Monday, 12 September 2016

A year goes by...

September 14, 2015, we launched a new ERP system, written in Smalltalk, running on GemStone and developed with VisualWorks. The system continues to grow, we keep adding features, and our users are mostly happy. 

It got me thinking about my relationship with the company and the project.

Projects have tension between the technical and business needs. The person paying the bills makes the final call and they are being asked to take a leap of faith; they don't see what the developers see. It takes time to build up trust, yet most of the key decisions, like which technology to use, are made at the start of the project, long before the technical team is truly trusted. 

In our case we got a lot right: use Smalltalk to deal with unique and complex business needs, use GemStone as the database to avoid the cost of object to relational mapping, use a web interface to avoid fat client issues, and use Seaside to allow for a single technology stack (we're Smalltalk all the way down). 

We got a few things wrong. The worst was thinking that an old fat client framework was worth keeping. It wasn't, and I strongly argued against it. But that's a tough call for someone that is not familiar with the code. They see a sunk cost. How could it not have value?  

Over time everyone realized just how bad the old framework was, but by then we had invested a lot of time and effort making the domain code run in a new web framework. We're still struggling to remove the last bad bits. But I can see the risk management decision on this: it was scary to agree to throw away the old code and move to something new and unproven. It's self evident now; it wasn't then.  

But it made me think: just how relevant is the technology decision, like which language or framework to use? Our users don't care. They need tools to do their job. Management doesn't care. They want IT to provide services at minimal cost. As a Smalltalk team we're very efficient. But so what? A java team would be easier to staff. Development would take longer, but they could get temporary help up to speed quickly to help get over humps. Technical consultants would actually be helpful (virtually none of the ones we've worked with knew Smalltalk).

And it's a general problem to anyone advocating an unconventional technology. Business might invest in a Smalltalk project if they see a return on investment, and if the risk is acceptable. But selling that vision in a world of deafening silence about Smalltalk is tough.

I haven't lost faith. Using Smalltalk allows us to be flexible in ways other teams could only dream of. Things will get a lot better, once we've scraped off the last of the old framework and are able to focus all of our time on building new stuff. I see a future where the development team is seen as a partner is the business. Where our ability to see business patterns and user flows gives us a voice.  Where we're not just a cost of doing business.

That's my vision: that Smalltalk projects allow the developers to be partners in the business, since they don't need to wallow in technical minutiae. They can stay in the business head space, so they can add value beyond the code. I see that happening in our project, and I think it's an important part of the story when advocating for Smalltalk.

I am looking forward to the next year.

Simple things should be simple. Complex things should be possible.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Lessons learned

The project I've been working on since May, 2012, went live September 14, 2015. It's an ERP system for a sales company, which specializes in industrial HVAC rep sales (where you 'represent' the manufacturer). It is nice to announce the deployment of a 100% Smalltalk application, built with VisualWorks, GemStone and Seaside.

Our users are happy, mostly. They want more features, and they want them sooner than later. Not a bad place to be.

Personally, it's  been both a rewarding & frustrating project. Rewarding because I get to work for a far-sighted company that sees the value of a custom application, and can deal with the risks of using a niche technology. Frustrating because it could have been done better (which, I suspect, is true of just about any project).

The past couple of years have been a head down, ignore everything else, focused effort. We've done some interesting things, many of which I had hoped to share, but there never seems to be any time; work takes it all.

So, with the benefit of hindsight, here is what I've learned...

Have a project champion
Our project champion is one of the founders of the company. Without him risks would not have been taken, and the project would not have happened. We replaced a 20+ year old custom system that was also championed by the same person. He, and the company, believe that a custom ERP provides a competitive advantage. The old software proved it, which made selling the idea of a new system easier.

Smalltalk productivity rocks
Total effort was about 16 to 18 person years (our team size varied from 3 to 5 over 3.5 years). Compare that with effort to deploy something like SAP, and we look good. Our team's productivity will really shine as new features and customizations are rolled out over the next couple of years.

Expect a long tail of trivial things
What really stands out is how much time we spent (and continue to spend) on the little things. It tends to be boring, almost clerical work. But it's what users notice. Font sizes, colours, navigation sequences, default values, business rule adjustment... nothing intellectually challenging.

The beginning of the project was fun: figuring out how to use thousands of VW window specs in a Seaside application, including modal dialogs and dynamically morphing views. Finding ways to hold complex updates prior to a Save / Cancel decision. Building a new report framework that allows for edits and generates PDF content. Adding application permissions. Implementing a RESTful web-to-GS mechanism. And so on. All good stuff, but mostly done.

Pay your technical debt early
Looking back, we would have been better off not trying to preserve the ecosystem of the old fat client framework (the idea was to keep most of the domain code as is). Instead, we should have started from scratch, using the old system as a spec. The old framework was garbage. We knew it, but thought the technical debt could be managed. It was, but at a cost. We now know where we spent our time; it's evident switching to new code earlier would have allowed us to be deployed earlier.

If you see garbage code, be ruthless and get rid of it. Bad code is like a bed bug: it will keep biting until properly exterminated.

Show progress
Users need to see progress. And developers need feedback. We hit the jackpot with our beta users: they were willing to put up with a lot of early unfinished code. It gave them a view of what was to come, and they communicated that to the rest of the company. Our project dragged on a bit, but they saw progress, which made the delays palatable.  

Have clear metrics
It's so easy to get caught up in the moment, and to work on what is of interest right now, because that is what users see. But if you do that, you'll forget about the long term, and the important internal stuff just won't get done. If developers are not measured on the long term deliverables, there is little incentive to work on them.

Make long term metrics just as visible as short term ones. Break them down and make them part of each iteration, even if they are obscure and of no interest to the end users. It will be frustrating, You'll get asked "why are you working on that and not the feature I'm waiting for?". But they'll be far more aggravated if the application is not reliable. It's like backups: you don't notice their absence until you need them. Be sure they see the value of the boring internal tech stuff.

Use agile development 
We release a new production version every two weeks, with minor changes published twice each week. Developers merge their code every couple of hours. All new code is expected to have an SUnit test. The full test suite is run each night with Jenkins and keeping test green is the first developer priority. We pair up for tricky problems. Refactoring is considered to be a 'technical investment'. All changes are tracked (we have a nifty issue management tool).

Reviewing the process is part of the process. We adjust things almost every week. It's not easy, but getting to a smooth productive rhythm is so worth it.

What next? Mobile web interfaces, an Android app (we can do that with Pharo once a VM is ready), moving to a GS Seaside interface (need to port PDF4Smalltalk to GS), and a lots of small stuff.

Simple things should be simple. Complex things should be possible. - Alan Key

Thursday, 13 November 2014

GemStone based reports & views

My current project is a port of a VisualWorks & GemStone fat client application to Seaside. Part of the porting effort was to map a few thousand VW windowSpec views to a Seaside web views. It all works fine, but it's not ideal. Ported fixed layout views look like fat client windows; they lack a web aesthetic. We want all new views to be more 'web-centric', where positioning and sizing is adjusted by the browser, especially from tablets and mobile devices.

We also need to provide reports. For a web app, answering a PDF for a report works well.

We combined these two requirements and ended up with reports generated on GS using a Seaside-like coding pattern, which is then rendered in by Seaside in VW, and can be viewed as a PDF.

To build the reports we use Report4PDF, something I wrote a few years ago.  It uses PDF4Smalltalk to generate a PDF document. PDF4Smalltalk has not been ported to GemStone, something I'd like to do when time allows (and to VA & Pharo). Fortunately, Report4PDF generates intermediate output before requiring PDF4Smalltalk. This output can be created on GS, which is then moved to VW, where PDF4Smalltalk is used for the final output.

Our VW to GS interface uses only strings, either XML or evaluated command strings. In this case, the report objects are packaged as XML, and then recreated on VW. For most reports building and parsing the content takes about 200ms (we may move this to a command string, which is typically a third faster).

Once the report is in VW we use a 'report component' for the rendering, which reads the report content and builds the Seaside output. Because Report4PDF has a Seaside-like coding style, the mapping is relatively simple.

For example, a table is defined as...

aTable row: [:row | 
row cell: [:cell | cell widthPercent: 20. cell text bold; string: 'Job'].
row cell: [:cell | cell widthPercent: 30. cell text; string: self job description].
row cell: [:cell | cell widthPercent: 20. cell text bold; string: 'Our Job ID'].
row cell: [:cell | cell widthPercent: 30. cell text; string: self job id]].

...and gets rendered as...

...the PDF output is... build the PDF content we use the data already in VW.  No additional GS call is needed.

R4PObject, the root Report4PDF class, has a #properties instance variable to support extensions. We use this to add link and update capabilities to the report when it is rendered in Seaside.

For example, a link to another domain object is coded as...
row cell right bold string: 'Designer'.
row cell text normal string linkOop: self designer domainOop; string: self designer displayKeyString.

...and displayed as...

...but is ignored in the PDF output...

The beauty of this approach is that all of the report generation is done on GemStone, with generic rendering and PDF generation in our VW Seaside code.

Our users are happy with this approach. They like the look of the web rendered report and the option to get the content as a PDF. Having link and simple update capabilities means that most users will not need to use the old fat clients views, which tend to be used by power users, for data entry and for detailed updates.

Simple things should be simple. Complex things should be possible. - Alan Key

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Smalltalk performance measurement

The application I'm working on uses VisualWorks and GemStone. As we've built out our application and loaded more test data we find ourselves spending more time turning performance. If there is one thing I've learned over the years that is performance problems are never what they seem: always measure before you change the code. Premature optimization makes your code ugly and, more likely than not, adds no value.

On VW we use TimeProfiler & KaiProfiler, and on GS we use ProfMonitor. All are useful for getting a sense of where to look, after which we switch to more basic tools, like...

Time>>millisecondsToRun:, along with some convenience methods.

In VW you can use the Transcript to show performance measurements.
You could write something like...

Transcript cr; show: 'tag for this code'; show: (Time millisecondsToRun: [some code]) printString.

...but that's a pain. And you'd need the 'tag for this code' if you have several measurements spread throughout the code. To make that easier, we use...

'tag for this code' echoTime: [some code]

...which is implemented as...

echoTime: aBlock
| result microseconds | 
microseconds := Time microsecondsToRun: [result := aBlock value].
self echo: microseconds displayMicroseconds.

...the #echo: method is commented on in a previous post and #displayMicroseconds is just...

self > 1000 ifTrue: [^(self // 1000) displayTime].
^self printString, '┬Ás'

...and displayTime shows hh:mm:ss.mmm with hh and mm displayed if needed.

In GS you could use the VW transcript with a client forwarder, but our application uses a simplified GS interface model with only one forwarder and no replication (an XML string is the only returned value from GS), so adding a client forwarder was something I did not want to do. I also wanted to run some tests from a Topaz script.

Instead of a Transcript I use a String WriteStream held in a GS session variable and use Time class methods to add measurements and show the results. To measure a block of code, we add nested time measurements with...

Time log: 'tag for this code' run: [some code]

...and we wrap the top method send with...

Time showLog: [top method] 

...some methods get called a lot, so we'd like a total time. For that we use...

Time sum: 'tag for this method' run: [some code] 

...because each Time method answers the block result we can insert the code easily...

someValue := self bigMethod
someValue := Time log: 'bigMethod' run: [self bigMethod]

These are the methods...

Time>>showLog: aBlock
self timeSumDictionary: Dictionary new.
self timeLogStream: String new writeStream.
self timeLogStream nextPutAll: 'Time...'.
self log: 'time' run: aBlock.
^self timeLogStream contents , self displayTimeSums

...each time* variable is stored in the GS session array, like...

^System __sessionStateAt: 77

timeLogStream: anObject
System __sessionStateAt: 77 put:  anObject

log: aMessage run: aBlock 
"Time showLog: [Time log: 'test' run: [(Delay forSeconds: 1) wait] ]"
| result microseconds | 
microseconds := self millisecondsToRun: [result := aBlock value].
self timeLogStreamAt: aMessage put: microseconds.

timeLogStreamAt: aMessage put: anInteger
| stream | 
stream := self timeLogStream.
stream isNil ifTrue: [
stream := String new writeStream.
self timeLogStream: stream].
cr; nextPutAll: aMessage; tab; 
nextPutAll: anInteger displayTime.
self timeSumDictionaryAt: aMessage add: anInteger.

sum: aMessage run: aBlock 
"Time showLog: [
Time sum: 'test' run: [(Delay forSeconds: 1) wait].
Time sum: 'test' run: [(Delay forSeconds: 1) wait]]"
| result milliseconds | 
milliseconds := self millisecondsToRun: [result := aBlock value].
self timeSumDictionaryAt: aMessage add: milliseconds.

timeSumDictionaryAt: aKey add: aValue
| dictionary total | 
dictionary := self timeSumDictionary.
dictionary isNil ifTrue: [
dictionary := Dictionary new.
self timeSumDictionary: dictionary].
total := dictionary at: aKey ifAbsent: [0].
total := total + aValue.
dictionary at: aKey put: total.

Simple things should be simple. Complex things should be possible.

Saturday, 9 November 2013

Taxonomy of Ignorance

I've spent most of this year wallowing through a huge amount of old bad code. Diving into this mess got me thinking about Prof. Samuel Holtzman's "Intelligent Design Systems", a book I read about twenty years ago (here's his TED talk). It changed how I approach the unknown: rather than seeing it as a big blob of nothing, I apply Holtzman s "Taxonomy of Ignorance" and dive in. The idea is to look at what you don't know and categorize it; understanding your ignorance makes it manageable.

 Here's my programmer-biased view of Holtzman's taxonomy...

Combinatorial ('Computational' in the TED video)
You know there is a solution and you know how to get it, but the calculation costs prevent you from getting the answer; the foundation of encryption.

You have a complete model of the problem but lack an effective solution method, like Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes. Or the uber programmer that can see a solution that no one else sees, even though everyone has the same data.

Gordian (interesting that in the TED talk this comes after Ptolemaic; this is order in the book)
What do you do when you no longer have a complete model of the problem? Whatever solution method you have will not work; you need to restate the problem. Alexander the Great could not untie the knot that Gordius, king of Phrygia, tied for the future ruler of Asia. Instead, he reframed the problem of untying it and simply cut the knot.

Our team is dealing with code we find incomprehensible. It was written over a dozen years with little regard for maintainability and is the worse example of technical debt I've ever seen. Instead of trying to unravel it, we've decided to bypass it: figure out the API methods, isolate parts, replace them, and discard the old code. The job changed from 'make the old code work' to 'make the application work'; cutting was more effective than fixing.

In this case you have a solution to the problem that is based on an inadequate model, like the Ptolemaic earth-centric model of the solar system, vs. the more elegant Copernican model.  Or, to put it another way, if all you have is hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Computer programming is in that state: schools teach Java almost exclusively and students see "programming" through a procedural C syntax filter. It's sad that they are not exposed to Prolog, Lisp, Smalltalk, assembler, SNOBOL ... anything that would shake up their mental model, and maybe even provide a more elegant one.

You know something works, but it contains essential elements for which you have no effective formalization. Your car works, you rely on it, but when it breaks you suddenly realize that you do not know how it works. And that's a fair deal: we can't know everything. We do rely on the knowledge of others.

I'm happy to program without knowing all the details of how my keystrokes translate into electrical impulses that eventually render images on a screen, but I sure do notice when it breaks.

When it comes to code that I'm responsible for, magical ignorance is not an option. Our project schedule has slipped because of this: we'd rather delay deploying than rely on code that we don't understand.

When we lack a model we have not way to approach a solution. "What is life? Why are we here?" ... not a comfortable question, so some find refuge in religion and faith. Guess it's better to believe something than to admit that you just don't know.

Finally, what about cases where we don't even know the question exists? We don't have a model because we don't know to look for one. Like the innocence of youth; no three year old worries about politics.

Apply this list, and add the understanding that you will know more tomorrow than you do today, you can start eating that elephant, one bit at a time.

Simple things should be simple. Complex things should be possible.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Roassal visualization of Seaside components

At STIC 2013 Alexandre Bergel presented Roassal, a Smalltalk visualization engine. It looked like a nice fit for our project, where we build deeply nested Seaside views from VW window specs. Navigating the component structure can be confusing, so I decided to add a tree view using Roassal.

We have the ability to inspect individual components, and we added our own inspector subclass which gives us a place for a custom menu (in VW you can do that by overriding #inspectorClasses). The most used menu entry is 'Inspect Parent Path', which inspects an array of components built from walking the parent links from the selected component up to the root component.

The parent path is handy, but is does not provide enough context, and navigating to a component outside of the parent path is a pain. It would be better to see a parent tree, with siblings and labels. Each of our components answers #parentComponet and #components. For the parent tree we just added each parent and each parent's components (siblings) into a set. Coding it in Roassal was easy...


| view list |

list := self parentPathWithComponents.
view := Roassal.ROMondrianViewBuilder view: Roassal.ROView new.
view shape rectangle 
if: [:each | each hasUpdates] borderColor:  Color red;
if: [:each | each == self] fillColor:  Color yellow;
withText: [:each | each displayVisualizationLabel].
view interaction 
item: 'inspect' action: #inspect;
item: 'visualize' action: #visualizeParentPath.
view nodes: list.
view edgesFrom: #parentComponent. 
view treeLayout.
view open.

And here is what it looks like (the mouse is hovering over the 'I' input field; the popup is the printString of the component)...

This has proven to be quite handy. A big thanks to everyone that contributed to Roassal.

Simple things should be simple. Complex things should be possible.  Alan Kay. 

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Agile Ditch Digging

I'm a strong believer in agile software development. Every project I've worked on evolved into something every different from what it started as. Agile believes in trapping that type of change; it believes in understanding that you will know more as you build; agile deals with "managing ignorance".

On our current project we are migrating from a VW fat client to a Seaside application with short GS transactions that uses the legacy meta model, UI layouts and data structures. Our design isolates the UI layer in the VW Seaside server and the domain layer in GS.  We parse the VW window spec into Seaside components and communicate with GS using RESTful data calls (nested arrays of strings and oop numbers), and get XML back.

All of that works well: it's quick, looks nice, scales and is much easier to wrap SUnit tests around. And it was built using agile development techniques. Mostly.

I find that agile works best in the 'construction' side of the work, where you can define the user stories and measure the pace of delivery (the ditch digging). There is, however, another flavour of software development, the R&D or 'creative' side, like designing the framework and tools that the application code rests on. It's not something the user sees; it's just part of the application's fabric.

Recently we thought about how we were dealing with widget level feedback. That's where you enter 'abc' in the 'name' field and get feedback when you move on to another field. If 'abc' is an invalid value, it would be useful to see that right then ('on blur'; when the widget loses focus), instead of waiting until the 'save' button is pressed. The same goes for updating depending values: if the 'comment' defaults to 'name', having it change when 'name' is entered is useful.

Our original approach was to do this behaviour in the web code, since it had access to the display components. We soon realized that is was more important that the code have access to the domain and be able to reuse the legacy validation code, so we moved the logic to GS. Seemed simple enough.

Turned out that shifting that one responsibility triggered a lot of framework redesign. Originally, the web component built up the set of changes, and passed them to GS on 'save'. It was simple and worked. With the field level code on GS, each 'on blur' event had to trigger a GS call and, more importantly, had to package the full view update state into call so the domain code would see the current displayed state . Performance is not an issue, since each call takes from 10 to 50 ms, but the code change was more complex than it originally seemed.

I could find no good way to communicate the status of this 'big bang' change. The problem was complex, then things got delayed due to other work, and we made some critical design changes as we understood the technical issues better. None of that was well communicated. From the outside looking in, the project just stalled. Precisely the kind of optics you don't want, and the kind of problem that agile techniques are supposed to deal with.

I simply do not know how to measure 'thinking time', especially my own.  Finding a solution may take me five minutes, or five hours.

It was interesting to feel the pendulum swing from 'creative' to 'construction' as the work progressed; the construction phase is so much easier. Easier to do, easier to measure and easier to manage. Everyone is more at ease when you can show that you're 80% done, vs. just telling them that "you're close".

Digging a ditch is easy, assuming you know how.

Simple things should be simple. Complex things should be possible.