When you're doing it wrong...

How do you know when you're doing it right? Most of the time I know I'm doing it right is when it feels like I'm always hitting my goals, and it's getting easier than it was yesterday. Although that might be a little lie I tell myself because it might just be because I know when I'm doing it wrong, and how bad that feels. If I don't have those bad feelings I know I must be doing something right.

Here's a great example of doing it wrong. I'm at a place that loves to branch code. Most of the time they are branching because the business demands a release, but they have such a large team in order to keep everyone "busy-ish" they have to branch. They have an idea they're doing it wrong, but they don't really have a clue as to how to do it right so they just do what they know. The developer's don't like branching, but the business doesn't give them much choice.

Problem is refactoring is important because the code base is pretty hard to work with. Now when they add multiple branches + refactoring + big team = double black diamond level of difficultly in the merges. So that's bad, but another side effect is when a merge is going on it prevents people from modifying the repository. Nobody can use the source control system while this is happening. It's an all stop. One of these merges is going on it's 5th day. That 5 days where no one has integrated their changes, built all of the code, or synchronized with other people's changes. Now all of a sudden the choices to use SCM, continuous integration, refactoring, and small agile practices is really loosing it's benefit. One developer suggested we send around patches to each other while the merge is going on. We specifically picked a SCM system so we don't do that. Once the merge is done the SCM system is going to hit with tons of changes, and when something breaks functionality they won't be able to easily resolve it because of the volume of changes. Now quality is suffering directly because of relentless branching.

Funny thing is I can't think of anyone out there that suggests branching as a technique for achieving quality. However, there are countless examples from experts that generally agree using SCM, continuous integration, refactoring, and small changes help overall quality. Why are we doing something that sacrifices those best of breed practices? Now the guy with the "big picture" view seems to believe it's the actual code quality is to blame for productivity problems, and quality issues. He thinks more code reviews, and education is in order about how to write "good" code will right the ship. At some level business is just throwing crap over the wall without any real conversations.

This is what I call an "everything is arduous and ridiculous" environment. Everything about this place feels over the top hard. Why don't people around me seems to realize this is the ridiculous way to operate? Haven't they ever had that effortless feeling of productivity? How you're always the man, and it's just right? Sure this works in that we are producing a product very slowly, but it doesn't feel like a success. Is it luck? Is it innate to the problem you're trying to solve? Well...maybe.

Sure some problems are harder than others. Building Google mail is harder than building an android app. But, I've been on some pretty nasty android apps. Which tells me there is a way to make an easy problem hard, and hard problem easy. So what are we doing that makes this problem so hard?

Sometimes it's not being smart enough. We all love algorithms, and finding that simple algorithm that just makes the problem go away is sublime. That's what we all fell in love with if we have any formal training. But, those types of problems are far and few between. Mostly what we do is slog crap from one database, slap it on the glass, then slog the new crap back into the database. Rinse and repeat 1000x and you've got a product. There is no algorithm that makes that easier. If there's no algorithm then what is it?

Technique. There's a difference between algorithm and technique, and what types of problems they are best suited for. Technique isn't going to come up with map reduce. That's algorithm. Technique is your choices for what you're going to use, and how you're going to use it so the problem is easier. Technique is also about how you choose to define the problem which means technique comes before algorithm. How can you choose an algorithm if you don't know what your problem is?

Technique breaks down into two parts. Choosing a set of tools and processes, and how you apply those tools or processes. Technique extends past the end product into the support systems that nurture how that end product is created with bug tracking systems, source control management systems, continuous integration, user forums, etc. And, those choices can have a greater effect on the end product than what you put into the product. Just reread the example above for justification.

To some degree, we place too much emphasis on tool choice because how you apply it can undermine the choice of using that tool. If your technique doesn't match the tool the tool will never matter. Have two bug tracking systems because one group doesn't want to give up their existing one. Been there, real story, doesn't work, definitely doing it wrong. (Actually same place as the example probably could have a book of "doing it wrong" ideas from this place). As in the example at some point application of those tools made the choice of SCM moot.

In the end we need to discuss technique more passionately than specific technologies. The two do go hand in hand, but it's the technique in the end that makes the difference. So how do you know you're doing it right? When technique matters more than technology.