Session Report - Modern Software Development Anti-Patterns

In this standing-room-only session, building upon his 2011 JavaOne Rock Star “Diabolical Developer” session, Martijn Verburg, this time along with Ben Evans, identified and explored common “anti-patterns” – ways of doing things that keep developers from doing their best work. They emphasized the importance of social interaction and team communication, along with identifying certain psychological pitfalls that lead developers astray. Their emphasis was less on technical coding errors and more how to function well and to keep one’s focus on what really matters. They are the authors of the highly regarded The Well-Grounded Java Developer and are both movers and shakers in the London JUG community and on the Java Community Process. The large room was packed as they gave a fast-moving, witty presentation with lots of laughs and personal anecdotes.

Below are a few of the anti-patterns they discussed.

Anti-Pattern One: Conference-Driven Delivery

The theme here is the belief that “Real pros hack code and write their slides minutes before their talks.” Their response to this anti-pattern is an expression popular in the military – PPPPPP, which stands for, “Proper preparation prevents piss-poor performance.”

“Communication is very important – probably more important than the code you write,” claimed Verburg. “The more you speak in front of large groups of people the easier it gets, but it’s always important to do dry runs, to present to smaller groups. And important to be members of user groups where you can give presentations. It’s a great place to practice speaking skills; to gain new skills; get new contacts, to network.”

They encouraged attendees to record themselves and listen to themselves giving a presentation. They advised them to start with a spouse or friends if need be. Learning to communicate to a group, they argued, is essential to being a successful developer.

The emphasis here is that software development is a team activity and good, clear, accessible communication is essential to the functioning of software teams.

Anti-Pattern Two: Mortgage-Driven Development

The main theme here was that, in a period of worldwide recession and economic stagnation, people are concerned about keeping their jobs. So there is a tendency for developers to treat knowledge as power and not share what they know about their systems with their colleagues, so when it comes time to fix a problem in production, they will be the only one who knows how to fix it – and will have made themselves an indispensable cog in a machine so you cannot be fired. So developers avoid documentation at all costs, or if documentation is required, put it on a USB chip and lock it in a lock box.

As in the first anti-pattern, the idea here is that communicating well with your colleagues is essential and documentation is a key part of this. Social interactions are essential. Both Verburg and Evans insisted that increasingly, year by year, successful software development is more about communication than the technical aspects of the craft. Developers who understand this are the ones who will have the most success.

Anti-Pattern Three: Distracted by Shiny – Always Use the Latest Technology to Stay Ahead

The temptation here is to pick out some obscure framework, try a bit of Scala, HTML5, and Clojure, and always use the latest technology and upgrade to the latest point release of everything. Don’t worry if something works poorly because you are ahead of the curve.

Verburg and Evans insisted that there need to be sound reasons for everything a developer does. Developers should not bring in something simply because for some reason they just feel like it or because it’s new. They recommended a site run by a developer named Matt Raible with excellent comparison spread sheets regarding Web frameworks and other apps. They praised it as a useful tool to help developers in their decision-making processes.

They pointed out that good developers sometimes make bad choices out of boredom, to add shiny things to their CV, out of frustration with existing processes, or just from a lack of understanding. They pointed out that some code may stay in a business system for 15 or 20 years, but not all code is created equal and some may change after 3 or 6 months. Developers need to know where the code they are contributing fits in. What is its likely lifespan?

Anti-Pattern Four: Design-Driven Design

The anti-pattern: If you want to impress your colleagues and bosses, use design patents left, right, and center – MVC, Session Facades, SOA, etc. Or the UML modeling suite from IBM, back in the day… Generate super fast code. And the more jargon you can talk when in the vicinity of the manager the better.

Verburg shared a true story about a time when he was interviewing a guy for a job and asked him what his previous work was. The interviewee said that he essentially took patterns and uses an approved book of Enterprise Architecture Patterns and applied them. Verburg was dumbstruck that someone could have a job in which they took patterns from a book and applied them. He pointed out that the idea that design is a separate activity is simply wrong. He repeated a saying that he uses, “You should pay your junior developers for the lines of code they write and the things they add; you should pay your senior developers for what they take away.”

He explained that by encouraging people to take things away, the code base gets simpler and reflects the actual business use cases developers are trying to solve, as opposed to the framework that is being imposed.

He told another true story about a project to decommission a very long system. 98% of the code was decommissioned and people got a nice bonus. But the 2% remained on the mainframe so the 98% reduction in code resulted in zero reduction in costs, because the entire mainframe was needed to run the 2% that was left. There is an incentive to get rid of source code and subsystems when they are no longer needed.

The session continued with several more anti-patterns that were equally insightful.

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