Two instances of valuing people over tools

The Manifesto for Agile Software Development (which I subscribe to) values

individuals and interactions over processes and tools

, while recognizing there is value in processes and tools, individuals and interactions are more important. Two areas where this preference is generating choices (and, depending on the organisation, debate) is planning of functionality and collaboratively designing software.

In the nineties, I used to be fond of CASE tools and the like, and wonder how to put an iterative planning in MS Project… Over the years, my preference has shifted more and more to individuals and interactions, as I have seen no evidence of higher productivity through CASE tools or software planning tools, but have experienced firsthand the enormous power of simple face to face planning and design meetings, with open communication and simple tools such as index cards, whiteboards and physical planning boards.

Rachel Davies just wrote a piece on using index cards with five reasons to prefer index cards over an online story repository, and five reasons for exactly the opposite. The quote below stresses to me the importance of looking for the root cause behind the wish to use electronic story repositories as a solution:

When making a choice in what medium your team uses for stories consider this:

  • index cards support more extreme behaviours – sitting together and customer conversations
  • use of electronic tools may be used to support larger teams with a customer who may be off-site. They may appear more effective for larger organisations but their use may mean that issues of team size and location are not challenged.

On the collaborative design side, someone asked me recently which code-generating UML (Unified Modeling Language) tool I would recommend. This is a simple question that gives me enormous difficulty in answering. I have studied CASE tools and the UML intensively in the past, and since I saw no benefits delivered, I lost interest about five years ago. Since I lost interest, I have not kept up to date, I have a nagging little feeling I might have missed something. But the feeling remains little – I have not heard overwelming success stories. Maybe I’ll go into some of the reasons I lost interest:

  • UML was not computationally complete, so creating executable models which was the pipe-dream of CASE tool builders would remain exactly that. Computer programs are already executable models, and while creating (by necessity more) abstract graphical representations of the program can be useful for understanding, creating a program from the diagram alone was not an option. That doesn’t mean I find graphical notations useless for performing programming-like activities with a computer – only that the UML is not a suitable notation for doing so. I think it works better within a reduced scope, such as e.g. a modular software synthesizer like Reaktor which I enjoy using.

  • UML tried to include everything and the kitchen sink, and from version 1.0 onwards, it became only more elaborate. Trying to think about a design with dynamic models hrough UML made my head spin, and gives a team an extra chance to get stuck in analysis paralysis, e.g. by deciding which of the bewildering amount of notations to use, and determining exactly what the sementics are of a particular bubble or square…
  • With respect to CASE tools, Round-trip engineering (going from diagrams to code and back iteratively) is probably still difficult, although I heard poseidon does a reasonable job.
  • Using case tools takes a lot of work and wasteful steps. I remember trying to use Rational Rose, which had a dialog for creating a class with like twenty tabs…

That is not to say, there is no value in the UML at all, I just value brainstorming with colleagues more… I use UML sparely. Mainly informally with a team, gathered around a whiteboard or a table with index cards (of which we take photographs afterwards, if anyone wishes to keep the diagrams) solving a particular problem.

In case you might need to create a more formalised view of your diagrams. Martin Fowler just put up a list of uml sketching tools, I used to use the visio templates he mentions as well, and they worked pretty well.

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