On Forests and Trees

When an English speaker is drowning in details that make the big picture hard to see, she might complain, “I can’t see the forest for the trees.”

image credit: Miguel Virkkunen Carvalho (Flickr)

It’s an odd expression, partly ironic and partly humorous. When I hear it, I sometimes think of my sister, who, after moving from Indiana to Utah, complained that the mountains were getting in the way of her view. (Her tongue was firmly in her cheek… :-)

The expression also describes an important problem of software engineering–one that a lot of engineers don’t understand well enough. It’s a problem with generalization.
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Add some more extra redundancy again

It’s the season for coughs and sniffles, and last week I took my turn. I went to bed one night with a stuffy nose, and it got me thinking about software.

What’s the connection between sniffles and software, you ask?

Let’s talk redundancy. It’s a familiar technique in software design, but I believe we compartmentalize it too much under the special topic of “high availability”–as if only when that’s an explicit requirement do we need to pay any attention.

Redundancy can be a big deal. Image credit: ydant (Flickr)

Redundancy in nature

Mother Nature’s use of redundancy is so pervasive that we may not even realize it’s at work. We could learn a thing or two from how she weaves it–seamlessly, consistently, tenaciously–into the tapestry of life.

Redundancy had everything to do with the fact that I didn’t asphyxiate as I slept with a cold. People have more than one sinus, so sleeping with a few of them plugged up isn’t life-threatening. If nose breathing isn’t an option, we can always open our mouths. We have two lungs, not one–and each consists of huge numbers of alveoli that does part of the work of exchanging oxygen and carbon dioxide. Continue reading

2 Surprising Truths About The Iron Triangle

Project management 101 teaches that, when managing outcomes, you cannot alter scope, schedule, or cost (resources) without affecting at least one of the other dimensions. This interrelationship is known colloquially as the “Iron Triangle.” Sometimes we put “quality” in the middle to show how it is unavoidably shaped by choices on the other constraints:

Image credit: John M. Kennedy T (Wikimedia Commons)

Lots of Dilbert cartoons derive their humor from the unwillingness of the Pointy Haired Boss (PHB) to acknowledge this relationship. These cartoons are funny because they are so eerily similar to conversations we’ve all had, where someone wants us to deliver ultra-high quality, on a limited budget, in an aggressive timeframe, with a boatload of features.

It ain’t gonna happen, folks. We engineers are clever, but we’re not magicians. Triangles don’t work that way.

You’ve learned some good principles when you can articulate this geometry lesson.

But there’s more.

Truth 1: Scope is a trickster

Many well meaning managers and executives understand this trilemma, and they distance themselves from Dilbert’s PHB by acknowledging that something has to give. “I pick scope,” they’ll say. “We absolutely must have the product before the summer doldrums, and we only have X dollars to spend, but I’m willing to sacrifice a few features.”

This can give product management heartburn–feature sets sometimes hang together in ways that make slicing and dicing dangerous. An airplane that’s good at takeoffs but that can’t land is unlikely to be a commercial success. Good product managers will point this out, and they’ll be right.

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Why Software Artisans Should Manage Their Influence

Just read an insightful post from Seth Godin. If you don’t already know who Seth is, and follow him, I suggest you get to know him a bit. He’s a thought leader in the field of permission marketing–the founder of the movement, perhaps. He’s spoken at TED conferences numerous times. Every one of his books that I’ve read is worthy of pondering.

Although Godin isn’t speaking specifically about software craftsmen, I see direct application of his thinking to our field. Since so much of what we do requires buy-in, coordination and shared mental models, we have to be savvy about how we communicate, advocate, and train. Assuming equal technical competence, the difference between effective and ineffective technical leaders largely depends on the mastery of this skill.

Have you considered how to grow your influence? Do you have a plan?

Influence doesn’t always work the way we expect. :-) Image credit: xkcd

3 Commandments of Performance Optimization

In my experience, most programmer attitudes on speed fall into one of these categories:


Programmers with this mindset think about performance on occasion, but it’s not a big focus. Occasionally they’re forced to tackle problems because a particular design is too slow, a customer is unhappy, or new scaling requirements materialize. In such cases, they experiment until behavior improves, and then go back to the work they really care about.


Programmers with this mindset have a hard time not thinking about performance. Every design they do reflects elaborate consideration of how to minimize footprint and/or how to complete a task in the shortest possible time. (Note that those two priorities often conflict.) Programmers who are passionate about performance often feel like their laissez-faire counterparts are derelict in their duty.

I don’t think either of these extremes is healthy in all cases. I have seen programmers who chronically think about performance too late,  creating large refactoring burdens and sabotaging their company’s success. Sometimes when you go from “make it work” to “make it fast” you find that all your original work is a waste, because a totally different design (even different tests, conceivably) is the only way forward; I wrote about this in “A Quibble with Martin’s ‘Optimize Later’ Notion“.

On the other hand, it is possible to be too passionate about performance; optimizing the performance of the dev team (by decreasing coding and testing time) is often a better business choice than optimizing execution speed in ways that make code more complex and harder to verify. I have encountered performance zealots disqualifying a perfectly good design on the grounds that it’s not performant enough in a use case that only 2 customers on the entire planet would ever care about. Not smart. As I’ve said many times, good code is balanced.

ThrustSSC — the first car to break the sound barrier. Sometimes speed is the ultimate criterion. However, most money is made on cars with more modest performance requirements. Photo credit: cmglee (Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s assume you buy my criticism of the extremes, and you’re willing to apply the “it depends” doctrine. Continue reading