Wednesday, 30 January 2008

Perceptions of Quality

Quite some ago Intergen's Development Steering Group (DSG, a small group of senior developers/architects) went on a 'retreat' to discuss issues affected the development team as a whole and plan some strategy. Among the items up for discussion was the issue of quality - how to achieve it, and, in order to decide that, what on earth quality actually is.

You might be thinking: "That's easy. Quality is making something good" which is all very well until you are asked to define what makes a piece of software 'good'. Is it that the code is well written, well documented, that the design is clean, tidy and understandable, that the GUI looks pretty, that the GUI is easy to use, that the system meets user requirements? All of the above?

What the DSG guys did was to take a list of eleven fairly well-accepted aspects of software quality and rank them - not at all an easy task but one that generated lots of discussion. Ranking was done by a combination of a client's view of quality and a developer's view. While the client view tended to trump all (we are a consulting organisation after all) considerations such as the ease of updates/fixes also came into the equation. Here, in alphabetical order, are the aspects they tried to rank:

  • Conciseness
  • Consistency
  • Efficiency
  • Maintainability
  • Portability
  • Reliability
  • Security
  • Structuredness
  • Testability
  • Understandability
  • Usability
Before I tell you how they ranked them, let me add another interesting piece to the puzzle. After the DSG retreat, the same list was given to a group of less senior team leads (which is where I come in) and we ranked them ourselves before we saw what the DSG had decided. The resulting rankings were similar, but not entirely in agreement.

The DSG guys are more experienced, but generally far less hands-on than the Team Lead group. The Team Lead group is also generally younger and less experienced; and therefore completed their training more recently. DSGers usually work at a high level on many projects at once, providing guidance and support; while Team Leads usually work in-depth on one project at a time, dealing with the day to day issues of the team.

So... without any further suspense, here are the results:

DSGTeam Leads

We obviously all agree that Security, Reliability and Usability come out on top without too much bother. In our discussion we had next to no difficulty with those three being at the top, in that order. It was a big jump down in certainty to number four - and that's where we start to see differences.

The Portability/Testability disagreement at that point is one we spent some time discussing. We thought it related mostly to a difference in perspective. The DSG see a variety of projects and are usually called in when something goes majorly wrong. Since deployment can easily go wrong, and is urgent when it does, I wouldn't be surprised if those guys see a lot of deployment issues. Also, when looking at a high level timeline of a project (or an iteration), deployment stands out as it's own phase so its importance is highlighted: Plan, Build, Deploy. Team Leads, on the other hand, tend to spend most of their time trying to get things built and resolving issues. Since Testability makes getting something built and stable enormously easier, its importance is clear.

I can't help but wonder if there's a little bit of a generational difference in there too - Test Driven Design being still a recent-ish concept, the Team Leads may have formally studied unit testing at least a little (I know it was part of my university courses, at least) while the DSG are less likely to have done so. Just guessing here.

I find the difference in where we place Efficiency interesting too: sixth for the DSG, simply last for the Team Leads. Why? I know efficiency certainly seems important when looked at on the surface, so placing it last, at first glance seems strange. However, when we (the Team Leads) were discussing our rankings, each time we compared Efficiency to one of the other aspects we came to the conclusion that Efficiency was something that could be added in later. Perhaps even added in relatively easily if everything else had been done right - reliable, testable, understandable, well structured, consistent code being easier to optimise. On the other hand, if you got the rest wrong, well, good luck getting it to be efficient! And would it still be efficient if it ran fast but it took six months to make a change? I don't know what discussions took place for the DSG, but that was our train of thought at least.

One last point I'll pull out - both groups ranked Consistency and Conciseness low (and both in that order). Obviously we all love consistent and concise code, and I hope we all strive to write it, but, at the end of the day, the other aspects did seem more important. If the code is structured well (so you can find things), and understandable, and maintainable (you can make changes in one part with breaking the others), and there are good unit tests... does it really matter if the naming or style is not entirely consistent or if some things are rather verbose? It would be annoying I'll grant you, but not critical.

To a certain extent the discussion of rankings is academic - all eleven aspects are really important and we should be trying to ensure our projects have all bases covered. However, pulling out what we believe to be most important can help us to focus and to ensure that we don't get caught up in something relatively minor and forget what really matters. I also think it's a great discussion-starter to get people talking about quality (which we all should be) and also about the different perspectives we can have that cause us to value different things for different reasons.

What do you think?

kick it on

Sunday, 27 January 2008

On the shoulders of rather short people

Since my last post I have done a variety of weird and wonderful things, which resulted in me being sufficiently distracted/busy/miles from a computer to forget to post anything about them! Very quickly, I have:

  • Written a 50,065 word novel in 30 days as part of the general insanity that is NaNoWriMo
  • Flown a glider
  • Flown a small aeroplane
  • Gone snorkeling at the Poor Knights (and managed not to drown!)
  • Spent 10 days in an old canvas tent in Christchurch with around 3,500 other girls/women (Girl Guide Jamboree 2008)
Onward to the actual purpose of this post, which I hope may be more interesting!

Scott Hanselman recently published a post entitled "Standing on their shoulders and paying it forward" which contained the following paragraph:
If you have a blog, Dear Reader, why not take a moment at the beginning of this new year to write a post about the people that helped you get where you are? Parents? Teachers? First bosses? Friend? Spouse? Whose shoulders are you standing on?
The idea struck me as a laudable and sensible way to start blogging again in a new year after a long break. A list of all the people upon whose shoulders I stand would be more than long enough to cure a severe case of insomnia, so I won't inflict that on any of us. The crowd of people who have supported, encouraged and generally kept me sane over the years is huge and I am tremendously grateful to each of them. There are, however, a couple of people who stand out and have provided advice which I still quote and is helpful to more than just me.

Without further ado, may I present two women whose determination, frustration with me and patience despite it have left me with fond memories, pithy phrases and no few blushes of shame at how much I took them for granted.

#1 - a high school science teacher who placed her students far above herself - Ms Bailey

"Don't let your schooling get in the way of your education!" a hand-made poster on my bedroom wall once proclaimed. A unorthodox sentiment to have come from a high school teacher but one which proved a true and often useful guide. I had the privilege of being in Ms Bailey's classes twice - once as a 13-14 year old sitting compulsory 4th form/year 10 science, then again as a 15-16 year old in an accelerated class covering the critical sections of the 6th form / year 12 chemistry, physics and biology curriculums. In both cases some characteristics stood out: flexibility, humility and a strong focus on putting students first.

To a class of grumpy 13 year olds who didn't want to be in a compulsory science class, she posed a question: "What would you like to do in science?" To the unanimous response of "Blow things up!", she acquiesced, and found a way. A university project of mine years later began from the memory of learning to manufacture pure oxygen and hydrogen gases, measuring them carefully then taking a bottle filled with precise proportions into the middle of the tennis courts before lighting a match and watching it fly. And this despite a fear of explosions, which we only learnt about later!

To a young girl frustrated by an astronomy curriculum covering things she already knew, she granted permission to leave classes to pursue a personal project. The result sparked an interest in black holes that lasted years and left me dreaming of pursuing a career as a cosmologist and drawing singularities on paper for my friends during economics class.

Faced with a young idealist on a crusade against evolution, she again granted the permission for the project and weathered the ongoing discussion throughout the year with patience and politeness. Listening, questioning, proposing alternatives, but never ridiculing, she made the lunchtime discussions a time I looked forward to eagerly and left me feeling respected and capable. She also had the insight to use the opportunity as one of the few means anyone ever found to get me to work: if my grades dropped she quietly and simply became unavailable until they rose again.

A Biology expert struggling with the more complex Physics of the sixth form curriculum, she had the humility and grace to accept correction from a student - stunning an adolescent psyche wired to run on selfishness. Presented with my apology, her quiet insistence that she would much rather be embarrassed than allow the other students to learn something incorrectly left me more than impressed.

Having become a person in whose office I felt comfortable discussing my ideas, hopes and dreams, she shot down my thoughts of becoming a high school physics teacher with the simple statement "Don't you dare!" Again, more than a little unorthodox and certainly a surprise, but, yes, me as a physics teacher would not have worked well! In the same conversation she encouraged me to remember that there are far more areas of study in existence than those we cover in school, to try different things I hadn't thought of and thus to discover what it was I enjoyed. That approach resulted in the Computer Science and Psychology studies I enjoyed so much, and is one I advocated to a friend only last week.

For keeping me interested, pushing me to do more than the minimum, inspiring me with possibilities, pulling me up short when I needed it - thanks, Ms Bailey!

#2 - as cliched as it is, true nonetheless - MUM

All mothers, by definition, are important to their children. They all seem to accomplish miracles on a regular basis; resulting in most of them having in their possession some article or other with the legend "Best Mum in the World". Despite the stereotypicality of it, I insist on acknowledging how important my mum has been. :)

There are too many stories to tell here, but the traits I'd highlight if I could would be:
  • her constant pushing for the best - for me and of me
  • her stubborn independence
  • her focus on the practical - making it happen no matter what crazy dream I came up with
  • unconditional love - not only for me but for any of the wide selection of people she 'adopted'; demonstrating more than anyone else I know the ability to be there and to care no matter what a person may have done
  • keeping options open - the one technique for any and every situation!
You want to be a nurse? That's nice, dear. Why not a doctor?

You want to be a Cosmologist? That's cool. How about we go look at how you can get qualifications for that and where you can study.

You want to be a Physics teacher? Ok... let's look at how you can do that. Just make sure you keep your options open!

You want to be an Interaction Designer? That's cool. Let's look up some universities that specialise in that. Look, there's one in London...

You want to write a novel in 30 days? I think you're mad... but, here, have some chocolate, it may help!

You want to learn to fly something? Ok, I'll give you a couple of trial flights for your Christmas present - make sure you check out all the options!

Mum has slowly become the person I go to with crazy ideas, disappointments, successes, confusion. No matter what the problem may be, she'll always be able to come up with a list of options - to check out and keep open!