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Agile Computing: Article

The Future of Software Development

How software developers can stay current while staying sane

"Technology makes it possible for people to gain control over almost everything, except technology." - John Tudor

As software developers, our mission is to deliver positive, technology-based solutions - software that provides both the means and the method for working faster, performing better, achieving more. There is little doubt that the technologies we create provide users with the control and functionality needed to be more efficient and productive. However, what happens when the tools we use to produce these solutions get out of control?

Evolution in the technology ecosystem has accelerated to the speed of light - blink and you may miss something important. The software development landscape has mushroomed with near-exponential growth; new products and innovations are flooding the market on a daily basis. It begs the question: does this swift evolutionary pace represent a positive stage in the maturation of software development or are we moving too quickly for our own good? What does the future of software hold for us? It is an open question that can only be answered with time.

All of this warp-speed evolution and growth means that today's world of software development is bigger and far more complex than at any time. With the sheer volume of diverse technologies and products hitting the market, compounded by truncated beta-to-release delivery cycles, it is all too easy for developers to become overwhelmed and feel as if they're falling behind. In the Microsoft space alone, there are hundreds of emerging technologies regularly being released to market. However, this rapid evolution and explosive technology proliferation isn't limited to any one market segment. Rather, it's endemic to software development as a whole - and represents a mounting challenge that must be addressed if developers want to maintain a base of knowledge that is current and timely.

How can software developers keep apace of relevant new developments without becoming buried beneath an avalanche of information about superfluous tools and technologies that are only marginally related or beneficial to their own projects? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and really zero in on those technologies that are truly important and valuable? While there's no simple answer to this riddle, one method that may prove useful is staying on PAR: Proactive, Abstraction, Refinement.

Going Proactive: The Waiting Game Is a Losing Game
In the early days of .NET development - the "good ol' days," so to speak - new tools and technologies were released at a relatively disciplined pace. During those first six to eight years, developers benefited from new releases and updates being brought to market at reasonable intervals. It was not only possible, but a logical, intelligent choice for software developers to take an extended amount of time to research, review, evaluate, and perform a hands-on trial of these technologies in order to accurately determine whether they were relevant to either project or individual goals. On rare occasions, this process would begin with technology betas but more often than not, teams could afford to wait for release candidates or near-final software before conducting their evaluations. In other words, the waiting game was one that paid off in the long run.

Fast-forward to today: the waiting game has become a losing game. Technology is now moving along at a much faster pace than it was a mere decade ago. The shifting software landscape touches a far broader spectrum of technologies - enterprise, Web, cloud, and mobile, for example - than ever before, resulting in an increasingly wider cross-platform, cross-technology software footprint. Yet though this swift acceleration of evolution and expansion might be unsettling to some, the pace is appropriate for the scenarios and world that we as developers, must serve.

The last two to three years has seen a rapid acceleration in the introduction of new technologies and updates - beta-to-release-candidate cycles are now compressed so that it often feels as if new technologies are being introduced every month. For the average .NET developer, this means the luxury of time has evaporated; sitting by the sidelines, just waiting for updates and new technologies to come along is a sure path to obsolescence.

Software developers who want to avoid the obsolescence trap must become more proactive. In practical terms, this means breaking free of the conventional "wait-and-see" mentality, and instead reaching out to embrace coming change: identifying which emerging technologies, irrespective of the buzz factor, best serve current and future project needs, actively seeking out the latest demos and information from experts and project teams, and engaging in the discussion before the final release hits the market. Success is based on one's ability to be nimble and adapt quickly to evolving conditions. Software developers willing to make the effort necessary to become more proactive will find themselves well equipped to not just survive but to thrive in the rapidly shifting technology ecosystem.

The Art of Abstraction
Being proactive rather than reactive is a critical element for success in the modern-day world of software development, yet, it also poses a formidable challenge; out of the multitudes of new technologies hitting the market, how do you decide which to pursue? How do you determine which ones will be viable and evergreen, and which will fall by the wayside? As it is virtually impossible to predict which technologies will establish themselves as indispensible, developers often find themselves under increasing pressure to adopt a "learn everything" strategy. However, becoming a "jack of all trades, master of none" can be just as detrimental to success as sitting by the sidelines and waiting for the dust to settle.

As developers are generally not blessed with a crystal ball and its predictive abilities, an alternate method for preparing for a successful future is needed. The art of abstraction - reducing and factoring out specific details and minutiae in order to focus on critical concepts - is just such a method. By adding a layer of abstraction between themselves and the shifting technology environment, developers can effectively select, gain a broad understanding of, and manage a wider variety of relevant technologies without feeling as if they're being forced to fully learn every new niche technology that comes along.

Software developers can achieve the level of abstraction that best suits their individual situation in any number of ways. For example:

  • Identify someone who can act as a technology expert - such as project or team leader, or industry analyst - and provide a learned, level-headed, and objective view of a given technology. After identifying an expert, take the time needed to really get to know the person. Much like vetting a vital service provider like an accountant, attorney, or even an auto mechanic, it's critical to validate the veracity of any expert opinion.
  • If finding and identifying an expert is impractical or impossible, find a vendor that is trustworthy, one who has demonstrated its worth in the past. It's less risky to bet on a company with proven, dependable technologies delivering added value than on a new, not yet proven technology.
  • Leverage the power of abstraction tools, like Object Relational Mapping (ORM) suites. With their unique ability to act as an equalizer of sorts - allowing software developers to work effectively within multiple diverse environments without requiring specialized knowledge of each database system - ORMs are an efficient and effective means of capitalizing on emerging technologies without requiring learning from the bottom-up.

No matter how it is accomplished, applying the art of abstraction within the development environment enables developers to insulate themselves from the turbulence and volatility of the shifting software landscape.

Refined Vision: Seeing the Forest for the Trees
Like that old adage "you can't see the forest for the trees," when faced with a veritable torrent of new technologies, it can be extraordinarily difficult for software developers to clearly see the whole picture as it relates to their situation - which new innovations may have a material impact on existing or future projects, and which technologies are on the verge of obsolescence and the annals of computer history. Having this clearer view is essential to both individual developers and development teams as a whole, if they want to succeed. Achieving a more focused view requires a bit of filtering; however, it also makes it possible to see the forest despite the trees.

Refined vision doesn't necessarily mean putting on blinders or selecting just one or two technologies to follow. Despite the grandstanding of various technology pundits, there is no single absolute set of technologies that every software developer must learn in order to be successful. It is true, however, that there are definitely right and wrong tools and technologies that should be learned for specific scenarios; determining which technologies are the best fit is the first step in the refinement process.

Performing a thorough evaluation of the unique needs of a particular development environment enables individual software developers and development teams to identify current and near-future project needs. Armed with a better understanding of project needs in turn facilitates the filtering process - the location and pursuit of those relevant technologies that deliver the greatest added value, while ignoring the "new toy" buzz surrounding technologies that will have little or no bearing. Getting your feet wet and learning more about a new technology than just its name means spending a few evenings becoming familiar with it through in-depth research, hands-on interaction with demos, and engagement with experts in the space. By refining their vision, software developers can identify which new technologies should be added to their short-list, thereby keeping their skill set up-to-date and fresh.

The Future of Software Development
There is no end in sight to the deluge of new technologies being delivered to market, making it fundamentally impossible to accurately predict the future of software development. What can be predicted, however, is the continued mounting pressure on developers to readily accept and quickly adapt to accelerated technology evolution cycles. If there is any one concept or idea that software developers must absolutely comprehend, it is this: it really is okay not to know it all. In truth, software developers should be less concerned about knowing the ins and outs of every new niche technology and more with figuring out what is best for their own development practices and environment in order to remain nimble enough to adapt to quickly evolving conditions. With genuine understanding of this concept, developers will find that it is truly possible to keep their skills current while keeping their sanity intact.

More Stories By Todd Anglin

Todd Anglin is Chief Evangelist for Telerik, a leading vendor of development, automated testing, and team productivity tools, as well as UI components for Microsoft .NET. Before joining Telerik, he worked for a large Fortune 200 financial services company IT shop where he learned the way of the “Enterprise” – big budgets, big projects, legacy systems, and incessant measurement. He now leverages this Enterprise experience to help Telerik make tools that make the lives of all developers as easy as possible. Todd is an active author and speaker in the .NET community, focusing on web development technologies, a Microsoft MVP, founder and President of the North Houston .NET Users Group, and an O'Reilly author.

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