Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Mythical Man-Month – Extracts V

Source: The Mythical Man-Month

Ensuring that everyone hears, understands, and implements the architects' decisions

A whole technology for doing this was worked out for the System/360 hardware design effort, and it is equally applicable to software projects.

Written Specifications—the Manual

The manual, or written specification, is a necessary tool, though not a sufficient one. The manual is the external specification of the product.

It describes and prescribes every detail of what the user sees. As such, it is the chief product of the architect. It must also refrain from describing what the user does not see. That is the implementer's business, and there his design freedom must be unconstrained.

The style must be precise, full, and accurately detailed. A user will often refer to a single definition, so each one must repeat all the essentials and yet all must agree. This tends to make manuals dull reading, but precision is more important than liveliness.

Formal Definitions

English, or any other human language, is not naturally a precision instrument for such definitions. Therefore the manual writer must strain himself and his language to achieve the precision needed. An attractive alternative is to use a formal notation for such definitions, but it also has its weaknesses so I think we will see future specifications to consist of both a formal definition and a prose definition.

If one has both, one must be the standard, and the other must be a derivative description, clearly labeled as such. Either can be the primary standard.

Direct Incorporation

A lovely technique for disseminating and enforcing definitions is available for the software system architect. It is especially useful for establishing the syntax, if not the semantics, of inter-module
interfaces. This technique is to design the declaration of the passed parameters or shared storage, and to require the implementations to include that declaration via a compile-time operation (a macro
or a % INCLUDE in PL/I). If, in addition, the whole interface is referenced only by symbolic names, the declaration can be changed by adding or inserting new variables with only recompilation, not alteration, of the using program.

Conferences and Courts

Needless to say, meetings are necessary. The hundreds of man-to-man consultations must be supplemented by larger and more formal gatherings. We found two levels of these to be useful.

The first is a weekly half-day conference of all the architects, plus official representatives of the hardware and software implementers, and the market planners. The chief system architect presides. Anyone can propose problems or changes, but proposals are usually distributed in writing before the meeting. A new problem is usually discussed a while. The emphasis is on creativity, rather than merely decision. The group attempts to invent many solutions to problems, then a few solutions are passed to one or more of the architects for detailing into precisely worded manual change proposals.

Detailed change proposals then come up for decisions. These have been circulated and carefully considered by implementers and users, and the pros and cons are well delineated. If a consensus emerges, well and good. If not, the chief architect decides. Minutes are kept and decisions are formally, promptly, and widely disseminated.

Decisions from the weekly conferences give quick results and allow work to proceed. If anyone is too unhappy, instant appeals to the project manager are possible, but this happens very rarely.The fruitfulness of these meetings springs from several sources:

  • The same group—architects, users, and implementers—meets weekly for months. No time is needed for bringing people up to date.
  • The group is bright, resourceful, well versed in the issues, and deeply involved in the outcome. No one has an "advisory" role. Everyone is authorized to make binding commitments.
  • When problems are raised, solutions are sought both within and outside the obvious boundaries.
  • The formality of written proposals focuses attention, forces decision, and avoids committee-drafted inconsistencies.
  • The clear vesting of decision-making power in the chief architect avoids compromise and delay.

As time goes by, some decisions don't wear well. Some minor matters have never been wholeheartedly accepted by one or another of the participants. Other decisions have developed unforeseen problems, and sometimes the weekly meeting didn't agree to reconsider these. So there builds up a backlog of minor appeals, open issues, or disgruntlements. To settle these we held annual supreme court sessions, lasting typically two weeks. (I would hold them every six months if I were doing it again.)

These sessions were held just before major freeze dates for the manual. Those present included not only the architecture group and the programmers' and implementers' architectural representatives, but also the managers of programming, marketing, and implementation efforts. The project manager presided. The agenda typically consisted of about 200 items, mostly minor, which were enumerated in charts placarded around the room. All sides were heard and decisions made. By the miracle of computerized text editing (and lots of fine staff work), each participant found an updated manual, embodying yesterday's decisions, at his seat every morning.
These "fall festivals" were useful not only for resolving decisions, but also for getting them accepted. Everyone was heard, everyone participated, everyone understood better the intricate constraints and interrelationships among decisions.

The Telephone Log

As implementation proceeds, countless questions of architectural interpretation arise, no matter how precise the specification. Obviously many such questions require amplifications and clarifications in the text. Others merely reflect misunderstandings. It is essential, however, to encourage the puzzled implementer to telephone the responsible architect and ask his question, rather than to guess and proceed. It is just as vital to recognize that the answers to such questions are ex cathedra architectural pronouncements that must be told to everyone.
One useful mechanism is a telephone log kept by the architect. In it he records every question and every answer. Each week the logs of the several architects are concatenated, reproduced, and distributed to the users and implementers. While this mechanism is quite informal, it is both quick and comprehensive.

Product Test

The project manager's best friend is his daily adversary, the independent product-testing organization. This group checks machines and programs against specifications and serves as a devil's advocate, pinpointing every conceivable defect and discrepancy. Every development organization needs such an independent technical auditing group to keep it honest. In the last analysis the customer is the independent auditor.


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