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An Inconvenient Truth: A Global Software Crisis


Every project manager or project sponser would love to have a model that churned out the probability of a project succeeding or failing. We may never achieve such precise quantification of project success, but there are definitely some red flags that will alert you.

I finally watched Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Apart from the remarkable case put forward about the state of our planet, there was one tiny bit which caught my attention. Al Gore mentions two formulae in his presentation.

  1. Old Habits + Old Technology = Predictable Outcomes
  2. Old Habits + New Technology = Drastically Altered Consequences

These formula are equally relevant at predicting the possibility of a crisis in a software development projects.

In any project, we often look at new technologies and advances with the intention of improving the overall solution, and shaving some time off deadlines. Unknowingly, though, our mindset is still a step behind. We use old habits with something new, miss the target, and create a mess of consequences which was never expected. To make matters worse, we sometimes use the “drastically altered consequences” to prematurely judge the new technology. The problem is not necessarily the technology, it is more likely that we used the new technology with a perspective of old habits. That is the essence of formula 2.

On the hand, formula 1 is the reason that we have legacy code and tried and tested technologies. The comfort and safety of old habits working with old technology makes a lot of sense. There are still high quality Visual Basic 6 or Delphi applications written by highly productive teams that are not just in maintenance, but are actively being developed with new enhancements, etc. And there is nothing wrong with taking this position.

In order to make a difference, we need to change our thinking which forces us to consciously alter our habits. It is only when we shift perspectives and behaviors will we be able to grasp a new technology or technique and make progress with minimal side-effects.

There are many instances of formula 2 that will give us the early alerts needed to avert a crisis. The two at the top of my list are:

  1. Relational/Set Oriented Thinking + Object Oriented Language = High Maintenance Consequences
  2. Stateful Client + Stateless HTTP = Low Scalability Consequences

I bounced these formulae of others and they had this to add. James Sugrue, the zone leader for JavaLobby, says "I've found that old habits and new technologies do create some strange results. For software developers, architects and testers it's very difficult to change to a new way of thinking. People used to waterfall processes, for example, will keep bringing in those waterfall ideals into agile projects. Both model driven and test driven approaches should replace the "Old Habits" side of the equation, but this seems to be a difficult hurdle for people. One formula I would put forward: Waterfall Design + Model Driven Development = Over Engineering.

I'm sure there's a formula out there too for people who have used those big old J2EE application servers to do a relatively simple job!"

Illana Foye, a colleague, responded to my original blog post with this formula: "Toxic Culture + Agile Development = IT meltdown". She clarified this with "Toxic sounds rather harsh, but it can be manifested through (bad) “habits” such as lack of support for learning at team level, hiding broken builds, ignoring roadblocks, self-interest, etc."

Maybe some of these formulae will help you spot an upcoming crisis in your project. What else have you come across?


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