Mercenary Analyst



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On one of his many journeys in the Appalachian Mountains, the itinerant folk song collector John Jacob Niles heard a woman singing a particularly beautiful song. He persuaded her to repeat the now-famous Christmas song, "I Wonder as I Wander," until he had learned it himself. He later said, "I never saw her again."


... you are assembling the roles for the organization. The organization exists in a context where external reviewers, customers, and internal developers expect to use project documentation to understand the system architecture and its internal workings. (User documentation is considered separately). Supporting a design notation, and the related project documentation, is too tedious a job for people directly contributing to product artifacts.

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Technical documentation is the dirty work every project must do. It's important to create — and, more so, to maintain — good documentation for subsequent use by the project itself. Who writes these documents?

If developers do their own documentation, it hampers "real" work. Meeting software deadlines means money to the organization; technical documentation is one of those things we tell ourselves can be deferred until there is time to do it. But "the time to do it" often never comes, and an organization without good internal technical documentation of its system has a serious handicap.

Documentation is often write-only.

Engineers often don't have good communication skills.

Many projects use tools like Rose to do design, that produce pretty pictures. A good picture is not necessarily a good design, and architects can become victims of the elegance of their own drawings (see the rationale below).

Therefore:

Hire a technical writer, proficient in the necessary domains, but without a stake in the design itself.
This person will capture the design using a suitable notation, and will format and publish the design for reviews and for consumption by the organization itself.

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The documentation itself should be maintained on-line where ever possible. It must be kept up-to-date (therefore, MercenaryAnalyst is a full-time job), and should relate to customer scenarios (ScenariosDefineProblem). Note, though, that all team members need to provide input to keep the documentation up to date. The Ad-HocCorrections pattern [BibRef-Weir1998] suggests that a master copy of the documentation be kept, and that team members write corrections in the margin. One team member is assigned to periodically update the document.

The success of this pattern depends on finding a suitably skilled agent to fill the role of mercenary analyst. If the pattern succeeds, the new context defines a project whose progress can be reviewed (the pattern StandUpMeeting) and monitored by community experts outside the project.

If the MercenaryAnalyst really is a "mercenary" who "rides into town, gets the early stuff documented, kisses his horse, saddles up his girl, and rides off into the sunset" (Paul Chisholm), then it's good to keep some of the expertise behind by combining MercenaryAnalyst with DevelopingInPairs.

This pattern is uncommon but empirically grounded and effective, found in Borland's Quattro Pro for Windows and many AT&T projects (a joint venture based in New Jersey, a formative organization in switching support, and others). It is difficult to find people with the skills to fill this role.

Rybczynski writes:

Here is another liability: beautiful drawings can become ends in themselves.
Often, if the drawing deceives, it is not only the viewer who is enchanted but also the maker,
who is the victim of his own artifice. Alberti understood this danger and pointed out that
architects should not try to imitate painters and produce lifelike drawings. The purpose of
architectural drawings, according to him, was merely to illustrate the relationship of the various
parts... Alberti understood, as many architects of today do not, that the rules of drawing
and the rules of building are not one and the same, and mastery of the former does not
ensure success in the latter. — [BibRef-Rybczynski1989, p. 121].

A passage from Manzoni's I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed [BibRef-Manzoni1984]) might amuse the MercenaryAnalyst.

The peasant who knows not how to write, and who needs to write, applies to one who knows that art, choosing as far as he can one of his own station, for with others he is hesitant, or a little untrusting. He informs him, with more or less clarity and orderliness, of who his ancestors were, and in the same manner tells him what to set down on paper. The literate person understands part and guesses at the rest, gives a few pieces of advice, suggests a few changes, and says "Leave it to me."
He picks up his pen, puts the other's thoughts as well as he can in literary form, corrects them, improves them, embellishes them, tones them down, or even omits them, according to how he thinks best, because — and there's nothing to be done about it--someone who knows better than others has no wish to be a mere tool in their hands, and when he is concerned with the business of others he wants it to go a little in his own way.

Richard Gabriel [BibRef-Gabriel1995] notes the following are important traits of this role:
  • good meeting facilitator
  • likes things organized
  • good attention to details
  • has written instructional material (for software)
  • has no ego to invest in the material being documented
  • very smart, highly educated (Ph.D. in literature from Cornell in my case)

In exceptional cases, the MercenaryAnalyst can actually take a stake in the design. Betsy Hanes Perry writes:

When I fill this role, I most definitely have a stake in the design: I want to make sure it's elegant, consistent, and clean. The architect has primary responsibility, of course, but I also suggest places in which the design conflicts with itself or may lead to future misunderstandings. As I see it, a software architecture is an idea. The designer/implementors are responsible for expressing that idea (or those ideas) as code; I express it/them as prose. Both are projections of the idea into a particular plane. When there's a conflict, the code is probably correct.
Many projects put faith in tools and notations such as UML to improve quality. But, as Betsy points out, the tool largely provides the forum and opportunity for a human being to engage in the processes and convey the insights that contribute to quality. For documentation to have added value as a quality tool, the documentation process must proceed in the spirit of this admonition.

Paul Chisholm offers the following about the history and rationale of MercenaryAnalyst:

MercenaryAnalyst came from two sources:
(1) Borland's Quattro Pro for Windows, which Cope's identified as the most productive software development organization he's ever seen (average 1000 delivered non-commentary source lines of C++ per staff week), in large part due to the fact that developers had people to write the development documentation for them).
Designer/coders have responsibilities that cannot be delegated. Some responsibilities, such as documentation, can be delegated. Besides, many excellent programmers and most average ones are less than stellar writers. (Richard [Gabriel] may disagree that this is the case, and will certainly disagree that this should be the case...
(2) A combination of two patterns. One, from Tony Hansen's group, is DisposableAnalysis: do analysis once, translate to design, throw away the analysis, keep only the design up to date with the code. The other is my observation that most CASE tools require significant experience in the method and the tool itself. If you have DisposableAnalysis (which few projects plan to do but many follow unintentionally), you should not develop local expertise in CASE tool operation.
It's bad enough learning Framemaker. CASE tools tend to have lousy user interfaces; it's a real pain to use them, or learn how to use them.
The "mercenary" in MercenaryAnalyst comes from the "hired gun" quality a MercenaryAnalyst might have; rides into town, gets the early stuff documented, kisses his horse, saddles up his girl, and rides off into the sunset. That's the DisposableAnalysis model, not the Borland Quattro Pro for Windows model!
Mercenary Analyst plays well with DevelopingInPairs.
Someone quoted by Jim Coplien wrote that "Mercenary Analyst is the professional technical writer who takes care of all the project diagrams and documentation so it doesn't get in the way of the architects."
Maybe not a "tech writer", and not "all the diagrams and documentation," but, yes, that's the idea.
What should be a MercenaryAnalyst's education? Mastery of his or her tools (e.g., word processor, CASE tool) beyond that of most users. Experience (perhaps expertise) in the "method" behind the documentation (e.g., an ObjecTime MercenaryAnalyst would have to know ROOM well, someone writing requirements would need systems engineering and/or software development experience).
What is the MercenaryAnalyst's motivation? To get the software (not the documentation) out faster!
How can one paint CASE diagrams without knowledge of software? I had some naive hope that a CASE tool MercenaryAnalyst could be a highly skilled clerk. I've given up on that. There may be some way of combining MercenaryAnalyst with DevelopingInPairs (or a variant for triples) to make MercenaryAnalyst some sort of entry-level or apprentice position.
Domain Knowledge. While knowledge of the domain is important for a project (DomainExpertiseInRoles) I don't think the MercenaryAnalyst needs it. (I hope not!)
Knowledge of software is important. Would you trust a driving instruction manual written by someone who'd never driven?