FogBugz world tour, Boulder edition

I went and saw Joel Spolsky’s talk about FogBugz6 tonight. It seems to be quite the powerful software development tool. But I’m afraid that it seems to suffer like every tool–it forces you into certain methods of development. For example, there’s no way to ensure that every bug entered is viewed by QA. Now, that isn’t a problem for the teams I currently work on, but I can see it being a problem for teams I have worked on. Joel mentioned very valid reasons for doing this, but they only seem valid for the subset of development teams that FogBugz targets.

In fact, as I left, almost every conversation I heard was about the product, and how people could fit it into their process, rather than use the process it gives you. Because FogBugz really is more than a bug tracking system–it now goes from documentation/requirements gathering all the way to estimation to bug tracking to customer support. FogBugz appears to be a tool that is used in almost the entire software development life cycle–hey look, it’s RUP lite.

But I’ve used never version 6, and I’m sure there are significant wins. My other concerns are that the software estimation parts sound like they’re 1.0 features (just from the words he used–at best 1.1 since they used FogBugz6 to develop FogBugz6); I’d rather wait until the features are more settled. I’m sure you could use just the bug tracking system, and they’ve certainly taken the ‘Web 2.0′/instant response/make it feel like a desktop application ideas to heart. The cost is another concern; while minimal, it is greater than $0. On many projects I’m on, just using any bug tracker, let alone an entire software development tool, is difficult, and you can’t beat stealth bug tracker installs. (I’m on record as saying “I have to say that I think the open source solutions (Bugzilla and PHPBT) are going to eat the commercial solutions’ lunch for small projects, because they are a cheaper substitute with all the required attributes”, just as an FYI.)

One thing that really surprised me at the talk is how many folks were there evaluating FogBugz as opposed to seeing Joel speak. Around one third of the audienced had used or was using FogBugz. Joel opened up the floor to questions, and every single one except one (of mine) was about features or flaws in FogBugz. I mean, this is the guy who wrote the Joel Test and no one took the opportunity to ask him general development questions, even though he said he’d field them. I don’t know what the deal was.

Will I give FogBugz a try? Not right now. But I’ll keep an eye on what they’re doing.

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Interesting posts about web application performance

The good folks over at the YUI blog posted this: What the 80/20 Rule Tells Us about Reducing HTTP Requests a while ago. I bookmarked it, but wanted to point it out to other folks–it’s a nice bit of research, with numbers and graphs and all that good stuff. It opened my eyes to various non intuitive aspects of web application performance. The whole series is a nice read; part 1 is linked above and here’s part 2, part 3 and part 4.


GWT impressions

After about a year of working with GWT, it seems to me like there are two places where it is really useful as a technology:

  1. Quickly building relatively sophisticated user interfaces for entire web based applications. An intranet ‘client-server’ type application, like a timesheet, would be a perfect fit. If you use Java on the server side, domain objects can even be shared.
  2. Building small widgets that have anything beyond the simplest logic. This is the best way to integrate GWT into an existing application–add small bits of functionality that improve the user experience. You can use GWT to manage, reuse and package this logic.

However, what GWT is best for is not the limiting factor for GWT; rather, if you aren’t a Java developer, GWT just doesn’t make sense. (I’m ignoring the fact that if a user doesn’t have JavaScript enabled, GWT doesn’t make sense, since this is a failing of almost all the Web 2.0 rich user interface toolkits).

For me, being a Java developer and a fan of Eclipse, GWT is a natural fit for a number of reasons. The Java object serialization support, the use of an IDE to code Javascript, the JRE emulation, and the event driven user interface model all make it extremely comfortable to develop in the language. If you’re already coding the server side in Java, GWT is one less language to learn (until you need to do something that isn’t provided for in the emulation libraries, or you need to use a Java 1.5 feature, or a bug leaks up through the abstraction; of course, these problems will never happen).

While I don’t have deep knowledge with other toolkits (I’ve worked slightly with the Yahoo! User Inteface Library and have toyed with Dojo), it seems to me that many many folks can get by using them; there’s no tie to Java.

If someone was going to ask me whether or not they should use GWT, I’d boil it down to the following questions:

  1. Are your developers familiar with Java? (If ‘no’, don’t use GWT.)
  2. Are your developers familiar with JavaScript? (If ‘yes’, consider not using GWT.)
  3. Are you integrating with an existing app? (If ‘yes’, GWT might be a good fit.)
  4. If so, are you planning to ‘web 2.0′-ify the existing application, or add widgets to enhance existing functionality? (If planning to ‘web 2.0′-ify existing functionality, don’t use GWT.)

On a final note, I don’t want to bag on GWT too much. GWT has improved tremendously over the past year or so, and I’m very glad to have used it. I think it’s quite cool tech, and I think it has really improved the user experience on my client’s site.

Thank you, Google, for releasing GWT and making it available for me to use.


Four year blogaversary

It’s been four years and a few days since I started writing this blog. It’s been a great experience. I’ve had good months (15 posts) and bad months (1 post), but I’ve written 352 posts over the last four years. I’ve learned a lot from this blog–how to shoot my mouth off, how to acknowledge mistakes in public, and how to write a post that gets hijacked by others for their own purposes. I thought I’d take the opportunity to highlight four of my favorite posts.

  • Business Process Crystallization: This is a nice little post about how software is both shaped by the business process it will assist and shapes that same process. It’s one of my original thoughts–at least I haven’t seen too much literature taking this view of software.
  • Installing the median user defined function on MySQL: I always enjoy step by step tutorials, and this is one of the better ones I have written. I also enjoyed the challenge of making a mysql user defined function work when I’d never done any significant C development.
  • The Social Life of Information: This book was a slow read, but explains a fascinating concept–that much of the information we receive is contextual and connotative. This was a revelation to me, since I’m more comfortable with denotative, explicit information.
  • Step By Step: A Mortgage Calculator using GWT: I enjoyed this blogging experience, the entire series. My client and I worked together to release a site repeatedly over a week, as well as releasing the source code and documenting the entire experience of learning, developing and deploying a new technology.

Choosing new technology, or tail chasing

Robert Hanson, who built the very useful GWT Widget Library, has an interesting post where he asks:

Let’s say that you are a developer, and you have been spending the past year or so really getting to know a given technology. Now you are being told that the technology you are using is inferior to this “other” technology. You take a look and realize that it might be best to switch. A year later you finally have a good understanding of the tool, and use it with great skill. Then someone tells you about this “other” technology.

How many of us built our own MVC frameworks only to move to Struts, then maybe on to Spring MVC. Sure, there are some improvements made in each technological step, but since you are spending most of your time really getting to know a product you often spend little time getting the most out of it. This is compounded by the fact that you often use several of these products at the same time, adding to what you need to learn.

So what is a dog to do? Although you are moving forward, you never quite catch the tail. Should you just stop moving forward, or run faster or slower?

Personally, I think that there is a middle ground. As a developer, you need to keep up on broad trends and tools, because they can make you so much more productive. The problem arises when you don’t know how much more productive you will be, until you use the technology or tool for a while….

However, just because there is a new tool around, that doesn’t mean you have to use it. In fact, if you have an existing technology that does the job, you should not abandon it just to move to the new technology. There’s always a cost analysis, because learning a new technology is not free. Your time is worth something.

This cost analysis is something that developers should learn to do and appreciate because that process is exactly what most companies need to do before they decide to implement or build new software. Just like a developer, most companies think that a new technology, or system, will help them, but are unsure how much it will help them, and how much it will cost them. Just as for a company, a developer deciding to learn and use a new technology is not solely a technology decision.

There are many ways to minimize the risk of learning a new technology–prototype, read documentation, be conservative and consult someone who’s an expert in the new technology (which means they’ve already made some of the mistakes). Each of these have benefits and detriments. Prototyping takes more time than the others. Reading documentation is great if there is documentation, and if the documentation is accurate, but might teach one as many lessons as using the technology. Being conservative means that you’ll probably miss out on some productivity improvements, just as you’ll miss out on some time sinks. Consulting an expert is great, if you have access and know what questions to ask.

I think the answer to Robert’s final question is intensely context sensitive. It depends on the following five considerations, among others:

  • how crucial a new technology is to your productivity (ie, if you are a java business developer, learning GWT might be lower on the list than learning Spring)
  • how easy you think it will be to learn
  • whether you can be paid to learn it
  • how much spare time you have
  • whether you have a project to use the new technology on

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