneck. Find it and then concentrate all your actions on improving it. Then the process will get better (produce more and/or faster), but you will find have another bottleneck, another limiting factor. Just find it and work on it, and so on.

In IT, Agile has been proposed as a solution to the difficulties in the software product development  process. As Agile concentrates on software design and development, it can really help only if difficulties were indeed in design and development. That’s probably partly true as we effectively see improvements when Agile practices are really applied in development projects.

But then from Lean Management, we know we should look for the next bottleneck in the process. Where to look for it? We get an answer by looking at a typical Agile project: somewhere between three and eight weeks after the beginning, the pressure is no more on the development team but on the product owners. And thus we have found our next (and maybe really first and most important – why not?) bottleneck: the team in charge of knowing what to ask.

To me, it is particularly important to effectively address this bottleneck, first because the bottleneck is stronger: knowing what to code is at least as important as knowing how to code it – and generally coding correctly is easier that knowing what to code. Once the development team is ready and eager to produce value, all concentrated on it, it can gell pretty fast and request to be guided, request to know what to produce – pressure has moved.

But there is another, more subtle, reason: softtware development is more related to product design and development than manufacturing (more related to designing a new model of Prius than manufacturing it). It is a profoundly creative activitiy, requiring communication, trust and confidence. If a strong bottleneck is left in the process and it is not addressed, then you risk mining the efforts which have been done elsewhere and loosing everything you’ve earned. More concretely: if your product definition process is visibly the bottleneck and you don’t address it, the demoralizing effect will destroy whatever gains you’ve done by implementing Agile in your development team and you’ll quickly loose the discipline to go on with Agile practices and continuous improvements – maybe creating a secondary bottleneck again.

Posted in Agile, IT, Methodologies | Tagged: , , , , | 1 Comment »

Something new on Mashups and SOA

Posted by Yannick Martel on December 3, 2008

Before / After Services

At least something new about SOA! Many articles and discussions on SOA only address the technical or implementation aspects of SOA. We then wonder SOA is only a technology for IT departments to worry about, or whether it really concerns IT users. I have frequently been frustrated by some of the debates about SOA: much ado about nothing… Of course technology has evolved, but, more or less, service-oriented architectures have been possible for a long time, and have not been invented with Web Services. Limiting the debate on SOA with reorganizing existing IT applications around services restricts the debate to technicians – with only incremental improvements to bring to users. So why should they pay for major changes? An incremental improvement can justify only a progressive introduction, always guided by business requirements or a quest for optimizations.

Mashups Corporations brings something new with inviting directly the corporation’s strategy into the discussion. Organized as a novel (in the tradition of The Goal), its introduces us into a “brick and mortar” corporation, which is ultimately lead to evolving its IT under pressure from some Marketing product manager attracted by the new possibilities of Internet and Web 2.0.

This corporation’s IT is at the beginning of the book organized traditionally as a cost center, an expensive black box, tolerated as necessary for the company, secured and closed. In the shadow of this official IT, a “pirate” IT (the Shadow IT) survives, developed by employees avid to put new technologies in the service of their innovative ideas. Change arrives when the Shadow IT opens up to the outside (quite inadvertently at first) and allows third parties (client, prescriptors…) to interact with it. To cope with the new flow of transactions and revenue then generated, the official IT must open up (just a bit) to the Shadow IT. Then we begin to see the real, bottom-line certified justification for services and a service architecture. From a central fortress, opened only via GUIs, with a few Shadow IT autonomous cells, we switch to a central core, which provides access to internal and external applications via well-defined interaction points – services. This is the justification for SOA, as opposed to morphing an existing stable architecture into a service-oriented one, with limited business value.

This transformation creates new problems for the IT department, as well as provides a new positioning: from a cost center, attached to the CFO, the IT department becomes an innovation facilitator, supporting fundamental and industrial processes as well as new ideas – for people who can experiment, try, fail and succeed, develop new revenue streams, whether they are part of the company or not. IT must change its culture and its mission at the service of the rest of the company. Shadow ITs becomes authorized and officially supported.

What is the recipe for attracting and retaining customers in the XXIst century? Let’s allow third parties to develop new applications which process transactions by interacting with the core applications of the company. Once these third parties, prescriptors, clients, communities, are hooked onto your systems, they are attached to you. They find a competitive value in the interaction with your IT, which your competitors does not bring them – yet. The merit of Mashups Corporations resides in this perspective of SOA related to Web 2.0, justified by new capabilities to innovate and open. The technical information brought by Mashups Corporations (in appendices) is pretty standard, bringing nothing new as compared to mainstream SOAP-SOA – no debate on resource vs RPS styles, nor alternatives to Model Driven approaches. But that’s not the core of the book, nor of the debate.

Posted in Books, IT, Management, SOA | 1 Comment »

The Vietnam Syndrome

Posted by Yannick Martel on October 5, 2008

This was used in Vietnam to help you get out of hell

She was used in Vietnam to help get you out of hell!

Fighter pilot Ed Rasimus mentions in Palace Cobra that during his second tour in Vietnam in 1966 the US Air Force was a much more efficient organisation than during his first tour in 1972. This was the same war, but as it persisted, methods and practices where developed and implemented to more efficiently and reliably incorporate new arrivals, maintain planes, program missions, route pilots to refueling, direct them to bombing their targets and then get them back. They were able to operate smoothly with larger groups – in one word, they were more industrial. Was it enough to win the war? Not really. Did they achieve their strategic objectives? Not clear. Ed Rasimus even suggests that their very efficiency might be a symptom that the Air Force did not achieve their objectives – they just stayed and did their job, incrementally better, learning and improving, but it did not change the outcome of the war.

Let’s say it again: their very efficiency might have been a sign that they had been doing the same job for too long without any significant result. Of course, it had nothing to do with the guys who were actually in the war. They did better over time and achieved local, tactical success. Ed Rasimus instead condemns the way most of the war was managed, with no real intention of achieving a strong and rapid victory and with very bad understanding of the realities of war by decision-makers.

On reading “Palace Cobra”, I wondered if this could not apply to other situations. If I find a process which is very complex, smooth and well-established, it might mean that it does not really address the root of the problem – else it would have already solved it.

Recently, I found myself interacting with a very large IT organization. There, many years ago, the proliferation of releases, patches and applications lead to a nightmare of side-effects, non compatibilities and nasty disruptions. They decided to set up a mechanism of synchronization, forcing all major releases of applications to go together, with a strong project management organisation for coordinating them and performing qualification in sync. They have been doing it better and better over the years, and now it looks to me like an impressive war machine, very industrial and repeatable. On the other hand, they have made their release process very rigid and increased the time to market of new features and offers.

Is that a case of the “Vietnam Syndrome”? They addressed the problem at hand, which was solving the release nightmare. They kept going on and improving this solution. They kept bombing at the same place – but was it really the right target to bomb? Have they won the war? Maybe not, as they are still doing it. Clearly they have done right in solving their short-term crisis by strongly synchronising releases. Should they have done more than industrialising the approach? I am not sure, maybe address the issue of dependency between applications. Maybe something else. Then they might have won the war, or at least fought it on a strategic scale.

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Adaptable vs Adapted

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 25, 2008

Is it adapted? Would you like to adapt it?

Is it adapted? Would you like to adapt it?

As IT practitioners, we all want to produce solutions adapted to the needs of our clients. And usually we want our solutions to be fully adapted to a bit more than what we understand of the needs of our clients. We want to cover more in case we have missed something. We want to prepare for the future. This is why we make such long analysis, produce documents with complex business rules and go through long and tedious review and validation processes. This is also why we work hard at designing generic, elegant, general solutions. In the interest of the future. And that’s the right way to do, isn’t it?

No, Sir, it is not. As Auguste Detoeuf was saying in the 30’s in “Propos d’O.L. Barenton, confiseur”:

Contrairement à une opinion répandue, on fait quelquefois trop grand. Il faut faire juste, mais en ménageant tout pour agrandir le moment venu.
On se borne l’avenir en faisant trop large, aussi bien qu’en faisant trop étroit.

Or, translated in English:

Contrary to widespread belief, we sometimes build too large. We must build just right, while keeping open to enlarge when the time comes.
You can restrict the future by making too large, as well as too narrow.

In fact, when we we build “too large”, we develop mechanisms and answers for questions which have not been asked. When they arise, our solutions have to evolve because the answers we believe were right are not anymore. When other questions are asked, the complexity we have unnecessarily added is an obstacle to providing new, unanticipated answers. Thus by trying to be over-adapted, we prevent our solutions to be adaptable, which is really what our clients needs – really.

We should instead apply Gall’s law:

A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. The inverse proposition also appears to be true: A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be made to work. You have to start over, beginning with a working simple system.

Our job in IT is to build complex systems. We should build a complex system by first building a simple system, satisfying simple needs. Then we can augment and satisfy more sophisticated requirements, while making sure that:

  • the system is still working;
  • the system is still adaptable.

These two points are difficult, and require effort every day, but only then you will be able to help your clients – and keep being able to do so.

This is the paradox: by being adaptable, we can succeed at always being adapted (although it is not guaranteed, and we can still fail). By aiming at being fully adapted today, we are guaranteed to fail at being adaptable, and thus to fail at being adapted tomorrow.

Posted in Agile, IT, Methodologies | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Agile Adoption Patterns, 1, 2, 3

Posted by Yannick Martel on September 16, 2008

A sleeping volcano in Auvergne (France)

This looks like a plateau, but is in fact a volcano. Beware!

Let me confess it: I am not an expert in Agile. I have yet read only the first three chapters of Agile Adoption Patterns, from Amr Elssamadisy, and I already want to share with you how much it has inspired me. Especially in relationship with a specific project we at OCTO Technology are helping to get Agile. I will go on reading the remaining 43 chapters and may later review them here.

Agile is nowadays quite fashionable, and this very success generates its own problems. Amr mentions that the very first teams adopting Agile “methods” obtained 500% improvements in productivity, but that as Agile is becoming more pervasive and adopted by a wider audience we see more teams getting instead only 50% improvements, or failing to obtain any improvement at all. Indeed I now realize that the project I have in mind has probably reached this 50% plateau. Amr’s intention is to help us overcome this difficulty and implement an Agile adoption strategy to go much beyond.

For this, Amr’s gives me two keys. The first key is learning. Learning is the bottleneck in software development, the limiting factor in your effort to develop efficiently useful and dependable software. Learning might be about the functional domain, your user’s preferences, technologies, software development processes, whatever. Thus many of the Agile practices help people examine frequently what they have done and get an opportunity to learn and improve: short cycles, retrospectives, test-driven specifications, etc.

My “plateau” team is not today using some of the most important learning-oriented practises, such as refactoring and retrospective. The emphasis is more on velocity, not on learning. IMHO, this explains the plateau: once you have adopted some basic practices, you don’t improve anymore if you are not willing to experience frequently the slight unease of realizing you could have done better and turn it into the next incremental enhancement.

The second key is personal responsibility. The best Agile teams are self-directed, self-improving and responsible. Collective responsibility can only be based on the individual responsibiliy of team members. Many Agile practices help people in the team evolve towards more individual responsibility. Just as an individual cannot be ordered to be responsible, a team cannot be declared self-directed, but you can help it.

My “plateau” team is not today self-directed. It is composed of individuals moving in a hierarchical environment, which does not encourage personal responsibility. Agile adoption has not been positioned as a change in culture, only as “just another software development methodology”. I think we have not worked enough to empower the team, maybe because we did not fully appreciate the effects of the cultural gap.

The third chapter is about business values. What are your most important goals? What are your reasons for improving your software development process? Amr suggests some candidates, and invite to look for the right motivation for your team. If we know why, we have better chance to improve, and in the right place.

My best idea right now is to talk to the various members of the team and project sponsors, and try to understand what is the motive for getting the team Agile. Time to market? Yes, we would all like to get a release a few months sooner. Cost? Yes, of course, as everybody. But isn’t there any other reason, more specific to their situation? Then, I hope we will be able to get them motivated and empowered to overcome the plateau.

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