Both Inane And Insane
Let’s start this post off by setting some context. What I’m about to spout concerns the development of large, complex, software systems – not mobile apps or personal web sites. So, let’s rock!
The UML class diagram below depicts a taxonomy of methods for representing and communicating system requirements.
On the left side of the diagram, we have the traditional methods: expressing requirements as system capabilities/functions/”shalls”. On the right side of the diagram, we have the relatively newer artifacts: use cases and user stories.
When recording requirements for a system you’re going to attempt to build, you can choose a combination of methods as you (or your process police) see fit. In the agile world, the preferred method (as evidenced by 100% of the literature) is to exclusively employ fine-grained user stories – classifying all the other, more abstract, overarching, methods as YAGNI or BRUF.
As the following enhanced diagram shows, whichever method you choose to predominantly start recording and communicating requirements to yourself and others, at least some of the artifacts will be inter-coupled. For example, if you choose to start specifying your system as a set of logically cohesive capabilities, then those capabilities will be coupled to some extent – regardless of whether you consciously try to discover and expose those dependencies or not. After all, an operational system is a collection of interacting parts – not a bag of independent parts.
Let’s further enhance our class diagram to progressively connect the levels of granularity as follows:
If you start specifying your system as a set of coarse-grained, interacting capabilities, it may be difficult to translate those capabilities directly into code components, packages, and/or classes. Thus, you may want to close the requirements-to-code intellectual gap by thoughtfully decomposing each capability into a set of logically cohesive, but loosely coupled, functions. If that doesn’t bridge the gap to your liking, then you may choose to decompose each function further into a finer set of logically cohesive, but loosely coupled, “shall” statements. The tradeoff is time upfront for time out back:
- Capabilities -> Source Code
- Use Cases – > Source Code
- Capabilities -> Functions -> Source Code
- Use Case -> User Story -> Source Code
- Capabilities -> Functions -> “Shalls” -> Source Code
Note that, taken literally, the last bullet implies that you don’t start writing ANY code until you’ve completed the full, two step, capabilities-to-“shalls” decomposition. Well, that’s a croc o’ crap. You can, and should, start writing code as soon as you understand a capability and/or function well enough so that you can confidently cut at least some skeletal code. Any process that prohibits writing a single line of code until all the i’s are dotted and all the t’s are crossed and five “approval” signatures are secured is, as everyone (not just the agile community) knows, both inane and insane.
Of course, simple projects don’t need no stinkin’ multi-step progression toward source code. They can bypass the Capability, Function, and Use Case levels of abstraction entirely and employ only fine grained “shalls” or User Stories as the method of specification.
On the simplest of projects, you can even go directly from thoughts in your head to code:
The purpose of this post is to assert that there is no one and only “right” path in moving from requirements to code. The “heaviness” of the path you decide to take should match the size, criticality, and complexity of the system you’ll be building. The more the mismatch, the more the waste of time and effort.