In app development, the Web is life in the fast lane

Walter R. Houser

I have seen a remarkable transformation in technology and applications development over the three decades of my career.

Just as amazing is the persistence of many of the problems and challenges, no matter which technical era. This was driven home to me recently when I lectured a summer class at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Students were studying the technology of the Web. My topic was managing Web applications development. My purpose was to explore the applicability to the Web of various software engineering techniques.

The class was a mix of youth and experience. Some were youngsters just beginning their careers, others were seasoned data processing professionals moving into new technology.

As I recall, all the students worked full time, although not necessarily in their chosen fields.

I began with a survey of different architectures and development platforms: mainframe, standalone PC, client-server over a LAN, and the Internet and Web.

The students had written applications for all of these environments, so the class had a lot of experience to draw on for discussion.

Next I reviewed the software engineering models. The experienced students were fairly knowledgeable in the traditional approaches. They described lifecycle development, the waterfall model, the spiral model, prototyping and rapid applications development. Their younger colleagues looked on, engrossed.

We discussed how each method has been applied to the four development architectures. The more recent models were designed to deal with the communications problems and long coding time required by the waterfall model. The term refers to setting requirements, then serially going through the steps to deployment. Lengthy development projects can incur big indirect costs and even bigger lost-opportunity costs. After all, the sooner you can field an application, the sooner you can demonstrate the promise of lower costs or better service to the citizen.

Even worse than the time required for waterfall development is the high probability that the application will never be deployed. The waterfall method is punctuated by a series of analytical documents that are difficult for program personnel to absorb. They like to touch and feel, not read complicated treatises written in a foreign language.

The problems of communication and delay are challenges for all architectures but are even more acute for Web applications. The entire history of the Web is shorter than many waterfall projects. The Web has collapsed development time frames from years to months, sometimes weeks.

The traditional approach also requires separating systems analysis from programming.

This distinction arose from the different skills and personalities needed for these two disciplines. In systems analysis, one interviews and interacts with customers and system users. Programming requires an in-depth understanding of hardware and software, and the ability and patience to debug programs.

Information technology shops found that customers often did not communicate well with the nerdy programmers who had a reputation for being eccentric and cantankerous.

At one time, agencies and companies recruited analysts from the ranks of the more socially acceptable programmers, but soon the field achieved a separate academic curriculum and career path.

Write now

The Web has strained this distinction as well. Customers want immediate results and won't wait for systems analysts to write what they would rather not write, the documentation their training requires of them.

For successful Web projects, relationships among programmers, owners and users have to be more intimate and informal.

Documentation is still important but usually occurs in exchanges of messages on an e-mail discussion list. Many of the traditional methods can be used, but not without some adaptation.

The Web has intensified the demand for rapid growth, pressuring developers and customers to find ways to cut time and effort and meet increasingly tight deadlines. The more the technology changes, the more IT professionals will concentrate on the timely delivery of products that satisfy customers.

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at


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