by Alexandra Leisse | email@example.com | @troubalex
This is a written and slightly tidied version of the lightning talk I gave at this year’s Javazone.
We designers have long been told that we should learn how to program in order to really understand the medium we’re working in, and to develop a common language with developers. While I believe this to be true, I also believe that it should go both ways.
I regularly encounter a number of misconceptions about how to work as a designer. Let’s get those out of the way first:
Our code has been broken for weeks. Compiler errors, failing tests, incorrect behavior plagued our team. Why? Because we have been struck by a Blind Frog Leap. By doing multiple concurrent changes to a key component in the hope of improving it, we have leaped far away from its ugly but stable and working state into the marshes of brokenness. Our best intentions have brought havoc upon us, something expected to be a few man-days work has paralized us for over a month until the changes were finally reverted (for the time being).
Lessons learned: Avoid Frog Leaps. Follow instead Kent Beck’s strategy of Sprinting Centipede – proceed in small, safe steps, that don’t break the code. Deploy it to production often, preferably daily, to force yourself to really small and really safe changes. Do not change multiple unrelated things at the same time. Don’t assume that you know how the code works. Don’t assume that your intended change is a simple one. Test thoroughly (and don’t trust your test suite overly). Let the computer give you feedback and hard facts about your changes – by running tests, by executing the code, by running the code in production.
I was fortunate to attend a lecture by Kent Beck, Iterate’s Chief Scientist, for one of our customers, summarizing his experiences and thoughts regarding efficient software design. Traditionally there have been two schools of thought about design: Predictive design, trying to design everything upfront (and making lot of wrong decisions) and reactive design, where any design is only done if it is absolutely necessary for implementing a feature (thus developing often on top of an insufficient design). Kent tried hard to discover such a design method that really delivers on the promises of both while avoiding their failures. This method is based on evolving design frequently in small, safe steps and focusing on learning while following some key best practices. It doesn’t really matter what scope of design we are are speaking about, the method and principles are the same whether you’re redesigning a class or a complex system.