Archive for the ‘Intranet’ Category

Enterprise IT is broken (part 1)

Monday, November 18, 2013
posted by daveb

Broken windows in a St Petersburg abandoned cinema

 

You may have heard of Conways law:

“.. organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations”

Conway’s law has proven to be true for every software project I have ever been involved in. Take the client-server application where the client was developed in C++ and the server in C. The client side developers were young and hip, and into OO. The server side developers were ex-mainframe developers in their 50’s. It’s fair to say the two parties did not see eye to about much when it came to software design. The friction between the parties came to a head in the shared communication libraries for client-server communication, which they co-developed. The libraries were littered with pre-processor definitions and macros that seemed to be at war with one another. The arguments between teams carried over into the version control comments. The shared communication libraries were some of the most un-maintainable, un-readable and bug ridden code imaginable, even though the purely client-side and purely server-side code were reasonably tidy on their own.

It was around 2008 when I began my adventures into this thing we call “the enterprise”. I was going to be an “enterprise developer” and take on development of a key part of the infrastructure – a credit card transaction processing interface. I understood that enterprise development meant you had to be lean – unlike a software company selling software products or software as a service, there were no economies of scale – you only build one instance of enterprise software.

As I began to find my way round some of the custom developed services and applications, a few questions started to emerge – like what version control system do you use here? Answer: “yes we have been meaning to get to that”. Ok, so there had been only one developer on that part of the project previously, and he was a bit green, so I decided I shouldn’t pre-judge the organization based on that alone.

More questions started to appear as my predecessor walked me through the operations side of things. He showed me how they had left an older version of the credit card processing API in production because there were an number of external clients using that interface, and they could not force them to upgrade to the new interface. Fair enough. I asked about where the source code was for the old version, in case I need to go back to it should a bug need to be fixed. Answer: “… well there shouldn’t really be any bugs, because it’s been there for years now”.

It turned out that work had started on “version 2″ without any kind of version control branch or label or even so much as a simple zip backup of “version 1″ source code. They had lost the intellectual property investment of the stable “version 1″, and had re-written large chunks of it to create “version 2″, which was not backward compatible, and was considerably less stable than the previous version. Unbelievable.

“Version 2″ had been 18 months in development, and had only very recently been deployed to production. Therefore, no business value had been delivered for 18 months. Business stakeholders had lost patience, and almost lost complete confidence in the development team.

Since the recent “version 2″ update, the phone had been ringing hot, and my predecessor would have an often lengthy discussion with an upset customer who had lost sales due to downtime and bugs with the service. I was now supposed to take these calls, and be an apologist for this mess.

At this point, things were looking so bad I was seriously considering walking out the door before I was even two weeks into the job.

However, I resolved to take on the project as a challenge, and that is the only thing that kept me there. I enquired about the testing approach: unit testing, integration testing, user acceptance testing and so on. In short:

Unit Testing: “what’s that exactly?”

Integration Testing: a spreadsheet containing a single sheet with dozens columns and a hundred or so rows, each representing a test scenario. It was un-printable, un-readable, inaccurate and was the un-loved product of something the boss had instructed the developers to do. The developers didn’t feel their job was to test the product, and instead of resolving this dispute with the boss, they had yielded to his pressure, but then done the worst possible job on it, to make the point that developers can’t test! This communication breakdown, and many other examples like it had almost eroded all value from the services being developed.

User Acceptance Testing: none

As we delved into architecture there were more surprises waiting for me. Like the messaging interface that used a database table as a queue, and had a service polling the table for new records every 500ms. This, I later discovered, would occasionally deadlock itself with another transaction and become the deadlock victim, meaning someone’s credit card transaction failed. The reason for using a table as a queue: the solution architect was a relational database guy and insisted this solution be adopted when the developers had hit some problems with the message queuing technology they were using.

Turns out there were more surprises in store

What is unbelievable is not that this dysfunctional situation could exist, but that project management and project stakeholders had no idea that these problems existed in the development practices and system architecture. They knew something was wrong, but lacked the ability to see any deeper inside the box. Nor did they have any notion that the industry has long since found best practices that address the very problems that were slowly destroying all value in the services they were providing.

At first I thought this organization was an anomaly, and that I would be unlikely to see anything this bad again. But then I started hearing about others who had seen similar things. And then I saw inside other organizations. I started to realize that what I’d seen was not an anomaly at all, it was practically commonplace. Sure, some were better than others, but I had yet to see inside an enterprise that had anything even remotely approaching a quality development team, with a solid set of practices that was able to deliver business value.

Conway’s law seemed to be holding true. Frictions between personalities and departments led directly to confusing and inconsistent software architectures. In fact Conway’s law can even be used in the reverse – where there exist strange inconstancies in a software architecture, you get an insight into the friction between different personalities or departments involved in its design.

If you want to assess your development team, and you aren’t a developer, just use the Joel Test. It goes like this:

  1. Do you use source control?
  2. Can you make a build in one step?
  3. Do you make daily builds?
  4. Do you have a bug database?
  5. Do you fix bugs before writing new code?
  6. Do you have an up-to-date schedule?
  7. Do you have a spec?
  8. Do programmers have quiet working conditions?
  9. Do you use the best tools money can buy?
  10. Do you have testers?
  11. Do new candidates write code during their interview?
  12. Do you do hallway usability testing?

Add one point for every “yes” answer and there’s your score. As Joel himself says:

” The truth is that most software organizations are running with a score of 2 or 3, and they need serious help, because companies like Microsoft run at 12 full-time.”

The Intranet Landing Page IS the Intranet!

Saturday, September 3, 2011
posted by saille429

The landing page is going to leap out at every staff member every time they open their web browser. When staff members talk about “The Intranet” they are talking less about all those documents, applications, training materials and forms, and more about the home page.

That’s why the landing page really counts. You already have the documents, applications, training materials and forms – the trouble is finding and accessing them. The landing page is like Google is to the web – a veneer over the top of all this that will make or break it. The landing page is THE page that everyone comes too. It should be the most dynamic page on the whole Intranet, updated frequently with the most important information, and nothing more.

The Intranet is a strange beast – its kind of like your own private Internet, but with lot of strange quirks, such as legacy technologies, security paranoia, and corporate politics thrown in for good measure. The key to a making good Intranet for your organization is to forget all of these things, and just make your Intranet fast, friendly and have people want to use it, not because they are required to, but simply because its the best way to find the information they need.

I wanted to share some thoughts on the subject of the corporate Intranet, so I have published a lightweight whitepaper to help organizations to focus on what really matters when building an Intranet. There’s less than 4 pages of reading, so I encourage you to have a look and leave your thoughts in a comment here.

Read it here: The Intranet Landing Page