Technical Debt: that escalated quickly

First written and published on LITA Blog
http://litablog.org/2017/07/technical-debt-that-escalated-quickly/


If you’re not familiar with the term “technical debt”, it’s an analogy coined by Ward Cunningham[1], used to relay what happens when rather than following best practices and standards we take shortcuts on technical projects to have a quick fix. Debt occurs when we take on a long-term burden in order to gain something in the short term.

I want to note that inevitably we will always take on some sort of debt, often unknowingly and usually while learning; the phrase “hindsight is 20/20” comes to mind, we see where we went wrong after the fact. There is also inherited technical debt, in all of my jobs, current and past, I inherited technical debt, this is out of my control, it happens and I still need to learn how to deal with it. This piece aims to give some guidelines and bits I’ve learned over the years in dealing with technical debt and doing me best to maintain it, because really, it’s unavoidable and ignoring it doesn’t make it go away. Believe me, I’ve tried. 

Technical debt can refer to many different things including, but not limited to: infrastructure, software, design/UX, or code. Technical debt reduces the long term agility of a team; it forces us to rely on short term solution thinking and make trade-offs for short term agility. When done haphazardly and not managed, technical debt can shut down a team’s ability to move forward on a project, their long term agility.

It accrues quickly and often we don’t realize just how quickly. For example, I’d been tasked with implementing single-sign on (SSO) for a multitude of applications in our library. In the process of mapping out the path of action this led to learning that in order to implement the bits we needed for SSO most of the applications needed to be updated and the newer versions weren’t compatible with the version of PHP running on our servers, and to use the version of PHP that would be compatible we needed to upgrade our server and the upgrade on the server was a major upgrade which led to having to do a full server upgrade and migration. Needless to say, SSO has not yet been implemented. This technical debt accrued from a previous admin’s past decisions to not stay on top of the upgrades for many of our applications because short term hacks were put in place and the upgrades would break those hacks. These decisions to take on technical debt ultimately caught up with us and halted the ability to move forward on a project. Whether the debt is created under your watch or inherited, it will eventually need to be addressed.

The decisions that are made which result in technical debt should be made with a strategic engineering perspective. Technical debt should only be accrued on purpose because it enables some business goal, intentional and unintentional. Steve McConnell’s talk on Managing Technical Debt [2] does a good job of laying the business and technical aspects of taking on technical debt. Following that, ideally there should be a plan in place on how to reasonably reduce the debt down the road. If technical debt is left unaddressed, at some point the only light at the end of the tunnel is to declare bankruptcy, analogically: just blow it up and start over.

Technical debt is always present, it’s not always bad either but it’s always on the verge of getting worse. It is important to have ways of hammering through it, as well as having preventative measures in place to keep debt to a minimum and manageable for as long as possible.

So how do you deal with it?

Tips for dealing with inherited technical debt:

  • Define it. What counts as technical debt? Why is it important to do something about it?
  • Take inventory, know what you’re working with.
  • Prioritize your payoffs. Pick your technical battles carefully, which bits need addressing NOW and which bits can be addressed at a later date?
  • Develop a plan on what and how you’re going to address and ultimately tidy up the debt.
  • Track technical debt. However you track it, make sure you capture enough detail to identify the problem and why it needs to be fixed.

Preventative tips to avoiding technical debt (as much as you can):

  • Before taking on debt ask yourself…
    • Do we have estimates for the debt and non-debt options?
    • How much will the quick & dirty option cost now? What about the clean options?
    • Why do we believe that it is better to incur the effort later than to incur it now? What is expected to change to make taking on that effort more palatable in the future?
    • Have we considered all the options?
    • Who’s going to own the debt?
  • Define initial requirements in a clear and constant style. A good example of this is Gherkin: https://cucumber.io/docs/reference
  • Create best practices. Some examples:  KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid), DRY (Don’t Repeat Yourself), YAGNI (You Aren’t Gonna Need it)
  • Have a standard, an approved model of taking shortcuts, and stick to it. Remember to also reevaluate that standard periodically, what once was the best way may not always be the best way.
  • Documentation. A personal favorite: the “why-and” approach. If you take a temporary (but necessary) shortcut, make note of it and explain why you did what you did and what needs to be done to address it. Your goal is to avoid having someone look at your code/infrastructure/digital records/etc and asking “why is it like that?” Also for documentation, a phenomenal resource (and community) is Write The Docs (http://www.writethedocs.org/guide
  • Allow for gardening. Just as you would with a real garden you want to tidy up things in your projects sooner rather than later. General maintenance tasks that can be done to improve code/systems/etc now rather than filed on the low priority “to-do” list.
  • TESTS! Write/use automated tests that will catch bugs and issues before your users. I’m a fan of using tools like Travis CI (https://travis-ci.org/), Cucumber (https://cucumber.io/docs), Fiddler (http://www.telerik.com/fiddler) and Nagios (https://www.nagios.org/)  for testing and monitoring. Another resource recommended to me (thanks Andromeda!)  is Obey the Testing Goat (http://www.obeythetestinggoat.com/pages/book.html#toc)
  • Remember to act slower than you think. Essentially, think through how something should be done before actually doing it.

And my final thought, commonly referred to as the boy scout rule, when you move on from a project or team and someone else inherits what you leave behind, do your best to leave it better than when you found it.


Footnote:
  1. Ward Cunningham, Explaing Debt Metaphor [Video] http://wiki.c2.com/?WardExplainsDebtMetaphor
  2. Managing Technical Debt by Steve McConnell (slides) http://2013.icse-conferences.org/documents/publicity/MTD-WS-McConnell-slides.pdf

Extra Reading/Tools:

How to deal with technical debt? by Vlad Alive https://m.vladalive.com/how-to-deal-with-technical-debt-33bc7787ed7c

Obey the Testing Goat by Harry Percival  http://www.obeythetestinggoat.com/pages/book.html#toc

How to write a good bug report? Tips and Tricks http://www.softwaretestinghelp.com/how-to-write-good-bug-report/

Tools & Services list https://www.stickyminds.com/tools-guide

Don’t take the technical debt metaphor too far http://swreflections.blogspot.com/2012/12/dont-take-technical-debt-metaphor-too.html 

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Designing and Building for Ourselves

Originally written and published on LITA Blog, http://litablog.org/2017/04/designing-for-ourselves/ 


I’m in the throes of designing a new help desk for our department that will serve to triage help tickets for approximately 15,000 employees. This has been a major undertaking, and retaining the confidence that I can get it done has been a major challenge. However, it’s also been a really great exercise in forcing me to be introspective about how I design my own ethics and culture into the system.

When we design and build systems for ourselves, we design for what we need, and if you’re like me, you also aim to design for simplicity and the least work possible that still accomplishes your end goal. When I’m designing for myself, I find that I am more willing to let go of a feature I thought I needed because another one will do the job okay, and okay was enough, especially if it means less work for me.

Designing for ourselves in a way is easier than designing for someone else. You essentially know what you need; there’s no guess work or communication gap. Yes, we can get caught up in semantics about how we may not actually understand what we need, and thus you may build something that doesn’t achieve the end goal you had. But hopefully, in the process, you evolve and learn to design and build what you really need.

Also, designing for ourselves forces us to let go on the complex and unnecessary features and build a more simple product that will hopefully be easier to maintain over time. I do not know a time while working in libraries where we (library folk) were not hooting and hollering about the awfulness of the library technology ecosystem. As I mentioned, I’m in the depths of designing a new service desk for my team (in JIRA Service Desk), and I find myself asking “Do we REALLY need this? Can this complex setup be accomplished through a different, simpler method? Can we maximize the use of this setup and use it in more than just one functional way?” When I have to do all the legwork, I think more carefully about essentials and nice-to-haves than when we hired someone else and I was the “ideas person” – and probably much less flexible on the tedious items.

If the load that I carry and my intimate connection to the build force me to think differently about what we do and don’t need, this suggests that maybe we have the wrong people designing library systems. Or at least maybe we don’t have the right people involved throughout the design and build process. Vendors need to include librarians who work in the trenches in the design process. There needs to be representation from the academic, public, corporate, museum, medical, special, etc. communities,  at a level that is more than just “We’re looking for feedback we might incorporate in the future!”  I don’t yet have an answer to how we can accomplish that, but I have ideas on where to start. Stay tuned for “Why you should leave your library and work for the ‘Dark Side.’”

The flip side to this is that maybe my intimate connection with the workload also encourages me to overlook and take shortcuts that seem fine but really ought to be examined carefully. What comes to mind is a presentation I refer to frequently: Andreas Orphanides’ Code4Lib 2016 talk Architecture is politics: The power and the perils of systems design[1]. Design persuades; system design reflects the designer’s values and the cultural context [Lesson 2 in Andreas’ talk].

Fortunately for me, this came to light while I’m still in the middle of the design process. While not an ideal time because I’ve already done a lot of work, the opportunity to step back, adjust and try again sits in perfect reach. I’ve started reexamining our workflows, frontend and backend; it’s going to take more time, had I thought about the shortcuts I was making sooner and the impact they had on the user experience maybe I’d have less reexamining to do.

When we design for ourselves, how often do we make a compromise on something because it makes the build easier? Does our desire to just get the job done cause us to drop features that might have made the design stronger, but leaving it out meant less work in the end? If someone else was building your design, would you demand that that feature be included – even though it’s difficult to do? Does our intimate connection with the system design encourage us to continue to build in poor values? Can we learn to be more empathetic [2] in our design process when we’re designing for ourselves?

I hope I’ve encouraged you to consider what you may be missing when you design a system for yourself; what habits you’re creating that will be an influence when you design a system for another.
Cheers, Whitni


[1] Slide deck: http://bit.ly/dre_code4lib2016  Video of Talk: https://youtu.be/P03kD_Q5qcU?t=38m36s

[2] Empathy on the Edge http://bit.ly/erl17_empathyontheedge

Getting your color on: maybe there’s some truth to the trend

Post originally published on LITA Blog http://litablog.org/2016/05/getting-your-color-on-maybe-theres-some-truth-to-the-trend/


FullSizeRender

Coloring was never my thing, even as a young child, the amount of decision required in coloring was actually stressful to me. Hence my skepticism of this zen adult coloring trend. I purchased a book and selected coloring tools about a year ago, coloring bits and pieces here and there but not really getting it. Until now.

While reading an article about the psychology behind adult coloring, I found this quote to be exceptionally interesting:

The action involves both logic, by which we color forms, and creativity, when mixing and matching colors. This incorporates the areas of the cerebral cortex involved in vision and fine motor skills [coordination necessary to make small, precise movements]. The relaxation that it provides lowers the activity of the amygdala, a basic part of our brain involved in controlling emotion that is affected by stress. -Gloria Martinez Ayala [quoted in Coloring Isn’t Just For Kids. It Can Actually Help Adults Combat Stress]

Color Me Stress Free by Lacy Mucklow and Angela Porter

A page, colored by Whitni Watkins, from Color Me Stress Free by Lacy Mucklow and Angela Porter

As I was coloring this particular piece [pictured to the left] I started seeing the connection the micro process of coloring has to the macro process of managing a library and/or team building. Each coloring piece has individual parts that contribute to forming the outline of full work of art. But it goes deeper than that.

For exampled, how you color and organize the individual parts can determine how beautiful or harmonious the picture can be. You have so many different color options to choose from, to incorporate into your picture, some will work better than others. For example, did you know in color theory, orange and blue is a perfect color combination? According to color theory, harmonious color combinations use any two colors opposite each other on the color wheel.” [7]  But that the combination of orange, blue and yellow is not very harmonious?

Our lack of knowledge is a significant hindrance for creating greatness, knowing your options while coloring is incredibly important. Your color selection will determine what experience one has when viewing the picture. Bland, chaotic or pleasing, each part working together, contributing to the bigger picture. “Observing the effects colors have on each other is the starting point for understanding the relativity of color. The relationship of values, saturations and the warmth or coolness of respective hues can cause noticeable differences in our perception of color.” [6]  Color combinations, that may seem unfitting to you, may actually compliment each other.  

Note that some colors will be used more frequently and have a greater presence in the final product due to the qualities that color holds but remember that even the parts that only have a small presence are crucial to bringing the picture together in the end. 

“Be sure to include those who are usually left out of such acknowledgments, such as the receptionist who handled the flood of calls after a successful public relations effort or the information- technology people who installed the complex software you used.”[2]

There may be other times where you don’t use a certain color as much as it should have and could have been used. The picture ends up fully colored and completed but not nearly as beautiful (harmonious) as it could have been. When in the coloring process, ask yourself often “‘What else do we need to consider here?’ you allow perspectives not yet considered to be put on the table and evaluated.” [2] Constant evaluation of your process will lead to a better final piece.

While coloring I also noticed that I color individual portions in a similar manner. I color triangles and squares by outlining and shading inwards. I color circular shapes in a circular motion and shading outwards. While coloring, we find our way to be the most efficient but contained (within the lines) while simultaneously coordinating well with the other parts. Important to note, that the way you found to be efficient in one area  may not work in another area and you need to adapt and be flexible and willing to try other ways. Imagine coloring a circle the way you color a square or a triangle. You can take as many shortcuts as you want to get the job done faster but you may regret them in the end. Cut carefully. 

Remember while coloring: Be flexible. Be adaptable. Be imperturbable.

You can color how ever you see fit. You can choose which colors you want, the project will get done. You can be sure there will be moments of chaos, there will be moments that lack innovation. Experiment, try new things and the more you color the better you’ll get. However, coloring isn’t for everyone, at that’s okay. 

Now, go back and read again, this time substitute the word color for manage.

Maybe there is something to be said about this trend of the adult coloring book. 


References:
1. Coloring Isn’t Just For Kids. It Can Actually Help Adults Combat Stress http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/10/13/coloring-for-stress_n_5975832.html
2. Twelve Ways to Build an Effective Team http://people.rice.edu/uploadedFiles/People/TEAMS/Twelve%20Ways%20to%20Build%20an%20Effective%20Team.pdf
3. COLOURlovers: History Of The Color Wheel http://www.colourlovers.com/blog/2008/05/08/history-of-the-color-wheel
4. Smashing Magazine: Color Theory for Designers, Part 1: The Meaning of Color: https://www.smashingmagazine.com/2010/01/color-theory-for-designers-part-1-the-meaning-of-color/
5. Some Color History http://hyperphysics.phy-astr.gsu.edu/hbase/vision/colhist.html
6. Color Matters: Basic Color Theory http://www.colormatters.com/color-and-design/basic-color-theory
7. lifehacker: Learn the Basics of Color Theory to Know What Looks Good http://lifehacker.com/learn-the-basics-of-color-theory-to-know-what-looks-goo-1608972072
8. lifehacker: Color Psychology Chart http://lifehacker.com/5991303/pick-the-right-color-for-design-or-decorating-with-this-color-psychology-chart
9. Why Flexible and Adaptive Leadership is Essential http://challenge2050.ifas.ufl.edu/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/YuklMashud.2010.AdaptiveLeadership.pdf

I’m a Librarian. Of tech, not books.

Post originally published on LITA Blog: http://litablog.org/2016/02/im-a-librarian-of-tech-not-books/


When someone finds out I’m a librarian, they automatically think I know everything there is to know about, well, books. The thing is, I don’t. I got into libraries because of the technology. My career in libraries started with the take off, a supposed library replacement, of ebooks. Factor in the Google “scare” and librar*s  were going to be done forever. Librar*s were frantic to debunk that they were no longer going to be useful, insert perfect time and opportunity to join libraries and technology.

I am a Systems Librarian and the most common and loaded question I get from non-librarians is (in 2 parts), “What does that mean? and What do you do?” Usually this resorts to a very simple response:
I maintain the system the library sits on, the one that gives you access to the collection from your computer in the comfort of your home. This tool, that lets you view the collection online and borrow books and access databases and all sorts of resources from your pajamas, my job is to make sure that keeps running the way we need it to so you have the access you want.
My response aims to give a physical picture about a technical thing. There is so much we do as systems librarians that if I were to get in-deep with what I do, we’d be there for a while. Between you and I, I don’t care to talk *that* much, but maybe I should.

There’s a lot more to being a Systems Librarian, much of which is unspoken and you don’t know about it until you’re in the throws of being a systems librarian. There was a Twitter conversation prompted when a Twitter’er asked for recommendations on things to teach or include in on the job training for someone who is interested in library systems. It got me thinking, because I knew little to nothing about being a Systems Librarian and just happened upon it (Systems Librarianship) because the job description sounded really interesting and I was already a little bit qualified. It also allowed me to build a skill set that provided me a gateway out of libraries if and when the time arrived. Looking back, I wonder what would I have wanted to know before going into Systems, and most importantly, would it have changed my decision to do so, or rather, to stay? So what is it to be a Systems Librarian?

The unique breed: A Systems Librarian:

  • makes sure users can virtually access a comprehensive list of the library’s collection
  • makes sure library staff can continue to maintain that ever-growing collection
  • makes sure that when things in the library system break, everything possible is done to repair it
  • needs to be able to accurately assess the problem presented by the frantic library staff member that cannot log into their ILS account
  • needs to be approachable while still being the person that may often say no
  • is an imperfect person that maintains an imperfect system so that multiple departments doing multiple tasks can do their daily work.
  • must combine the principles of librarianship with the abilities of computing technology
  • must be able to communicate the concerns and needs of the library to IT and communicate the concerns and needs of IT to the library

Things I would have wanted to know about Systems Librarianship: When you’re interested but naive about what it takes.

  • You need to be able to see the big and small pictures at once and how every piece fits into the puzzle
  • Systems Librarianship requires you to communicate, often and on difficult to explain topics. Take time to master this. You will be doing a lot of it and you want everyone involved to understand, because all parties will most likely be affected by the decision.
  • You don’t actually get to sit behind a computer all day every day just doing your thing.
  • You are the person to bridge the gap between IT and librarians. Take the time to understand the inner workings of both groups, especially as they relate to the library.
  • You’ll be expected to communicate between IT staff and Library staff why their request, no matter the intention, will or will not work AND if it will work, but would make things worse – why.
  • You will have a new problem to tackle almost every day. This is what makes the job so great
  • You need to understand the tasks of every department in the library. Take the time to get to know the staff of those departments as well – it will give insight to how people work.
  • You need to be able to say no to a request that should not or cannot be done, yes even to administration.
  • No one really knows all you do, so it’s important to take the time to explain your process when the time calls for it.
  • You’ll most likely inherit a system setup that is confusing at best. It’s your job to keep it going, make it better even.
  • You’ll be expected to make the “magic” happen, so you’ll need to be able to explain why things take time and don’t appear like a rabbit out of a hat.
  • You’ll benefit greatly from being open about how the system works and how one department’s requests can dramatically, or not so dramatically, affect another part of the system.
  • Be honest when you give timelines. If you think the job will take 2 weeks, give yourself 3.
  • You will spend a lot of time working with vendors. Don’t take their word for  “it,” whatever “it” happens to be.
  • This is important– you’re not alone. Ask questions on the email lists, chat groups, Twitter, etc..
  • You will be tempted to work on that problem after work, schedule time after work to work on it but do not let it take over your life, make sure you find your home/work life balance.

Being a systems librarian is hard work. It’s not always an appreciated job but it’s necessary and in the end, knowing everything I do,  I’d choose it again. Being a tech librarian is awesome and you don’t have to know everything about books to be good at it. I finally accepted this after months of ridicule from my trivia team for “failing” at librarianship because I didn’t know the answer to that obscure book reference from an author 65 years ago.

Also, those lists are not, by any means, complete — I’m curious, what would you add?


Possibly of interest, a bit dated (2011) but a comprehensive list of posts on systems librarianship: https://librarianmandikaye.wordpress.com/systems-librarian/

Blanket Statements [written in frustration]

I really struggle with blanket statements, statements that imply your frustration of one person apply to a large group, or even not large group of people.

Recently there was a post written on the LITA Blog that discussed stereotypes about men and librarianship and if technology is bringing more skillful men into the field. The post has not been well received, for justified reasons. I too am scratching my head at the topic of choice and lack of research done in the piece.

Something to keep in mind is that saying things that imply your disgust in a blog post applies to every person that writes for that blog is a bit harsh. Implying that the organization as a whole is not worth your time if they let something like this get posted.  There have been several really great pieces written by members of the LITA blog team that have NO association with the current post (http://litablog.org/2015/10/is-technology-bringing-in-more-skillful-male-librarians/). Yes we are a team but we don’t all have the same views, we don’t all agree on the same thing, but we do all write for LITA Blog and we choose our topics. Topics are NOT assigned to us, we have the guideline to write about libraries and information technology.

Yes, I am a LITA Blog writer. Which is why these blanket statements are taken personally because the generalization that the entire blog writing team is bringing shame to the profession is harsh. Maybe instead you should provide productive criticism or comment on the blog post so the author gets to hear directly that the piece ruffled your feathers & why. Instead of making a blanketed statement, and discrediting (whether intended or not) the work and writing of others.

As I write this I’m frustrated, and I think rightfully so, as a LITA Blog writer, I’m not thrilled that a fellow writer wrote what they wrote, but it’s their topic, something they felt they wanted to write about. I do not have to agree with it, but I think I can disagree with it with respect.

I ask, in the defense of the talented team I write with, that you don’t discredit the entire blog based on one post that really pissed you off. We all see this world with a different perspective, remember that and even though I disagree/dislike the view given in this specific post, if I want different ideas to be presented, then I have the opportunity as a LITA Blog writer to do that.

If you want something to change then you must be proactive for its change. Tossing it to the side like it’s not worth your time, what good does that do? Work towards making things better. We have that ability.

**UPDATE**
A fantastic response to the post being mentioned by Galen Charlton, https://galencharlton.com/blog/2015/10/books-and-articles-thud-so-nicely-a-response-to-a-lazy-post-about-gender-in-library-technology/