So what makes a good process?

So what is a good process? This was the first question that came across my mind when I set upon the task of actually drafting a process. Right from the days when I had started of as a software developer to the realm when I have been a project manager for some time, I have come to terms with one reality that development teams should not and they cannot slavishly follow a predefined process, instead, the key is to continually adjust the process as you go by reflecting on what you’re learning, what works, and what doesn’t. So how do we come across or define a good process? Based on my experience I feel that there are some pre-requisites for a good process, which are:

  1. A “Good” Process allows you to be fast — without having to reinvent the wheel! I am going to claim, what we all know but seldom admit, –that the fastest way to create software is not to develop anything yourself, but to reuse something that already works. This approach is not just very fast; it is also cheap. It delivers software that works. In practice, in many situations you may still need to develop something new, at the least the glue between the components that you can reuse. We don’t develop our own operating systems, database systems, programming languages, and programming environments any more. We usually start with a software platform and some middleware as a base — not much more. However, much more can be reused:
    1. You shouldn’t have to reinvent a process. Instead, you should use a well-proven process that is designed to be reused. This is what we call a process framework.
    2. You shouldn’t have to reinvent the same software over and over again. You should use a process that helps you harvest components and incorporate existing components — legacy systems or other reusable components — into your design. Of course, the process would come with appropriate tools to do so.
  1. 2.    A “Good” Process allows you to learn as you go — without slowing down the project: Developing software has never been as hard as it is today. As a developer, you need to have a knowledge base that is larger than ever before. You need to know about operating systems, database management systems, programming languages and environments, system software, middleware, patterns, object-oriented design, component-based development, and distributed systems. You also need to know a software process, a modeling language, and all kinds of tools. And if you succeed in learning something, you can be sure it will soon change. Change is the famous constant in the software domain! There is simply no way you will be able to learn all this before you start working on a project. You have to learn a little before, but most of it you will need to learn as we go.
  1. A “Good” Process should empower you to focus on creativity: In every project a large portion of the work done by developers is not genuinely creative — it is tedious, routine work that we should try to automate. The problem is that the creative and the routine work are interwoven in microsteps, with each such step only lasting from maybe tens of seconds to tens of minutes. Since these two kinds of activities are interleaved, the developers may still have the feeling of being creative, but fundamentally they are not. Some of you would probably argue that, in fact, you don’t do the unnecessary work. You focus on solving the business problem and ignore much of the other work that does not deliver business value. This is, of course, partly true. However, even in projects where the focus is on code, people have different approaches to good coding standards. What most people thought was good code some years ago is considered bad code today. Thus people spend time on arguing about these things. With a strong, good leader, these problems may be smaller. However, most teams won’t have such a leader. Aside from process issues, we also spend considerable time on many other small, technical issues. For instance, if you want to apply a pattern, there are many small steps you have to go through before you have instantiated the pattern. These small steps could, with proper tooling, be reduced to almost a single step.
  1. A “Good” Process uses tools to do more by doing less: Whatever you do, in order to be efficient you need good tools. Good tools are tools that are developed to work integrally with your process. The process and the tools go together. For instance, in examples taken from another world, if you want your carpenter to drive nails in a wall, he needs a hammer, not a screwdriver; if you want your baby to eat on his own, give him a spoon, not a knife. The same goes for software.  If the software community ever is going to be more efficient — that is, be able to rapidly develop high-quality software — then we need tools to help us do more by doing less. I agree with the idea that we want a process that is very light. In fact, I want a much lighter process than I have heard people speak about. It will be light because tools will do the job — you will be doing more by doing less.

Why waterfall or its variations do not suit us? Predictive vs. Adaptive

The waterfall model is the most predictive of the methodologies, stepping through requirements capture, analysis, design, coding, and testing in a strict, pre-planned sequence. Progress is generally measured in terms of deliverable artifacts – requirement specifications, design documents, test plans, code reviews and the like. The waterfall model can result in a substantial integration and testing effort toward the end of the cycle, a time period typically extending from several months to several years. The size and difficulty of this integration and testing effort is one cause of waterfall project failure.

Though there have been several variations of this methodologies preached for development of software in a planned and predictive manner, like spiral or iterative development, but I have seen most software development is a chaotic activity, often characterized by the phrase “code and fix”. The software is written without much of an underlying plan, and the design of the system is cobbled together from many short term decisions. This actually works pretty well as the system is small, but as the system grows it becomes increasingly difficult to add new features to the system. Furthermore bugs become increasingly prevalent and increasingly difficult to fix. A typical sign of such a system is a long test phase after the system is “feature complete”. Such a long test phase plays havoc with schedules as testing and debugging is impossible to schedule.

Reason 1: We need to separate design from construction, and this does suits us

Because the approach for software engineering methodologies looks like this: we want a predictable schedule that can use people with lower skills. To do this we must separate design from construction. Therefore we need to figure out how to do the design for software so that the construction can be straightforward once the planning is done. So what form does this plan take? For many, this is the role of design notations such as the UML. If we can make all the significant decisions using the UML, we can build a construction plan and then hand these designs off to coders as a construction activity. But here lies the crucial question. Can you get a design that is capable of turning the coding into a predictable construction activity? And if so, is cost of doing this sufficiently small to make this approach worthwhile?

All of this brings a few questions to mind. The first is the matter of how difficult it is to get a UML-like design into a state that it can be handed over to programmers. The problem with a UML-like design is that it can look very good on paper, yet be seriously flawed when you actually have to program the thing. The only checking we can do of UML-like diagrams is peer review. While this is helpful it leads to errors in the design that are often only uncovered during coding and testing. Even skilled designers, such as I consider myself to be, are often surprised when we turn such a design into software. Another issue is that of comparative cost. When you build a bridge, the cost of the design effort is about 10% of the job, with the rest being construction. In software the amount of time spent in coding is much, much less experts suggests that for a large project, only 15% of the project is code and unit test, an almost perfect reversal of the bridge building ratios. Even if you lump in all testing as part of construction, then design is still 50% of the work. This raises an important question about the nature of design in software compared to its role in other branches of engineering.

These kinds of questions led many like me to suggest that in fact the source code is a design document and that the construction phase is actually the use of the compiler and linker. Indeed anything that you can treat as construction can and should be automated.


This thinking leads to some important conclusions:

  • In software: construction is so cheap as to be free
  • In software all the effort is design, and thus requires creative and talented people
  • Creative processes are not easily planned, and so predictability may well be an impossible target.
  • We should be very wary of the traditional engineering metaphor for building software. It’s a different kind of activity and requires a different process

Reason 2: The Unpredictability of Requirements

There’s a refrain I’ve heard on every problem project I’ve run into. The developers come to me and say “the problem with this project is that the requirements are always changing”. The thing I find surprising about this situation is that anyone is surprised by it. In building business software requirements changes are the norm, the question is what we do about it. One route is to treat changing requirements as the result of poor requirements engineering. The idea behind requirements engineering is to get a fully understood picture of the requirements before you begin building the software, get a customer sign-off to these requirements, and then set up procedures that limit requirements changes after the sign-off.

One problem with this is that just trying to understand the options for requirements is tough. It’s even tougher because the development organization usually doesn’t provide cost information on the requirements. You end up being in the situation where you may have some desire for a sun roof on your car, but the salesman can’t tell you if it adds $10 to the cost of the car, or $10,000. Without much idea of the cost, how can you figure out whether you want to pay for that sunroof? Estimation is hard for many reasons. Part of it is that software development is a design activity, and thus hard to plan and cost. Part of it is that the basic materials keep changing rapidly. Part of it is that so much depends on which individual people are involved, and individuals are hard to predict and quantify. Software’s intangible nature also cuts in. It’s very difficult to see what value a software feature has until you use it for real. Only when you use an early version of some software do you really begin to understand what features are valuable and what parts are not.

This leads to the ironic point that people expect that requirements should be changeable. After all software is supposed to be soft. So not just are requirements changeable, they ought to be changeable. It takes a lot of energy to get customers of software to fix requirements. It’s even worse if they’ve ever dabbled in software development themselves, because then they “know” that software is easy to change. But even if you could settle all that and really could get an accurate and stable set of requirements you’re probably still doomed. In today’s economy the fundamental business forces are changing the value of software features too rapidly. What might be a good set of requirements now, is not a good set in six months time. Even if the customers can fix their requirements, the business world isn’t going to stop for them. And many changes in the business world are completely unpredictable: anyone who says otherwise is either lying, or has already made a billion on stock market trading.

Everything else in software development depends on the requirements. If you cannot get stable requirements you cannot get a predictable plan.

Reason 3: Is Predictability Impossible?

In general, No. There are some software developments where predictability is possible. Organizations such as NASA’s space shuttle software group are a prime example of where software development can be predictable. It requires a lot of ceremony, plenty of time, a large team, and stable requirements. There are projects out there that are space shuttles. However I don’t think much business software fits into that category. For this you need a different kind of process. One of the big dangers is to pretend that you can follow a predictable process when you can’t. People who work on methodology are not very good at identifying boundary conditions: the places where the methodology passes from appropriate in inappropriate. Most methodologists want their methodologies to be usable by everyone, so they don’t understand nor publicize their boundary conditions. This leads to people using a methodology in the wrong circumstances, such as using a predictable methodology in an unpredictable situation.

There’s a strong temptation to do that. Predictability is a very desirable property. However if you believe you can be predictable when you can’t, it leads to situations where people build a plan early on, then don’t properly handle the situation where the plan falls apart. You see the plan and reality slowly drifting apart. For a long time you can pretend that the plan is still valid. But at some point the drift becomes too much and the plan falls apart. Usually the fall is painful. So if you are in a situation that isn’t predictable you can’t use a predictive methodology. That’s a hard blow. It means that many of the models for controlling projects, many of the models for the whole customer relationship, just aren’t true any more. The benefits of predictability are so great, it’s difficult to let them go. Like so many problems the hardest part is simply realizing that the problem exists.

Reason 4: The Adaptive Customer

This kind of adaptive process requires a different kind of relationship with a customer than the ones that are often considered, particularly when development is done by a separate firm. When you hire a separate firm to do software development, most customers would prefer a fixed-price contract. Tell the developers what they want, ask for bids, accept a bid, and then the onus is on the development organization to build the software. A fixed price contract requires stable requirements and hence a predictive process. Adaptive processes and unstable requirements imply you cannot work with the usual notion of fixed-price. Trying to fit a fixed price model to an adaptive process ends up in a very painful explosion. The nasty part of this explosion is that the customer gets hurt every bit as much as the software development company. After all the customer wouldn’t be wanting some software unless their business needed it. If they don’t get it their business suffers. So even if they pay the development company nothing, they still lose. Indeed they lose more than they would pay for the software (why would they pay for the software if the business value of that software were less?). So there’s dangers for both sides in signing the traditional fixed price contract in conditions where a predictive process cannot be used. This means that the customer has to work differently. This doesn’t mean that you can’t fix a budget for software up-front. What it does mean is that you cannot fix time, price and scope.

Do we need another software development methodology?

The answer is YES, we do need one. Let me start by asking the mother of all question in software development, and that is why do software projects fail? Most large-scale software projects fail, and this phenomenon is not restricted to large scale projects only. Failures range from the worst-case scenario of projects that are not completed, to projects that are over budget or that fall short of expected goals and objectives. The larger the project, the more likely it is to go belly up, and this often leads to a costly washout for an organization. Even though each less-than-successful project has its own unique causes, I have pinpointed five of the primary factors that underlie most problems:

  1. Poor communication
  2. Incomplete requirements and specifications
  3. Scope issues
  4. Inadequate testing
  5. Integration

Problem One: Poor communication
One of the main reason projects fail is unclear, inadequate or inconsistent communication between stakeholders. Standard development methods do not include methodologies that support the ongoing and meaningful sharing of information between all project participants. Business users, technical management, outsourced services providers, and individual programmers are often isolated from each other.

Problem Two: Incomplete requirements and specifications
Traditional waterfall development begins with the creation of a comprehensive requirements document. This often massive guideline is designed to provide the blueprint for the entire project. The problem is that, in every project that lasts more than a couple of weeks, specifications will unavoidably change over time. Business requirements change. New aspects of the project come to light. What seemed workable on paper proves untenable in implementation. Despite the almost universal need for changes in requirements and specifications over the course of a project, traditional methodologies do a very poor job in systematically integrating such changes.

Problem Three: Scope issues
One of the most common areas of contention in software projects is “scope creep,” which causes discrepancies in both cost and delivery time. This is not surprising—you would need a crystal ball to anticipate the changes that may be needed in the life of a large-scale software development project whose entire scope can range in months or years. It has been stated that when estimating large projects, you can either be lucky or wrong. Unfortunately, most estimates aren’t very lucky.

Problem Four: Inadequate testing
Traditional development methods save testing to the final phase of a project. This is very problematic because issues with core architecture may not be exposed until a project is almost completed. At that time, correcting such fundamental problems can be very costly or may even require an almost total revamping of the code base. Another factor that adds to testing issues in traditional development is that testing is often under funded and constrained by time. By the end of the project there is usually tremendous time pressure to deliver the completed software, so the first roll-out of the new software is often an unofficial beta test.

Problem Five: Integration
Large projects using traditional development methodologies often fall apart during the integration process. It is often the case that different teams of programmers, who may be geographically dispersed, work in relative isolation on individual parts of the project for long stretches of time. As they finish their work, they typically turn over the code to the project manager who then assigns it to a new team that attempts to integrate the disparate components and make them all work together. Since there had been no consistent communication between the teams during the development process, there are often significant problems at this stage as different interpretations of the requirements or their implementation becomes apparent.