Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hindsight is 20-20, even several years later

I ran into an old colleague, Alex, on the train today. We went through the usual catch up conversations, and got into talking about some of the old projects we had worked on together.

Alex mentioned that an old application that I had worked on along time ago was still being used, and the code still maintained. Our project was a banking web site, and this application was a supporting application that was used to verify and enroll users into the main application, which was a java web application. In typical hindsight is 20-20 fashion, we started to comment on how we might have approached that application differently.

To appreciate what we would have done differently, I guess I owe a little background on the application. The original enrollment application was a Lotus Notes application, and it verified the enrollee information against the account database. When lookups against the account database started having performance problems, we decided to "quickly" fix the problem by replacing the lookup with a PowerBuilder application. After some modest success improving performance, we decided to fully re-write the enrollment application in PowerBuilder. The application was written along-side the main application, with little design, little visibility and little testing. Despite that, it was deployed on time, and it worked.

Looking back, I would have made this a full-fledged and visible project. The enrollment application, by its nature, has a lifespan that matches that of the main application. This alone should have been consideration enough to give the enrollment application more visibility.

Alex mentioned that maintenance of the application was passed around from team to team. In hindsight, I would have implemented the enrollment application using the same technologies as the main application. The enrollment application was written in PowerBuilder, by a couple of team members, while the rest of the team was working on a Java web application. This would bring the technical skill set in line with the main application, improving the chances of maintaining the application.

I mentioned increasing the visibility. To me this means two things: more project management visibility, and more testing. Over the years, I've seen that detailed visibility into the details of a project, and into the true status of tasks, leads to more successful projects. In part, because developers tell it like it is, and in part because managers can see the details for themselves. This outcome of the original project may not have changed, since the application worked, but the process of getting there would have been much smoother. The same goes with more testing; the outcome may not have changed, but the project would have gone smoother.

Finally, when the PowerBuilder application was first developed, it was thought that this would be a short-lived application, to help with performance for a short time, and then the application would be retired. Of course, it is still not retired. In hindsight, I would have approached even the smallest effort with the same rigor as an application planned for a long lifespan. You never know when an application will take on a life of its own, and outlive everyone's expectations.

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