Project Risk Management

    Development using Internet technology Java or otherwise is characterized by these features:
  • New technology abounds, seemingly in every area of the project.
  • Rapid delivery is required, people can’t wait nowadays.
  • Many disparate elements are required, often from multiple vendors.
  • As if project development were not hairy enough, these wildcards have to be tossed in!

It seems like every six months there is an entire new class of products and APIs, designed to fill spaces unaddressed by those from before. Many server vendors also now make major enhancements to their core products more than once a year. This makes it hard to build a system, because there is the risk that the products are unreliable or have unanticipated behavior, or advertised features are not quite ready. Some times it is wise to forego a new class of products or a new API until it has matured. The problem is, you never get to that state anymore. If something is so mature that it is no longer evolving, it is dead. The problem is not that products evolve; it is the rate of evolution that has sped up, as a result of the tremendous growth of the Internet and the spread of computers to mainstream and even home use. The Java core API is a good example of an evolving technology. The hunger for enhancements is so great that people are usually willing to put up with bugs in order to use the new features. Take the Swing API. When Swing was in beta 0.5, we already had clients using it for mission critical applications. They could not be dissuaded. The reason was that, even though it was buggy then, it would become stable by the time it was officially released, and they wanted to base their development on a standard. Swing was also so much nicer than its predecessor, the AWT, that staying with the AWT was not even an option. One could say that this is a special case, because the AWT was flawed, but in fact it is not a special case, because in every corner of Internet technology you see this a constant outcropping of things so new and so different that they cannot be dismissed.
Not all of these new inventions have staying power, however. When “push” technology first appeared, it was touted as the new wave that would drive our desktops from now on. As it turned out, this technology's strength is in the deployment of applications, as opposed to dynamic desktops. In only one year, the entire perception of how this technology should be used made a complete turn. It is a major challenge for a manager to sort the promising technologies from the doubtful ones, and move cautiously but at the same time without fear of using something new because everything is new.

The viability and professionalism of the provider of a technology must also be considered when making a selection. A great many Java product companies are startups, or small organizations recently acquired by larger ones. Of course, all companies start small; in the mid 80s Oracle was a fledgling company and an underdog, battling against mainframe Codasyl and IMS databases, so smallness itself should not be a handicap. It is a red flag, however. In a recent project, an object oriented “blend” product was selected to provide an object oriented layer for a relational database. Many vendors were evaluated, and since the Java binding of the ODMG standard for object oriented databases was fairly new, not all vendors had incorporated it into their products. As a result, there was quite a bit of disparity between the model used by the different vendors. The vendor that was finally selected was persuaded to agree to accelerate their schedule for certain feature enhancements of interest to the project, at the expense of others. Since they were a small vendor, and this was a large customer, convincing them was easy. They made the changes, but when the product started to be used, other unanticipated limitations were discovered. Luckily, this was during a prototype stage for the project, because the limitations necessitated reconsideration of the project's core architecture. The constant change of technology is a major problem for staff training. It is virtually impossible to staff a project with people who have experience in all the things you want to use. In February 1996 I recall seeing an ad in a newspaper, for a programmer with “2+ years of Java development experience.” Apparently the human resources person who wrote the ad was not aware that at the time there were perhaps 20 people in the world who fit that description, and they were very busy. The cost of obtaining specialized talent can also be a factor that reduces flexibility if not increasing risk. One project I consulted on originally had decided that the best technology to implement their application in was Lotus Notes. However, Java was selected because it was calculated that while Lotus Notes developers could be found, the cost of obtaining them in the required numbers would double project costs compared to using C++ programmers and training them in Java. The incentive to tolerating these risk factors is that these new technologies promise lower cost development, much wider deployment and end user productivity and functionality, and greater adaptability. In order to get control of the risks so that these gains can be realized, a strategy is needed with new emphasis on rapid delivery in a core capability driven manner. To this end, I propose three rules to comprise this strategy. Surely you have heard these rules before, but I am putting them at the top of the list.

The first rule is,keep each component simple. By keeping things simple, you can get quick turnaround in development this is important so that you discover quickly if the project is going to have technological difficulties. Do not create unnecessary layers. Make sure each layer has a well defined purpose that is easy to conceptualize. Otherwise, your best staff resources will be spent creating advanced local architectures, instead of understanding and applying the plethora of new technology. Also, with things changing so rapidly, you don't want to invest too much effort in in house designs that may become obsolete or replaced by components available in the marketplace. True component based software is finally appearing. Don't worry that staff won’t be challenged it is a tremendous challenge to understand, evaluate, assemble, and apply all these new technologies, even if custom programming is kept simple.
The second rule is, focus on the primary mission of the application, and make that work really well. Concentrate on what the application has to do most of the time. Tune the system for that. A system that does everything equally well is either overfunded or in fact does everything in a mediocre manner. If the primary mission is processing orders, design the system for that. If the primary mission is checking patient records, design the system for that. In large systems that are built in stages, sometimes the wrong piece is built first and then drives the rest of the design. For example, if the system must interface to an external system, a data loading mechanism might be built early on, and the system's primary features added later. Unfortunately, when this is done, there is a risk that the system will be tuned for the data loading process, which is not the primary purpose of the system. The result is a system that may load data well, but has poor response time for calling up data—the primary mission and success criterion of the system.
The third rule is, if using new technologies, build a prototype. You cannot avoid using new technologies today, and things are changing all the time. The best way to deal with this unstable situation is to move quickly, to avoid obsolescence, but prudently, in measured steps, to manage the risk of using new features. Don’t commit to an architecture without building a prototype that tests the core mission- critical functionality using the new technologies. That is the only way that technology limitations will be exposed so that a successful full-scale architecture can then be designed. Further, it takes someone with a great deal of experience with these technologies to judge where the risks might be, and what features prototype development should focus on.

Extract from "Advanced Java Development for Enterprise Application" written by Clifford J. Berg Published by Prentice Hall PTR New Jersey 1998