Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Report to Database

A common gig for my consulting company these days is plugging gaps in other vendor's infrastructures.

Once upon a time, this gig was pretty pleasant: every IT-consuming manager seemed to understand that what they bought would be, at best, 80% of what was needed, so they kept time in the schedule and money in the budget to get as much of the last 20% as they could. We were brought in early and worked with the vendor to produce a happy client.

More recently, we find that larger vendors are squeezing us out, but not by doing a great job: instead, the larger vendors are often over-promising, under-delivering, dangling the promise of cheap, expert consulting and customization that never seems to materialize. But when the initial installation is done, the deadline is past and the budget is exceeded.

As a result of this successful strategy, we are brought in when it is too late, when users are fried and management is angry, when time is short and money hard to come by.

The typical story goes like this:
  1. Client considers an enterprise solution (ES) so expensive, it must do all that one could ever want. This thinking seems incredibly naive to me, but there you are.
  2. During the sales phase, the answer to all questions is "yes, of course it does" or "of course we will" or "we are installed in X other similar companies, trust us." I would expect this to raise red flags, but it does not seem to.
  3. During the implementation phase,  a different team from the same vendor finds many previous claims to be absurd--"I can't believe that any of our people ever told you that" is what I hear.
  4. When the smoke clears on the installation, the client finds a given business process is not supported by the mighty ES, even by cobbling together functionality from various modules. The vendor's consulting teams come and tell the client to either stop wanting the given functionality or to wait for some bright day when that functionality is released.
  5. For whichever of these failures simply cannot be tolerated, we are called in to plug the gap by providing the required functionality "outboard" of the ES
Given how we come into the environment, it is no surprise that our relationship with the ES vendor is not great.  Often the patch requires interaction with the ES database and support from the vendor is either terrible or non-existent. The idea that we all have the same goal (making the client happy) and the same boss (the client)  seems to be quite dead.

In this case, I often only have a database black box and a report with at least an identifier and a value for the column I seek. Even when we get schema documentation, it is usually, ahem, bare bones and, shall we say, "out of date."

So I sigh deeply, put on my favorite database hacking music and do the following:

  1. I get permission to use the database (usually a secondary copy)
  2. I get credentials with which to access the database
  3. I am a terrifically ethical person, so I would never decompile someone else's software to get the required information. That would be wrong. Even though the client paid for the database and the software.
  4. I use whatever database description hooks I have, eg MySQL's "show database" and "show tables" and "show columns" commands, or the local equivalent. I have a suite of database debugging tools leftover from a previous incarnation as a database vendor, so I can crack databases even if those databases are not relational databases
  5. I write programs to take the outline of the schema and for each table:
    1. get the list of columns and data types
    2. select all  columns for all rows
      1. check each column against the known values
      2. store every hit: table:column:value
    3. manually review the output, form guesses about the schema
    4. write programs based on guesses, eq frequency distributions
    5. refine guesses about the schema and data based on evidence
If all goes well, after a rather long time, I will have some significant clues to the schema and how the column I care about is named, in which table it lives and how it is used. I can then do what I have to do in the way of pre-processing or post-processing.

I often find out enough to continue to provide patches for various deficiencies until someone figures out that the mighty ES, which should have ended all need for IT work, is being augmented in this way and forbids any more work.

Thank God a new mighty ES seems to come along every couple of years, so I guess this cycle will keep me off the street for a while yet.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Hugs not Bugs

Ok, this week my posting is a self-pitying rant, pure and simple. The topic: asking for help from software developers.

For some reason, our industry has adopted the following value: if you need help, too bad; if you found a bug, we will do all we can for you.

At least, this is how we seem to be perceived. I spend much of many of my days at work dealing with accusations of incompetence, which accusations are actually poorly-disguised pleas for help. Whenever a client or user needs my considerable analysis and analytic skills, they ask for help by accusing me of having bugs or poor design.

Yes, I have bugs and yes, I don't have a problem with bug reports. I am highly confident that I can fix any bug and I have few enough of them that I am happy to fix whatever needs fixing. I am not talking about bug reports: I am talking about something else. Here are two examples from the recent past; one is from yesterday, in fact.

Case 1: Just Fix It!

A client reports that a system of mine which is designed to create orders is failing to create orders. She knows this because my system comes complete with an built-in audit module that told her so. My system is at the start of a very long chain, going through another department in her organization and through two other vendors' systems.
  • I confirm that my system generated a request to create an order, which request was acknowledged by the next system.
  • The bug report is repeated, this time with a slightly ruder, slightly more accusatory tone.
  • I confirm, by looking at logs that are not my own, that the request did not reach its final destination.
  • I ask the intervening department to confirm that the request went through their system and out the other side.
  • I confirm that the final destination has two interfaces through which the request must pass, and that I only looked at the second of those.
I am slated to continue tracking this down, through other vendor's software as configured by other people, not because this is in any meaningful sense "my" bug but because I am good at this and am being paid to do it. They need my services, I am happy to provide those services: why does the request for service have to be framed so negatively?

Case 2: Its Not Working!

In one of my professional identities, I provide technical support for a line of technical products which I designed. This gives me contact with the retail world and a sense of how my work is actually used in the real world. Most of what I learn is terrifying and makes my consulting clients seem like ever-pleasant geniuses.

I recently fielded a "bug report" that a four-year-old version of our software had mysteriously stopped working and that if there was a patch, the customer lacked it.

This is, of course, absurd on its face. I directed tech support toward a tech blog posting I had made some time ago about debugging configuration files, since this was obviously a case of misconfiguration.

The reply, as forwarded to me, was that the data had not changed, the configuration therefore was right and that the fault lay with the software.

This was ridiculous, but arguing with someone who is either this ignorant or this belligerent is a waste of time, so instead I used our excellent configuration debugging tools, which are available free for download to any of our customers, to find and fix the small issue with her configuration: Voila! it all works--or rather, it was working all along, but now her configuration matches her data.

Naturally, it turned out that this particular user was one of the few to send a thank you note, a nice thank you note, when she got the resolution. So I try to remember that not every difficult user is a troll: some of them just need help and they apparently don't know how to ask for it.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Stone Soup

This post is about business process automation: using computers to make people more efficient and effective. These days, with computer hardware so fast and software so powerful, the most precious resource in most business settings is human attention. Computer systems should help conserve and focus human attention, not drain it away.

Growing up, I read a lot of folk tales and as an information systems consultant am often reminded of one of my favorites: Stone Soup. Here is the uninspired Wikipedia synopsis, but find a copy of the real thing if you like the idea.

The basic idea is that while a group of people are unlikely to pull together to help you, even if it helps them, they will participate in a sure thing.

I find this is a common situation with our clients: no one wants to stick their neck out to launch a project, but everyone is happy to participate in an already-going-well project, especially if participation buys them something.

Thanks the last 20% rule (apparently more correctly known as the Pareto Principle), I find that I can do the 20% of work that sets the stage on my own dime, as a proof of concept, then do the rest of the work once the client sees that success is just over the line.

In fact, once they get rolling, clients often for 120%. Why not? The first 20% was free.

So, as as customer, why not get the 80% for cheap? In theory, you shouldn't settle for the easy 80% because, as any one with experience with business process automation  can tell you, that easy 80% is what separates the bad from the adequate; that final 20% is what takes you from adequate to excellent.

I am a realist, however: for many (the majority?) of organizations, going for the easy 80% would be a big step up. So by all means, try to get it. The tricky part is knowing how much you can get out of your current environment. If the environment you have is at capacity, then you have to look elsewhere for improvement. Either get some consulting help or new software or (gasp!) put manual processes in place to make up for computer system shortfall.

Sometimes we see computer systems which are fine systems but not properly configured for their environments; in this case, if people put manual procedures in place as work-arounds, we understand. Adding manual labor is always regrettable but sometimes necessary.

But remember the story of the man, the boy and the donkey: first the boy rides and passersby chide the boy for letting his elder walk; then the man rides and the passersby chide the man for letting his child walk; finally, the man and the boy carry the donkey and the passerby mock them for doing the donkey' work. If you are carrying your donkey, you need to consider the possibility that someone isn't doing their job.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

In Praise of Pausing

There are two situations in which I appear to be doing nothing: when I am thinking and when I am in what I call the Safety Pause.


The thinking case should be obvious: as a software designer and prototype builder, a good part of my job requires thought. Thinking, at least when I do it, look like particularly quiet goofing off, with a crucial difference: I am thinking.

I accept that believing that I am thinking and not day dreaming requires a leap of faith. In order to foster trust, I try to offer what proof I can, such as white papers, design notes,rapid coding that comes from a solid plan, etc. but I find that this is often not enough to convince some people. These people seems to feel that if my fingers are not on the keyboard then I am not working. God forbid that I have coffee with a user as a part of my requirements gathering.

Don't most white collar workers have to think? Don't people take notes, write outlines, ask questions and then consider the answers to those questions? Or is there a prejudice about computer people and goofing off? Lolly gagging, frittering away time in frivolity; are these vices peculiar to computer specialists? I think not.

It is true that, as a group, we blur the lines between work and play: we play at work and we work at home sometimes. We even work in the shower sometimes (see below). I will even grant you that until I started keeping track of my time very carefully, I tended to overestimate the amount of time that I worked at home and the amount of time that I goofed off at work.

However, it is not true that I was working less that 40 hours per week and it is not true that when I need to think, I appear to be just taking up space. Coming up to me to ask what I am doing, or to jokingly imply that I am wasting time is the exact opposite of helping.

(For me, the one exception to this etiquette is the forest of unshaven young guys staring moodily into their laptops at Starbucks. I am willing to assume that they are just wrestling with writer's block or dealing with having an empty head.)

The Safety Pause

The Safety Pause is my version of the carpenter's adage "measure twice, cut once." In my consulting practice, I find it best to consider, reconsider and then pull the trigger, be the task writing code, designing software or processing data.
The Safety Pause lets the rest of my brain chime in and prevents "God, I just want to be done" syndrome. I embraced the Safety Pause because I kept finding that after pulling the trigger on something, the very next instant, something would occur to me that I should have done differently, or even why I should not have pulled the trigger at all. I decided that having that revelation BEFORE I pulled the trigger would be better. So I started deliberately walking away and doing something else. The thing-into-head-popping is not as quick as when I have shot myself in the foot, but it often happens.

I also find that sleeping on a problem often means that I wake up with a solution all ready for inspection. Sometimes this solution is flawed, but it is often a good starting point. I even find that ideas come to me in the shower, which is a drag because I rarely remember to bill for showering or sleeping, and yet....


So the next time you see a co-worker staring off into the middle distance, just leave them alone. They may actually be thinking. And if you see a co-worker finish most of a task and go get a cup of something hot before doing the final work, remember that they may just be trying to avoid trouble down the road.