- Refinements to requirements cannot vary fundamentally from the original.
So what was the attack? We must begin with the launch meeting of the relevant project, where my conduct was such I rarely again got asked to meetings, but as a tease I will share that this was one of the most profound God is speaking to you experiences I have had in software development, one of those moments where one senses forces unknown at play.
I was being given a nice new standalone task perfect for a cowboy contractor such as myself who was good with code but not with teams. My manager Frank would be perfect for such a loose cannon, one who cared not about how loud I snored when I catnapped or at what hour I showed up or how badly my lunch reeked as I ate it over the keyboard but only if the code worked so he could sleep at night.
Just one problem. I walk into the launch meeting and sit down having no idea what is happening. After thirty minutes of sitting quietly at one corner of the table having nothing to do with any of the discussion I have deduced that a foreign branch of the bank has accounting software that will be shut down and covered by the software at our central location and that I will be writing the interface to take the feed from an off-the-shelf humongoid accounting package and feed it into the central system in such a way that it replicates their existing system.
I have grown increasingly intrigued at this prospect as the meeting drags on because our group has more than a few people assigned to supporting the massive off-the-shelf system (shall we call it Isis?) and it seemed worthy of months of apprenticeship. On top of that I certainly had no knowledge of the foreign branch's system. Best of all I knew less than nothing about accounting. Okay, no, best of all was that no one was talking to me at the meeting so I developed this crazy idea that they were just going to turn to me at the end and say, Need anything else, Ken?
Then Tony the Senior AVP turned to me.
"Need anything else, Ken?"
Left to my own devices for the first 99% of the meeting I had had time not only to deduce its ending but also prepare an answer. My fans from comp.lang.lisp can tell you His Kennyness likes nothing better than a good analogy and it had occurred to Himself that the developing situation resonated strongly with an image that formed spontaneously in his mind of a couple with a dog on a leash standing on some corner in the middle of Manhattan deciding how best to get to the Botanical Gardens in Brooklyn and after considerable discussion and perhaps even a consultation with maps street, bus, and subway settling on a means and path of transveyance and turning to the dog and saying, "Lead on, Fido!"
Hence my prepared answer, before not one but two AVPs and the users on conference call from Canada:
"Woof! Woof!", I offered, and looking back I regret only not having thought to wiggle my ass in my chair to signify enthusiastic tail wagging.
When it became clear that the import of my barking had eluded those present and had at least stunned Canada into silence I expanded on it by observing that I knew neither the sending application nor the application I was meant to replicate nor the entire subject of accounting and concluded by wondering aloud if the guy outside tending the falafel cart might not be a better fit since he at least knew how to make change.
The Canadians had heretofore been utterly thrilled at the idea of having their accounting taken over by our central gang that could not shoot straight (I'll wait while those of you who missed the irony go back for a look) and now they had White Fang as the contractor assigned to the task, confirming their worst nightmares.
They agreed to provide a thorough specification and the AVP and I ever after when meeting in the hallway would bark at each other in greeting and at his going away dinner -- well, after the second round of shots it was pretty much non-stop howling, thank god for private rooms, we should have had one. I digress.
Remember: this is about users not being able to change requirements discontinuously. So now we know how I ended up with the most beautiful requirements from which I have ever worked. Requirements? Bah, this was pseudo code. Just brilliant. They identified a dozen kind of transactions/situations/circumstances I could expect from Isis and they specified exactly how each should be handled.
And this "exactly" was not just exact. There was this tremendous regularity in how they specified the handing of each case. Each was expressed cleanly as so many debit this, credit that, debit this subtransactions. These subtransactions just begged to be viewed as microcode for the larger instructions specifying how each case was to be handled.
So that is the code I wrote, after effusively praising Team Canada to themselves and anyone else I could find. The high-level code read Isis transactions, identified the high-level case, and invoked its handler, each handler dispatching one or more microcode subtask handlers. We are talking easy work and soon we sail into user acceptance done thoroughly for a couple of months because I mentioned they did not trust us. I also know it was a long time because by the time the call came through with the title of this entry I had forgotten about the entire issue to which they referred, which was this:
After a week my bugs had been rooted out and IRs were being handled by letting them know how they had screwed up the test. Frank was happy, I was snoring, life was good, we had time to buzz about this new write once run anywhere language called Java that would let browsers run applets.
Then well into the test when the IRs had slowed to a drip I got a call from Canada. I had blown a transaction. Lemme see it... OK, sorry, that is what the spec says. No, these have to be handled this way, the debit goes over here and credit goes over there when X is Y.
Now as usually happens in these deals I still did not know anything about accounting but some of the words had taken on glimmers of meaning and I asked, But isn't this the same as whatever? And then I threw around some terms and said that from my poor understanding what they were suggesting seemed wrong. Nope, that is how we do it. OK. Bye. Bye.
And now comes the good part. I invoked Tilton's Lemma -- not because Kenny could not see the legitimacy of their accounting, though that encouraged me, but because of something else I found to be strangely compelling: my code would not do what they wanted.
I tried to see how I could patch in the exception and there was no way. I would have needed action at a distance and Einstein had already spoken on that. What was needed was for the microcode to behave differently based on information (X and Y) available only at the top level in which the higher level transactions were being identified and their handlers invoked. The only way to give Canada what they wanted was either to add a parameter to everything in the call chain (which I would have called woof-woof, I think) or even more elegantly to set a global variable at the higher level that this one microcode handler could watch out for. Ewwww.
Now please do not think I am posing as a person of integrity or principle or anything because I am the most miserably pragmatic soul you can hope to meet, but I got back on the phone to Canada.
"Marcia, Kenny. My code does not want to do what you want, eh? Your spec is pretty clear on all these things and just from the sound of it it seems the way I am handling it now is right anyway. I can kludge things up to get what you want, but I will hate myself in the morning."
Marcia said she would talk to Bernie, her VP, and get back to me. She did not do so for so long that I forgot about it and to her credit she did not even have to make the call but she did.
"Kenny, Marcia. I spoke to Bernie. The way you are handling that transaction will be OK. We can live with the way you are doing it."
Tilton's Lemma lived on. Somehow clean design (starting I freely acknowledge with a great spec) had flushed out a faulty business practice. The users had indeed offered an RFE discontinuous with all their other stated requirements, but it turned out to be such an egregious error that they agreed to fix it. (To their credit again!)
Why does this war story give me goose bumps? Yes, I need to get out more. And OK, maybe it is not such a big deal. The careful architecture forced on us by having to program these godawful machines makes it easy for programmers to see inconsistencies the business experts miss.
I just get a kick out of it -- a sense of God or Plato or the Tao throwing their weight around as long as we take design seriously and hop on the phone over such things.