Government // Leadership
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6/13/2013
02:58 PM
John Barnes
John Barnes
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How To Close Gaps In Campus Apps

To close the programming applications gap on campus, you often must close several other gaps first.

Why is that so often the pattern? I'd argue it's because there is yet another gap to close, and closing it might be one of the best things IT and CS can do together. The missing element is specification and documentation. The special apps programming team tends to be made up of bright people who are perhaps a little too impressed with what they think they already know, and an energetic can-do attitude, which is great for atmosphere but not so conducive to listening.

If that sounds familiar, it's because it's the story of special applications programming in industry since the dawn of time. And the industrial solution will work on campus, too: Every team needs a specs-and-docs member, who ideally is also on the testing/QA part of the team. (And if the team doesn't have that, we've just found another gap. They're everywhere!) If it's a student worker, you want someone who has at least had tech writing, but it will be better if they've had courses in specification writing or applications-oriented systems analysis. The faculty or grad student adviser may even want to work on some standardized reporting systems, which could make a nice senior or first-year-grad project in document systems design.

Clarifying communication, and making it accountable and testable, gives the student coding team a much more real-world-like work experience, and makes it far more likely they'll deliver something useful. The team wins, the users win and people go home happy.

And as a bonus, the spec-and-doc member is getting a great resume line, which just might help in closing that gap between successful student and employed professional.

I'll freely admit that on eight campuses, I've only seen special apps teams struggling and flailing, but there must be some out there that have succeeded. And I've never seen one that did anything other than send a proficient student programmer over to say, "So what do you need?"

Surely someone has a more positive experience to share. Why do you think they did better than what I'm describing? (Extra points awarded if they had a real spec-and-doc system in place!)

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David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
6/18/2013 | 8:12:28 PM
re: How To Close Gaps In Campus Apps
Are you thinking of these apps as being semi-disposable, created to meet the needs of one specific research project? Or do they need to be architected to be maintainable code over the long term?
Some Other John Barnes
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Some Other John Barnes,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/18/2013 | 9:37:59 PM
re: How To Close Gaps In Campus Apps
David, I think the answer to that one, as with so many "or" questions, is "Yes." Some apps are going to be natural one-time one-use and throw it away; some will be "fix it once and it lasts forever;" and some will probably exhibit that horrible mission creep in which what started out as a simple mailing list program grows to rule the universe. But in any of those cases, documenting and specifying, and putting someone in charge of it, will reduce headaches down the road, whether it's because five years from now the guy who needed just this one thing once is writing a book that incorporates it and needs to remember what it was, or because it has created a de facto data standard that years later it becomes vital to understand, or because there will eventually be a Version 17.3.A of the system. My real position boils down to, there are going to be such apps, written by somebody. Better to have them written by people who get credit and experience --and if so, even better to have them have the experience of getting it right, and getting it right means documented.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
7/2/2013 | 6:26:48 PM
re: How To Close Gaps In Campus Apps
Here's another approach for addressing simple data tracking apps.

University Of San Francisco Stretches Uses Of ServiceNow Apps @servicenow #highered http://twb.io/14N7Ayn
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