Jan Bosch: Software Provocateur

Last week, I had the honor of presenting at and attending the talks of the Lindholmen Software Development Day. The first keynote speaker was Professor Jan Bosch from Chalmers, who did his best to provoke, prod, and shock the audience into action to change how they do software. While I might not agree with everything he said, overall it was very enjoyable and insightful talk.

Jan Bosch is a professor in the software engineering center at Chalmers in Gothenburg. He is a dutchman who has worked all over the world. He used to run Nokia’s research labs in Finland, and then moved to Intuit in Silicon valley. Now, he is back in Scandinavia at Chalmers. What I think he tried to do was to impress the audience with the software development ethos and style of Silicon Valley. I got a feeling that he wanted to make it felt that Europe is maybe behind on modern software development.

However, I am not always sure how the experience from web companies like Google and Amazon can translate into the development of software for systems like telecoms and vehicles (which formed a large part of the audience).

The main points of the talk, and my comments:

Speed is more important than anything else. If we can get 10% efficiency improvement out of our , it should be used to cut lead times by 10%, not reduce cost and keep the same time. The earlier we get software out, the bigger our revenue. This means that you should focus engineering efforts on shortening lead times rather than reducing man hours worked- and if you get the lead times shorter, you will automatically get efficiency improvements. I must say I agree with this point.

We should turn R&D into an experimental system – quickly implement features and ideas and test them in some way. Maybe not with external customers, internal users might do just as well (that’s how Apple works, for example, by evaluating many candidate designs by prototypes that are never seen by the outside). This is a good idea, but I think it might be hard to find the resources to do this in many cases – Apple is kind of extreme in that it rides high, is immensely profitable, and release only a few products each year.

Once we have experiments, product planning should be based on data, not on opinion. Sometimes, vision is needed, but that should be turned into small experiments to validate ideas, not big long-term full-blown plans based on opinion. This sounds very nice – but getting hard data can be very hard in practice.

Initially,  I felt that this would conflict with the concept of the “BHAG” – Big Hairy Audacious Goals – from the book “Built to Last“. There, vision that transcends the current state of affairs is crucial to build products that really change the world. You cannot base that on data – if you ask people what they need, they will not reply with what they do not know. But I guess that if you have a great idea, it is a good idea to vet it with some quick experiments to ascertain that it makes sense at all, before betting the firm on it. So, I guess there is no real conflict here.

Quickly test new features with customers. He sees the world switching to a model where the producer decides when an updrade is applied to the market, not the consumers. Already in place for things like Facebook, Google, and Apple iOS devices. I wonder though if this works for professional software and systems. The customers that I know have to plan the rollout of new versions carefully in order to not disrupt projects that rely on them. When someone pays for a piece of software, they tend to want to have something to say about new features too. Consider the uproar that happens every time Facebook change their UI – if you had paid a hundred thousand dollars for the system, I think Facebook would have listened rather more to their users than they do now. As long as there is no alternative, people will grudgingly accept and learn to live with it – even though the new version might be strictly worse for them than the old version.

When users do have a choice, they often stay with older version. Just consider the vast numbers of PCs out there still running Windows XP. In some way, I feel that this freedom to choose and control your own computing environment is being threatened by this trend of the web.

If you can recruit willing beta testers in your user community, this is great. But you need quite a few customers in place to be able to have enough beta testers to have anything like a representative sample. For a consumer application with tens or hundreds of millions of users, this is not too hard. For a professional piece of software tooling with less than a hundred different customers, you tend to get three loud voices – and we are essentially back to opinion rather than data. It would have been interesting to discuss this with Jan, but I never managed to grab him during the day to discuss this. There is also the time it takes to upgrade a user and have them test a new version – even if the upgrade does not require any changes to their existing code or systems, they still might need training on the new system to fully use it.

The counter to this is obvious: if things are this complicated to use and deploy, maybe we should think about making deployment and use simpler?  And not hide behind “it is hard and we have always done things this way”. Make no mistake – I would love to be able to this, especially with things like debuggers and other daily tools of the programming trade.

Still, I do think that stability is sometimes a hard requirement. When you have a system that you want to maintain for decades, it is very sound to freeze the versions of critical tools used to develop it and stick to these, to minimize the risk of failure due to changes. If the system is certified, you basically have to. Amazon does not build flight control systems. Their system going down is certainly going to cause economic havoc, but nobody will die.

Create an after market – customers will come to expect new features over time, and might well pay for them. This “app market” idea for software features keeps coming up in current discussions on architecture and software design. My guess is that it will actually work, once professional users get influenced enough by the overall consumerization of IT to take certain patterns for granted. Selling new software for car engine control or new features into a telecom switch sounds pretty sane – and is sometimes already practiced today.

Get to know the customer– at Intuit, each engineer famously follows a customer for one day each year to understand their life and get empathy with their users. Knowing your customer is key, the better you know what your customer wants, the more they will take to your product. This idea is something that I have actually seen being tried in the past, with mixed results. Once again, in a business-to-business world this requires some selling to happen, and customers might be sensitive to information leakage and secrecy. However, often the value of having a product expert available to them for a few days to help them work better and run their systems more efficiently is  great idea. If your business has a consulting or services arm, this can be part of regular business – as long as you let core development engineers consult a bit and not keep them all hidden inside the company.

When it came down to practical software development practice, Jan Bosch was all about agile, automatic building, testing, and deploying, and standard modern practice. He retold the Amazon “Two Pizza Rule” – i.e., keep groups small. Keep groups self-governing, based on quantitative assessments of their output, and guide them with goals, not detailed requirements. That certainly works for a certain class of highly motivated and skilled labor that tends to concentrate in Silicon Valley – but in the real world, we also have to deal with less able developers that do need leadership to perform and do the right thing. Not everyone can be totally selective in hiring, unfortunately.

Still, a provocative talk that really did get me thinking about how we do things. Which I think was Jan’s goal to start with, so I guess that means mission accomplished. If you ever get the chance to listen to Jan, take it!


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