Growing Better Information Systems

I haven't had much time, in a very long time, to write much here. I generally find myself too tired to be bothered, because for all intents I spend my days baffled by the view of Information Technology (IT) that plagues the world of business. The narrow view that IT is a thing, an object, and simple is one that I have difficulty understanding for two reasons: the obvious ongoing, cyclic problems in IT strongly indicate a systemic failure that suggests the current business view is flawed, so one would imagine bean-counters would question the view itself; and in a world where computer systems are so ubiquitous, one would think by now there was a better basic understanding of proper application. Perhaps I shouldn't be so shocked how skewed the perception of IT is, but I remain eternally baffled by it nonetheless.

The reason I began my latest tour of duty with an effort to substitute the words Information Systems (IS) for Information Technology was to linguistically offset the embedded mistaken view of IT, to replace the archaic view that gear substituted somehow for better integrated design. I failed, of course, for the same reasons all professionals in this field do -- I counted on communication to offset perceived experience. I stress the experience is perceived, because people integrate their experiences with IT in an unreal way. If something appears to work, they accept it and become ensnared by it to a degree where it will always be the "best" way. If something fails it will always be because of bad IT. Seldom, if ever, does anyone think of boundaries -- and never does anyone ask a fundamental question about the proper application of the proper systems under the proper processes. Almost no one makes the integral connection between people, process and machines in a realistic way.

But growing better IS is an absolute necessity if managed change creates a foundation for excellence. You cannot stagnate, and never can you lose sight of the way things should look 2 to 5 years down the path. To do so, to bury oneself in the minutia of now, is to lose the advantages presented by a continuous improvement model. And yet even the best companies -- even technology firms -- seem completely detached from this idea of cyclic improvement. Even companies where the reality of the past is choking productivity visibly fall into the bizarre pattern whereby the growing pains of applying better IS is blamed for the exposures that bad IT created. And while I understand the reasons for that -- exposure hurts -- it flies in the face of the whole purpose of systems.

Recently Bill Gates has talked about taxing robots, which is one of the two occurrences that triggered this missive. Not because robots are good or bad, or because Bill Gates said the word tax; but because in principle his observation actually reflects the real and broad impact of IS in the world. he was observing that this taxation option was a reasonable response to the integrated effect automation is having on the broader society. He was observing that IS is part or the world, and needs to be managed for continuous improvement of not just the solutions...but of the society in which the IS resides. His observation is not only true, but highlights the ultimate engaged view -- a view about how IS actually affects the world.

The other occurrence was more mundane, and I won't go into details here because it isn't appropriate. But it came about when I was faced with recognizing that even smart people who deserve a lot of respect have no real understanding of IS as a weapon for improvement. They still view the business application of IT -- gear -- as the fundamental role of IS in business. And they still frequently subscribe to the fatal view that involving IT at a business level makes sense. The idea that IT must identify platform benefits is sound, but the idea that IT should or can enforce the use of platform sets is simply odd. Weirdly, it is not even a role that IS should play; because if you let IS force use patterns, you lose the functional benefit of non-technical expertise. Having IT or IS dictate use is tantamount to having a farmer who grows a potato command those who bake it exactly how to do that. Yes, it will be baked, but the expertise of the cooks is essentially discounted in favor of someone who grows the ingredients.

The point of this ramble is simply this: growing better IS is about designing systems to capture and echo expertise that is not about IT, but about empowerment. Yes, some mechanics are set in stone by such designs, but the application of tools is the creative part that can seldom be enforced by the designer. To start with the view that IS or IT should be a definitive provider of the last word on use of anything is a flawed view of what technology and systems are meant to do. Process definition is a business function, not a mechanical one. Process is defined by business knowledge. It can be modeled by IT (and far better by IS), but it cannot be set by technologists. And communication is a key in any case, which when missing, creates dissatisfaction and a destructive stagnation.


ODP.NET OracleDecimal Conversion Fun

This is one of those self-supportive posts I love to discover.

I have used ODP.NET and Oracle for ages (the latter for more than 20 years), and generally I don't run into anything too odd, but in a very recent project I encountered something that threw me. In fact, it took a few kicks at the can to even be sure it was what I thought.

Since the project was in VB.NET, I'll show a similar line:

Dim intVar as Integer = CInt(OracleCmd.Parameters("ParamName").Value)

The Oracle command parameter in this case was a NUMBER type being returned from a stored procedure, which in ODP.NET returns an OracleDBType.OracleDecimal.

As soon as this line was encountered (and a Long conversion did the same) the code would fault with a conversion type error. Now, at first glance it threw me because I wasn't thinking as clearly as I probably should have been. And I asked myself, "How the hell can a cast from a decimal to an integer fault?" Worse was that I was misled by the actual value, which was the number 1; and my ignorance of the obvious was reinforced by a slew of documentation that noted the OracleDecimal type was equivalent to the .NET Framework's System.Decimal type.

In reality, of course, OracleDecimal is a boxed value. It may contain a decimal, but it is stored in a way that prevents an explicit cast. (I understand you can CDec it, or do a decimal cast from the ORacleDecimal, though I didn't test this.) That means that you can't expect the line shown above to work. That said, you can expect this to work reliably:

Dim intVar as Integer = CInt(OracleCmd.Parameters("ParamName").Value.ToString())

This works because the ToString() append returns a new string to memory that is a representation of the string equivalent of the primary stored number in the OracleDecimal box. It doesn't technically un-box the object, but it serves the same essential purpose and by casting a new string the CInt (Or CLng) then acts on the string returned. So, in the case of my quirky situation, ToString() returned "1" and that was then equivalent to writing CInt("1") to return a 1.

As inelegant as that all is (I'm sure there is a more pleasant way of working this magic) it works, and when you are supporting legacy code (in this case a conversion from the old MS Oracle data services provider to ODP.NET) it represents a workable solution. It is much faster than fiddling about trying to un-box the actual value, or whatnot, and you can search and replace the damn thing fairly efficiently.

The conclusion is that I was reminded of how boxed and unboxed objects behave, and how badly misleading documentation can be (even when it is correct). What hasn't been explained to me by this, of course, is why Oracle chose to not handle the conversion internal in the provider and return a System.Decimal. It strikes me as likely this would have been a much less jarring when having to manage legacy code conversions to the new ODP.NET model. But, hey, I guess I can admit it reminded me of the fabulous complexity of simple things!

Quality of Design

This weekend I had an opportunity to look at an Access 2003 platform database/application, and it reminded me that quality of design can exceed platform capabilities. As any developer who has ever dealt with Access, especially ancient versions, knows, the product is a kludge upon a kludge. It tends to encourage bad design at the outset because of its lack of data/presentation layer separation, and it's crimes against productivity (in terms of user interface choices) are myriad. But the application I looked at was atypical of Access-based design in two distinct ways: it was designed with a mostly correct data model, making it migration-friendly even after all these years; and it was developed with a degree of restraint that avoided at least many of the traps of Access applications. That isn't to say it was the perfect product model, because Access just doesn't manage to engender perfection, but it was one of those pleasant review experiences where it so easy to see how to move it ahead without damaging its quality of design, it's functionality, or sacrificing future opportunities to the gods of necessity.

The takeaway from this is simple: platform can be overcome by good design to a great extent.


A Little DB2 SQL Adventure

I don't usually blog about this sort of technical stuff, though I deal with it daily. That probably explains right there why I avoid it as if it is tainted by the plague. But this particular problem was interesting enough that I thought it might be worth conveying it.

The challenge for my associate came in the form of a bit of SQL that needed to pull apart a string (unknown until runtime) before it was inserted into a data store. A stored procedure wasn't possible, and the parsing requirement was unavoidable. It also had to be done with inline SQL.

It was known that this particular string could have several forms:
  1. A string containing alphanumeric elements separated by a dash;
  2. A string containing alphanumeric elements without a dash; and
  3. A zero-length string containing nothing (that could not be converted to a NULL on the incoming side for reasons not relevant here, but such that COALESCE was suddenly not a functional solution).
The SQL causing them grief had two variations in the INSERT, but to isolate the data elements I'll stay with simple SELECT statements from the system dummy table. And we'll call the input containing the string {Landmark} for the sake of abstraction.

The first SELECT would look thus:

In essence the data element expected for return would see a dash in the Landmark string and return everything left of that dash. (For those wondering why not use LEFT in this context, it ultimately creates the same basic problem in as much as it will fail to return correctly if the Landmark value has no dash. So, it would have been a different approach with the same sticking point.)

The second SELECT would look thus:

SELECT SUBSTR('{Landmark}',1,LOCATE('-','{Landmark}')) FROM SYSIBM.SYSDUMMY1;
A simpler view of the same issue, which is easily illustrated by plugging in a few actual values that landmark might pass in.

The First Form

To focus now we can strip the SELECT and FROM SYSIBM.SYSDUMMY1 parts of the exemplar. It leaves us with the inline SQL reading:


And the SQL works perfectly if the data coming in contains a dash and is not zero-length. In other words, '12345-12345-666' parses perfectly:

SUBSTR('12345-12345-666',1,LOCATE('-','12345-12345-666' )-1)

...returns a LOCATE value of 6, and when you subtract 1 it works out to return the substring starting at the first character and returning the first 5 characters.

The problem is that if the incoming string contains no dashes the LOCATE returns 0, and when you subtract the 1 from 0 the SUBSTR function rightfully chokes on the parameter. For example:

SUBSTR('1234512345666',1,LOCATE('-','1234512345666' )-1)

...is really:


And SUBSTR doesn't quite know hat to do with that.

An even more complex problem arises when the string coming in is zero-length, because the resultant SUBSTR not only faults on -1 for is third parameter, it chokes on the first one having no length.

Using a stored procedure here would be glorious because it could check the length and do all that work in an orderly way, but my associate was stumped by how to get it to work inline and handle the three possibilities of proper dashes, no dashes and a zero-length condition.

What does work though is the inline use of a dual CASE that can handle the three possibilities (yes, it is not the only possibility, but it turned out to be the easiest to convey, even if it is ugly as sin). The statement then would have looked thus:

CASE WHEN LENGTH('{Landmark}')=0 THEN ''
ELSE SUBSTR('{Landmark}',1,LOCATE('-','{Landmark}')
- (CASE WHEN LOCATE('-','{Landmark}') > 0 THEN 1 ELSE 0 END))

It parses by checking Landmark length and returning a zero-length safely if it is thus; and otherwise it runs the SUBSTR with an inner CASE block that tests the LOCATE return value and returns 1 if it is >0 and 0 otherwise. (This return is subtracted from the LOCATE value, so returning 1 subtracts 1, else we subtract 0.) With an example in place:


The benefit is that this protects you from the three possible data conditions.

The Second Form

For the stripped form of the second:

...we can modify it with a simpler inline CASE conditional. We end up with:

SUBSTR((CASE WHEN LENGTH('{Landmark}')= 0 THEN ' ' ELSE '{Landmark}' END),1,LOCATE('-','{Landmark}'))

Or in the actual SELECT form:

SELECT SUBSTR((CASE WHEN LENGTH('{Landmark}')= 0 THEN ' ' ELSE '{Landmark}' END),1,LOCATE('-','{Landmark}')) FROM SYSIBM.SYSDUMMY1;

This works because SUBSTR accepts a 0 as its third parameter, and all we need to do is ensure that Landmark (first parameter) is never a zero-length string. The specific CASE part is:

CASE WHEN LENGTH('{Landmark}')= 0 THEN ' '
ELSE '{Landmark}'

In other words, return a single space if the LENGTH of the actual field data is zero.

Final Thoughts

No one would ever claim that SQL was pretty to look at, but it illustrates how powerful SQL actually can be, and how it is possible to make the SQL layer of a solution (even without aid of a stored procedure) impose some order on incoming data elements.


Getting Paid

This is one of those posts of frustration, so take it for what it is worth.

I have been doing development work since the very early eighties, and a trend has been becoming more notable in those many, many years. Part of it is probably that the industry has devalued itself with the pretence that software is an entertainment-focused industry. You flop Facebook into place, for example, and it becomes the superficial representation of the industry. That it is a poorly designed consumers-as-products farce is irrelevant. Businesses see it, become distracted by it, and suddenly everything must connect, or be like it, or, worse, become some extension of it. This changes expectations in a way that makes it harder to sell the idea of functional software as a business helper, or at the very least changes how people value what is built to support their operational requirements.

The actual trend though is purely financial. A vast number of businesses seem to consider good, focused development of software as a nickel-and-dime extra. Getting a fair contract price for required software development is tough, and even when possible getting paid is sometimes nearly impossible. It means that custom (and consequently effective) solutions are fast becoming less common. It isn't lack of need , or even lack of recognized need, but that businesses just don't feel like paying for a proper solution when they can get something "close enough" without paying. And I'm not talking about open-source here, either, but the far more problematic application of poorly-fit tools to clearly defined problems. 

A recent client (who shall remain nameless, but is an enormous distributor of entertainment wares) proves the nature of the end-result of devaluing the idea of proper-fit software solutions. They essentially managed a multimillion dollar warehouse system via CSV files, and spreadsheets. Now, I have nothing against either, but the idea that this is a suitable platform for big enterprise management and operations is nonsensical. It creates latency, reporting issues, and data quality concerns when you have to manage across such transport forms. Of course, now the problem is that to change is costly, and scary, so more putty gets lodged into more cracks -- and there is no apparent cohesive approach to solving the real problem, which is the lack of responsive integrative systems on the operational front. 

But again the real issue isn't the poor thinking so much as that even with it there is an apparent sense that there's no need to actually that the provision of software services with any respect. The same client base who will carp about solutions being late (not a problem I've made any of them face) are not so conscientious as to make their payments to their service providers on time. It is as if there is some new level of self-centred entering the world of business, and it seems irrelevant whether the provider is good or indifferent. It seems like there is a new rule that reads, "pay as late as possible, and well past due if possible; screw whether we need this service again." And it is that last part that confuses me.

My clients have universally praised me for my focus, my solutions, and my concerns about their businesses. And yet, of late, I spend an inordinate amount of time chasing them for payments. That providing quality service costs something seems, to many, a foreign concept. Maybe they believe I have a money tree, and it will support the family so well that I will always be present when needed?

I know I'm not the only person in this industry who is experiencing this trend toward indifference about quality of service, quality of solution, and general quality. I talk to many each week who say the same thing, which is that many of their clients are well behind the curve in paying for what they received. And while some lag is always forgiven, it reaches a point where all of them have said the words, "I can't continue in an industry where the quality is irrelevant, and the pay is unreliable." For the world this represents a serious problem, because while the young dogs may provide the next new iPhone app, it is the seasoned developers who provide the applications no one sees, but everyone uses. This squeezing of that talent pool is a critical mass issue the industry will eventually face in a bad way.

Now, I will return to fishing for cash, since my money tree has not bloomed this year...yet.