Thursday, November 19, 2009

Don't be a Propellerhead

I like technology. I like computers and software. I like that they are constantly changing, meaning that there is always something new. I like the innovation, which brings new concepts and ideas to the marketplace and gives me endless opportunities to learn new things. It's constant work to continuously learn and stay current, but I'm certainly never bored.

Sometimes innovation brings simplicity and time savings. But sometimes innovation occurs because there are complex problems that require complex solutions to solve. When those complex problems occur, it's great to have a solution that is suited for the task.

But I would argue that many business issues, even if unique, are fundamentally not terribly complex. In the Dynamics GP marketplace, we aren't designing terrain mapping radar, modelling global weather patterns, designing a jumbo jet, or creating new pharmaceuticals. We're helping businesses meet business requirements, fulfill obligations, make promises, and manage information related to their accounting, inventory, sales, payroll, and purchasing, among other things.

Sure, things like sales commissions can become a tangled mess because of convoluted incentive programs, but ultimately they come down to fundamentally simple principles that use basic math to perform calculations on basic data sets.

The vast majority of the customizations, automations, and integrations that I provide to clients are fundamentally pretty simple. Import customers. Display estimated shipping weight of an order. Allow the customer to manage their item costs. Automate the creation of a project. Import journal entries.

Most of the individual Dynamics GP projects I work on are under 40 hours. They just aren't that complex, and they generally don't need complex solutions. My concern is offering a reasonable estimate, getting the project done on time and under budget, and exceeding the customer's expections. Using cool new tools or technologies is not one of my primary concerns.

When designing and developing these solutions, I have many tools at my disposal. SQL Server, Modifier & VBA, VS Tools and .NET, eConnect, Web Services, Dexterity, SQL Reporting Services, Excel, SmartList Builder, Extender, and the list goes on. And each tool can usually be used in several different ways. In the case of SQL Server, I can create a query, a view, a stored procedure, a trigger, an SSIS package, a user defined function, or even use CLR.

Sometimes there is a particular design approach that is obvious, and is clearly the best for the given requirements. But oftentimes, there are two or three, or many different design options that might work, with no obvious winner. In those cases, you have to make choices based on the information you have available.

What are the stated requirements? What is the goal or intended outcome of the solution? Who will be using the solution and what is their skill level? How often does it need to be used? Is the solution temporary or will it be used long term? what are my skills and competence with the tools at my disposal? What is my budget? When does the solution need to be delivered?

These and many other factors usually play into your design choices, assuming you are putting the client's concerns first.

But a several times now, I have inherited projects from other contractors, consultants, or firms that, I believe, did not put the client's concerns first. In my humble opinion, they were "propellerheads", making choices based on technological 'cool' factor rather than business concerns.

One extreme example was a simple eConnect integration that had an impressive user interface, with lots of tabs and controls and status fields. It even had fancy graphics with their consulting company logo prominently displayed on the user interface. (Since I don't spend alot of time on elaborate user interface design in .NET, I honestly couldn't figure out how they did the graphics). It looked great. But there was a funny thing about the consulting firm that developed pretty program. The client had fired them.

Why? The project was over budget and the integration didn't work. It couldn't successfully import a single transaction into GP.

So the GP partner for the client calls me and asks me to fix the integration. When I look into the .NET code, I see lots of user interface, and a fair amount of code, but I see things like distribution lines where the DR and CR are being set to the same account number. And I saw hard coded values, such as GL accounts. And invalid SQL statements that weren't properly querying the source data. And writing XML out to files instead of using a Memory Stream.

This particular project demonstrated many forms of incompetence, but it also demonstrated that the developer spent too much time on technical details that didn't matter, and too little on the business concerns that did matter.

Another example was a project that required a single window that would allow the GP client to categorize their HR training courses into groups. A single window used by maybe 3 GP users. I inherited a Visual Studio solution with multiple projects, lots of classes, and a 3-tier architecture. What was going on in the mind of that developer that they thought they needed all of that technology for such a simple business requirement? Did they used to work at NASA or JPL? To give you an idea of what was delivered to the client, the installation instructions for the application were 14 pages long. Did I mention it was ONE WINDOW that worked with two SQL tables? After having it for a few years, the client had never implemented it. Why? It was never completed and did not meet their original business requirements. And, maybe you're seeing the theme already: The consulting firm that developed the solution was fired.

Finally, I recently helped a client modify an eConnect integration that they had been using for a few years. When I looked at the .NET code, I had to call a friend to do a code review with me to make sure I wasn't imaginging things. The integration used inheritance on every eConnect class, reproducing every eConnect class in a custom class, which then ended up in a class library, which then ended up as a reference in the integration project. And what was the wild and crazy business requirement that produced this over engineered design? Importing journal entries. Yup, 34 megabytes (zipped!!) of project files and supporting files, all to import a journal entry.

As far as we could tell, not a single practical feature of inheritance had actually been used, but the eConnect objects went through so many classes and transformations that it was nearly impossible to trace through the code. Many convenient features of eConnect and its serialization libraries had effectively been re-written. Literally thousands of lines of code in the entire project was re-written in a single subroutine with just 275 lines in one hour. No inheritance required, and using a single project. And, here's a shocker for you: The original project was significantly over budget, and the client will never use that consulting firm again.

So the next time you work on a project and start to get excited about using a new tool or technology, please ask yourself: Are you being a propellerhead?

1 comment:

Victoria Yudin said...


Amazing post - thanks for sharing these stories with us!