On Cooking Software and Waterfalls

I’ve recently been following a discussion about Agile software development on LinkedIn. While there were some interesting points raised and also many pointless posts, there was one entry in particular that I found particularly interesting.

I am reproducing the post by Peter Wennerholm below with his permission, and have added my own commentary in between block quotes.

“Several contributors seem to see only two alternatives to how to produce software: Agile and Waterfall.

“That is not a fair view of the situation: waterfall was presented as a process that should NOT be used for software development. So far I have never heard of any shop that uses it, and that’s a good thing too.

“Let us chew on that for a while. The waterfall process was never intended to be used for software development. It was put forward as a process that should be avoided. So unless you really have found yourself in a pure waterfall team (and then you have my sympathies) please stop putting it forward as an alternative to Agile. The Agile “procedure” must be judged on its own merits, not as a contrast to an absurdity.”

Some interesting insight on the Waterfall model here! The paper [PDF] linked by Mr. Wennerholm, which dates back to 1970, describing what we now know as the waterfall model while clearly indicating (a) why it is not suitable for large software development projects, and (b) a number of improvements that make the Waterfall model a lot more reasonable to use. If you’re too lazy to read the paper itself, this blog post contains some pretty decent commentary about it.

“I have always made software in much the same way as how I cook: you add some ingredients, then taste, then add some more, taste again, etc. If you want to give it a fancy name, be my guest, but it seems more like common sense to me. Oh well… If someone can make money teaching common sense to programmers, who am I to deprive him of his living?”

I think that the cooking metaphor used by Mr. Wennerholm is pretty spot on. It is in the spirit of prototyping (which is at the heart of many agile practices) to create something small, see that you’re going in the right direction, and then continue with the next iteration, as opposed to building the whole thing and then realising you’re totally off track. The simplicity of the process is also worth noting. While software development may be as simple as a feedback loop, today there are many different methodologies involving piles of documents, meetings and ceremonies. While these are often useful if done right, it is not hard to realise that they are well hyped up by the people making a living from promoting them (e.g. by writing books) and by those who religiously think they’re a panacea.

“The problems seem to arise when people trained in managing non-programmers are put to manage programmers. The “common sense” is a double-edged sword: your life experience will dictate what is common sense to you, and it may differ very much from what is common sense to me. A non-software person tends to see a project as a collection of known problems with known solutions: it takes X seconds to lay one brick, the wall is Y long, so it will take Z days to finish the wall. A programmer knows that there are many unknown variables in his project: it is a collection of problems out of which some may be completely new, or handled by new tools, or in an unknown environment, or with unknown people. We cannot say how long it will take to finish the wall; when we start we do not even know if we should use bricks. Therefore, common sense dictates to make tiny waterfalls, or cycles, where each cycle takes us one step further towards completion and gives us more knowledge about the problems ahead of us. Agile and Scrum to you, perhaps.”

In this paragraph we recognise the fact that there are many unknowns in software development. When undertaking something new, we are often unfamiliar with the business, the technology, and many other aspects which can seriously affect the outcome of the project.

In my opinion it is pure madness to commit to strict deadlines on something that is very poorly understood. Therefore, the first thing that should be done is to make the effort to investigate the unknown factors so that they are at least fairly understood. This should be done as early as possible.

Aside from learning by communicating with the client, prototyping also helps a lot with understanding the problem domain. I believe this is what Mr. Wennerholm means when he mentions making tiny waterfalls. This is also reflected in the aforementioned paper, where Dr. Royce suggests creating the software twice: once as a small-scale throwaway prototype to capture the problem domain without wasting too much effort, and the second time as the actual deliverable.

“When we talk about what is the best way of programming, let us all be very humble. Our profession is so young that some of the very first programmers are still alive today. Look at house building: after thousands of years of experience we still have houses that burn or collapse or rot – we cannot claim to have all the answers on how to build software.”

I don’t think this paragraph requires much commentary: I think it is a pretty awesome message that we have so much to learn. Let’s try not to be religious about anything in software development; tomorrow someone may demonstrate that the awesome technique we touted so valiantly is actually a pretty bad practice. And when that happens, I hope we are open-minded enough to learn from our mistakes and grow in our beloved profession.

VS2015 Preview: Inline Rename

Another IDE experience that has been revamped in Visual Studio 2015 Preview is that of renaming stuff. You can rename a variable by right-clicking it and selecting “Rename…” from the context menu, or instead by simply hitting F2 on your keyboard:


When you do this, Visual Studio goes into Inline Rename mode. It finds all the instances of that variable and highlights them for you, while providing some other options on the side:


As you type a new name, all instances are instantly updated:


What’s really cool about this is that the IDE actually warns you if the new name conflicts with some other variable:


Just press Enter to accept the changes.

Although I have demonstrated how to rename a variable, this also works for other things such as methods and classes. In case of conflicts, Inline Rename will attempt to resolve them using fully-qualified names if possible, as demonstrated in the video with Beth Massi and Dustin Campbell.

VS2015 Preview: Potential Fixes and Preview

When there’s a squiggly line in your code due to some error or warning, Visual Studio 2015 Preview provides an improved experience in dealing with them. When you hover over the squiggly line, aside from the fancy coloured tooltip, you’ll also get a link saying “Show potential fixes”:


Once you click on that “Show potential fixes”, you are given a list of actions. Note that you can also get to this list by clicking on the light bulb next to the tooltip, or else pressing Ctrl+. (read: Control Dot) on the keyboard while the caret is on the squiggly line.


When an item in the list is selected (but before you actually accept it), you get a handy preview (similar to what we saw with the unused usings) showing how the code will change as a result of that action. This means you will know what effect any fixes and refactoring (which will be covered in later articles) will have on your code before you take the plunge.


VS2015 Preview: Debugger support for lambdas and LINQ

If you’ve ever tried running a lambda expression in the Immediate Window or as a Watch, you’ll be pretty familiar with the response, “Expression cannot contain lambda expressions” (shown below in VS2012). If you try LINQ, you instead get “Expression cannot contain query expressions”, which is no better.


This changes in Visual Studio 2015, which adds debugger support for lambda expressions and LINQ. VS2015 happily runs lambdas in both the Immediate Window and as Watches:


LINQ works just as happily:


So there you go: another much-anticipated and extremely useful feature coming in Visual Studio 2015.

VS2015 Preview: XAML Peek

In Visual Studio 2015 Preview, you can now peek and edit definitions from XAML. Let’s take a look at some examples from Lilly Notes, a WPF application I built upon WPF MDI.

You can Peek Definition in your XAML editor via a context menu when right-clicking, or by pressing Alt+F12:


If you do that on an event handler, you can peek into the event handler’s definition in the codebehind, without ever leaving your XAML:


For more extended editing, you can “Promote to Document” (see screenshot above) to open the actual code file.

If you have an ElementName binding, you can peek into the definition of the target element, as you can see below with ToggleEditTitleButton:


XAML Peek also works pretty nicely with resources, which may be scattered about your project. For instance, I’m using this BoolToHiddenConverter as a StaticResource. I can peek its definition in the UserControl’s Resources section:


As it turns out, I can also peek the resource’s type (in this case BoolToVisibilityConverter), to edit the converter directly:


No doubt this feature will be pretty handy for those writing some of the larger WPF or Windows Phone 8 applications.

VS2015 Preview: Unused usings/imports

Another of the IDE enhancements you’ll find in Visual Studio 2015 Preview is that unused using directives (C#) or imports (VB .NET) will appear in a less prominent colour, to distinguish them from the usings/imports that are actually used.


You can see an example of this when creating a new WPF application (screenshot above), since most of the usings provided by default in the codebehind are useless until you require specific WPF features.


That’s not all, however. On the side, you’ll find a light bulb that will suggest remedial actions. In this case, it’s suggesting that you remove the unused usings. When you hover over this action, you actually get a preview of what your code will look like.

You’ll see more of this paradigm of suggested actions and live previews as I continue to cover the new features in Visual Studio 2015 Preview.

VS2015 Preview: Coloured Tooltips

Visual Studio 2015 brings a wealth of IDE enhancements. One of these is an improvement to the user experience of tooltips thanks to the addition of a touch of colour.

For instance, here’s what you get when you hover over a type:


…and this is the tooltip you get from intellisense:


How about this tooltip showing a preview of a collapsed method:


Or this tooltip showing a preview of XML documentation:


So that’s a nice touch of colour in several different tooltips.

Not impressed? Let’s take a look at what these looked like in Visual Studio 2013:


OK, so you’ll realise that this new feature in Visual Studio 2015 won’t change your life, but it’s a great improvement in user experience from what we had before.

Fast spellcasting in Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession

code_174When you cast a spell in Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession, the spells get greyed out for a brief cooldown period. That’s pretty normal.

However, there seems to be a bug allowing you to bypass the cooldown completely. If you cast a spell, then close the spellbook or holy symbol, and then reopen it, the spells are immediately available, regardless of the cooldown.

This bug is specific only to Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession; the other two games using the Ravenloft engine (Menzoberranzan and Ravenloft: Stone Prophet) have different spellcasting interfaces.

Ravenloft: Stone Prophet actually appears to have the opposite behaviour: if you cast a spell, then quickly close and reopen the spellbook or holy symbol, spells are indefinitely in cooldown until you close the spellbook or holy symbol again. My guess is that this is by design: the game stops keeping track of time when spell selection is active, just like in the inventory.

"You don't learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over." — Richard Branson