VISTA Enterprise Network - Successful Implementation, World Class Support

Friday, June 26, 2009

Point 2: VISTA Requires Many Code Repositories, Not One

Dear Reader,

VISTA's bigger than you think it is - vastly bigger - by scales of magnitude. None of the numbers you can put next to it (files, programs, lines of code, function points) comes remotely close to its actual complexity and sophistication. The interaction of its intricate integration with its unparalleled extensibility creates intricate effects that VISTA depends on but that we don't begin to know how to measure. Fortunately we don't have to.

We just have to understand that it is very, very big, too big to be effectively managed as a whole, unlike most software in the world. Bluntly put, as a whole VISTA is unmanageable. If you try to manage VISTA from a single code repository, your VISTA codebase will stagnate and your productivity will fall over time. You'll know you've begun to grasp the scale of VISTA when the idea of a single, central code repository for managing VISTA literally makes you laugh. Until then, you're not even close.

Fortunately, you don't need to begin with a single code repository to manage a shared VISTA code base. The VISTA lifecycle sure doesn't.

Instead, we follow the traditional divide-and-conquer strategy that makes computer science possible. We break up VISTA into packages and manage each package with its own independent code repository. In our experience, this reduces the scale of the problem enough that a highly expert, dedicated team can almost - almost - keep up with the problem of managing just that one package.

So, throw away the idea of beginning your VISTA lifecycle management with a single, complete gold account, and replace it with the idea of many gold accounts, one per package.

Yours truly,

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Point 1: VISTA Requires the VISTA Software Lifecycle

Dear Reader,

Over the thirty-two years of VISTA development, many, many different software lifecycles have been tried with it, and all but one of them have failed, sometimes subtly, sometimes spectacularly.

Interestingly, for the last fifteen years no one has consistently tried to follow that one proven model, and during that time every VISTA adopter has struggled with VISTA. Those who have deviated the least from the model, like Indian Health Service, have enjoyed the most success, and those who have deviated the most, like the Department of Defense (DOD), have suffered the most. Veterans Affairs (VA) makes the best test case to prove this point, since they have been at their most productive with VISTA when they followed the model, and at their least when they didn't.

From studying VISTA’s rich and varied thirty-two-year history, I draw this radical proposition: we should take the plunge. We should end the fifteen-year drought by completely following VISTA's own software lifecycle model, the one that worked.

Getting to know the VISTA software-lifecycle model will take time, because it is sophisticated, complex, undocumented, and no example of it exists today, but I am confident that the more you get to know it, the more you will come to agree with me that the weird qualities of this model exactly support the weird qualities of VISTA in a way no borrowed or adapted model ever can.

Of these first eight points, this is the simplest, the most important, and the least likely for anyone to believe. I wish that weren't true, because this is the crucial missed point at which most VISTA adopters went off the tracks since 1994. If you can resist the urge to "improve" a model you do not yet understand, if you can compel yourself to study it patiently as though it were complex enough to deserve your attention, then you can buck the odds and reap the rewards that come with it.

Yours truly,

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Eight Essential Points

Dear Reader,

Let's begin with eight important points about the VISTA lifecycle, which I presented remotely at WorldVistA's nineteenth VISTA community meeting at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesday, Maryland. I lacked the time during that presentation to fully introduce these points, so let's do it here over the next eight days.

These points are:

1. VISTA requires the VISTA software lifecycle.
2. VISTA requires many code repositories, not one.
3. Managing VISTA requires many authorities, not one.
4. Users must directly control VISTA's software lifecycle.
5. Users and programmers need a shared forum.
6. VISTA's software stream requires many tributaries.
7. We should restart the lifecycle with just File Manager and Forum.
8. We need to declare interdependence and form a confederation.

Yours truly,

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

VISTA Lifecycle: Let Us Begin

Dear Reader,

"VISTA is a process, not a product," say VISTA hardhats, but what do they mean? Let's find out.

The process is called the VISTA lifecycle, and it only superficially resembles any other software lifecycle. To follow it, you have to change everything about your software support and development - how you fund it, how you design it, who's in charge, how training takes place, and more. If you're willing to make these profound changes you can accomplish amazing things with VISTA.

Although the VISTA community depends on this lifecycle, no one has documented much of it. Let's do it.

It's a complex subject. My best guess is that it'll take the rest of 2009 just to finish a first draft. Rather than wait while I write and publish a refined explanation, let's sort it out in the open, together, here, in this blog.

One caveat: everything in VISTA's lifecycle is connected. Anything that seems to make sense by itself is really part of a far more complex system, and the meanings of things deepen and change when you come to understand how they relate to everything else.

This is a deep subject that needs and deserves patience and persistence, that rewards them with the ability to change the world for the better.

Yours truly,

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Small-capital Confusion

Dear Reader,

When I wrote "Capital Confusion," I was only able to demonstrate the use of small caps back to the Domesday book of 1086 AD, leading me to believe along with Robert Bringhurst that they were added to our standard writing system after lowercase was invented.

I have since learned that smallcaps go back much further than a thousand years. Indeed, they predate lowercase. The creation of lowercase by Dark Age scribes took centuries, with numerous alphabetic inventions along the way. Although most of these intermediate alphabets fell by the wayside once Alcuin and other Carolingian scholars refined the lowercase alphabet to something like its current form, two of them survived.

Uncial, also called insular, a unicameral alphabet, was developed largely by celtic Christian scholars and remains to this day associated strongly with Ireland, Scotland, and other celtic countries. If you look at an example of it understanding its status as an intermediate development between upper and lower case, you can see how it contains elements of both. It was not folded into our culture's standard suite of alphabets, but remains to this day a specialty alphabet used to create an emotional or cultural effect in the text.

Long before uncial, however, small caps were developed as one of the first of these intermediate alphabets. If you search diligently, you can find examples of ancient Roman inscriptions set in caps plus small caps. Unlike uncial and the other intermediate alphabets, small caps remained a standard part of the scribes' toolset, and later became a standard typographers' tool as well.

The small-caps alphabet's apparent obscurity or optional character today is a conceptual illusion created during the industrial, reductionist craze of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when small caps and lower case figures temporarily fell out of fashion. (In case you think the industrial attempt to purge these two elements of our writing system was reasonable, consider that they also tried to purge lowercase as well, to reduce writing back to all caps. DOES THIS IRRITATE YOU? HOW ABOUT NOW? HOW MANY PAGES OF THIS SHOUTING DO YOU THINK YOU CAN READ WITHOUT GETTING A HEADACHE?)

The absence of these two important typographic inventions was reinforced starting in the 1870s when Christopher Sholes's QWERTY keyboard became the basis for typewriter key layouts, which in turn became the core of the design for computer keyboards. This crude design omits numerous typographical characters - including text figures and small caps - leading the overwhelming majority of people to believe by default that Mr. Sholes's invention somehow defines the official character set of the English language. It does not. Many essential elements of our writing system - including entire alphabets - are missing from modern keyboards.

Small caps and text figures are essential to protecting the readability of the modern Roman alphabet, especially when we have come to rely so heavily on acronyms and numbers in our writing. The absence of small caps and lowercase figures appears normal to us only because we have become habituated to it. Type designers are decisively ending this industrial-era experiment in reductionism by including small caps and lowercase figures in most serious, professional typefaces produced since the 1980s.

Hence, if my recommendation in "Capital Confusion" to use small caps (when available) to set acronyms like VISTA appears eccentric or needlessly fastidious, I encourage you to broaden your horizons, to learn a bit more about the history of your own writing system, to remove the blinders you have taken for granted, blinders imposed on you without your knowledge or consent by people who did not have your best interests at heart.

For an excellent eighty-three-page introduction to typography, a quick and illuminating read, try Finer Points in the Spacing and Arrangement of Type by Geoffrey Dowding (ISBN 0-88179-119-9).

A better known and highly respected, more in-depth guide to typography is Robert Bringhurst's The Elements of Typographic Style (ISBN 0-88179-206-3).

Yours truly,

Postscript: Learning is good. Learn more.

Postpostscript: Questioning authority is good. Start with the authority your own assumptions, biases, and habits hold over your mind. Wake up.

Postpostpostscript: Subtlety, nuance, and mastering the details are good. Sweat the little things. Pay attention.

Postpostpostpostscript: The deeper point of this and the previous post is that we know much less about the world and ourselves than we think we do, that not only are we liable to make mistakes about complex subjects like VISTA, we cannot even get right such simple subjects as how to capitalize it properly or even the nature of our alphabet. An open and inquisitive mind eager to explore the unknown and to discover its own errors in fact and judgment is far better preparation for dealing with VISTA than any amount of confidence, experience, money, or political power.

Indeed, as we will explore in this blog, the greater your success with other ventures, the greater your odds of failing with VISTA, exactly because your success leads you to overconfidently trust in tried and true ways of looking at the world that fail badly when applied to VISTA.