Understanding the Problem is the Hardest Part of Any Software Project

confusion-311388_640It doesn’t matter what piece of software you’re building, the key to success lies in having a deep understanding  of the problem you are aiming to solve.  It’s so common to for a project to get well underway before the problem domain is fully understood. It’s a natural thing to happen.

When a client comes to you with an idea for software, we usually begin by talking about their idea in terms of our technical minds. When they’re explaining whatever requirements they’ve put together, our wheels start spinning with how we’re going to architect our solution, or what how we’re going to design this feature or that. Before we know it, we fire up our IDE of choice and start hammering out our solution.

Before long, we begin to run into scenarios that we’re not sure of what the right answer is. At this point, we are left with a choice: get the answers to the questions we have to better understand the problem, or make assumptions about what is probably the right answer, and keep being productive. The misunderstanding is that breaking stride to get a better understanding of the problem is not productive. When we do this, we’ve already set ourselves up to fail. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to fail, but there will be pain. As we jump to implementation, we are giving up great opportunities to dive deep into the problem domain. By taking the time to dive into the problem domain, not only are we still productive, but we’re actually more productive in the long run as we will inevitably be more accurate in our solution, requiring much less rework.

So how do we dive deep into understanding the problem domain? The short answer is to ask questions. But it’s not just asking questions, it’s asking the right questions.

The end user is your greatest asset. The key to understanding the problem is to understand how the end user works and how the product fits into how they work. Get the end user talking and keep them talking by asking “What else?” and “Tell me more about _____”.

Understand the business domain. Your technical domain should match your user’s business domain. When you begin introducing technical terms to a user’s vocabulary, you are attempting to change the way they work. Instead you should be aiming to avoid technical terms that have no place in the business domain.

Understanding the problem domain is both hardest and most important aspect to developing any piece of software. I like to never assume that I know enough about the business domain to make assumptions about it. It’s always a better use of time to get the answers to questions as they come up than making assumptions and continuing down the wrong path.

Migrating a Project from Database First to Code First

Overview

So you just pushed you application to production and used Microsoft’s new shiny ORM. It’s 2008 and you’re on the bleeding edge of .NET technology by implementing Entity Framework. Your EDMX paired with your database project keeps your project nice and organized in source control. Great Job. But fast forward to today, and Entity Framework Code First is all the rage. What do you do with that aging database first design along with that EDMX in all it’s glory ? Nuke it. You don’t need it anymore.

I sure hope you didn’t just blindly nuke it and check in. We still do need that EDMX for a bit, but not for long. We’re going to walk through the process of converting your old busted to the new hotness of Entity Framework Code first.

Migrations are you friend, but not like the kind you leave alone home with your significant other. Be sure to use them, but I highly recommend turning off automatic migrations. Anything that has that much blind control of your app should be something that you should VERY carefully consider before turning on.

Note: This process assumes you are using the Database First approach, and not the Model First Approach. If you use the model-first approach, you will have some leg work to do in order to determine what your EDMX might be doing that cannot be reverse engineered from the database.

Disclaimer: This is a fairly significant change you will be making to your project, so make sure that you plan for the regression testing of everything.

Now, let’s get on with it:

Step 1 : Generate your Context, Entities, and Mapping Files

Microsoft has released a visual studio plugin () that will generate POCOs and a context based on an EDMX. This will save you a whole lot of time. Head on over here, and install this plugin.

Once installed, move over to you project, and right click your Project File. There should now be a context menu item, Entity Framework, Select That, and then Reverse Engineer Code First.

generate_views

Select the database you would like to use to base the reverse engineer process to be based on.

generate_diag1

Once you click OK, a folder will be created in your project called Models that contains your new Context, Entities, and Fluent mapping configurations.

generated_files

Step 2: Remove old context, and update the project to use the new context.

Now that you have created all of your new entities and context, the old one can be removed. Delete the EDMX and all associated files (context.tt, etc).

Step 3: Enable Migrations

As I mentioned before, we are NOT enabling automatic migrations. We are only enabling migrations. This means that we will manually create migrations by using the add-migration syntax in the Package Manager Console.

In the Package Manager Console, Make sure that you set the Default Project to the project that contains your context. Then enter the command Enable-Migrations

enable_migrations

You will notice that a Migrations folder has been created with a Configuration.cs file.  In the Configuration.cs file, make sure Automatic Migrations is set to false.

Step 4: Create and Set Database Initializer

Create a new class called MyDbInitialzier

using System.Data.Entity;
using MyProject.Data.DataAccess.Migrations;

namespace MyProject.Data.DataAccess.EntityFramework
{
    internal sealed class MyDbInitializer : MigrateDatabaseToLatestVersion<MyDbContext, Configuration>
    {
    }
}

You will notice that I the initializer calss inherits from the MigrateDatabaseToLatestVersion class.  It is likely that this is the Initializer behavior that you will want to use if you have an existing database already in production.  If you have special circumstances, be sure to review all of the default initializers and/or look into building a custom initializer.

Step 5: Implement the new Context

You will want to crack open you web config and replace the old connection string (The one with all of the metadata stuff, with a new connection string.  The new connection string should look like any old ADO.NET connection string.

You will now want to replace the references to the old context with the new one. (Shortcut: you could just rename the new one to match the old one’s name).

Note: You may encounter a bit of a gotcha here.  Since the new context is of type DbContext and the old one was of type ObjectContext, you may find that some the compiler is complaining about some things.  The DbContext is kind of a wrapper for the object context that is meant to be lighter weight, there are things you may be using that are not supported by the db context.  You will want to research any of these issues that come up to see if the DbContext can support them. If all else fails, the DbContext can be cast to the ObjectContext if you absolutely need it.  (This will result in a performance hit, so use wisely).  The syntax for getting the ObjectContext from a DbContext is:

public class MyContext: DbContext
{
    public ObjectContext ObjectContext()
    {
        return (this as IObjectContextAdapter).ObjectContext;
    }
}
Step 6: Create Your Initial Migration

If we tried to run the project right now, the application would encounter an error letting you know that there are pending changes that need to be included in a migration before the application can proceed.  We are going to create our initial migration. In the Package Manager Console, enter the command Add-Migration initial

add_migration_initial

In your Migrations folder, a file should have been created: YYYYYYDDHHMMSSS_initial.cs. This should be a total representation of your entire existing database.

EF keeps track of changes to the data model updating a table in your database called __MigrationHistory (in SystemTables) Since your database is existing already, you do not have this table in your database, so when this migration goes to run, it will attempt to re-create all of the objects in your database. This is bad, and we dont want that.  We can use this trick to tell EF to not re-create all of the objects when it attempts to run this migration.  In your initial migration class, comment out all of the code in the Up method.  That’s it, that’s the whole trick.

public partial class initial : DbMigration
 {
    public override void Up()
    {
        // Commented Code Here
    }
}
Step 7: Update the Database

Now is the time to update your database.  In the package manager console, enter the command, Update-Database.

udpate-database

This will create the __MigrationHistory table and will record that it ran this initial migration, so moving forward it will view your database as ‘up to date’ with your data model. (If you want to create the database from scratch using code first from now on, you will need to uncomment this migration.  It can safely be uncommented after it updates the existing database).

That’s it.  You should now be able to run your project. Now you need to regression test everything really well.

Conclusion

By following these steps you should now be fully running on Code First with Migrations.  Happy Coding!

I’m not a phony, and neither are you

Awhile back I read a blog post titled, “I’m a Phony, Are you?” by Scott Hanselman. If you’re reading this blog, you are probably well aware of who Scott Hanselman is. But, for those who are unfamiliar, Scott is basically the definition of Rock Star Programmer. I really respect his opinions, and try to follow his advice when he gives it.  But he’s a phony!?

After reading his post, something felt a little… off about it. How could someone who has achieved celebrity status in the IT world describe himself as a fake? What does that say about me? or you? I’ll tell you, my initial reaction to this was: “Well then, I should just quit now.” If someone who I view as so totally better than me is a phony, then I’m clearly not cut out for this.

Now, when we dive a little deeper into his message. He’s not calling himself a phony in general, he explains that he gets into situations that put him in over his head. The feeling of I have no idea what I’m doing here, but I’m doing it anyway is what makes us feel dirty. We are the experts here, were getting paid to know this.  I’m taking their money and I’m just ‘winging it’?  That makes me a phony.

Ok, so I can see where he’s coming from here and I can see how this makes us feel bad. It seems like people in the IT industry get down on themselves when they realize that they don’t know EVERYTHING about something. Scott, explains how this feeling helps motivate him and I think this quote sums up what I think is wrong with this line of thinking.

I use insecurity as a motivator to achieve and continue teaching.

If that works for him, great, but I don’t think that feelings of inadequacy should be a motivator for anyone on a regular basis. One thing that people in our industry should understand is that they aren’t going to know everything about everything, it’s just not going to happen. More importantly, we’re not hired because we know everything about everything. We’re hired to do a job, and our ability to deliver on that is what makes us what we are. Do the people you work with or hire you care that you googled how to do something? No, they care that you delivered what you said you would when you said you would. Your ability to adapt to new situations and apply new concepts is what makes you valuable.

‘I don’t know’ is an acceptable answer

I think the root of this entire problem boils down to the fact that people are afraid to say “I don’t know”. It’s OK to not know something. It’s what you do after recognizing that you don’t know something that makes the difference. How quickly can you move from’ I don’t know’ to ‘I do know’?

Continuous learning and adaptability are the most important things when it comes to building software. Our industry, tools, methodologies, problems, and goals change constantly. Adapting to these challenging and ever changing demands is where we should be building confidence in ourselves, not making ourselves feel inadequate because we aren’t already familiar with the new conditions.

I realize that Scott’s being a phony claim is probably supposed to be Tongue in Cheek and a bit embellished, but I do think that people in our Industry do suffer from Impostor Syndrome and they shouldn’t. Scott is not a phony. I’m not a phony.  Neither are you. If you set clear expectations and meet them, you are doing what you’re supposed to.