Saturday, April 28, 2007

The IT worker of the future

We all know that the US has a large number of IT companies or departments in mega-corporations and we also know that over the past couple of years, a large number of people were deemed "redundant" in their own country. Their jobs were off-shored to other countries like India, China or Brazil, mostly because the actual work they were performing is similarly available as a service elsewhere at a much better cost. With the advent of the Internet, getting the results of that work and the project team interaction is very easy.

What we all probably need to do is re-think the objectives of companies, as I wrote about in earlier posts. Whilst I am not going to even start to highlight particular companies in this posts, (it is irrelevant), the concept and context of a corporation and company responsibility should be evaluated. Is it meaningful that a company is only aiming to make money in this world? What if we, as a democracy, change the legislation to make them also aim for other objectives? Should we introduce protective laws against job off-shoring?

If the trend continues, then I am afraid all IT workers will need to start learning more than just IT. The technology is getting easier all the time or at least more accessible and documented. Just look on any search engine for some particular problem and it is likely that you get many possible solutions. People with lower wages in other countries have access to that very same information. How can you make a difference?

I believe that much of actual software that is written today will become more commoditized. Not to the level of steel, just more. If this happens, then it is no longer enough to just know about technology. In the future, you will very likely need complementary knowledge in order to keep your job in your own country. You must bridge the gap between technology and some other activity that is really valuable to the business. This kind of activity is much more difficult to execute than following a requirements specification. It is also an activity that can possibly produce a lot more value for your employer than if it would just acquire an existing solution.

The first thing to consider is that IT doesn't really matter. It is there to be used, but it's a bit like a truck. The truck itself provides no value just by its existence, but the way how it is used is meant to bring the cargo from A to B. So, the shipment of cargo from A to B is the actual thing that provides value, not the truck moving from A to B. The actual activity of building systems is meaningless, because you do it for a certain goal. That particular goal has meaning, not the system itself. The more you understand this distinction, the better and more efficient the systems you will build are.

I think that the IT people of the future can no longer sustain themselves in some richer countries unless they understand how they should improve themselves to better contribute to actual goals. This is possible by (better?) applying IT knowledge onto a better in-depth knowledge about the problem domain. Just building systems isn't going to cut it anymore. Focus on the problem, find out everything about the problem domain, find out how it really works, then shape your technical solution around that.

So, knowing about IT is still important in order to apply that knowledge to the problem. But it becomes much more important from a value perspective to understand the actual problem domains in which we are working. You should aim for being that person that writes the specification for producing something basically.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Workflow systems

I'm looking at workflow systems for work and I'm very much enjoying it so far. The main package I'm looking at is called "jBPM". It's quite a large package to understand.

Workflow programming, to begin with, is different from actual programming in that it focuses on the process and on the execution of things, not on appearance or transformation of data. What I quite enjoy is that this statement means that you focus on the middle part of the construction of a system, rather than focus on the beginning (screens, user input) or the very end (database) or how some requirement fits in with your current system in an architectural way.

So, in order to successfully construct workflow-based systems, you first need to change your thinking about IT and how systems get constructed. It's not necessarily a very (pedantically) 'clean' way of programming (all data is stored in proper elements and there is compile-time dependency between all objects and all that), but it provides much more decoupling between functions, which on thus on the other hand improves reusability and componentization.

You should think of workflow as a series of automatic or manual actions that need to take place, easy to re-arrange and reusable. These actions are arranged in a diagram, which specifies which actor or pool of actors can execute those actions. The final part of the diagram also states whether these actions are executed in parallel or in series. To top things off... the whole process "instance", that particular order or that particular holiday request will get persisted into a database when it has no way to proceed immediately because it is waiting for external actions. You do not get these features "automatically" from any software language.

The latter word "language" is specifically mentioned, because you will start to mix your domain language (say Java or C#) with another "graph-based" language, in this case XML. So, the XML specifies authentication, actors, pools, the "flow" of the process, whereas the domain-based language helps to express componentized functionality (such as performing a credit-check, updating databases, gathering user input and so forth).

If you re-read the last paragraph, you notice how different workflow-based programming essentially is and how it could provide enormous value to IT systems if it is done right.

As an example, if you know Mantis or BugZilla, you know from the developer's or tester's point of view what the screen looks like for bug manipulation. Well, this screen is a single screen with all components in editable form, but from a workflow point of view, it should be constructed differently every time with only those components required for that particular step... For example, if you start to update or categorize the bug, then you do not need all the fields available in the screen to do that. When you have a process that dictates the need for a CCB comment, then you also have far too many elements on your screen to do specifically just that.

The point is that in general, many applications show everything on screen that you may not necessarily care about at that time and the user needs to compensate for the lack of guidance by understanding the process documented elsewhere in a very large document... Wouldn't it be great if we could just look at a screen and get our business process right and know what to do at the same time?

The other thing I notice is that many SRS documents are not necessarily focused on the process, but are focused on data. This shows me that there must be a huge opportunity in this area to provide consultancy on core business processes and merge this with IT specific knowledge.

Software is something that should be changeable in an easy form. Some people interpret this as "scriptable", but scripts are software as well and you wouldn't want to have production-editable fields that allow business people for example to modify those scripts at runtime. So there are only specific scenarios in which scripts actually add value, because if only your developers modify those scripts, why not write it in a strongly typed language instead?

Workflow based systems, due to their high decoupling factor and focus on process, might be slightly easier to change than J2EE, .NET, C++ or ASP systems. It matters from the perspective of flexibility and how you allow systems to grow with changing needs, because the needs *will* change.

Lastly, someone at JBoss mentioned how workflow systems are very much in their initial phase, comparing it to RDBMS systems. It's not very clear how they can be used effectively or in particular environments... what else we need for workflow systems to become very successful. The key part in improving these opportunities is to take the best of both worlds and merge this into something better. We may have to take a radical step into something else and see where it goes. I am just considering... wf based systems may be slightly slower due to use of XML and process persistence... but with a couple of machines and putting all processes on similar systems, what do we need for widespread deployment of this technology?

There must be things missing here, because not everyone is using it yet :).

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Yet more

Here are yet some more design works:

Some cartoon art

galaxy explosion kind of thing

gel/glass/liquid button graphics. Can contain any text or icon really.

1024x768 wallpaper for my computer.

all of the above taken from tutorials to learn more about designs. The last took most time, but also was more actual drawing to do. The last has a very interesting, unintentional detail, which is the base of the tree. I sculpted the tree out of an actual picture and then noticed the trunk looks like a foot.

So, probably I'm going to read up a bit more on design theory from here on. Things like logo construction, colors and those kind of theories.

I actually tried some cartoon characters for drawing, but that didn't end up in much yet ;).

More design work

These are two more designs I created with Wacom and some standard functionalities.
This is a modification of a fractal. I basically heavily embossed it and layered the result on top of the original. Then grayscaled part of the picture for a concrete effect and layered other images over it for a sort of glass like effect. As you can see, I don't master glass yet, which is why I started with the following image, one of an orb over a newspaper. That one looks much better.

This orb is produced solely under photoshop. It started with a simple sphere in a flat color, than I added an inner shadow effect to create some white at the bottom right (it should have more in the final image). Then another gradient in the middle, which was masked by a radial gradient. A hotspot in white at the top and then a selection of the initial orb that had a fill of black and transparency, which was scaled down to about 40% in height, slightly blurred and slightly moved to the right. The glasses and newspaper are from a photo. And the problem I run into obviously is not paying attention to the existing shadows in the picture :).