Case Study

Here is an example of the detailed development of a simple project, using the approach I generally suggest for developing a program.

This approach is based on a spiral programming model, which I find to be easy and gets away from the "I have no idea where to start" problem many students (and others) have when starting almost any kind of project.

This project uses the Java programming language, but the approach can be applied to pretty much any language.

An Approach using a version of Spiral Development:

Problem statement A textual description of the general purpose of this problem.
Requirements analysis Clarify any outstanding issues, such as exactly what the input and output should look like, and how the code should behave when confronted with unexpected input.
Checklist We will use a checklist to make sure none of the requirements fall through the cracks. This list may be modified over the course of the project.
User’s guide How to start this program, what the user should expect it to do, and how to interact with it.
Consider that the "users" might be a variety of end users as well as other programmers!
Perhaps pluralize this: Users' Guides - one for each class of users.
Test plan An evolving document with exact input specifications and expected output.
Design Overall approach. As we progress in our study of Java, we will add considerably to this part of the documentation.
Coding plan The model we will follow is called an “evolutionary” or “spiral” development process.
This model works by making many small steps, each of which can be compiled and tested.
After each test, the programmer should evaluate all of the conceptual steps to this point:
  • requirements analysis,
  • user's guide,
  • test plan, and
  • design
to make sure they are still appropriate.
Final evaluation When we think that the code and all of the documentation meet the problem requirements, we are ready to do a final evaluation of the product against the check list.



A newly hired back-end developer asked for 2 weeks to build a REST API which reads data from MongoDB and returns a JSON response. Is that too long?

Shaun Case, 17 years as an embedded Computer Engineer making video hardware.

I’m going to give full credit to the developer for his or her answer. Any estimate from a software developer of “two weeks” should be a huge red flag. It almost always means one of both of:

  1. There isn’t enough information to be able to give any sort of accurate estimate. The task might take an hour, it might take a month… so split the difference, and you get two weeks.
  2. The scope of the task is too broad. Any task with a scope of two weeks should be broken down into smaller tasks. This allows you to see which task is the biggest (and therefore in the dev’s mind, the riskiest), and more importantly allows you to gauge progress in intervals of days rather than weeks so if something is wrong, you can tell sooner and make needed course corrections.

Devs sometimes forget that non-developers aren’t familiar with developer in-jokes and culture and, some might say, passive-aggressive (but highly effective) strategies for dealing with project managers who don’t have the same expertise, or who would be overwhelmed by or have no interest in the details about why properly developed software takes as long as it does.

In this case, the dance is choreographed to work this way:

You: How long will it take you to build a REST API which reads data from MongoDB and returns a JSON response?

Dev: Um. Two weeks? (Note question mark, meaning “care to dance?”)

You: That seems a little long. Can you break it down into smaller tasks for me?

Dev: Ah, sure. I can do that, but I’ll need a little more detail. Can you find out for me how many records there are in the database, if the query results contain text, and if so is the output to be UTF-8 or something else? Also what programming language will be used, and what is the maximum number of records that will need to come back in a single response? And oh, are there any performance requirements, including how many simultaneous queries does the REST API need to be able to serve? And what restrictions are there, if any, on caching of results?

You: Oh. Ok.

<Time passes>

You: Here is the info you wanted.

Dev: Cool. Ok. This doesn’t look too bad. I can have the basic infrastructure done including the conversion from UTF-8 to UTF-16 in a day or two, which will allow the other development to proceed, but it will probably take a week or so to support, test and debug scaling up meet these performance requirements. And that will require… (list of requirements and dependencies).

In short, when you ask a dev for an estimate and you get “two weeks” that normally means there isn’t enough info to answer, and built into the two weeks are at least a couple of days of figuring out exactly what it is that is supposed to be done, and how… and hopefully enough time to actually accomplish the task, whatever it turns out to be.

By: Nicholas Duchon, Jan 5, 2018