Monday, October 26, 2009

Process Not Working -- Must Have More Process

After all, programmers are all lazy and stupid.

Got his complaint recently.

"Developers on a fairly routine basis check in code into the wrong branch."

Followed by a common form of the lazy and stupid complaint. "Someone should think about which branch is used for what and when." Clearly "someone" means the programmers and "should think about" means are stupid.

This was followed by the "more process will fix this process problem" litany of candidate solutions.

"Does CVS / Subversion have a knob which provides the functionality to
prevent developers from checking code into a branch?"

"Is there a canonical way to organize branches?" Really, this means something like what are the lazy, stupid programmers doing wrong?

Plus there where rhetorical non-questions to emphasize the lazy, stupid root cause. "Why is code merging so hard?" (Stupid.) "If code is properly done and not coupled, merging should be easy?" (Lazy; a better design would prevent this.) "Perhaps the developers don't understand the code and screw up the merge?" (Stupid.) "If the code is not coupled, understanding should be easy?" (Both Lazy and Stupid.)

Root Cause Analysis

The complaint is about process failure. Tools do not cause (or even contribute) to process failure. There are two possible contributions to process failure: the process and the people.

The process could be flawed. There could be no earthly way the programmers can locate the correct branch because (a) it doesn't exist when they need it or (b) no one told them which branch to use.

The people could be flawed. For whatever reason, they refuse to execute the process. Perhaps they know a better way, perhaps they're just being jerks.

Technical means will not solve either root cause problem. It will -- generally -- exacerbate it. If the process is broken, then attempting to create CVS / Subversion "controls" will end in expensive, elaborate failure. Either they can't be made to work, or (eventually) someone will realize that they don't actually solve the problem. On the other hand, if the people are broken, they'll just subvert the controls in more interesting, silly and convoluted ways.

My response -- at the time -- was not "analyze the root causes". When I first got this, I could only stare at it dumbfounded. My answer was "You're right, your developers are lazy and stupid. Good call. Add more process to overcome their laziness and stupidity."

After all, the questioner clearly knows -- for a fact -- that more process helps fix a broken organization. The questioner must be convinced that actually talking to people will never help.
The question was not "what can I do?" The question was "can I control these people through changes to CVS?" There's a clear presumption of "process not working -- must have more process."

The better response from me should have been. "Ask them what the problem is." I'll bet dollars against bent pins that no one tells them which branch to use in time to start work. I'll bet they're left guessing. Also, there's a small chance that these are off-shore developers and communication delays make it difficult to use the correct branch. There may be no work-orders, just informal email "communication" between on-shore and off-shore points-of-contact (and, perhaps, the points-of-contact aren't decision-makers.)

Bottom Line. If people can't make CVS work, someone needs to talk to them to find out why. Someone does not need to invent more process to control them.