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In my time as an application programmer. developer and designer, breif stint as team lead and project manager,
as well as my time as a systems consultant, I have witnessed first-hand and also heard many credible tales of systematic failure that rival any of the stories on The Daily WTF. My collegues and I have seen so many examples of bad design, bad code and systemic failure that we have considered writing a book titled How To Write Ugly Code.

I have also read the Texas Instruments Chainsaw massacre and personally met Gomez while debugging applications.

My speciality and my interest lies in diagnostics and the analysis of problems as well as system security, and my experience has showed that one can venture to say something about the qualitative difference of different design methodologies and what they have to say for the end result.

Firstly however, it is worth noting that the software industry as a whole has one primary problem: the time pressure to deliver new features at the face of mouting expectations.

This pressure to deliver is seen as the driving force behind industry progress and ever leaner, more economic applications, however contrary to this belief I have evidence that it leads to incentives for sloppy work, overengineering and poor considerations of the problem domain. It seems the process itself rewards poor application design, regardless of development methodology.

Large corporate and government tenders, which affect many hundreds of thousands of peoples lives, get bid on by large software houses that believe they can deliver everything (at low risk: if they cannot deliver it is very hard for the customer to contest this to a major software house).

What we get by and large out of this process are bloated top-down applications designed by people who do not understand the (whole) problem, leading to misguided decisions for such things as

  • choice of platform and language
  • choice of coding standards (check out Systems Hungarian if you don’t believe me)
  • programming methodology
  • communication tools: source control, ticket and forum tools for developers and system managers
  • Not Invented Here-practices
  • monkey-coding by people whose talents could be employed to solving the problem

What usually goes for as “agile” development causes frequent ineffective blame-game meetings.
Unit test driven development frequently causes micromanagement of program details and inflexible designs,
… all these methodologies were designed to improve programs, not bog them down! why then do they cause so much breakage?

The pressure to deliver requires the application developer to prefer large swathes of ready-made library code and a high level of abstraction to allow her to meet deadline demands.

A high abstraction level causes low debuggability and poor performance.
Low debuggability because bugs are by definition conditions caused by circumstances unforseen by the application developer. Abstractions are employed by the developer to hide implementation details to aid clairty and speed of application development, at the cost of debuggability.

The very tools and abstractions employed by the application developer create the frame through which the developer can see the circumstances of her design and code. Bugs most frequently occur on the boundries between abstractions, where the developer has no possibility to forsee these circumstances. Furthermore, in a system that has a passibly high level of abstraction there is a whole stack of hidden details which must be traced and unwound to discover the bug. Therefore, every additional layer of abstraction obscures the debugging process.

The debuggability and algorithmic simplicity is key in achieving optimal performance. In other words, if we have a clear problem statement it is possible to achieve performance. If there is no clear problem statement, and the program is further muddled by abstractions and interactions there is no effective path to performance.

Any artist will be able to tell you that the most interesting, creative and innovative work comes out of having a stress-free, playful environ. Since innovative coding is a creative activity, the same applies to developing applications, something that game developer companies and creative shops have known for years, and behemoths like Google and Microsoft have picked up on, reinvesting up to 15% of their revenue into research and development and getting that part right, as witnessed by the sheer output of innovation.

If there is a clear path to solving these fundamental problems of IT then it is putting the people who know what they are doing in the pilot seat, enabling developers to choose for themselves not only toolchains, methodology and communication tools but also engaging the systems thinkers into creating the specifications and architecture of the systems they are going to implement. The good news is that as customers and managers get savvy to this method of achieving IT success, we are going to see more developer autonomy and less spectacular fails.

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