My (Im)perfect Cousin?

in which we start to worry about the source of our inspiration
Mona Lisa Vito: So what’s your problem?
Vinny Gambini: My problem is, I wanted to win my first case without any help from anybody.
Lisa: Well, I guess that plan’s moot.
Vinny: Yeah.
Lisa: You know, this could be a sign of things to come. You win all your cases, but with somebody else’s help. Right? You win case, after case, – and then afterwards, you have to go up somebody and you have to say- “thank you“! Oh my God, what a fuckin’ nightmare!

It is one of the all-time great movies, and netted Marisa Tomei an Oscar in the process. Yes it is. It really is1.

Not only that, but My Cousin Vinny2 throws up parallels in real life all the time. Yes it does. It really does3.

Why only recently, I was puzzling over the best (or least worst) way to implement a particularly nonsensical requirement for an intransigent client. After summarising the various unpalatable options in an email, a reply arrived from a generally unproductive source. The message content made it obvious that he’d somewhat missed the point but the conclusion he drew from that misunderstanding triggered a new thought process that gave us a new, even less, er, worser solution to our problem.

Sadly, my unwitting muse has moved on now, but he left his mark for all time4 on our latest product. I suppose he should also take partial credit for the creation of a hitherto unknown development methodology: Powerpoint-Driven Development, but that’s a story for another day.

1 All right, IMHO
2 See also My Cousin Vinny At Work, application of quotes therefrom
4 Or at least until we have a better idea and change the whole damn thing

The Probability of Culpability

(stackoverflow rep: 10,976, Project Euler 98/288 complete)

(in which we are reminded that finding solutions to most of the issues we face requires looking no further than our own immediate surroundings)

“I think there’s a problem with the web server – one of my pages isn’t displaying”.

“Strange – everything else seems to be fine – have you made any changes recently?”

“No – and it was fine yesterday. It must be the server; I’m going to escalate it to support.”

A few minutes later, I discovered that a directory had, as a result of a deviant drag-and-drop, been relocated inside another directory, with the result that the failing page’s Javascripts were no longer loading. Panic over, issue de-escalated. It was our team’s collective fault after all.

I have, over the years, found myself working in a support capacity. Needs must, from time to time. I doubt very much that I’m the only support person who ever had a user who claimed that they’d found a bug in Windows/a compiler/Excel/some other third-party application. I also suspect that the number of occasions where the actual error really did reside where the user asserted it did is small. Vanishingly small.

Ask not at what the finger pointeth...

As a general rule of thumb, when faced with a perplexing error, we may consider the “stack” of software within which our problem has arisen. With that in mind, we should consider how much effort has been invested into assuring the correctness of each layer. Take an Excel/VBA application running on, say, Windows 7. I’d guess that the test effort invested in Windows would be an order of magnitude greater – at least – than for Excel. And the step should be as great when we come down to the app we built. That’s reasonable – it reflects the impact of a detected problem in each layer, an impact we can measure in time, money, reputation and the like.

The web environment above supports hundreds of internal sites and is supported by a dedicated team of engineers. The environment changes slowly and only after extensive testing. It has to – the cost of messing up is high.

Sometimes the problem really is upstream, don’t get me wrong. At least one version of Excel, when switching from German to English, doesn’t translate BRTEILJAHRE() to YEARFRAC(), for example. IronRuby has reached version 1.0 but I did discover a little bug (well, in one of the standard libraries, at least) and years ago I had the excitement of working on a PC with a P60 CPU, FDIV bug and all.

The very fact that I remember these examples shows how rare they are, compared to the number of bugs I identify and fix in my own code every day. I can barely remember what I fixed this morning, for goodness’ sake. Orders of magnitude.

The UK National Lottery (or “Lotto” as I think it’s now called) used to have a tagline: “it could be you”. In that particular case it was generally a safe bet to append “but it probably won’t be”. When we’re looking for the source of software errors, we can change that to “and it probably is”.

Estimated distribution of causes of problems

It’s An Ill Wind

I was pontificating recently about the horror of tightly-coupled worksheet calculations and macro code in Excel and the mess that results from carelessly mashed-together programming paradigms.

By a horrible coincidence, a few smug weeks later I suddenly found myself deep in the horror again. This time, I had to contend with two versions, needing to set up and run several tens of thousands of real-world cases through “before” and “after” scenarios.

I soon started to turn up nuggets of wonderment. Here are a couple of gems from the worksheets:


“Why”, I asked myself, “don’t these monkeys think?” (When someone asked me which monkeys I was referring to, I realised that my inner monologue was malfunctioning, but that’s not important right now.)

Obviously they were thinking, apart from anything else the whole thing does seem to work, inasmuch as a set of inputs produce a set of plausible-looking outputs. I’d assert, however, that an experienced, competent developer has a continuous, higher-order review process running, asking questions like “does that look right?”, “could that be written better?”, “is that clear?”, “could someone else understand that?” It would appear that the individuals concerned in this case had no such process running.

I have a little tool that I bring out when faced with an unknown Excel VBA application. It scans the code and delives a report that gives me an idea of the degree of caution I should exercise, calculating for each routine an “X” number, being some arcane function of code lines, mesting level, numbers of ifs, loops, one-character variables (seldom straightforward to rename, even if they’re called “q” or “z”). A score of 10 or above indicates a possible problem area. Over 50 and we’re definitely in bandit country. Here’s the report for the top-scoring routine in the horror workbook (names changed to conceal the guilty):

422 is by a factor of about 3 the highest-scoring routine I’ve ever encountered. (By contrast, and perhaps it’s an unfair comparison, the top score in xlunit is 24.) That 1044 lines of code doesn’t include comments, blank lines, variable declarations or similar. Even better, it’s declared Static, something so appallingly dangerous (to me, at least – I get nauseous when I see even a Static variable) that I had to change the analyser because it had never seen it before. “Option Explicit” is honoured more in the breach than the observance and there are a mere (ha!) 156 global variables.

I was flicking through my cherished (and slightly stained) copy of The Pragmatic Programmer last night and I’ll take as my text the section “What Make a Pragmatic Programmer?” on pages xiii and xix of the Preface. Summarising the characteristics and comparing them with the authors of the unholy mess described, I get:

Early adopter/fast adapter: given that the abomination I’m working with is the culmination of more than two years’ work and is the fourth or fifth (and probably “best”) version, FAIL.

Inquisitive: I see no sign of any curiosity, not even “why do we suck?” FAIL

Realistic: I’m (generously) prepared to specify that this one may not really apply here. (Big of me.)

Jack of all trades: and masters of none? These guys didn’t make it to Jack of one trade. FAIL.

Critical Thinker: referring to the inner monologue again, there’s no evidence to suggest that anything like the questions listed above were ever applied here. And plenty of evidence to the contrary. BIG RED FAIL.

The tragedy here is that the monkeys described are unlikely to realise exactly how snivellingly far from acceptable (let’s not waste “best” here) practice they are, as the Dunning-Kruger effect tells us is likely, so they’re not going to change in any useful way. Failing to see that the twin demons of high coupling and low (non-existent, if we’re honest) cohesion are rampaging through their code leaves me wondering where we’d start.

Depressingly, these guys aren’t unusual, they’re not even the worst. The type is perhaps a little more common in, say, the Excel world, where the tools to develop staggering incompetence are so widely available, but they’re everywhere else – the invisible 90% of the iceberg.

On the plus side, even moderately competent technicians who are prepared to don the elbow-length protective gloves and dive in to such messes will be able to look forward with some confidence to a lifetime in which there will be a paycheck for as long as they can stand to pick it up.

Buddy, Can You Paradigm?

(stackoverflow rep: 8998, Project Euler 89/273 complete

(or: “If Paradigm was half as nice”)

I started reading Coders At Work recently. In the style of a few predecessors, the book comprises transcribed (and presumably edited) interviews with fifteen programmers who have made significant contributions of various kinds. It’s a weighty tome, possibly a little overweight if I’m honest, but interesting nonetheless; it makes a change from the kind of technical tome I usually cart around on the daily commute.

Circling a little closer to, and nodding vaguely in the general direction of the point, interviewee number seven, reached just this morning, is Simon Peyton Jones, who was one of the progenitors of Haskell, one of, if not the first name that springs to mind when one hears “functional programming“. For the last decade, Jones has been a researcher at Microsoft Research in Cambridge, which suggests that he would have had at least one finger in the F# pie… There’s a DotNetRocks show number 310 features an interview with the man, by the way. I’m enviously disturbed that despite our very similar ages, he appears considerably less follicly-challenged than me, although there could be some comb-over action going on there.

In the taxonomy of programming paradigms (does that make sense?) we have Declarative and Imperative. They are opposites. In the Declarative fold, we get stuff like SQL, XSLT, all the functional languages and, I submit Excel worksheets. Actually it’s not just me: that Wikipedia link places spreadsheet cell-based programming within the Dataflow subcategory of Functional. Imperative programming, on the other hand, includes the panoply of more “traditional” languages, including good old Visual Basic and its slightly less functional sibling VBA.

Thinking about Excel and VBA developement, I’d say there are several fairly distinct uses for VBA code (usually, but not exclusively: we can write add-ins or perform automation in plenty of other ways) which include:

  • New worksheet functions;
  • Interface extensions (menus, toolbars, ribbons etc);
  • Helpers (or wizards);
  • Control and simulation

…of which I write a lot of the latter two.

(You know how some comedians talk about a string of seemingly unrelated things and then cleverly tie them all together at the end? Well, fingers crossed, stay tuned)

A while back, I was handed a workbook, developed by an external consultancy, that modelled the 20-year evolution of a financial product. We wanted to run it across a significant number of stochastic market data simulations to get a picture of the distribution of possible outcomes. About 30,000 such simulations (and about 16GB of simulated market data) would be sufficient, we thought. The workbook took about 20 minutes to perform one such calculation. We didn’t have a year.

Fortunately, there were any number of classic optimisation failures to rectify: massive VBA/worksheet interaction at the cell level (changed to use large arrays), screen update enabled at all times, lots of less painful VBA-specific stuff, Application.Calculation = xlCalculationAutomatic, you know the drill. Easy stuff. Within a day it was taking about a minute and I could look at having the whole analysis done in under a week (I have a four-CPU machine).

If it all seems straightforward, it wasn’t. I’d wrapped the workbook in a modified (hacked-up from xlUnit) test jacket to check that my changes weren’t affecting the results, pretty much a necessity for any refactoring work, and one change kept breaking. Every time I tried to switch off automatic calculation, triggering it only when I thought it was needed, the final results came out different. I finally realised that the VBA and worksheet were extremely highly-coupled – calculations were occurring as the code pushed values through: change a value, auto-calc, change another value, auto-calc again and so on. Eek. It took almost a week to unravel. Of course, since I actually enjoy doing this kind of work for the most part, it wasn’t a complete disaster, but I could have lived without the time pressure…

As a finance worker (perversely, I’m increasingly inclined to describe myself as a Banker1 these days) I have cause, from time to time, to access The Bloomberg from Excel. At least one of the functions in the (extensive and powerful, let’s be fair) API is a real functional-imperative mess. Here’s one with which I’m not at all happy:

=BDH("MXWO", "PX_LAST", "01/06/2007", "28/12/2009", "Dir=V", "Dts=S", "Sort=A", "Quote=C", "QtTyp=Y", "Days=T", "Per=cd", "DtFmt=D", "cols=2;rows=672", "FX=EUR")

Yes, there are a lot of arguments2, but most are at least not positional, which shows they’re trying. This particular example asks for the last daily quote of the MSCI World Index, in Euro, between the dates given. Even better, I guess, there’s a wizard to generate it all for you. But here’s the nasty bit: the call fills as many rows – without warning about overwrites – as it needs. Oh, and that "cols=2;rows=672" parameter? It’s rewritten if you make any change that would affect the number of cells output. This is not easy to accomplish. Try duplicating the effect in VBA, go on, I double-dare you. I think there’s a separate server process at work here, able to make asynchronous (but timely) modifications to user worksheets.

Yikes. And ugh.

To me, there’s something broken here. They’re using am apparently functional programming model but allowing the code to affect the state of the worksheet in (from the user’s perspective at least) a rather arbitrary (or at least, unpredictable) way. We’re not even getting an array formula here – the function just causes chunks of worksheet to be filled with data. In point of fact, there looks to have been some serious programming work here – I don’t think in the normal course of events that calling a function is allowed to cause areas outside the calling range to be modified. I rather suspect an external process is being asked to pump values into the sheet through some devious means like (but let’s hope it isn’t) DDE.

(This is where I try to pull it all together. A little encouragement wouldn’t go amiss here…)

The fact that we have both paradigms represented as first-class components of a single development platform may be a large part of the reason for Excel’s dominance in the marketplace. But the interface between declarative and imperative code needs to be carefully managed to avoid the kind of unnecessary side-effects that I spent so long untangling.

The messed-up simulation I whined about above failed to recognise that the worksheets should have been, in effect, a great big, super-complex function, which the code used by setting up the input conditions, firing off a Calculate and then reading the output values. Instead, it tried to implement a tightly-coupled declarative-imperative abomination, with unfortunate results.

Let’s try not to repeat that mistake, for the sake of the children.

I’ve been (and remain) grumpy – thank you and good night.

You've been a lovely audience

1 Wanna make something of it?

2 Many Reuters functions do something similar, but push all the key-value pairs into a long string.


(stackoverflow rep: 7576, Project Euler 83/257 complete)
In my band days we called it "Gaffer"

In my band days we called it "Gaffer"

Reading Joel’s1 Duct-Tape Programmer article this morning (in the interests of full disclosure I should admit without additional prevarication that I have a large roll of “Duck” tape in the second drawer of my desk as I type) one sentence smacked me metaphorically between the eyes:

“Shipping is a feature”

I was transported back a couple of decades to the time when the bank for whom I was then working discovered that it was building not one but two settlement systems (the things that ensure that what traders agree should happen actually does) in two locations: London and Zurich. In London we were targeting our DEC VAX/Oracle platform, while the Swiss were designing with their local Tandem Non-Stop installation. And we’d both have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for that meddling CEO…

It was decreed that The Wise Men (external auditors) be appointed to review the two projects and pronounce which should live and which should consign its members to the dole queue.

The Wise Ones duly decamped to Zurich to spend a few weeks working through the cabinets of meticulously-detailed standards-compliant design documentation that had been lovingly crafted over the past several months, with coding about to start. Then they came to see us. It didn’t look so good.

dried-up and crusty now...

dried-up and crusty now...

What documentation we had was months old (from a previous, aborted start of the waterfall) and coated in Tipp-Ex. Remember the white error-correction fluid we used all the time back in the 20th Century? When we still wrote “memos”? After a week of vagueness and frustration a set of presentations were scheduled for the Friday, at which we proposed to try to fill in the gaps.



London won.

Yay us, but how? On most objective measurements we were deficient when compared with our continental rivals, even we agreed on that. But on that Friday afternoon, I got to stand up to summarise the differences, positive and negative between the two projects, as seen by the London team. I think what may have swung it was the part where I got to say “our system has been settling trades since 3 o’clock this morning”.

In about nine months, one team had done everything by the Book (don’t know the title, but I bet it had “Structured” in it) and had reached the point where they had, well, a book. Lots of books, in fact – they’d worked really hard. In the same time, we built a system and even better, shipped it. I don’t think anyone had written any Agile books by then – even if they had, we hadn’t read them.

Our team hadn’t done an awful job by any means, you understand: there’d been a few weeks of up-front requirement-gathering/scoping.  We had a massive data model that we Tipp-Exed down to the minimum needed. We had an outline architecture that, through luck or judgement, proved to be appropriate. Probably best of all, though, we sat with our users while we built their system. Better, as we built different features we moved around so we were always within speaking distance of our domain expert (I don’t think we’d done the whole “domain” thing then – we just called them “users”). So  we seldom got very far off track while stuff got built, and we were, with hindsight, feature-driven and relatively lowly-coupled/highly cohesive at the component level, all Good Things. Mostly written in COBOL, too.

Looking back, we were lucky: we didn’t manage to repeat the magic and fell back into time and cost overruns with the next couple of large projects. At least we were still being paid, unlike our erstwhile colleagues in Switzerland.

1 I call him by his first name because we share so much; we’re only a few slots apart on page 13 of StackOverflow as I write this. Page-mates, don’t you know.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.