Monday, June 13, 2011

DDDSW 3 - RE: the ReWrite session.

I went to DDDSW on Saturday( a conference based around Microsoft technologies) specifically to see one session.

"Rewriting software is the single worst mistake you can make - apparently" by Phil Collins.

This subject is dear to my mind as I've been involved in many rewrite projects over the years with varying degrees of success. Its also a big part of my studies at the minute.

Phil is a confident speaker and this session is an experience report rather than a "How to" session. Some of the choices that Phil has made I disagree with. I want to share the reasons why I disagree, not to have a pop at Phil but just to get clear in my mind why I do.

Language choice
Phil was moving from an old tightly coupled legacy system and he had a free choice of languages. He quite rightly had an R & D session on a few languages. However the basis of the choice he made given in the talk was problems with case insensitivity. There are many factors for choosing a language, tooling support & flexibility are two that spring to mind but the issues that you have in the first few weeks you will soon forget and so case insensitivity is a minor distraction in my opinion. Choose a language and platform that is right for the application not just the rewrite project.

Screen by screen rewrite.
Why? Sure you get all the features but this is an excellent time to find out exactly what you do use and more importantly what you don't. I know this from first had experience. I joined a rewrite project late that had done exactly this. There were dozens and I mean dozens of text boxes and fields in the application that were not used any more. Whole screens were devoted to the parts of the business that just didn't exist any more.

Take the time to talk with your users about each screen. Try and come up with the story behind each feature. If your users don't need it. Don't rewrite it. This saves you time and gives you opportunity to remove cruft from your application.

To be fair Phil did share a story where he added more features based on user interaction. I'm assuming that he may not have blindly rewritten all features.

What Phil has got right:

Continuous integration.
Phil lauds this and has a very funky set of build radiators. (BVC of the build status) and I agree. CI is instant feedback and build radiators are key to that feedback.

Slowly, carefully.
Phil tells his devs to go slowly. Any project should not be done a break neck speed. Otherwise you are under pressure to cut corners. If you are just in a race to rewrite a function you will make mistakes. A rewrite is an opportunity to cut tech debt. Don't make the mistake of adding more.

More Whiteboards
... I love just scribbling down stuff on white boards too. It is simply a great way to share ideas and concepts.

What I would do - ascertain the vision
Assuming that the rewrite has to be done. I would try and extract the vision for the project. Why is it that we have to do this rewrite? What are we trying to get out of the the rewrite? It may be to improve usability or performance. It may be for legal reasons. It may be the the cost of change is high in the legacy application or that the technology is just not supported. 

Observe system usage
Given we now have a vision, a set of woolly statements that we are heading towards we can now look at the current application and its features. Look at each of the features and see if they still align with how the users are using them. A good idea here is to sit with the users and observe their daily activity. Its an eye opener to see how your application is actually being used and its often not as designed. Of course you will not all of the usage in just one session but you will certainly get the core. 

Speak with your users
Next step is to interview your users find out what they think their processes are. At this point you should pick up things they do that you didn't pick up on the initial sweep. This is a great opportunity to find clunky procedure where you can improve upon. Many times I've done this and found hidden manual process too.

Collaborate to write automated specifications
Now that you have a vision, an idea of how the users are using the system and the processes they are trying to follow you can begin to look at the features the system needs to achieve the processes. These features can be broken down into user stories and then you can provide examples to specify the features. A tool like Cucumber (or SpecFlow) can work well in situations like this. Now that your specs are automated you can get that cosy feedback loop when you check with your CI system.

Split your work up into chunks. Stop then reflect. Are we missing something? If so add it. Show your work to your users regularly. Rollout to them as soon as possible and as much as possible.

Phil's got some good ideas but his focus is different from mine. Check out his blog for some views on rewrites and if he does his talk near you go see it. But also don't rewrite feature for feature. Take the opportunity to prune dead features and improve existing ones.

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