06 October 2010

Advanced Modelling Made Simple with Gmodel

Semantics is one of the unfortunate words that has been hijacked by everyday IT jargon. The link between the Semantic Web and semantic modelling is comparable to the link between C++ and object orientation. Just as C++ is the result of incorporating object oriented concepts into an existing programming language, the Semantic Web is the result of incorporating semantic concepts into the web technology platform that is defined by W3C standards, which include HTML, URI, HTTP etc. And likewise, just as C++ is not the nirvana of object orientation, public domain ontologies and Semantic Web tools do not cover all aspects of semantic modelling.

This week Sofismo presented the Gmodel platform for semantic modelling & language engineering at the first Workshop on Model-Driven Interoperability at the MoDELS conference in Oslo. An introductory article on Gmodel can be downloaded as part of the workshop proceedings, and corresponding slides are included below.

18 May 2010

On Pitfalls of Software Product Development

Software product development teams – and people in general - commonly over-estimate their ability to convey information in documents, diagrams, and in discussions. To make matters worse, they typically have too much faith in the validity of their personal mental models to frame the problems that need to be solved. As a result, misinterpretations often remain undetected for months, milestones are missed, and deliverables don’t meet expectations. Many failures are avoidable by recognising the role of customers - and of communication and collaboration - in software product development.

17 May 2010

Software Product Line Engineering Essentials

It is advisable to distinguish between a domain engineering process and an application development process. The application development process in turn comes in two flavours, a mature application development process and an experimental application development process.

The artefacts that we regularly produce in collaboration with various subject matter experts contain deep domain-specific knowledge (in insurance product design, automated building control, financial product design, ...). The required knowledge comes in three parts:
  1. SCIENCE: The first part of knowledge has been obtained using the scientific method.

  2. DOMAIN: The second part constitutes the accumulated wisdom from many years of working (developing heuristics) in the particular domain.

  3. MOMO: The third part relates to expertise in modelling, abstraction, and modularisation (a catalyst in the process of formalising knowledge).
In many software development projects the amount of relevant knowledge of type SCIENCE is minimal, knowledge of type DOMAIN is critical for project success, and knowledge of type MOMO is not available within the organisation.

This gets to the heart of the debate about the degree to which software development involves science!

Mature Application Development

If optimal - domain/organisation-specific - methods & tools are available to produce the artefacts that constitute the outcome of the project, then no knowledge of type SCIENCE is required, as all such knowledge is encapsulated in the software production method & tools.

Domain Engineering

If a project includes the development of domain/organisation-specific tools needed to develop the desired solution, then significant knowledge of type MOMO is required, and some knowledge of type SCIENCE may be required. Such projects are typically risky, and must be broken into separate domain engineering and application development streams to contain and incrementally eliminate the risks.

Such projects are only economically viable if the subject matter experts involved have been active participants in at least two prior software development efforts in the particular domain. Otherwise the available knowledge of type DOMAIN is insufficient for the development of domain/organisation-specific methods & tools.

Experimental Application Development

If knowledge of type DOMAIN is lacking, then the software development project is by definition based on trial-and error, and the approach must be highly agile in order to minimise waste. Luke Hohmann speaks about the need to burn the first one or two pancakes. Using science to improve such projects is impossible until the pancakes have been burnt.


If sufficient knowledge of type DOMAIN is available, then it can be combined with knowledge of type MOMO to develop optimal domain/ organisation-specific methods & tools.

The application of knowledge of type MOMO can be expressed mathematically, making use of set theory, group theory, model theory, and concepts from the theory of denotational semantics. These mathematical theories provide a solid foundation for domain engineering - which can be described as combining knowledge of type DOMAIN with knowledge of type MOMO.

Once domain engineering has been performed, application development only requires knowledge of type DOMAIN, and further domain "engineering" is only needed if the project runs into limitations of the domain/organisation-specific method & tools.

24 April 2010

The one methodology that works for all product development teams

... is unique, it is highly-context specific.

The conclusion that every product development organisation or project team should develop and follow a context-specific methodology is inescapable. The best we can do, is pay attention to deep context-specific knowledge, and to record this knowledge in modular methodology building blocks that are tied to a specific scope of applicability.

It is helpful to look at the value chain of an organisation from the perspective of a decision making process, and to think about the way in which decisions tend to be recorded, and the way in which decisions are implemented. This quickly leads to the familiar concept of a work product or artefact, and to the concepts of artefact producers and consumers.

In any non-trivial value chain there are roles and systems that produce template artefacts that are intended for completion by other roles and systems further downstream. A closer analysis of this observation leads to the conclusion that normal business operation encompasses a continuous extension and evolution of the organisational vocabulary. These vocabulary changes need to be fed back into the organisation's methodology; otherwise the methodology slowly but surely becomes less and less useful.

Distinguishing between software development and operational business is becoming more and more anachronistic. Many decisions are directly recorded in software, and they have a direct impact on the organisation and its operation.

Artefact producers routinely make the mistake of assuming that their work is done when an artefact has been handed over to downstream consumers. Communication and collaboration is never that simple.

The desired intent and the semantics of a vocabulary (and syntax)
 can only be aligned through 
extensive instantiation 
and semantic processing 
of example artefacts.

Any multi-step value chain directly leads to the need for a highly iterative product design and development process. The easier it is to
  1. define artefact templates,
  2. to instantiate artefacts,
  3. and to attach appropriate semantic processing,
the faster artefact producers and consumers are able to establish a shared understanding of the products that are being designed.

It is not uncommon for deep organisation-specific domain knowledge to be lacking. All knowledge regarding a particular process may for example be "encrypted" in programming languages, and none of the authors of the software may still be alive/available.

Attempting to reconstruct deep knowledge from old source code of a large software system can amount to economic suicide. Additionally, it is far from clear to what extent the encrypted decision making process (knowledge) is optimal or desirable in today's context. In this scenario organisations are desperate for a silver bullet methodology that can act as a substitute for lost knowledge.

Unfortunately the only medicine that can address the issue of lost or lacking knowledge head-on is a proper analysis of the context (value chain) in which the software must/should operate today.

The good news is that the required problem domain analysis techniques are available. The bad news is that there is no silver bullet that eliminates the need for having (or obtaining) an in-depth understanding of the value chain of an organisation.

26 March 2010

What Is Software?

It is interesting to see children grow up with the web and with software. Computers and hardware are becoming a non-topic. My 7-year-old son only cares about web access. His tools are Google, Wikipedia, and various other web sites. He knows more about Google's location based services than I do, and he rarely touches any of the hardware toys that earlier generations grew up with. The things that he produces on the computer are artefacts that involve several layers of pure software abstraction: emails, pictures, web sites, music, videos.

Ultimately humans will exchange less and less hardware goods or artefacts, and more and more software artefacts. And as we make software artefacts more intuitive and easy to use, it even makes sense to consider human face to face communication as a form of software - it's certainly not hardware. But the shift to the software-centric paradigm will only be complete once the users of the old hardware-centric paradigm have died out.

-- Jorn