Monday 8 April 2019

IT "Floor Plan"

OfficeFloor's graphical configuration is inspired from the construction industry's floor plan.

Now, we did consider auto-wiring flows together based on parameter types between the first class procedures.  This is still possible if there is interest.  However, we went graphical for another reason that has less to do with the technical problems of the system but more in helping build and maintain the correct system.

This inspiration came from having been around house construction with my father and later when building my own house. Building a house is definitely not simply putting a slab down and walls up with a roof, possibly with a door to get in and out.   There is a lot of engineering going into houses to ensure the foundations are correct, the house is not going to fall over and even on the more advanced side of ensuring it fits with the home owner's style of living.

Now, I certainly claim no expertise in the house construction industry but they a have tool that made understanding and reasoning about the construction easier:

Floor Plan

The floor plan to me was a powerful communication tool within the home construction industry.   Now I had some background in construction, but engineering concerns such as house footings, load bearing walls, etc are beyond me.  However, around the floor plan we could discuss how the house was to be built.

Reflecting on my experience of building a house, I could see this discussion working even for those that had not a background around construction.  One does not need to be too technical to follow the room layouts and be able to visualise how the house is going to turn out.  Then when asking for something difficult (such as moving a load bearing wall), it is reasonably easy for the construction company to explain using the floor plan why that would incur extra costs.  Plus this same conversation can be had when renovating the house - something in IT we continually do by enhancing systems.

Now in this relationship, I saw myself as the business is to information technology.   I knew what I wanted out of the house (IT system) and the floor plan helped the communication with the (IT) construction company.  I saw the home construction industry having similar problems of non-technical customers wanting something technical, and solved this with the floor plan.

So it had me ask the question:

What do we produce in the information technology space to be the "floor plan" of IT systems?

I believe we've tried many approaches, but I find they get lost in the complex, intangible details of IT systems. We've tried model driven designs specific to certain domains with some success, however these become difficult to maintain and enhance.  We've used many modelling techniques such as UML and lots of others in the business analysis space, but these are divorced of the code and quickly stale (especially with the Agile approach of building a room at a time).  We can even incorporate functional programming as means to demonstrate how code is composed together.   However, I as a customer would not be expected to understand engineering mathematics of construction, so why should I be subjected to computing maths.

The best I've seen is story boards, but this does not convey the complexity of the internals of systems.  All too often I hear, it's only a button, why's it cost so much?   Now if we could bring out the "floor plan" of the internals of the IT system we could have a conversation around what aspects of the system is needing changes.  For example, that's load bearing impacting these rooms (components) of the house (system), so cost to change is going to be expensive.

Now when I refer to the internals of the system, I'm also not meaning front-end applications that only use the server to store data in databases.  For many of these applications, most things are quite tangible in screens to the user.  What I'm referring to is more complex server side components servicing the requests that are quite intangible to the user.  In other words, the details necessary to explain why adding this new button is 10 times more costly than the button added last week.

Furthermore, I tend to find most approaches are focused on one-way communication of capturing requirements to convey to technical individuals to build.  There is little in going the other way.  In other words, in providing understandable information back to the users on why some changes are harder than others.

This is even evident in Business Process Model and Notation (BPMN) in it becoming an executable specification.   This has been great to model business processes for technical people to implement systems.  In doing so, I'm finding it starting to incorporate the technical details of UML.  This starts becoming very technical and makes it difficult for non-technical individuals to pick up.

So I reflect on how I convey this information to users, and well the whiteboard with boxes and lines is something I keep drawing.  I tend to find drawing boxes representing things with lines indicating flow provides enough visualisation to have a discussion in 5 minutes about why something is easier or harder to change.

So is there a way to extract the boxes and lines out of the system for this conversation with the user?

Now to get technical for a moment, OfficeFloor allows composition through continuations.  For those not familiar with continuations you can can skip the rest of this paragraph and just know that continuations allow connecting code flow by drawing lines between procedures.  For those wanting a little more detail, the state passed by the continuation in OfficeFloor is decoupled from the continuation (state is Dependency Injected into the procedure from Dependency Contexts).   This allows the first class procedures of OfficeFloor to be composed together separate of state (Dependency Injection) and execution strategies (Thread Injection).  Therefore, OfficeFloor composition is merely configuring the output continuations of a procedure to the appropriate handling procedure.  This can be represented as a graph of nodes (procedures) with connectors (continuations) and directed edges (mapping configuration of continuation to procedure) - hence prime for graphical configuration.

So armed with first class procedures and means to draw lines between them to control program flow, we have the opportunity to represent the application flow composition as boxes and lines.

Therefore, when asked why graphical configuration for OfficeFloor.  It just made sense to use graphical configuration for ease of communicating the system's "floor plan".   This makes it easy for users to understand the system.  It also makes it very easy for new developers to pick up the system.  This is especially useful when having to work between many micro-services.

Therefore, OfficeFloor uses it's Continuation Injection graphical configuration to be the "floor plan" to how the IT system is constructed to make communication between user and construction company easier.

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