Feeds

Managing Software Complexity with Virtual Chapters

A Simple Tool for Mid-Sized Projects

Providing a secure and efficient Helpdesk

One of the big challenges in today's complex environment is getting software done in some close relation to the schedule. I refer to projects with multiple programmers and a team leader or project manager.

Of course, there are a number of planning tools, and project management software has long been available. But there are two problems with this type of software: One is the cost; the second is getting programmers to actually use it.

The second problem is the big one. No matter how good the software may be, if the programmers don't fully adopt it, it won't be very useful. Unfortunately, most programmers find the idea of filling out task reports as much fun as driving in rush hour. The net result is that such software is rarely successful and ends up as “shelfware”, only dusted off when the process auditors visit (or, worse, is updated cynically, with invented information more or less pulled out of the air).

For very large projects, with multi-year durations and dozens of programmers, a professional software package designed for this task is the best alternative, even allowing for the significant management effort needed to get the programmers to use it properly. But for many smaller projects, there is a simpler alternative: I call it the "Virtual Chapter".

The Virtual Chapter is usually one “chapter” per programmer in the virtual project book, where he/she keeps notes on each External Entry Point (EEP) used by other programmers. It is simply a text file that can be directly copied from the current code, identified by virtual chapter number.

Each EEP should have comments that explain the purpose of the code. This can be a straight copy from the working code, with comments on valid parameter ranges. Additional status comments such as 'Design Done', 'Code Complete', 'Clean Compile' and testing results can be added as the program develops.

The Virtual Chapter is easily updated by the programmer - no fancy reports to fill in; once a week, just a straight copy and a status comment. The benefits of this simple tool are several:

  • Team leaders can check project status every week by collecting all of the chapters in sequence, creating a Virtual Status Report. Progress can be identified by highlighting the differences from the previous week's version. Other programmers can see if a calling sequence has changed and check the specific parameters.
  • Once the Virtual Chapters have stabilized, writers can begin user documentation without programmer assistance. Test programmers, or a Quality Assurance group can begin building a full QA test. A first pass at unit testing can be semi-automated by specifying a range of values and using a program to scan the entry points for variables, creating a series of calls.
  • While the test and documentation cannot be completed without knowledge from the programmers, much of the preliminary work can be done in parallel with the code development. This eases the generation of test cases and QA and should have a positive impact on the schedule.

All of these benefits flow from a very simple concept. It is tempting to enhance this design to perform other tasks, but that desire should be resisted. The key to its value is the simplicity and low effort required from the programmer, which makes keeping his or her Virtual Chapter up to date an easy two minute exercise.

The value of current information to the team leader and the rest of management should not be underestimated. Just knowing where a problem is, is half of the battle. As is documented in "The Mythical Man-Month" by Fred Brooks, the earlier you find a problem, the exponentially less impact it has overall.

Using this information to pressure or punish the programmers is the wrong choice. When a problem is found, programmers will accept help just as long as they know this won't be a black mark against them. This is the commitment management has to make for the best results, but if it makes this commitment, then better information on mid-sized projects is just a 'Virtual Chapter' away.

Bill Nicholls is an IT industry veteran. From 1964 with Univac; to 1985 with Weyerhaeuser; then software developer and writer for Byte and Byte.com. The Virtual Chapter is his own invention, based on some work he did when he was managing QA for American Totalisator, a division of General Instrument.

Choosing a cloud hosting partner with confidence

More from The Register

next story
Microsoft on the Threshold of a new name for Windows next week
Rebranded OS reportedly set to be flung open by Redmond
Business is back, baby! Hasta la VISTA, Win 8... Oh, yeah, Windows 9
Forget touchscreen millennials, Microsoft goes for mouse crowd
SMASH the Bash bug! Apple and Red Hat scramble for patch batches
'Applying multiple security updates is extremely difficult'
Apple: SO sorry for the iOS 8.0.1 UPDATE BUNGLE HORROR
Apple kills 'upgrade'. Hey, Microsoft. You sure you want to be like these guys?
ARM gives Internet of Things a piece of its mind – the Cortex-M7
32-bit core packs some DSP for VIP IoT CPU LOL
Lotus Notes inventor Ozzie invents app to talk to people on your phone
Imagine that. Startup floats with voice collab app for Win iPhone
'Google is NOT the gatekeeper to the web, as some claim'
Plus: 'Pretty sure iOS 8.0.2 will just turn the iPhone into a fax machine'
prev story

Whitepapers

A strategic approach to identity relationship management
ForgeRock commissioned Forrester to evaluate companies’ IAM practices and requirements when it comes to customer-facing scenarios versus employee-facing ones.
Storage capacity and performance optimization at Mizuno USA
Mizuno USA turn to Tegile storage technology to solve both their SAN and backup issues.
High Performance for All
While HPC is not new, it has traditionally been seen as a specialist area – is it now geared up to meet more mainstream requirements?
Beginner's guide to SSL certificates
De-mystify the technology involved and give you the information you need to make the best decision when considering your online security options.
Security for virtualized datacentres
Legacy security solutions are inefficient due to the architectural differences between physical and virtual environments.