The Dopefly Tech Blog

Join Nathan Strutz as he shoots the breeze on techie geeky web dev stuff.

Programming is Hard!

posted under category: Software Quality on February 13, 2020 by Nathan

Maybe you don’t remember, so let me remind us all how hard programming is.

I have four children. Believe me when I say that I have been trying to get them to program from a very young age, and so far it’s not all roses and candy treats. Usually there is an amount of familiarization that a flourishing person needs to have with a subject in order to comprehend it fully. Learning how to read, for example, takes sounding out letters, followed by dick-and-jane books, followed by frustration, some time off (usually months), and then retrying, usually with a higher amount of success. Learning to read is a long process and doing it well involves creating many new brain pathways.

Imagine trying to teach your parents to program. With only a few exceptions, there’s a very high chance they simply won’t be able to get it.

This is something I wrestle with, and recently I’ve come to the conclusion that the standard human brain can’t easily grasp the concept of templating. Instead of building something, we programmers are building something for someone else to build something. The more meta up that chain our brains can go, the better a programmer we tend to be. Problems are always solved on a higher level than they were created.

Let’s say that we learned programming, we make our first application, we send it out for our users to try it, and what happens? It doesn’t work! We thought of every conceivable possibility. The problem was that we didn’t conceive of enough possibilities.

“Software is not governed by Moore’s Law; more like Murphy’s Law”
– Douglas Crockford

Even when we find a good solution, that doesn’t mean we’ve reached programming bliss.

“Some people, when confronted with a problem, think “I know, I’ll use regular expressions.” Now they have two problems.”
– Jamie Zawinski

Sometimes progress is very hard and it can literally take years to get past our hurdles. My friend Ben wrote this a number of years ago:

“Every time I think I am making progress, I come to realize that I only have more confusion over the ‘right’ way to implement something”
– Ben Nadel

But don’t forget, programming is very difficult. It can be near-infinitely complex. Think about this for a couple minutes:

“Computer programs are the most complex things that humans make. Programs are made up of a huge number of parts, expressed as functions, statements, and expressions that are arranged in sequences that must be virtually free of error. The runtime behavior has little resemblance to the program that implements it. Software is usually expected to be modified over the course of its productive life. The process of converting one correct program into a different correct program is extremely challenging.”
– Douglas Crockford

If you’re programming, you are doing something extremely intricate. You are valuable because most people cannot do what you are doing. But wait! Your value isn’t only in programming, you are especially valuable because of your ability to put business processes to computers, and to explain these computer systems back to the business.

(discuss!)

Lines of Code

posted under category: Software Quality on February 7, 2020 by Nathan

One of the oldest and rawest forms of software measurement is the inimitable count of the number of lines of code. Let’s talk about that.

“Measuring programming progress by lines of code is like measuring aircraft building progress by weight.”
-Bill Gates

I work at an airplane manufacturer. We actually know the final delivery weight of an airplane, even adjusted for paint and seating arrangements, and in airplane manufacturing, knowing the current and final weight could help. On the other hand, a work of software is done when all the features are complete and the bugs are worked out, or better yet, when we know it will make or save enough money to start selling or using.

Lines of code differ drastically between systems. Choice of programming language is one of the primary reasons for a drastic change in the lines of code. One lower level language may allow us to implement a solution in 100 lines of code, while a higher level one has it as a built-in-function - one line. That doesn’t mean either language is worse, just different. Typically we see higher level languages develop applications much faster and debug easier thanks to the smaller codebases, but there is a tradeoff in performance and resource usage.

Another distinguishing factor is what function the application is expected to perform. It’s hard to compare a shopping cart system to a manufacturing system, they have completely different uses and thus a line count to compare them does essentially nothing. Perhaps one application is more straightforward and requires less code, even if it produces more in some kind of measurable output.

Then there’s the people problem. A developer on one system may have clever tricks that reduce the line count. This could make the codebase equally better or worse, generally depending on the cleverness of the solution, and thus the cleverness of the programmer. We often think we are smart. 90% of programmers believe they are above average, thanks to the cognitive bias called illusory superiority.

This then leads us to the yin-yang problem. More features need more lines of code, however there is a tax because more lines of code become harder for the software writer to comprehend and modify successfully. This is the exact nature of software complexity, and leads to the introduction of bugs, the creation of testing frameworks, the discussion of software quality, and the entire software industry. Remember that no lines of code means no bugs, no rework, no expensive developers, and no security hacks.

Next, we have to consider how the number of lines are calculated. Does that count include 3rd party libraries? Does it include blank lines and whitespace? Does it include comments? We can make a strong case both that all of these should or should not be included.

Lines of code does tell one one important thing however. It tells us how many lines of code are in the application’s codebase. It can give us a general order of magnitude for what we will find. It can give us the feeling of largeness, especially when we compare file-by-file (though typically a byte count would suffice). That’s it. Number of lines of code can tell us how many lines of code there are. That is all.

(discuss!)

Measuring Software

posted under category: Software Quality on February 1, 2020 by Nathan

Why do we want to measure software?

Software measurement is what we software developers do instinctively when we start a new job, join a new project, or enter a new team. It’s critical for us to understand the scope of a product so that we can learn our boundaries and understand our place. Understanding software is one of our best skills - the others being the ability to explain it, and the ability to write it (okay, there may be more to it). Our fight against the chaos of the unknown requires that we split up what we can observe into categories that we can understand.

Many times I’ve been give a legacy codebase without a proper introduction. That’s the worst feeling, and was my motivation for writing a big post on how much documentation you should have. If we could somehow bottle up this knowledge and pass it on to our colleagues, it could be very beneficial to future maintainers, helping to lower the long tail of operational cost on a product, and maybe even stave off the inevitable retirement of an app and the cost of rewriting it for a long time. And that’s our goal - it’s to remove cost, not to add it. It’s to understand the world and to be able to explain it.

Good measurements of software can bring a valuable understanding to us and to the people paying our bills. Is the software tiny and easy? That’s good to know! Is the software humongous and complex? That’s good to know! Is the software terrible and in dire need of help? That’s good to know!

How do we measure software?

Answer that and you’re likely to get a grant. The truth is, software isn’t specifically measurable, for the same way we can’t make software perfect. Sure, at a certain small size we can verify that it works as expected, but, you know, can it read mail yet?

Every program attempts to expand until it can read mail. Those programs which cannot so expand are replaced by ones which can.
Zawinski’s Law

That’s tongue in cheek. These days we could change Zawinski’s Law to interacting with social media or running as a native mobile app.

Our trouble with measuring software is that measuring by any single logical metric is a sure way to miss the mark altogether. Software measurement has to be on a different level, in fact, many different levels. Measuring software can only be done when we take in a system holistically. That means understanding it on a much broader level.

As soon as we measure the size on disk, somebody’s in there changing things. As soon as we measure the memory footprint, someone logs in, adding data. As soon as we measure the performance, another proces ties up the CPU and throws off our measurements. Software is soft, and changes too frequently to make accurate measurements that matter. Software is fluid, moving from disk to RAM, and transmitting across networks. It doesn’t take much of a program to utilize all of the hardware given it. It seems that simple metrics just won’t be enough to measure software. Measuring software by its metrics can give a picture of the whole, though, and there’s value in that.

When thinking holistically, one of the aspects that would need to be measured is the quality of a work. We need to measure the quality to complete this picture.

How can we measure software quality?

There are more intangible ways of measuring software, such as number of customer requirements, size or activity of the product’s backlog, and number of users. In particular, we can concentrate on the number of logged defects, if they have been logged at all. None of these are a holistic measurement of the quality of a piece of software, but they do help to paint the broad picture.

I believe that quality is a collection of mostly-intangible aspects. This means quality cannot be measured with a number or a picture. I think maybe a dozen pictures and user interviews and developer deep dives could help complete a mental model of the quality of an application.

There are quality metrics, such as the amount of code coverage (amount of code that is covered in unt tests). That’s a potential measurement of quality, but it could still be a terribly built app with great unit tests. Cyclomatic complexity is one of my favorites, having built a McCabe Indexing tool of my own a few years back. It tells you how complex your CFML files and functions are, and can show line-by-line where your most complex areas are. Another one I’ve looked at is function point analysis, which can map the central parts of an application by usage.

Once a software analyst understands the system holistically, they should be able to express that holistic idea to others. Of course this is a breakdown of its own type, and relies on the communication skills of the analyst.

What are the aspects of software quality?

I’ve compiled this list that I’ll go over at a later date, but feel free to suggest more. Quality is:

  • Completeness
  • Conciseness
  • Consistency
  • Debugability
  • Efficiency
  • Extensibility
  • Maintainability
  • Client Portability
  • Server Portability
  • Reliability
  • Security
  • Structuredness
  • Testability
  • Understandability
  • Usability
(discuss!)

The Ongoing Software Crisis

posted under category: Software Quality on January 30, 2020 by Nathan

The official software crisis was about computing power versus software power in the 1960’s. Hardware was outpacing software, which led to the need for higher level languages, better development methodologies, and more workers to write programs. Ask anyone in their later years who had been a programmer for their career and you may learn more than an earful about these problems. Something ongoing from the old software crisis were some of the signs and symptoms that we see today:

  • Software is over budget
  • Software is delivered late
  • Software is low quality
  • Programs run slowly
  • Results don’t meet requirements
  • Code is unmanageable
  • Sometimes applications are never completed, vaporware

We see a good amount of that today. Personally, I see it all over enterprise software, and frequently in outsourced programs – that’s another topic for another day. I also see it in inexperienced programmers, especially when they are allowed to work alone, and sometimes in development done outside of normal software companies and departments. For real though, sometimes we even see it in more experienced looking teams as well.

The struggle is real. A lot of this software crisis is still in effect. It just doesn’t act like it did back before I was born.

Higher level languages help the crisis because they can be more expressive and produce better applications. This is why JavaScript is great - at great expense to the CPU, JS executes in a VM in a browser in a windowing OS, many levels removed from actual hardware. CPUs used to double in throughput every 18-24 months (Moore’s law), but those days are mostly gone as we struggle against the limits of atomic sizes. That means our higher level programs now have to act like lower level programs. This is why JVM and .NET runtime applications succeed, and why Chrome’s V8 engine has been so successful. They can run abstracted languages as if they were one layer closer to the hardware.

Better software lifecycle processes typically help with late, over-budget software and with missed requirements. I personally have seen how Agile was a giant victory over the 6-month deployment cycle in years before. Tools like CI/CD enablers can put working code in front of our users even faster. Unfortunately, these processes don’t remove the problem of low-quality code, though they help mitigate many of the hurdles.

Isn’t that just software life though? We struggle through it every day in order to make the world a better place. That’s the programming life. That’s what we get paid to do. Maybe it’s kind of the dark side, sure, but that’s where we live. What do you think? Is the software crisis still a term worth using today?

(discuss!)

Meanwhile, I'm successfully rewriting your code

posted under category: Software Quality on January 26, 2020 by Nathan

I really enjoy a lot of the content on Y Combinator’s Hacker News. One recent article that came up was Why do we fall into the rewrite trap?, which was a great look into the anti-pattern of software rewrites instead of thoughtful refactoring.

The comments tend to be as good as the articles, for example, one commentor mentioned Theseus’ Gambit - a philosophical engineering question about replacing every plank on a ship, at what point is it a new ship? This is a great question when it comes to software rewrites. Isn’t a refactor somehow creating a new work? Or is it only a rewrite if you start over?

So many comments agreed with the author and added their own notes. One wrote “rewriting a codebase is a lose-lose proposition: I’ll never suggest or recommend it again.” Others mentioned the need to rewrite based on technologies, like old Flash applications.

A few years ago, I was on a 3-person team asked to upgrade and visually update one of our applications. At one look, you would have guessed it was built in 1996. It was abandoned and disavowed by all the previous programmers. We looked at the code and went over the security, and decided that there was absolutely no part of it that could move forward. Management had been sold on a refactor but we needed a rewrite. We are determined to do what’s necessary, so we kicked it off. Our project manager collected requirements and relayed some of our ideas, then my friend Shawn and I worked through the new database needs, new CSS frameworks, new JavaScript frameworks, and the new security system. In a short handful of months, we had a much improved replacement for the old system, ran the implementation plan, migrated all the data, and turned off the old site. It was a big win for the business, and for #TeamRewrite.

Not long after that, #TeamRefactor got a victory on a desktop app - it was a bigger team and while the code was bad - I mean like, a complete misunderstanding of OOP - we decided to refactor a lot of it instead of starting over. It was a somewhat political decision because we didn’t want to make the previous dev team angry. Unfortunately, they were equally offended that we were planning a refactor. Some drama took place. The refactor effort took a long time. We finished it eventually, but we ended up with an app that we still didn’t like (it was better, and many of the initial underlying problems were fixed, but…), our friends didn’t like us anymore, and a lot of time was wasted - far more than we expected. I would vote that refactoring this app was an overall failure.

A little later I was given charge of an IT app that was built only 6 months earlier and still in active development. Its foundation was in ASP.NET WebForms and VB.NET. After I gagged a tiny bit, I swallowed my pride and tried to hunker down and start on improvements. Backing up, our department has been a C# MVC group for some years, and when we follow one path, we try to make the rest of our choices as vanilla, gravy, plain, and standard as possible. This helps with ramping up new employees. The group that started this app chose .NET but then went with every other different choice, probably just based on familiarity. I took a task off the backlog for creating a mobile-friendly version, which turned into a reimplementation of the entire app, running much faster, was natively responsive, perfectly printable, and ended up being the spearhead of the larger vision for version 2: a complete rewrite. I did it with tact, not offending any parties, announcing my successes and advertising my work while helping the product team make the right choices on the vision. The end result was a much better product that fell closer in line with department goals. Another point for #TeamRewrite!

Not long after, I was handed a C# MVC + React app. The current steward was about to leave the company, so I had a transition week and then it was mine. The app was fine, there was nothing really wrong with it. On day one of independence I had about 30 commits to fix a bunch of things that I thought needed changing but didn’t want to do it and stomp on my former co-worker’s code and feelings. Very quickly, a number of things started working better, I caught up with all the changed from the data team that worked out of our Seattle office, I refactored some things that probably needed it, created my own backlog, and pretty much got bored about 3 weeks in. This is when I started to rewrite the UI in Vue.js. There were some requirements coming down that would have me using Redux, and I do not want to use Redux again, also I couldn’t figure out React-Router’s chunk splitting (I guess it depends on React.lazy()), and I don’t like the React runtime’s bloated file size. On the other hand, I’m a huge fan of Vue, which is smaller, faster and I just like it more. I’m opinionated! I was pretty sure I could keep up with the React app changes and create the Vue version (I could), chalk up the UI change from React-Semantic-UI to Vuetify (Material) as just being a visual update (I did), and get it all done in 4 weeks (I didn’t). It took me 6 weeks. I floated it with the data team and they were positive on it, so I pushed it to the users… they barely noticed. After a while I got some comments about how much they liked the changes. The result was an application that ran a little faster, downloaded quicker, was more maintainable, could easily support all the new requirements, and I just plain liked it more. #TeamRewrite for the win. Was it worthwhile? Maybe, until I consider the pain I would have to go through for implementing Redux, then it was definitely worth it!

So what have we learned?

Maybe that Nathan just likes to rewrite applications for fun. Am I an anomaly if I keep having a lot of success with it? I work on internal enterprise systems; I wonder of the applications I keep inheriting are just really, terribly bad.

For the record, I’ve worked on plenty of systems that I did not suggest rewriting. I have one app that I inherited and have kept alive for twelve years now. It’s been through some major refactors, but it’s been evolutionary the whole time. Of course now it’s time for a rewrite - haha! It’s ColdFusion after all, and we don’t do that anymore. How did this application avoid Nathan’s swift justice against poorly coded enterprise apps? Well it was very well structured from the start - strong MVC roots, layered architecture, it was built on a firm foundation. Maybe #TeamRefactor should get a few more points.

While refactoring is typically less expensive, I have a list of reasons that will ping that rewrite bell in my head.

  • When the existing application is very obviously, truly a disaster
  • The UI looks like it’s 20+ years old
  • When the existing technology platform is inadequate
  • When upcoming changes require significant rework

I remember reading - though I can’t recall where - a hard figure. It was something to the extent of: when more than 60% of an application or component needs to be refactored, that application or component should probably be rewritten.

I really don’t prefer to rewrite, and neither should anyone, however, I believe that rewrites are much more possible than we are led to believe.

(discuss!)

The Right Number of Comments in Code

posted under category: Software Quality on March 2, 2019 by Nathan

People don’t like to talk about real standards for commenting your code. They give you abstract thoughts and ideas, then back up and say just do what your team decides to do. Certainly consistency is important, but what if you are consistently bad? This is why I like Code Complete by Steve McConnell. Steve lays down hard figures. You may not agree with him, but he will get you to form an opinion, even if it’s contrary. So in the same spirit, let me talk about what I think you should comment.

First off, I want to remind you that comments are at a different level than the code. As Code Complete says: “Good comments don’t repeat the code or explain it. They clarify its intent. Comments should explain, at a higher level of abstraction than the code, what you’re trying to do.”

  1. Comment every code file
    Classes should describe what they are, as simply as possible. View templates should explain their purpose. I think commenting directories with a readme is also nice.

  2. Comment every method
    Preferably, comment your methods within a metadata block that can be used to generate documentation for you later, if your platform supports it.

  3. Comment to describe ambiguous variables or acronyms
    Typically these may be endline comments on the variable declaration to avoid confusion.

  4. Comment on blocks of code
    Again, comments should be on a higher level, and should not detail /how/ a block of code works, but should explain why a block of code is here and what its purpose is.

  5. Comment surprises
    Point out when you are doing something non-standard, or something particularly clever that may be hard to follow.

What do you think? Not enough or too much? What am I missing?

When Not to Comment Code

Almost as important as when to comment, is the inverse.

  1. For starters, don’t comment if you don’t have anything to add. Don’t comment just because you don’t see enough comments in the code you are looking at.
  2. Don’t comment if you don’t understand the context and the intent. Your comment will just be inaccurate.
  3. Don’t comment to explain every variable. Not unless it’s really necessary.
  4. Never comment a file change history. That’s what source control software (like Git) is for.
  5. Don’t comment descriptions on obvious variables. User_Name; // This is the user name

I, Nathan Strutz, IT and computing professional for over two decades and senior level programmer at the world’s best aerospace company, being of sound mind, fully deputize you with the rights, the permission, and the duty to delete comments that match these parameters. The world will be a better place when these useless code comments are gone.

(discuss!)

Continuing the blog upkeep

posted under category: Life Events on February 28, 2019 by Nathan

I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I was working on updating my blog tooling to make it friendlier for me to use. Well I’ve gone and done a couple of interesting things.

  1. I added support for markdown

It’s like no software these days is complete until it supports markdown files. Vue CLI UI makes it pretty easy to add NPM packages. Actually, I prefer that method over the command line now because I lose the fear of misspelling the name of a package or install the wrong one because it has a logical name, and it always tells me when a package is out of date. I really love Vue UI! If you’re not convinced yet then I’ll tell you it has a dark mode. You’re welcome.

I chose the cleverly-named vue-markdown package. Okay, maybe that’s not such a clever name, but I don’t need clever, I need a markdown library that works with Vue and is easy to use, easy to integrate, and lets me work the way I want. Vue-markdown succeeds on all fronts. It’s as easy as:

<vue-markdown @rendered="grabMarkdown" :linkify="false">{{post.bodyMarkdown}}</vue-markdown>

I had to fight with it a bit in order to get both the markdown text as well as the rendered HTML - one for my continued editing, and the other for outputting on the screen without forcing a markdown render on your web browser as you read this. Because the markdown is only rendering as HTML when my editor is on the preview tab, I have to force the tabs to switch over to the preview (if it’s not already there) so that there is HTML that I can save. Of course it takes a moment to do that, it’s not automatic. Vue’s $nextTick() comes in handy in these types of situations, even though every time I use it, it feels like a hack. Really it’s just a sign that I’m rushing through a solution without thinking fully through it. Then again on the other hand, my React project at work could really use a nextTick method - setting a short timeout to an anonymous function is even more of a hack.

Anyway, Markdown was an easy thing to add, and anything that gets me playing with Vue more is a sure positive.

  1. Friendlier blog post URLs

I always think of URLs as part of the UX. A well-thought-out address should be discoverable and simple. It’s not even for the SEO, although I bet it benefits as well. It’s really just a thoughtful way to care for my visitors.

My post scheme is easy - this one will be /techblog/388 but is also addressable by the name alone /techblog/post/Continuing-the-blog-upkeep. That second one (slug-only links) will probably be an unused feature, but I like the idea that the ID isn’t required as part of the URL because it seems cleaner.

The worst part of the friendly URL change was definitely the URL rewriting. Not because it’s difficult, no way, but because there are so many ways to do it, and it’s hard to find the right one. For example, Hostek, my wonderful web site host that I definitely recommend, says they recommend using a .htaccess file, and that it works with ISAPI_Rewrite. I didn’t have any luck with that. The file would have been this:

.htaccess

RewriteEngine On
RewriteBase /

RewriteRule   ^techblog/([0-9]+)/?(.*)$   /techblog/?id=$1   [NC,L]
RewriteRule   ^techblog/(post|entry|slug)/([a-zA-Z0-9_-]+)$   /techblog/index.cfm?slug=$2   [NC,L]

Instead, I had much better luck using a web.config file. Clearly I’m on an IIS server. This worked, but the backreferencing is so ugly. Only Microsoft could ruin regular expressions. That file is like this:

<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?>
<configuration>
	<system.webServer>
		<rewrite>
			<rules>
				<rule name="Blog Post Slugs">
					<match url="^techblog/(post|entry|slug)/([a-zA-Z0-9_-]+)$" />
					<action type="Rewrite" url="techblog/index.cfm?slug={R:2}" />
				</rule>
				<rule name="Blog Post IDs">
					<match url="^techblog/([0-9]+)/?(.*)$" />
					<action type="Rewrite" url="techblog/index.cfm?id={R:1}" />
				</rule>
			</rules>
		</rewrite>
	</system.webServer>
</configuration>

Finally, I also have this site running locally in a Lucee server. It’s fast and minimal and I love it, but it’s Tomcat/Catalina which is a little harder to google the solution. The redirect file is called rewrite.config and it lives in my lucee\tomcat\conf\Catalina{domain}\ folder. It looks like this:

RewriteRule   ^/techblog/([0-9]+)/?(.*)$   /techblog/?id=$1   [NC,L]
RewriteRule   ^/techblog/(post|entry|slug)/([a-zA-Z0-9_-]+)$   /techblog/index.cfm?slug=$2   [NC,L]

There are subtle differences between all of these, and that was my biggest pain point.

Anyways, I hope this has been entertaining and educational as I continue to evolve dopefly.com into something that makes me proud to be associated with.

Coming up next: Fonts and colors for rendering code. Friendly URLs for years and categories. Those are the small plans that are definitely happening. The big plans are things like dumping the database altogether, putting all the code on GitHub, continuous deployment from commits, and other things I’ll probably never get to.

(discuss!)

How Much Documentation is Enough?

posted under category: Software Quality on February 21, 2019 by Nathan

Five years ago, my friend Shawn and I began a discussion on documentation. He was new to my project, we’ll call it Rhubarb 2000, and bemoaned the lack of documentation. I hadn’t document enough for my new developer, and I’m guilty of charging this technical debt that my friend had to pay interest on.

So we asked the question: How much documentation is enough? It sat on our whiteboard for weeks. We would talk about it in the afternoons, but accomplish nothing. Eventually, we came up with a number of ways to answer the question.

So, what do you think? Given the transition of an application between two developers in the win-the-lottery scenario (also called the hit-by-a-bus scenario, but let’s think positively), what is the right amount of documentation to have?

The first successful attack at the question we had was to break it down to two atomic categories: failure and success. Failure meaning it was not a successful transition; the new developer had trouble understanding the new system and grew to loathe it because it didn’t make sense. Success meaning the transition was successful; the old developer did not need to be contacted and the new developer experienced minimal trouble understanding the what-where-when-why-how’s of the new system because the available documentation was sufficient.

This black and white view was good way to answer the question - we want transitions to be painless. More than that, we want it to be stress free for our imaginary future friend. Many companies don’t have a minimal amount of documentation. My company’s minimal documentation standards are just some boilerplate stuff about processes, which do nothing to qualify for a stress free transition.

Eventually we came to a better, multi-tiered answer. It’s simple. There are five levels taken from elementary grading or performance management that we can judge ourselves on: Does Not Meet, Meets Some, Meets, Exceeds, and Far Exceeds. This way, we can set our own metrics on meeting the expected documentation. It’s a framework for judging amounts of documentation that anyone can play.

Another parallel scale we came up with to sub-classify documentation was: no documentation, disorganized or minimal, organized, and polished. This judges the existing documentation on a scale of bad to good. All together, I think it looks like this.

Documentation success levels

Minimum Viable Documentation

Let’s say we’re doing our jobs pretty well, and we create at least the amount of documentation that we are required to. That leaves us with some process required deliverables and an entry into the company’s applications database. These are pretty much the required bare minimums, which I call Minimum Viable Documentation.

By creating just the required documentation, we may be meeting the lowest bar, but any future transition (when I win the lottery and retire), is going to be just awful for the person who replaces me. Of course it’s only fair to reverse it and say if someone else wins the lottery (it’s always someone else, isn’t it?), then how much documentation do you hope they have? Personally I hope it’s a lot more than process templates and a record in a database.

Just outside of the minimum, yet still in the category of not meeting expectations, you may find historical requirements and a change log. It’s nice to have these things, and our projects and products really need to have this kind of information, but again, if someone handed it to me, it would not be a very successful transition.

Even apart from winning the lottery, lets say our project grows and the business decides to grant us with more developers next year. Our new helpers should be able to hit the ground running. If we’ve been skating by with the minimum because that’s all we needed, then we have failed our new teammates and need to catch up.

Simply Not Enough Documentation

On our scale of documentation, far to the left, we have the default, which is essentially the equivalent of no actual documentation. We’ve probably all been handed systems like this - heaven knows I sure have. Then again, in my pre-Boeing days, I’ve even created a couple – SHHH don’t tell!

The worst amount of documentation we can provide for any system in a developer hand-off is pretty much just the code. And unfortunately, it’s completely possible that many of us have --done-- seen this. If we were able to “accept no defects,” then we would just say “no thank-you.” Unfortunately however, we’re programmers living in the real world, and we don’t get to say “no” very often.

Enough Documentation to Win the Lottery

Surely some amount of documentation has to be enough to make a transition successful. For an active application, in order to hand off your work to someone else and move to an exotic beach island, what amount of documentation do you need to have already written?

An official transition may have us fill out some kind of information packet. The new developer needs all the file paths, various accounts, and server names. If there is an API, there should be documentation on it somewhere that they can find. This is where every automatic self-documenting tool will help, from Javadocs to Swagger, bring out those links.

Along with API documentation, our new developer needs to see the build and release process - whatever that looks like. For Rhubarb 2000, there is a small resource compile step in an Ant build file, some Git management, then batch files to push various branches to dev and test environments, followed by the overly-complex production release process that we have, you’ll be thankful I’m not going into it. That all needs to be written down somewhere. In addition to this, it will help to have some kind of guide to setting up an appropriate developer workstation - do I need a VM, what web server do I install, etc.

Any new developer must be able to run the unit test suite (and really, you should have some tests, really). That’s the success point on the technical transition - the developer can successfully execute the unit testing suite.

Once our new developer has all of those essentials, bring them into the project. Every application has some kind of ticketing workflow, sometimes as simple as emails, sometimes as complicated as Jira. Introduce them to it and explain how it works. Then introduce them to the operating rhythm. This is especially important for agile projects - if we do work in 3 week sprints, lay out the sprint and meeting schedule for them.

Also to note that at this stage of documentation maturity, we should have some form of organization for this documentation. It should be pretty easily discoverable by anyone who joins the project. For me, that means my project has a readme file with the code that points to the GitLab wiki and our Sharepoint site. Likewise, the GitLab wiki points to the Sharepoint, and the Sharepoint points to the GitLab wiki. It’s circular because we want new people to know that they’re in the right place.

After all of that, you can win the lottery or bring in a new hire and expect them to do pretty well, at least as far as the project goes.

Enough Documentation to Really Succeed

So let’s say we have a successful transition, and everything is in line for our new protégé to get going with the project. What’s next? What more could we do to nudge them into the pit of success? This could be more documentation than we really need, but not more than we should have. It’s above the average, and at least meeting some of these gets a thumbs-up in my book.

If we have software diagrams, that’s really helping the next developer. These are possibly the best thing we can pass on. Describing my mental model of the application using images passes on the real thoughts I have about it - my visual comprehension and perception of the application. Objects depicted as boxes and circles can be infinitely valuable later on. Consider the aspects of software that can be diagrammed - object models, big transaction areas where a lot of work is done, how we use MVC, how our services are wired together, usage of IoC containers, and how our data persistence works.

What if we create a physical architecture diagram with servers and developers and source control? That’s really getting there. Perhaps this is a handful of diagrams, one for each system we’re connected with, or one for each environment, or one for each contextual way to think about the application. Maybe we should just have one huge image of all the servers and systems and how they connect.

A database diagram would also be helpful. Some of these can be generated, especially when there are a lot of foreign key constraints, but that isn’t always the case, so try to draw the lines between columns and tables. This should point out the most central aspects of the application and give our new developer an idea of where to look for dangerous areas. As long as the data diagrams aren’t too large, I’ve seen this used a lot for field name lookups.

If we want new developers to keep up with the standards that the team has set, then write a style guide. Write one for code. Write one for visual design. Write one for standard patterns that should be used. I thought much of my work was obvious with the direction I was taking, but it turns out it was naïve of me to expect it without writing it all down.

The last thing for really succeeding is to have features documented for your users, not just your developers. Tailored documentation is helpful here, perhaps one document per role in your system, as well as documents for new features as they’re released. While our customers would love to see this in the Minimum Viable Documentation, realistically user documentation belongs way over here.

That’s my list of good documentation. If you attain this level, you should feel good about yourself.

More than Enough Documentation

Let’s talk stretch goals. What would be the ideal dream for the best possible documentation? This should be your stretch goal. This is what we all wish we could attain, and maybe can with a lot of work. It’s the final level of documentation bliss. Here’s what I mean.

Training screen casts are probably the best way to show new users (and developers) how to use our application. Clearly it’s hard to do a good job and keep this up to date, but those who are dead on selling the system can churn these out, usually only with a marketing budget.

I learned recently that new applications at my company are required to have a usability study. What that means is probably up for interpretation, especially at your company, but it’s good advice. Going above and beyond for your documentation would be to conduct a true study on the system’s usability, and keep it up to date.

Another great thing for documentation would be to have a real case study that explains real world benefits. We’ve got a system here where the team produced a short case study video of how successful they have been, and it’s made the rounds in the executive level, which has been a huge boost for the program.

Another goal at this level is to have a fully automated self-documentation engine that reads the code and keeps itself updated with the latest information about the application. This would be something a couple steps above Javadoc. The great thing about the auto-doc engine is that documentation on your APIs, objects, database tables and so on, are always up to date for you and your team to view.

The last thing I’ll recommend for your stretch goal is a technical writer maintaining all of your documentation. There are numerous benefits, but most notably would be the commonality and organization of all your documents regarding screenshots and writing styles, and also the fact that your documentation would be up to date for as long as they work with you. Keeping your documentation true and up to date is really what your goal is.

Wrapping Up

So you’ve seen my documentation chart. I encourage you to build your own and define what is important to you on your project or portfolio. I’m sure there are gaps and things I haven’t thought about. Why not bring them up in the comments?

(discuss!)

Finally updating my blog tools

posted under category: Life Events on February 17, 2019 by Nathan

It’s another self-serving blog post, true. Just wanted to show off some of the new blogging tools I’m building for myself. Honestly this is a trial run - I’m crossing my fingers that this will actually post something!

Without further ado, first, something truly hideous. Here’s the bare-minimum thing I’ve been copy-pasting blog posts into.

Gross, right? Ok. Now with some default Vue CLI colors and slapping bootstrap on there, it’s a nice, simple, SPA. Here’s what I have today.



And look, even mobile friendly! At this point with flexbox and responsive frameworks, it’s just too hard not to do that.

I did say it’s a Vue app! Vue has very quickly become my favorite front-end framework. Yes, I’ve tried the others, and trust me, I’m making a very informed decision here. Vue.js is an incredible, easy-to-start, fun-to-master framework.

For this project, I started with Vue CLI GUI - yes, the graphical interface for the command-line interface for the interface library. Incredible! It generated some boilerplate files so I don’t have to remember how to start with Vuex or Vue-Router. I have Vuex in there to save draft blog posts so I can navigate around and come back. Calling into my APIs running on another port and having the app running in a different URL between local dev and production dopefly.com, at first meant writing CORS rules and still getting lost in the battle, until I found the vue.config.js file. It’s a simple little thing, you just have to know that you need it. Here’s mine:

module.exports = {
	publicPath:
		process.env.NODE_ENV === "production"
			? "/admin/admin-vue/dist/"
			: "/",
	devServer: {
		proxy: "http://dopefly.local/"
	}
};

So now it calls local links from the right folder in production, and my APIs are proxied through my locally running web site via Webpack. This works impressively well.

The final piece of setup was to rewrite some of my security framework (I’ve never liked cflogin) and change my old blog admin database access into a handful of simple APIs. The server is Lucee, so the code is dead simple to write and it runs very quickly. The whole thing, including this blog post, took about 8 hours. I’d say it’s a pretty big win for me, personally. It looks good and it runs fast, which is all I ever really wanted.

(discuss!)
Nathan is a software developer at The Boeing Company in Charleston, SC. He is essentially a big programming nerd. Really, you could say that makes him a nerd among nerds. Aside from making software for the web, he plays with tech toys and likes to think about programming's big picture while speaking at conferences and generally impressing people with massive nerdiness and straight-faced sarcastic humor. Nathan got his programming start writing batch files in DOS. It should go without saying, but these thought and opinions have nothing to do with Boeing in any way.
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