Monday, April 27, 2009

IT Projects Success - Principle #10: Models are better than text.

10. Models are better than text.

I would like to think that by this point in time, this principle no longer requires justification. It has been at least a few years since I last saw a dense “SRD” or “SDD” document (SYSTEM REQUIREMENTS DOCUMENT, SYSTEM DESIGN DOCUMENT). I must offer my respect to the many talented people who labored to produce these documents over the decades; these documents were at least a step up from no Requirements or Design artifacts at all.

Consider what a ‘model’ really is in general; it is a representation of a finished product in a scaled down version; engineers have been literally creating models of what they are going to build for centuries, for such reasons as testing out problems on a small scale, and for presenting a view of the end result to whomever may be paying for it.

At this point, though, let us abandon any other aspect of physical engineering as an analogy for Information Systems development. Software is different; while tools and bridges and buildings have been created to either extend or protect the physical capabilities of human beings, Information Systems are created to extend the our mental capabilities, to help our thinking.

Given that, software can still be engineered, but it is a different type of Engineering. Software or Information Engineering has existed as a known concept since the 1970’s, although anyone who thought to call themselves a software engineer usually incurred the wrath, or at least disdain, of the established Engineering Disciplines and Schools. I am not an engineer, would not claim to be one, but my understanding is that traditional engineering is addressing software within its disciplines. In the future, as software becomes even more critical to our well-being and safety, it may be that those who design and create software will have to be accredited engineers, just like the ones who design and build bridges. I think history shows that quite a few early bridges and other structures were prone to collapse before engineering principles started to prevent it. Software is only a half-century old, so even in the age of internet speed and high change, more time will be needed to bring software in line with other long time products.

In the meantime, it should be a goal all of us in the IT business to adopt useful aspects of engineering to improve the quality of software, and modeling is a key concept to adopt. It almost frightens me that many still promote programming as an art form, that code can be beautiful or exquisite in some way. Well, even the most obscure art needs an audience to appreciate it, and it can’t just be other artists. Software is a product to be used, not admired, so if anything, programmers of the past 50 years have been more like craftsmen, using individual skills and experience to produce useful ‘objects’ for society to use. The problem is that demand continues to out-strip programmer output (remember the backlog!), so improved, repeatable and transferable methods are needed to transform software development from a craft to a true industry.

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About Me

Ontario, Canada
I have been an IT Business Analyst for 25 years, so I must have learned something. Also been on a lot of projects, which I have distilled into the book "Cascade": follow the link to the right to see more.