Monday, November 17, 2008

Real programmers don't eat diagrams

Yesterday I discussed how we developers routinely deal with imprecise requirements and while most of us find this to be annoying from time to time, overall we don't consider this a Big Problem. Or perhaps many of us do recognize this as a Big Problem, but have resigned ourselves to its seeming intractability. In any event, we can all agree that if it were possible for us to unambiguously "encode" requirements precisely, and could do this economically, it would surely be better than the current, preferred practice of getting a "pretty good idea" of what some business guy needs, code it up, and then sit down with the guy to see what we got wrong, and come away with a "pretty gooder idea" than we had previously. And then repeating this process over and over again until we get it right or until it's time to go live.

Most development projects begin with a fuzzy expression of requirements as articulated via some combination of text, pictures, and threatening emails by some end users, and end with a concrete expression of requirements as expressed in code and entreaties for forgiveness by programmers. As we discussed, there is currently no widely recognized middle ground between the fuzziness of warm, friendly natural language-based requirements specs, and cold, hard code. As a result, developers are left to interpret the fuzzy as their first step toward implementing a solution. Precision Requirements Modeling (PRM) is a set of techniques for transforming fuzzy requirements into a "code-ready" requirements specification. PRM allows requirements to be expressed with the precision of code, without getting bogged down in requirements details. Perhaps most tantalizingly, PRM specifications are themselves executable, which means we can let end users test drive a specification prior to developers becoming lost within the dense tangle of the implementation jungle, where they become increasingly isolated from civilization as they fashion primitive tools and frameworks, and engage in pitched warfare with competing tribes using .NET.

PRM begins with good-old-fashioned domain modeling. Virtually all O-O developers engage in some level of domain modeling whether they realize it or not. Every time you specify a class that represents a business concept, you're engaging in domain modeling. Even the staunchest of anti-modeling activists can often be caught in moments of weakness drawing UML-ish boxes and lines on a whiteboard. Anybody who has worked on anything but the most trivial of applications has come to recognize the usefulness of UML class diagrams or, at a minimum, entity relationship diagrams as a way of allowing members of a team to get a shared understanding of the major abstractions or data representations being used and how they relate to one another. Of course, you can always just fire up a debugger and trace through your buddy's code, but most of us would prefer a less - uh - extreme approach to integrating the disparate pieces of an implementation.

Class diagrams and ERDs are some of the best ways of communicating among a team an application's entities, their attributes, and their relationships to each other. In terms of attributes, most developers specify no more than names and types of what will be persisted. But as we shall soon see, class diagrams have the potential of communicating so much more if we would just let them. How well do you really know class diagrams? Sure you draw them occasionally. Sometimes you may even bring them to lunch with your colleagues. But if you would just get to really know them, you would see that they're among your best friends.

In our next installment, we'll get better acquainted with some class diagrams and see how, with some minor extensions, they can be used to unambiguously specify large portions of any requirements specification, and bridge the gap between warm, fuzzy business people and cold, hard programmers.

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