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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Two very poorly understood and appropriately staffed roles in software house

Many years ago, I met a young software engineer who was considering whether or not to take up a role as a software installation writer in a software company, which was classified in the top largest private software company of a country.

Since he was worried that it would be a mundane job with probably no future into development and to improve his knowledge in Windows, I had a long conversation with him pointing out the following key aspects:
  1. It is a role poorly understood and poorly rewarded by management
  2. It is a role that holds the make or break in the success of delivering a piece of software into customer's machine.
  3. Its creation is the first point of contact with the customer and the customer's positive or negative impression of the software largely influenced by this piece of software.
  4. The person needs more skill, thus my early comment on reward, than developers of the software, as he has to ensure he knows all the quarks and weird configurations out there. Often he has no way of knowing with precision. More importantly he needs skill to detect them to plan evasive actions. On top of that of course he also needs to be aware of the make up of the software he is installing, its requirement of OS support, its hardware/software dependency, if any.
  5. He also needs to know the right way to install the software and uninstall it cleanly and in such a way not violating the Windows security.
  6. He also needs to be a competent developer so that he can supplement the installer script. Often he needs to know C/C++ as often times, that is all he can rely upon in that very instance.
He was initially skeptical of my assertion because that was the general, and still is, trend but he did take the job. After a few years on this role, he agreed with me wholeheartedly. Over the years, I have observed the same misunderstanding being repeated time and time. The manager always thinks that it is a matter of pressing a few buttons in say InstallShield to crank out the installation package so simple that it can be given to the most junior staff. Sure, some simple application would only require simple installation package. But as the sophistication grows, such naive observation at time can prove fatal.

This is the first role that I have always maintained, a view formed from the trenches, that is extremely poorly understood and appreciated by management. I tip my hat to those installer script writers whose products flawlessly guided me through, particularly OS installer.

The second role is the Build Master. I have always thought of this but do not have the same strong convection as the Installation Writer. But the book "The Build Master - Microsoft's Software Configuration Management Best Practices" by Vincent Maraia, finally tips me over.

As Vincent says:
Many project and program managers think that the actual building of a project is a pretty trivial. Their attitude is that they can simply have the developer throw his code over the wall and hire someone to press a Build button, and everything will be fine.
I recommend that you consider the build process a piece of software that you regularly revise and deploy throughout your product team.
Many projects that I have worked on or reviewed do not even have an automated project build process. Different parts of the project are built in various machines in ways no one knows what settings are used. How can such ad hoc and haphazard arrangement manages to produce consistent and reliable product? It is just sheer luck.

Once again, management, as Vincent said in his book, does not understand the skill and reason for the Build Master.

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