Blackboard and software complexity

A comment on Blackboard’s complexity problems.

If either the author of this article or the otherwise knowledgeable Feldstein have ever worked in software development, it’s not apparent from this article and the ensuing comments thread. The list of architectural scare factors – multiple deployment environments, wide use of 3rd party libraries, legacy code – is simply business as usual for any substantial software product. And the assertion that “few other companies support this sheer raw complexity of configuration combinations” is just plain wrong. Many, many companies deal with exactly this. Cross-platform release engineering is a demanding but well-understood discipline.

To pick on a couple more representative points: “All enterprise software ages poorly”. No, all software ages. Whether it ages poorly or well depends on whether it’s worth the vendor’s time to manage its aging. Go and ask the IBM shops running 1960’s-vintage System 360 applications on modern virtualized environments whether they’re happy with 50 years of ROI on those applications. And then: “Microsoft control their entire ecosystem”. Please, please, go and talk to a Microsoft release test engineer about how controlled their release targets are. Make sure you have a very comfortable seat and lots of beer money, because you’ll be buying and you’ll be there for a looong time.

I don’t challenge the author’s underlying premise that Blackboard has mismanaged its software assets – I don’t have the inside knowledge to confirm or deny that. And the notion that Blackboard, like every software developer, needs to actively manage and reduce complexity is incontestable. But I don’t accept the notion that the architectural factors listed are any kind of indicator. I would bet that inside Blackboard there are some very frustrated developers who know exactly how to support that range of configurations, led by a management group who is telling them not to spend time refactoring and reducing technical debt, but rather to crack on with adding to the feature list smorgasbord. As if that’s an either/or choice.

One thought on “Blackboard and software complexity

  1. Jaime, I do appreciate and accept your critique. I completely agree with you that complexity is a normal and manageable condition given the right amount of resourcing, expertise, and attention – it’s just that organizations must make the effort to ensure the sustainability of their products. As you state, some organizations are indeed doing a great job at this. Thank you for caring enough about this topic to create this post and for adding your perspective to the conversation.

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