Archive for December, 2011

How intranet software goes to hell

December 25th, 2011 by sjan

We have all seen it, many of us have tried to clean it up, and a few of us may have even been responsible for some of the worst written, non-documented, buggy, spaghetti-like code ever – “internal use only” apps. These are apps that are meant to simplify the jobs of your co-workers, meant to automate repetitive tasks and meant to be a means for managing the company’s business. So how do they end up so terrible? You’ve got the hottest, leanest, cleanest code on the public facing side, so you obviously have the talent in-house to make good software. (And let’s be honest, all of us think our own software is the best, because if we didn’t we would die of shame whenever anyone asked where we worked.)

So how does the software we build for ourselves go so wrong? Well, in my observations through many jobs over many years, I have come up with a formula for really lousy internal software.

Step one: Start small
By start small I don’t mean start with a single database with 4 or 5 tables and a couple views and a few report generation scripts. I mean start really, really small. Like “put a page on the intranet that lists all our vendors and their current status.”

By starting with such a small task it is easier to forgo any sort of documentation, architecture planning or requirements specifications. Its also easier to convince yourself that this is unimportant. After all, this is merely a convenience for your fellow workers and not an integral part of the revenue stream. This is the first step on the road to ruin.

Step two: Occasionally add a feature, not too much at once
It is important at this early stage in the gestation of your beastly code that you keep feature adds at least as small as the original task. By not having anything “worthy” of architecture or specification you can guarantee the continued growth of your new monster. These should be things like “Can we also show the vendor’s contact info on that list?” followed a month later by “can we filter the list to only show active vendors?” These changes should not only be small, but should be spaced far enough apart that the developer involved has forgotten about the changes that came before, or at least how many there were.

Step three: Repeat steps one and two, several times
Now that you have a minor little thing here, it is time to add some more. This time, let’s do the same thing, but for, say clients. Because you already have the basics it is a perfect time for some copy and paste development. Change the query, but don’t bother with changing variable names or anything. After all, you already know it works, just use it as is with some text label changes on the output. Easy-peasy and took you about five minutes. At this rate, you could just as quickly add the same sort of thing for employees. And any other sort of list that comes up.

Step four: Time for a big change
Now it becomes time to turn all your “unrelated” (although code-copied) little, unimportant, non-revenue stream items into one full-fledged app. Since you are already convinced that none of this is very important, and most of it is already built and functioning, it is easy to convince yourself that turning this into one contact management app is a small enough task to not need architecture, requirements or even any real documentation. This is generally where the real shape of the beast starts to take form. Now your query and display scripts will need to be able to insert, update and delete, and your one display will need to be diversified into display, edit forms, and perhaps a login page to insure the person using the forms has permissions to edit or delete.

If you really want to do it up right, instead of turning it into the obvious (in this case a contact management app) turn it into something close, but not quite the same. Say, an inventory and order management app. Hey, we already have the client and vendor info, we’re more than halfway there, right?

Step five: The final chapter
The last step is perhaps the easiest. Once the monstrosity is running on your intranet and working (however badly), ignore it. Requests for bug fixes go to the bottom of the queue as it is, after all, not part of your revenue stream. Developer time is better spent on your customer-facing apps and there really is no need to make it work completely, because “we got along fine without it before it was built.”

Of course, during this waiting period the app that horror built becomes a routine part of the workflow of those who use it regularly and they pretty well can’t do their job without it any more.

How to avoid it altogether, in one simple step:
In my experience, the simplest way to avoid these kinds of nightmare creatures of code, is to require a full architecture, specification and documentation cycle for even the simplest little things. You are likely to find that even though you were only asked for a vendor list, what your co-workers really need is far beyond that. Of course, you will only bother with treating it like any other development cycle if you can see the project as an important part of your business, and as having impact on the revenue stream. If it seems too small to bother with treating it like a full project, then either the requester has failed to make clear its importance, or it really is something that should not even be taken on.