Picking the right tools and technologies

One thing that project managers almost get right is in spending time at the start of their project selecting the tools and technologies that they want to use. The only snag is that so many times they seem to get it completely wrong. What are they missing?

An illustrative anecdote: a project team was developing for an embedded system, written primarily in Ada, which was going to be compiled on a VAX system since the cross-compiler for the target hardware was only available there. All ten members shared a single VAX (remote terminal access from their Windows desktop) which was woefully underpowered for such a load. Each compile of even a small part of the system took many minutes; if you changed a public interface (Ada package specification) and needed to recompile the whole thing it would be half an hour. At least 50% of an active developer's day was spent waiting for compilations to complete. You could wipe out at least 30% of the remaining time due to the awkward VMS interface and primitive editor.

What was the alternative? The GNAT Ada compiler was freely available and ran just fine on Windows. It would compile the Ada 83 language just fine, and compile the development system in tens of seconds, not tens of minutes. Running on the desktop would allow any number of modern editors to be used (e.g. emacs, vim) which supported syntax colouring, better searching and revision control integration. Productivity would have doubled at a minimum. Once a system was passing all its tests on the PC, it could finally be cross-compiled and retested on the VAX. Ada is much better than C at preserving behaviour across different architectures so there would have been minimal changes required.

So what should the project manager look for in his tools and technologies?

  • Pick well-established development languages and supporting tools (e.g. database, httpd), ideally those that you or your team have already used for a successful project;
  • Choose the most recent version of a language or tool which has been in productive use for at least 6 months, not just the most recently released;
  • Plan for changing major versions of each language or tool at least once in the project lifecycle, e.g. Python 2.4 to Python 2.7, Postgres 8.4 to 9.x; have a very small number of places where this version change needs to be made;
Don't forget that the hardware on which you develop and test is also part of your tools:
  • Provide sufficient shared hardware to make life-like testing easy without developers or testers having to fight for resources;
  • Ensure that your company standard OS image already has the libraries and tools that you need for development and testing, and if they don't then establish immediately how you are going to get them added (and updated);
  • Know your hardware and software ordering process and lead times; you're going to need more than you initially expected, but won't yet know what (or have the figures to justify it)
  • Cost out one day of tester or developer non-productivity and one week of delivery slip and use this to justify your additional hardware / software requests

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