January 26, 2013

Editing code is easier than writing it

I’ve hacked both the PHP and CSS that drive this website. But if I had to write PHP or CSS from scratch, I literally wouldn’t know how to begin.

Something similar, I suspect, is broadly true of “business analysts.” I don’t know how somebody can be a competent business analyst without being able to generate, read, and edit SQL. (Or some comparable language; e.g., there surely are business analysts who only know MDX.) I would hope they could write basic SELECT statements as well.

But does that mean business analysts are comfortable with the fancy-schmantzy extended SQL that the analytic platform vendors offer them? I would assume that many are but many others are not. And thus I advised such a vendor recently to offer sample code, and lots of it — dozens or hundreds of isolated SQL statements, each of which does a specific task.* A business analyst could reasonably be expected to edit any of those to point them his own actual databases, even though he can’t necessarily be expected to easily write such statements from scratch. 

*Actually, the vendor is Teradata Aster. After I showed them a draft of this post, they indicated that it’s OK to use their name in the post, and they fondly think they’re already doing what I suggest in their current product.

Similar thoughts apply to other software domains. If one of your selling points is some variant on “ease of development”, yet it’s difficult for you to supply generous amounts of sample code, then probably either:

Please note that these are not exclusive ORs.

I’m not suggesting “app stores where users can post and sell — or give away — their own apps”. Those may be good ideas (although probably not as good as you think), but they miss the point. You need to do the basic work yourself. Or, if it’s a big expensive deal for you to do the work, then you should make your product more usable. For if it’s hard for YOU to program in your technology, why would somebody else pay you so that they may have the privilege of doing so?


3 Responses to “Editing code is easier than writing it”

  1. Thomas W Dinsmore on January 27th, 2013 9:09 am

    Great idea with a couple of caveats:

    (1) Consult the Legal department, and make sure that scripts are distributed with appropriate disclaimers. Otherwise, you will create a support problem and open up potential liability when a customer runs your code and brings down the system.

    (2) Don’t confuse pre-written scripts with built-in functionality the way Aster does. Aster promotes stuff you can do in SQLMR like a product feature set. When customers learn that it’s actually a bunch of scripts they can run as UDFs, the typical response is “WTF?”


  2. Brian Andersen on January 27th, 2013 12:44 pm

    Great Post.

    The paradigm I am working on involves visual programming to get you that first “80 percent” of functionality. The visual interactions map to code which you can then edit to taste to get the rest of the app working.

  3. Al DeLosSantos on January 31st, 2013 10:35 am

    Good post Curt. Many products would improve if designers were forced to use their own products in life. I had a positive introduction to the visual programming model through Apama (CEP vendor). They have a development module that lets you logically layout states, rules and the associated functions and variables, which they then convert to a script that runs in their CEP engine. I liked it and was productive as a “business analyst” type user. I was always torn about how deep to dive into the technology (coding in Java/C++ via an API, dare I start doing that? :^)
    Al D.

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