Archive for May, 2008

Magic Button Syndrome

If there’s one concept I’ve fought my entire career it’s that there can be, or even should be, a way to make everything work “automagically”, a term the afflicted developers use lovingly. I recently christened this the “Magic Button Syndrome”.

Usually a bunch of fairly smart developers sit in a room and start dreaming of how a system might work. “We have to make sure we can easily modify the configuration,” one might say. “We should have a means to generate the configuration based on some other configuration file,” another might respond. “Let’s use annotations to make sure that the configurations stay in sync across versions,” someone else might suggest. Yet another person might think it’d be wonderfully cool if you could auto-inject annotations somehow.

Their triumphant moment comes when the CTO is standing over their shoulder screaming about something that needs to be fixed ASAP and they nonchallantly say, “Oh, I can fix that, one second.” They turn to their machines dramatically, edit one or two lines somewhere, smack the return key, twiddle their thumbs, reload the page, and then smile. “No big deal,” they’ll say with a smirk on their face. That’s it. That’s what they live for. They want that one Magic Button moment.

It sounds foolish, but there are plenty of developers like that out there. For these people, it makes perfect sense that if you can automate something little, automating something bigger containing tons of moving parts must be even better. Eventually the automation will reach singularity in the Magic Button.

The problem is that automation suffers from the same law of diminishing returns as does traveling at the speed of light. It takes an infinite amount of energy to accelerate a particle with any mass to the speed of light. In the same way, it takes an infinite amount of energy to create that Magic Button. Not that it stops people from trying. Sure, changing one of the thousands of options that are contained in a config file or database is easy. But if you’ve worked on systems like these you know that doing anything outside of the realm of what the system was designed to do is absolutely, unbearably painful. That Magic Button hides layers of abstraction upon abstraction upon abstraction. Just when you begin to understand what a peice of code does you realize you forgot what code is calling it. In the effort to make something of uber-value, no single component makes any sense.

You find it takes people months to really understand the system. Changes take weeks to test, and lead to reprecussions that no one really ever expected. Once all the original developers are gone everyone starts to realize the system needs to be redesigned. It’s become like the pyramids – beautiful, absolutely brilliantly designed, but a total mystery. This time we’ll do it differently. In Ruby maybe. And auto generate all the documentation using XML…