Don’t be the Frog!

Ever hear the muse about the frog and the boiling water?

I use it to describe the behavior where we innocently allow otherwise really odd things to happen to software products over time. “Oh, it’s been like that for 10 years!” It is never a single, discreet moment in time; instead it kind of “sneaks up” on you if you are not paying attention.

For example:

  • Code that is hard to unit test without bringing in all sorts of dependencies (even mocking barely helps)
  • That javascript error that happens in (unsupported) Firefox, but not in (supported) IE or Chrome
    • Instead of being more compatible with all modern browsers via a simpler and more consistent UI framework.
  • Context menus (right-click) that have everything but the kitchen sink in them
    • Instead of more clearly articulating the commonly-used vs the rare menu choices
  • A UI that nearly defies Cucumber/Capybara testing
  • A “Save As” dialog that also offers up to the user the ability to control the next landing page, to deactivate the item, to create a new item under a new parent, and to generate the PDFs for the item All under Save As!
    • Instead of making the UX more clear and solving the real problem: undesirable workflow.
    • We have Save. We have Save As. But wait! There’s more! You can Save As, give a new name, and choose from 3 different pages to go to next!

I often think it stems from a few common shortfalls:

  • The real problem was not solved, but simply masked
  • Complexity begets more complexity
  • The domain is not understood, so incompatible fixes are tacked on in the wrong spots
  • We didn’t have time to do it right, so we just got something that would work shipped
  • The customer(s) wanted it built like this
  • There is no overriding vision for the type of user experience we want to convey
  • There is no hard-ass product owner putting their foot down

Don’t let this discourage you if you are still outside the pot looking in at friends and colleagues who are in the hot water. It’s an opportunity to improve, clean up, straighten things out, and start anew.

Don’t be the frog!



Best way to Learn Authentication?

This was a question posed on the Rails Studio mailing list…

My initial reply to a suggestion to check out Railscasts was…

And then, once you are happy with your learning, throw away all of your Auth code and get the Devise gem loaded and working 🙂

To which, the OP replied:

Hmm, I would think your own custom solution would always be smoother than using someone else’s code. Why use Devise?

Here is my reply:

One day, in a galaxy far away, I needed to have millisecond resolution timing on the PC to do some reaction time experiments with subjects as they were exposed to various shapes and colors (eventually used to improve HUD symbology for fighter aircraft display). Since the computer timer chip could only get down to 54ms, I was on the prowl for a better way. Lo and behold, I found some assembly code techniques I could use to over clock the timer chip. Problem solved. I hated writing assembly code… But I had to. Must. Not. Be. Blocked.

Product went into production, and was used by the researchers…

A month or two later, I found an awesome timer package for $50. It did what I needed and more, by a guy who specialized in this.

As fast as I could, I ripped out my code and dropped in the new library. I never looked back. You see, timing was not core to my research app, but rather contextual (like printing or graphing). (As an aside, the module grew and grew and kept up with hardcore CPU vagaries… it was able to tune itself in spite of processor logic becoming much less predictable as it went from 286 to 386 to 486 to 586. I was glad I didn’t have to keep up with the CPU technology! I used this same core functionality on apps that I wrote to control missiles in real-time.)

So, if your business is all about writing an authentication module, then that is what is “core” for your work, and you should craft your own and hone it to perfection.

Or, if you just want to do it as a learning exercise, that is great! Learn, and then pitch your code.

But for me, I am all too happy to drop in some other folks’ gem that gets a set of functionality up and running quickly, so I can get on with my core functionality and not be distracted.


Capybara Support for Multiple Submit Button Types

We had a case where we wanted to create smoke tests to ensure each customer’s subdomain was working (used pre- and post-deployment). Unfortunately, not all of the customer’s login pages were consistent in how to “submit” the login form 🙁

The Cucumber tests looked something like this:

  Scenario Outline: Check that the navigation is correctly customized per org
    Given I login as "<user>" of "<org>"
    And I am on the "<page>" page
    Then I should see only the expected "<menu_items>" in top nav bar
    | user       | org      | page | menu_items                                      |
    | acme-admin | acme     | Home | Home, Preferences, Feedback, Help, Logout       |
    | wyle-admin | | Home | Home, Preferences, Links, Help, BI Tool, Logout |

Here is how I used Capybara’s find() method to get around this issue:

# A bit of a hack, org_name is normally a subdomain, but sometimes it is the complete domain
def login(user, org_name)
  # Use the below to automatically hit each user's org's server
  if org_name.include? '.com'
    Capybara.app_host = "http://#{org_name}"
    Capybara.app_host = "http://#{org_name}"

  visit '/'
  fill_in 'username', :with => user
  fill_in 'userpwd', :with => '***'
    click_on 'submit'
  rescue Capybara::ElementNotFound
    page.find(:link_or_button, 'Log In')
    click_on 'Log In'
    rescue Capybara::ElementNotFound
      pending "Need to determine how to invoke the Login button for #{org_name} near Line ##{__LINE__} of #{__method__} in #{__FILE__} "

  # Ensure that login was successful
  page.should_not have_content 'Login failed'

Since our analysts write a bunch of these tests, I also added in a helpful error message should a new org get added that has yet another style of login.