Thursday, March 8, 2012

Manufacturing of a Complex Thought

Imagine that the software system is a physical thing. Its shape isn't really
concretely describable, its like a physical version of a complex thought. All
of the developers sit in a circle, poking and prodding at the physical thought -
adding new concepts, and changing existing ones.

Just like we have user interfaces for our application users, the code is the
developer's interface to this complex thought. Knowledge processes and tools
help us to manipulate and change the thought.

If I want to make a change, I need to first understand enough of the thought to
know how it would need to change. If I can easily control and manipulate parts
of the thought, and easily observe the consequences, its easier and faster to
build the understanding I need. Once I understand, I can start changing the
ideas, and again if I misunderstood something, it would be nice to know as early
as possible what exactly my mistake was, so that I can correct my thinking. If
there were no misunderstandings, the newly modified complex thought is then

In order to collaboratively work on evolving this complex thought, we must also
maintain a shared understanding - more brains involved increases the likelihood
of misunderstandings and likewise mistakes.

So with that model of development work, then think about all of the ideas and
thinking that have to flow through the process in order to support the creation
of this physical idea. Inventory in this context is a half-baked idea, either
sitting in the shelf, or currently in our minds being processed. These ideas
are what we manufacture, but since each idea has to be weaved into a single
complex thought - our tools that we use to control and observe the thought, the
clarity and organization of the thought, the size of the thought, all have a
massive impact on our productivity.

The tools are not the value, the ideas that get baked into this complex thought
are. All of the tooling is just a means to an end. We should strive to do just
enough to support the manufacturing of the idea.

If you think about creating tests from the mindset of supporting the humans and
these knowledge processes, a lot of what we do with both automated and manual
testing can clearly be seen as waste. An idea that is clear to everyone, for
example, is not one likely to cause misunderstandings and mistakes. We should
first aim to clarify the idea to prevent these misunderstandings. We should
then aim for controllable and observable, as these characteristics allow us to
come to understand more quickly. And when misunderstandings and mistakes are
still likely, we should then use alarms to alert us when we've made a mistake. 
False alarms quickly dilute the effectiveness of the useful alarms... thus
taking care in trying to point the human clearly to the mistake, and not raise
unnecessary false alarms is what makes effective tests.

Now think about things like code coverage metrics in this light. This metric
tends to encourage extreme amounts of waste. We forget all about the humans and
fill our systems with ever-ringing false alarms. We tend to only think about
tests breaking in our CI loop, but their real effect is their constancy in
breaking while we try to understand and modify this shared complex thought. 
With our test-infected mindsets, we quickly bury the changeability of our ideas
in rigidity, and lose the very agility that we are supposedly aiming for.

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