Sunday, July 2, 2017

Category Theory and Corporate Culture

A mediocre poet once wrote

    Imagine me at 
             my age looking for 
    a job. Strangely exciting.

A sudden end to a contract - less than a week's notice, probably because the manager I reported to suddenly resigned.

Like a kid whose parents are divorcing, I ask myself if it's my fault.

It's not, really.

I was hired to help automate an operations support system for a communications infrastructure provider. Working alongside a developer (DW) whose assignment was to develop "automations" using a commercial application I'll call Grit (not its real name), it became clear to me that Grit's promise of easy development (even by non-programmers) was absurd. The "development environment" lacked basic amenities like unit testing and source control. Operations support in an industry like this requires a realtime event-driven system, but both Grit and the surrounding software environment were heavily batch- and file-oriented and required human involvement and slow manual workflows.

My coworker was so unhappy with the tools he was tempted to walk. I suggested we come up with a plan for a true realtime system based on microservices. We brought this to our manager (SN) who, in spite of not having software development experience, quickly understood what we were driving at.

DW has had a lot of experience with operations support and with web infrastructure. He provided the expertise that allowed me to concentrate on applying what I had learned in years of object-oriented development and reading up on functional programming and category theory. Furthermore, he supplied a perspective on system and application monitoring that my test-driven approach to development really needed. And he set up our "disjunct" development environment.

Due to some cultural issues with security, our Windows laptops were so locked down that we could not change even the most trivial settings in our browsers, and all software could only be installed from an approved list after a long drawn-out request process. There was no way we could do modern software development in that environment.

Thanks to the loan of a server from a middle manager, we were able to set up an IDE (Intellij IDEA Community Version) and access it through SecureCrt and XServer.  (Since we would sometimes lose connection to the server, IDEA was a safer choice than Eclipse because files are always being saved in the background by default.)

We successfully implemented the first phase of the framework, based on a fractal view of systems as consisting of total functions, dependent types and hexagonal architecture. The second phase would involve organizing the functions around models-as-types.

We couldn't put our code into production without official approval for the (extremely popular and well-tested) open source libraries we were using. This was another sign of the cultural chasm: there was no provision for software development because, as we were actually told at one point, "this company doesn't do software development."

In subsequent posts, I'll spell out the organization of the framework as it evolved and how I was able to bring some of the mathematical power of category theory and functional programming to the practical tasks of implementing an evolutionary development process that allowed for the maximum leverage of the batch/file/cmdline-based legacy systems we would have to communicate with - and perhaps eventually disintermediate, applying a more efficient variant of the Strangler pattern.

For now, assessing the matter of responsibility for what appears to be the end of that framework and that team, I have to blame myself because my background in anthropology and linguistics made me the only person who might have had a chance of understanding the cultural mechanisms that underlie Conway's Law.

But I don't blame myself much, because our team was doing some pretty serious development work, and DW, SN and our rookie developer JS were reasonably clear on the concepts. The cultural problems were operating at a "higher" level. Yes, if I knew at the beginning what I knew now, I might have been able to do something about the cultural problem.

But hey - I'm not a $500-an-hour consultant with all the flashy creds.  Just a developer with too many years of experience.