The Application Development Experiences of an Enterprise Developer

Tag: opinion

Like a River

Posted by bsstahl on 2023-02-06 and Filed Under: development 

We all understand to some degree, that the metaphor comparing the design and construction of software to that of a building is flawed at best. That isn't to say it's useless of course, but it seems to fail in at least one critical way; it doesn't take into account that creating software should be solving a business problem that has never been solved before. Sure, there are patterns and tools that can help us with technical problems similar to those that have been solved in the past, but we should not be solving the same business problem over and over again. If we are, we are doing something very wrong. Since our software cannot simply follow long-established plans and procedures, and can evolve very rapidly, even during construction, the over-simplification of our processes by excluding the innovation and problem-solving aspects of our craft, feels rather dangerous.

Like Constructing a Building

It seems to me that by making the comparison to building construction, we are over-emphasizing the scientific aspects of software engineering, and under-emphasizing the artistic ones. That is, we don't put nearly enough value on innovation such as designing abstractions for testability and extensibility. We also don't emphasize enough the need to understand the distinct challenges of our particular problem domain, and how the solution to a similar problem in a different domain may focus on the wrong features of the problem. As an example, let's take a workforce scheduling tool. The process of scheduling baristas at a neighborhood coffee shop is fundamentally similar to one scheduling pilots to fly for a small commercial airline. However, I probably don't have to work too hard to convince you that the two problems have very different characteristics when it comes to determining the best solutions. In this case, the distinctions are fairly obvious, but in many cases they are not.

Where the architecture metaphor makes the most sense to me is in the user-facing aspects of both constructions. The physical aesthetics, as well as the experience humans have in their interactions with the features of the design are critical in both scenarios, and in both cases will cause real problems if ignored or added as an afterthought. Perhaps this is why the architecture metaphor has become so prevalent in that it is easy to see the similarities between the aesthetics and user-experience of buildings and software, even for a non-technical audience. However, most software built today has a much cleaner separation of concerns than software built when this metaphor was becoming popular in the 1960s and 70s, rendering it mostly obsolete for the vast majority of our systems and sub-systems.

When we consider more technical challenges such as design for reliability and resiliency, the construction metaphor fails almost completely. Reliability is far more important in the creation of buildings than it is in most software projects, and often very different. While it is never ok for the structure of a building to fail, it can be perfectly fine, and even expected, for most aspects of a software system to fail occasionally, as long as those failures are well-handled. Designing these mechanisms is a much more flexible and creative process in building software, and requires a large degree of innovation to solve these problems in ways that work for each different problem domain. Even though the two problems can share the same name in software and building construction, and have some similar characteristics, they are ultimately very different problems and should be seen as such. The key metaphors we use to describe our tasks should reflect these differences.

Like a River

For more than a decade now, I've been fascinated by Grady Booch's suggestion that a more apt metaphor for the structure and evolution of the software within an enterprise is that of a river and its surrounding ecosystem G. Booch, "Like a River" in IEEE Software, vol. 26, no. 03, pp. 10-11, 2009. In this abstraction, bank-to-bank slices represent the current state of our systems, while upstream-downstream sections represent changes over time. The width and depth of the river represent the breadth and depth of the structures involved, while the speed of the water, and the differences in speed between the surface (UI) and depths (back-end) represent the speed of changes within those sub-systems.

The life cycle of a software-intensive system is like a river, and we, as developers, are but captains of the boats that ply its waters and dredge its channels. - Grady Booch

I will not go into more detail on Booch's analogy, since it will be far better to read it for yourself, or hear it in his own voice. I will however point out that, in his model, Software Engineers are "…captains of the boats that ply the waters and dredge the channels". It is in this context, that I find the river metaphor most satisfying.

As engineers, we:

  • Navigate and direct the flow of software development, just as captains steer their boats ina particular direction.
  • Make decisions and take action to keep the development process moving forward, similar to how captains navigate their boats through obstacles and challenges.
  • Maintain a highly-functional anomaly detection and early-warning system to alert us of upcoming obstacles such as attacks and system outages, similar to the way captains use sonar to detect underwater obstacles and inspections by their crew, to give them useful warnings.
  • Use ingenuity and skill, while falling back on first-principles, to know when to add abstractions or try something new, in the same way that captains follow the rules of seamanship, but know when to take evasive or unusual action to protect their charge.
  • Maintain a good understanding of the individual components of the software, as well as the broader architecture and how each component fits within the system, just as captains need to know both the river and its channels, and the details of the boat on which they travel.
  • Are responsible for ensuring the software is delivered on time and within budget, similar to how captains ensure their boats reach their destination on schedule.
  • May be acting on but one small section at a time of the broader ecosystem. That is, an engineer may be working on a single feature, and make decisions on how that element is implemented, while other engineers act similarly on other features. This is akin to the way many captains may navigate the same waters simultaneously on different ships, and must make decisions that take into account the presence, activities and needs of the others.

This metaphor, in my opinion, does a much better job of identifying the critical nature of the software developer in the design of our software than then that of the creation of a building structure. It states that our developers are not merely building walls, but they are piloting ships, often through difficult waters that have never previously been charted. These are not laborers, but knowledge-workers whose skills and expertise need to be valued and depended on.

Unfortunately this metaphor, like all others, is imperfect. There are a number of elements of software engineering where no reasonable analog exists into the world of a riverboat captain. One example is the practice of pair or mob programming. I don't recall ever hearing of any instances where a pair or group of ships captains worked collaboratively, and on equal footing, to operate a single ship. Likewise, the converse is also true. I know of no circumstances in software engineering where split-second decisions can have life-or-death consequences. That said, I think the captain metaphor does a far better job of describing the skill and ingenuity required to be a software engineer than that of building construction.

To be very clear, I am not saying that the role of a construction architect, or even construction worker, doesn't require skill and ingenuity, quite the contrary. I am suggesting that the types of skills and the manner of ingenuity required to construct a building, doesn't translate well in metaphor to that required of a software engineer, especially to those who are likely to be unskilled in both areas. It is often these very people, our management and leadership, whom these metaphors are intended to inform. Thus, the construction metaphor represents the job of a software developer ineffectively.


The comparisons of creating software to creating an edifice is not going away any time soon. Regardless of its efficacy, this model has come to be part of our corporate lexicon and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. Even the title of "Software Architect" is extremely prevalent in our culture, a title which I have held, and a role that I have enjoyed for many years now. That said, it could only benefit our craft to make more clear the ways in which that metaphor fails. This clarity would benefit not just the non-technical among us who have little basis to judge our actions aside from these metaphors, but also us as engineers. It is far too easy for anyone to start to view developers as mere bricklayers, rather than the ships captains we are. This is especially true when generations of engineers have been brought up on and trained on the architecture metaphor. If they think of themselves as just workers of limited, albeit currently valuable skill, it will make it much harder for them to challenge those things in our culture that need to be challenged, and to prevent the use of our technologies for nefarious purposes.

Tags: architecture corporate culture enterprise ethics opinion 

My Comments to the FCC on Net Neutrality

Posted by bsstahl on 2014-06-14 and Filed Under: general 

Submitted 6/14/2014

There is no question that the Internet has played, and will continue to play an ever increasing role in our lives, both in terms of our daily activities, and in how we guarantee and monitor our freedoms. More and more of our citizens' speech occurs on the Internet every day. Additionally, more and more new businesses are starting up on, and because-of, the Internet.

If a small number of individuals or companies are allowed to determine which speech is heard, or which companies are allowed to thrive, much of what we strive for in our society will be lost. Gone will be the opportunity for a free and open debate, the type of debate that helps our citizens protect their rights. Gone will be the ability for anyone with the skills and drive to start a business and participate in our economic growth. It is up to the Federal Communications Commission, the representatives of We the People of the United States, to protect our rights and guarantee equal opportunity for everyone to use, and be heard, on the Internet.

I urge you to deny any proposal that would create an Internet "fast-lane" for anyone able and willing to pay bribes to the few communications providers who make up the Internet backbone in this country, and to protect the public's rights by classifying the Internet as a public utility.

Tags: net neutrality opinion 

Microsoft Developers and HTML5

Posted by bsstahl on 2011-07-29 and Filed Under: development 

Warning: Speculation Alert!

While attending the Pittsburgh GiveCamp, I had something of an epiphany about Microsoft’s HTML5 strategy. Looking back at it now it seems so obvious, but at the time it felt like a revelation, so I want to share that experience with you.  You should be warned however that this is not based on any actual knowledge.  I am not a Microsoft insider and I have no information that any other developer who uses Microsoft technologies doesn’t have access to.  These thoughts are purely speculative, but they make sense to me so I felt the need to share them and I look forward to your comments.

I believe that Microsoft will make HTML5/CSS3/ECMAScript a 1st-class language within the .NET stack.

Right now, just about everything that can be done in HTML5, can be done in Silverlight and WPF.  Because Microsoft has already spent the time and effort building those technologies into the .NET Framework, there is already the capability in the Microsoft Intermediate Language (IL), which all .NET code compiles down to, to support the actions that might be needed in an HTML5 application.  Certainly, the standard HTML UI elements have an equivalent in the XAML-based world of WPF and Silverlight.  In addition, there is already style support similar to CSS, and we know there is strong programmability support.  So, when you get down to it, all of the framework pieces are in place to compile an HTML5 application into IL.  Once compiled, most likely into an .exe file, this HTML5 application could be executed in exactly the same way as any Windows desktop application.  I believe Microsoft will be announcing this capability as one of its key features of .NET 5 at their Build conference in September to take advantage of the marketing synergy between the .NET 5 and HTML5 brands.

Can you imagine a workflow where you use File –> New Project in Visual Studio to create an HTML5 project, build HTML5 pages along with your script, style and other resources, and then can publish the project as either a standard HTML website, or as a .NET executable file to be run on Windows 8, or even earlier versions of Windows if they have the .NET framework 5.0 installed?  I can imagine it easily, and I like what I see when I do.  This may be why Microsoft is billing the Build conference as for more than just Professional Developers.  That is, web designers and hobbyists will now also have the ability to create Windows desktop applications simply by utilizing the web skills they already possess.

As for the future of WPF and Silverlight, I speculate that, if Microsoft takes the path that I have described, it practically ensures the survival of the XAML technologies.  The HTML5 spec will be constantly evolving and Microsoft will need to continue to add features to the framework to support those new capabilities.  Once in the framework, Silverlight and WPF can add those same or similar features for almost nothing, simply by adding the language support in XAML or C#/VB.Net.  Microsoft will also have two platforms available in Silverlight and WPF to use to test features that are not yet in the HTML5 spec.

It is likely that there will be some consolidation in the future between the two XAML-based technologies, but that was anticipated long before there was any talk of HTML5 as a viable alternative and is not a result of any policy change due to the existence of HTML5. However, HTML5 is looking, for better or worse, like it will become a major player in cross-platform software development. I suspect that many developers who might otherwise have picked-up Silverlight will choose to learn HTML5 instead. In the long-term, if that becomes a significant trend, then eventually WPF and Silverlight will be phased-out.  However, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. In facet, as I mentioned, I feel the synergy with HTML5 found in these technologies makes them stronger in the short and medium term and they will continue to be players in their various spaces for many years.

Tags: development html5 opinion 

About the Author

Barry S. Stahl Barry S. Stahl (he/him/his) - Barry is a .NET Software Engineer who has been creating business solutions for enterprise customers for more than 35 years. Barry is also an Election Integrity Activist, baseball and hockey fan, husband of one genius and father of another, and a 40 year resident of Phoenix Arizona USA. When Barry is not traveling around the world to speak at Conferences, Code Camps and User Groups or to participate in GiveCamp events, he spends his days as a Solution Architect for Carvana in Tempe AZ and his nights thinking about the next AZGiveCamp event where software creators come together to build websites and apps for some great non-profit organizations.

Barry has started delivering in-person talks again now that numerous mechanisms for protecting our communities from Covid-19 are available. He will, of course, still entertain opportunities to speak online. Please contact him if you would like him to deliver one of his talks at your event, either online or in-person. Refer to his Community Speaker page for available options.

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