Friday, May 23, 2008

ThoughtWorks Anthology

ThoughtWorks Anthology CoverThis isn't a book review because it's considered bad taste to review books in which you participate. But, The ThoughtWorks Anthology is an interesting project, and I thought I could provide some perspective on it's genesis. TWA offers a glimpse of why ThoughtWorks is such a cool place to work: lots of people passionate about technology, who care about changing the IT industry.

As you may already know, I compiled two other anthologies, the 2006 and 2007 No Fluff, Just Stuff Anthologies (editing is too strong a word, I was mostly just wrangling articles from writers and organizing stuff). Those were easy because we had a hard deadline: it doesn't make sense to release the 2006 anthology in 2008. Shortly after the first No Fluff, Just Stuff anthology was published, several people at ThoughtWorks (including Martin Fowler and Rebecca Parsons, the ThoughtWorks CTO) and I started talking about the possibility of a ThoughtWorks anthology. I don't mean to suggest that it was my idea; they were just talking to me about logistics. It was decided that Rebecca would edit it, and solicitations for articles went out. Lots of ThoughtWorkers expressed an interest (including me), and writing began.

But three problems manifested: first, no implied deadline existed, because this wasn't a dated book. Two, everyone working on and contributing to the book had day jobs, actually doing the stuff they were writing about in lots of cases. In addition to their day jobs, many were involved in open source projects: ThoughtWorkers contribute a lot to open source projects. And, third, ThoughtWorkers are notoriously ADD. Rebecca had the unenviable and well nigh impossible job of cat herding a bunch of ThoughtWorkers under the above constraints towards creating the anthology. And, of course, Rebecca is insanely busy as well. But, obviously, she made it happen. It took a while, but it's out now. It covers the gamut of things that interest ThoughtWorks, from project management to pretty hard core technical stuff, with some forward looking tidbits thrown in. The ThoughtWorks Anthology has essays by Roy Singham (the Roy of Roy's Social Experiment), Martin Fowler, Rebecca Parsons, me, Jeff Bay, Michael Robinson, Tiffany Lentz, Stelios Pantazopoulos, Ian Robinson, Erik Doernenburg, Julian Simpson, Dave Farley, Kristan Vingrys, and James Bull. The article titles give a glimpse of the range of information in this book: Solving the Business Software "Last Mile", One Lair and Twenty Ruby DSLs, The Lush Landscape of Languages, Polyglot Programming, Object Calisthenics, What Is an Iteration Manager Anyway?, Project Vital Signs, Consumer-Driven Contracts: A Service Evolution Pattern, Domain Annotations, Refactoring Ant Build Files, Single-Click Software Release, Agile vs. Waterfall Testing for Enterprise Web Apps, and Pragmatic Performance Testing.

Anthologies are currently all the rage. No only the No Fluff, Just Stuff ones, but O'Reilly's Beautiful Code (and a rumored upcoming one on architecture), and, of course, this one. Anthologies are nice because you can read them in little bursts. I think this one has both interesting stuff and does ThoughtWorks proud as a company. Kudos to all the writers and Rebecca for pulling it off. And don't ask her about a sequel, at least not yet: she needs time to heal.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

RIA == Platform Play

The shortness of the collective memory of the development world depresses me sometimes. Joel Spolsky has a great blog post from 2004 entitled How Microsoft Lost the API War. In it, he describes the real Microsoft crown jewel that lead to their domination of the personal computer: the Win32 API. If you were writing software in the mid-90's, you were writing it to the Win32 API. You might be using Visual BASIC, Delphi, PowerBuilder, Visual Objects (all 2 of it's users), FoxPro, dBASE for Windows (all 4 of it's users), etc. But you were writing desktop applications that ran on Windows. Then, Netscape came along and showed everyone that you could write software to open standards. Even though Microsoft eventually trampled Netscape, the damage was done: now you could write software that ran in browsers. Of course, Java had the whole "write once, run anywhere" mantra going, but building desktop applications in Java sucked then and it sucks now. Only a few companies have ever done it well (like JetBrains). Netscape's enduring legacy was that writing to standards (like HTML, CSS, eventually DHTML and JavaScript) was, while painful, possible. You can create rich applications where no one knows or cares in which language it's written.

Fast forward to today's development world. We're used to the pain required to write good web applications. We've got Ajax frameworks to smooth over the painful parts of JavaScript, people actually understand CSS, and you can build compelling applications on the web. Not an office suite, mind you, but pretty functional applications.

Which brings us around to the current hotness, Rich Internet Applications (RIA). Ever wonder why Adobe and Microsoft are slugging it out for that space? And Sun is running along behind with JavaFX saying "Wait, we want to fight too!". It's the new platform play. We've dealt with the pain of writing good looking web applications so long that when someone comes along and shows pretty pixels, we swoon. Yes, you can create beautiful applications using Silverlight and Flex. And Sun showed some awesome demos of JavaFX at JavaOne. But, if you write an application in one of those tools, you've bought a platform. You are no longer in a standards space. You can't take a Silverlight application and port it to Flex without a rewrite. Same goes with JavaFX. Whoever wins the RIA war has the new dominant web platform, just like Win32 back in the day. Sounds like a good reason for big companies to pour resources into the effort.

Of course, as my friend Mike Nygard pointed out during several expert panels, you pretty much buy into a platform play every time you start writing software. Yes, JEE is a standard across many application servers, but how many people are really careful to isolate the seductive goodies that come with your application server from the real JEE stuff? My guess is not many. So, you've kind of implicitly bought into a platform anyway. That's doubly true for .NET: yes, Mono exists, but more of a proof of concept than anything else.

Maybe this is OK. But I remember the reason to avoid single vendor platforms. One of the compelling reasons to move to Java when the JEE specs came out was the possibility of moving to another vendor, even with some strenuous effort. I can't tell you have many consulting clients I encountered in the mid-90's who had bought into a particular platform (say, Microsoft Transaction Server or ColdFusion) and were very productive with it...until they hit a real bug in the platform itself. I consulted at one company who had an 18 month project written to a proprietary platform when they encountered a show-stopping bug. They contacted the vendor who said "Yeah, that's a known bug. We're going to get a fix out for that in the next release, which should be in about 12 months". Even though it took them a long time, they scrapped what they written and started over, in Java. And you can bet they were careful about isolating the application server stuff from the specification.

Building to a single platform isn't necessarily a bad thing, as long as you go in with your eyes open. It's a trade-off: perhaps the pretty dancing pixels in Silverlight are worth the chance that you'll find something it doesn't support and end up with an application that doesn't quite do what your users want. But, beware of Dietlzer's Law: users want what they want, and are grumpy if you tell them "no". And, if you go with one of the RIA platforms, get ready to marginalize everyone without a PC. Some of these platforms have some support on mobile devices (and surely more to com, in a massive wave), but it's not going to be as good as plain old HTML for a long time.

If you are going to choose an RIA platform, please use it appropriately. Don't build forms in it: HTML is plenty good for data entry forms. I saw a demo recently of a text box that rippled when you touched it with a mouse or typed in it. Please. RIA is extraordinarily good for displaying information that is well nigh impossible in HTML and JavaScript. Use it for those kinds of visualizations. Most of the RIA platforms now don't support web metaphors like bookmarks, or addressable URL's. There's no reason to completely discard the parts of HTML that work well for which it is designed. Use HTML for general interactions, and use RIA for sophisticated visualizations. And know going in that you've bought a platform that you're going to have to live with for a long time.

A slightly different version of this rant, more Silverlight focused, appears here. I was at a party at a friends house that had lots of .NET folks there, during the Microsoft MVP Summit. I was getting some impending dead-line work done and Eric was recording a series of podcasts, the tone of which can be summed up by "Silverlight will cure cancer, solve world hunger, and paint your kitchen for you". After he was done, I was quietly fuming and asked him if he wanted a contrarian view. That's what's on the podcast. You've been warned!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


One of the interesting things that's happening in the Ruby community is the sprouting of regional conferences. Because Ruby is still nascent in the Enterprise space, it's hard to conduct conferences (especially regional ones like No Fluff, Just Stuff) because individuals probably have to pay for themselves (rather than having a corporation pay for them). This is a clear case of developers seeing the next thing they want to do, but companies lagging behind them. But Ruby (and Rails) has some pretty sophisticated stuff, which lends itself well to a conference. Thus, the rise of the regional conferences, many of them basically operating as a non-profit, trying just to cover expenses with the conference fees. And that describes RubyNation on August 1st & 2nd, where I'm delivering the opening keynote. It speaks highly of the Ruby community that the conference organizers are willing to put in a vast amount of effort (and believe me, putting on a conference is a huge undertaking) just for the love of the technology. That's a rare thing indeed, and shows what a wonderful place in general that the Ruby community is. I'm happy to speak at these regional conferences because I like the passion for technology on display. It's fun being around people who really care about technology, and love to debate it, discuss it, and generally wallow around in it (which is one of the reasons that I love ThoughtWorks so much). So, even if you have to get on a plane, come to Ruby Nation and wallow around with me. And, it that's no enough incentive, come because Stuart Halloway is making a relatively rare appearance as the closing keynoter. Should be a great couple of days.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Agile IT! Experience

I'm speaking at the upcoming Agile IT! Experience, in Reston from June 26 through June 28. Most conferences focus on one attendee demographic: developers, business analysts, managers, CIO's (which entails much golfing and little conferencing). But projects must encompass a wide variety of roles, all of whom must work together. The upcoming Agile IT! conference breaks that mold. It caters to all members of the project ecosystem. That means that managers will rub elbows with developers, business analysts can chat with testers, and use the synergy of their experience to both understand how the other half lives and pick up valuable insights from other people that will make their work better.

I really like these kind of mixed conferences. Too often, conferences are too homogeneous. Getting a group of people together that have different perspectives always broadens the perspectives of everyone. This new conference blends several normally separate worlds, enriching all of them. I'm looking forward to IT!