Thursday, October 4, 2007

Rethinking the Enterprise

Some years ago, I took a "Data Structures" class in college where I felt I received more than what I had signed up for. During my lectures, my professor challenged us to think outside the box constantly. On one occasion, a midterm exam was promising to be hard for the whole class. I was particularly puzzled with a bonus question (worth a lot more than the usual). Although I felt prepared for the exam, I was somewhat troubled, even upset at the question. If I recall correctly, the question was something like:
(x-99)(x-98)(x-97)... (x-2)(x-1)

And we were asked to calculate the product when "X" was 15. This puzzled me for a second since my first reaction was "why do I need to solve this in a Data Structures exam?". To my despair, I made the decision that I would spend 1 minute in trying to solve this question, since these midterms were known for being extremely long and difficult to finish. A few days later, during our next lecture, one of my classmates took the courage to ask the reasoning behind these "absurd" question. Our professor kindly explained that such question was to help us understand a principle that we had to remember if we were to succeed as Engineers. Thinking outside the box is not as simple as you may think and often times it requires a great determination to just do simple things. Although the answer may be simple, too much knowledge can lead us to add complexity to a simple problem, thus our skills are poorly used. By the way, the answer to question above mentioned was zero (if your need a detail explanation, please send me an email).

Simple and Plain concepts
Similarly to the incident I had in college, I attended a seminar not that long ago where the speaker spoke about this same exact principle. The approach he took was probably more eloquent than what I would like to be, but I feel he made a good point. This had to do with Enterprise Applications development. If you have noticed, the first word "Enterprise" is a simple word, yet as soon as one adds the second (Applications), a developer can start associating different technology concepts (EJB, Spring, .NET, Ruby, PHP). Normally, one is biased about a familiar technology, yet no one has even discussed anything about requirements. I met once an Engineer who had already designed (or at least he thought he had) an Application using EJBs without understanding the problem domain and/or requirements. This made me think in how we, as Engineers, are using the knowledge we have to develop simple solutions and avoid adding complexity to a business problem. I really stress this point because there seems to be an untold fear to learn/use different technologies and we seem to prefer to add more complexity over using the appropriate approach to solve a problem.

Facing our Engineering Fear
So why should you use EJBs? Do you fully understand what are the benefits of using these? Is .NET perhaps a better approach to the company's goals? Would you recommend building an application in RoR (Ruby on Rails) over J2EE (or .NET)? If not, could you number such reasoning? What is our real bias about the technology we choose to use when solving a problem?. Interestingly enough, I've found Engineers using a set of technologies that are known well, not necessarily because they are the best, but because is convenient. Engineering staff must understand the tool set available to them when solving problems, and unless required, not "re-inventing the wheel".

From the management perspective, there are very few cases when a developer may start working off a clean repository. This means that there is an existing asset to be maintained and/or extend. Management is skeptical about investing in such a change. In fact, it will take a lot of convincing to help management realize what is the really added value to a product in a potential "re-architecture" phase. Although this is understandable in most cases, an Enterprise Application can certainly benefit from a fresh new code base when situations allow them. This however should not make us believe that such architecture is the only and true way of solving every Enterprise Business need. A simple example is the case when Hibernate may not be the solution to every persistence problem. There are valid cases when JDBC is a perfect example. Or in the case of .NET, is the MS Oracle Client better than the ODP (Oracle Data Provider) for connections to an Oracle database?

The Hope of the Enterprise
To have a broader view of different technologies can certainly help us see an Enterprise Application from different perspectives. Being willing to learn new technologies can only help us and the Enterprise, but ultimately is up to us to drive the effort. So, when thinking about the Enterprise, one must think about the problem domain, and not only the tools available within our domain knowledge, but also what other alternatives available to solve the problem effectively. As scientists, we have a responsibility not only to solve technical problems, but to also use the most effective methods to do so. So read on documentations, download and test many frameworks and prepare yourself for we are the true hope of the Enterprise.

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