How my Ph.D. Students Work With Supporting Students (Hint: Not Scrum)

As mentioned in a previous blog post, my Ph.D. students are often experienced software developers who take on the role of a chief programmer in the development of the software system supporting their research. In this work, at any point in time, each of my Ph.D. students is typically supported by 2-7 Bachelor and Master students who contribute to the system under development. Taking a long-term perspective, my Ph.D. students develop quality software rather than throw-away prototypes.

The chief programmer idea is key to making such work successful. While I usually conceive and direct the research, the size of my group has led me to let my Ph.D. students take care of any actual development themselves. (Usually…) In this role, as the chief programmer, they become the central point of coordination and integration of engineering work. In academia, this is a necessity, because an engineering dissertation is typically a multi-year project, while final thesis students, the main source of junior programmers supporting the chief engineer, are only around for six months. Thus, the chief programmer becomes the central technical hub and provider of sustained knowledge of the system under development.

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Chief Programmer Teams Alive And Well in Academia

According to Wikipedia, “a chief programmer team is a programming team organized in a star around a “chief” role, granted to the software engineer who understands the system’s intentions the best. Other team members get supporting roles.” Amusingly, this set-up is alive and well in academia, and for good reason. At least my research group is using it and it works well for us.

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Scrum’s Product Vision vs. Project Mission

As noted previously, Scrum uses the term product to mean artifact. This is fine, as long as the user of Scrum is a software vendor, developing a product for a market. It is confusing, however, if the user is a consulting firm, performing a custom project for a client. If you are a consulting firm, you are not delivering a product, and every time you hear product, you need to think artifact.

The confusion is worst when we talk about a product vision. As always, there are many competing definitions and confused ones at that, but we can safely assume that a product vision is at least a particular type of vision. About a vision, by definition, we know that it is time-less. It describes an abstract future state that we want to achieve, but never actually can reach. As such, a vision serves as a guiding north star for the decisions we make about on-going work. IBM’s vision is (shortened) “client success”, SAP’s is “improved economy”, etc. Any number of management books expound on what a vision is so you can read more there.

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How Project vs. Product Confuses Agile Methods Terminology

In a previous blog post I noted how the terms project and product are being confused in open source. However, it is agile methods, specifically Scrum, where it gets really bad. To recap: A project is a human undertaking to create an artifact. A project, by definition, has a start date and an end date. A product, in contrast, is an artifact (not an undertaking) that is born but typically has no planned end date. Most vendors, selling products to a market, hope they can do this forever.

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How Project vs. Product Confuses Open Source Terminology

The terms project and product are used with continued confusion. Both open source and agile methods are particularly bad offenders, leading people astray. Adapted straight from the textbooks:

  • A project is a human undertaking with the goal of creating an artifact. Its life-cycle is determined by a start date and an end date.
  • A product is a human-made artifact for a market of customers with an open-ended llfe-cycle. It is born with no end date in sight.

Not always, but typically, a project is used to create a custom artifact, while a product is (by definition) made for a market, that is, many different customers.

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How UML is Actually Used (if it is Used)

When I started our software architecture course about eight years ago, I was happy to find out about a book series on the architecture of open source applications. I was thrilled: Not only code, but architecture descriptions! I expected great material for my course. Sadly, I had to realize that none of the chapters in this book series used UML, a staple of most academic software architecture courses.

Does this mean UML is not used in practice? Of course not. It is just not used in open source projects. This doesn’t imply that UML doesn’t have its uses. However, they may not be what tool vendors are telling you.

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Amazon’s Announcement About Corretto and Java’s Future

Ever since Oracle got their hands on Java (by way of acquiring Sun Microsystems), it has worked hard on making money of it. As far as I can tell, it has been as unsuccessful at this as the prior owner, Sun. Compared to Sun, Oracle upped the ante by way of suing Google over Dalvik, making it harder to get JDK certification, etc. The main lever Oracle has is the ownership of the Java trademark.

Like many I assumed that Java is dying a slow death now, eventually to be replaced by the next successful initiative. Scala, Go, and others are attempts at that, though (not yet) successful ones.

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Cargo Cult Startup Incubators

The continued creation of me-too startup incubators reminds me of the (South Seas’) cargo cult. Richard Feynman tells the story this way: The cargo cult people were natives of the South Seas who, during the world war, benefited from Western civilizations bringing cargo to their land. After the war ended, and the cargo stopped coming, the natives built wooden artifacts that looked like planes in an attempt to bring back the good old days of free supplies. Obviously, it didn’t work.

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