Understanding the Specifications Puzzle
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"You like potato and I like potahto
You like tomato and I like tomahto
Potato, potahto, Tomato, tomahto."
Let's call the whole thing off."
- Lyrics by Ira Gershwin; Music by George Gershwin
Defining specifications for the design and development of systems and
software is a lot like this classic Gershwin song and what I personally regard
as the biggest cause of confusion in the Information Technology field for as
long as I can remember, which is over 30 years in the industry. Some people say
specifications should be based on the inherent properties of information, others
believe it is based on a screen/report or file layout, yet others adamantly
believe it should be based on process and data specifications. Interestingly,
all are absolutely correct. The difference lies in the perspective of the person
and the work to be performed. For example, how we define specifications for the
design of an automobile is certainly different than how we specify a skyscraper.
The same is true in the I.T. field where we have different things to be produced
by different people; for example:
1. THE PROGRAMMER (aka, Software Engineer) requires precise
specifications in order to develop program code (source and object). This
normally takes the form of processing requirements (e.g., hardware
configuration, types of transactions to be processed, volume, timing, messages,
etc.) and physical data requirements (input/output/file layouts).
2. DBA (Data Base Administrator) requires precise specifications in order
to select a suitable file management technique (e.g., DBMS) and produce the
necessary Data Definition Language (DDL) for it. This normally takes the form of
a logical data base model representing relationships between data entities.
3. THE ANALYST (aka, Systems Analyst, Systems Engineer, Systems
Architect, Business Analyst) - requires specifications about the end-User's
information requirements in order to design a system solution. This is normally
based on a definition of the user's business actions and/or decisions to be
supported. Following the system design, the Analyst produces the specifications
required by the Programmer and DBA to fulfill their part of the puzzle. From
this perspective, the Analyst is the translator between the end-User and the
Programmers and DBAs.
Each party has his own unique perspective of the puzzle and, as such, requires
different "specifications." To compound the problem though, the role of the
Analyst sharply diminished over the years, leaving it to the Programmers to try
and determine what the end-User needs, a skill they are typically not trained or
suited for. To illustrate, I am reminded of the story of the IT Director at a
shoe manufacturing company who received a call from the corporate Sales Manager
asking for some help on a pressing problem. The IT Director sent over one of his
programmers to meet with the Sales Manager and discuss the problem. Basically,
the manager wanted a printout of all shoe sales sorted by model, volume, type,
color, etc. The programmer immediately knew how to access the necessary data and
sorted it accordingly thereby producing a voluminous printout (three feet high)
which he dutifully delivered to the user.
The IT Director stopped by the Sales Manager's office a few days later to
inquire if the programmer had adequately serviced the user. The sales manager
afforded the programmer accolades on his performance and proudly pointed at the
impressively thick printout sitting on his desk. The IT Director then asked how
the manager used the printout. He explained he took it home over the weekend,
slowly sifted through the data, and built a report from it showing sales trends.
"Did you explain to the programmer you were going to do this?" asked the IT
"No," replied the Sales Manager.
"Aren't you aware we could have produced your report for you and saved you a lot
of time and effort?"
This is a classic example of the blind leading the blind. The user did not know
how to adequately describe the business problem, and the programmer asked the
wrong questions. Remarkably, both the Sales Manager and programmer were
delighted with the results. The IT Director simply shook his head in disbelief.
There are substantial differences between specifying information requirements
and specifying software. Both have their place, but both serve different
purposes. Whereas a true Analyst investigates the underlying business rationale
of the information, the Programmer lives in the physical world and is only
concerned with how the software will work.
It is not uncommon to hear programmers lament, "Users do not know what they
want." They may not know how it should physically look or how it should best be
delivered, but Users most definitely know what they want from an information
point of view. Most programmers simply are not asking the right questions. Then
again, they were not trained for this and are trying to compensate for the lack
of true Analysts.
Remarkably, the Analyst function is experiencing a resurgence in the industry as
companies are realizing that a higher level person is needed to understand the
business and have a more global perspective of a company's systems and software.
To illustrate, the process should fundamentally work like this:
1. Working with the User, the Analyst studies the business and helps the User
specify information requirements.
2. From the requirements, the Analyst produces a system design which includes
either a new system and/or modification of an existing system. As part of the
design, the Analyst defines:
* The logical processing of data in terms of how it is to be collected, stored,
* The business processes affected, including the parts implemented by the
* The design of the inputs and outputs.
* The design of the logical data base model.
In considering the computer processing, the Analyst determines which portions
can be implemented by a commercial package or requires programming.
3. The design specifications are conveyed to the Programmer and the DBA for
4. From the logical data base model, the DBA designs a physical solution and
produces the necessary Data Definition Language. The DBA passes on the physical
file layouts to the Programmer for implementation.
5. The Programmer studies the software specifications and determines a suitable
method of implementation, e.g., languages to be used, along with suitable tools
and techniques for design.
For graphic, see:
The real beneficiary of such an approach is the programmer as the "guess work"
has been eliminated for him. This may be an oversimplification of the overall
process, but it is intended to show the vital role the Analyst plays and how it
contrasts with the other participants. In the absence of such a person, the
Programmer inevitably defaults to the role of Analyst and here is where
specification problems begin to emerge.
This also hints at the limitations of "agile" methods. To their credit, the
proponents of such methodologies recognize they are limited to software and, in
particular, a single program. In doing so, they are trying to expedite the
overall process of specification gathering in order to get to the job of
In addition to defining the relationships between the various development
functions, there is also the problem of developing a standard and consistent
approach for recording specifications. This can be performed orally, but more
likely it is recorded using a documentation technique to communicate the work to
be performed and as a means to check the finished product to see if it does
indeed satisfy the specifications. In the fields of engineering and
construction, standards have been developed over the years to record
specifications, such as blueprinting. But in the I.T. field, a myriad of
techniques have been introduced with little or no standardization. For example,
there are several different types of graphical and textural techniques, as well
as repositories and data dictionaries to record and track specifications.
Regardless, very few companies have adopted standards for recording
The problem with specifications in the design and development of systems and
software is primarily due to a lack of standardization in the industry. There
are a lack of standards in the areas of:
* Different types of deliverables resulting from the development process and how
to format them (including specifications).
* Different development functions participating in the process, along with their
interrelationships, and duties and responsibilities.
* Different perspectives of development in terms of the inherent properties of
systems and software.
* Different methods, tools and techniques for performing design and development.
As long as there remains a lack of standardization in the I.T. industry, there
will always remain a different interpretation of what specifications are and how
to best document them. In other words, we'll go on saying "You like tomato
and I like tomahto." So when do we call the whole thing off?
If you would like to discuss this with me in more depth, please do not hesitate
to send me an e-mail at
"Good specifications will always improve programmer
productivity far better than any programming tool or technique."
- Bryce's Law
About the Author
Tim Bryce is the Managing Director of M. Bryce & Associates (MBA) of Palm
Harbor, Florida, a management consulting firm specializing in Information
Resource Management (IRM). Mr. Bryce has over 30 years of experience in the
field. He is available for lecturing, training and consulting on an
international basis. His corporate web page is at:
He can be contacted at:
Copyright © 2008 Tim Bryce. All rights reserved.
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Article Published/Sorted/Amended on Scopulus 2008-02-22 11:57:12 in Computer Articles