Mr. Lott has been involved in over 70 software development projects in a career that spans 30 years. He has worked in the capacity of internet strategist, software architect, project leader, DBA, programmer. Since 1993 he has been focused on data warehousing and the associated e-business architectures that make the right data available to the right people to support their business decision-making. Steven is a DZone MVB and is not an employee of DZone and has posted 138 posts at DZone. You can read more from them at their website. View Full User Profile

The Data Cartel and "Users"

12.27.2009
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I work with a CIO who calls the DBA's "The Data Cartel". They control the data. Working with some DBA's always seems to turn into hostage negotiation sessions.

The worst problems seem to arise when we get out of the DBA comfort zone and start to talk about how the data is actually going to be used by actual human beings.

The Users Won't Mind

I had one customer where the DBA demanded we use some Oracle-supplied job -- running in crontab -- for the LDAP to database synchronization. I was writing a J2EE application; we had direct access to database and LDAP server. But to the data cartel, their SQL script had some magical properties that seemed essential to them.

Sadly, a crontab job introduces a mandatory delay into the processing while the user waits for the job to run and finish the processing. This creates either a long transaction or a multi-step transaction where the user gets emails or checks back or something.

The DBA claimed that the delays and the complex workflow were perfectly acceptable to the users. The users wouldn't mind the delay. Further, spawning a background process (which could lead to multiple concurrent jobs) was unacceptable.

This kind of DBA decision-making occurs in a weird vacuum. They just made a claim about the user's needs. The DBA claimed that they wouldn't mind the delay. Since the DBA controls the data, we're forced to agree. So if we don't agree, what? A file "accidentally" gets deleted?

The good news is that the crontab-based script could not be made to work in their environment in time to meet the schedule, so I had to fall back to the simpler solution of reading the LDAP entries directly and providing (1) immediate feedback to the user and (2) a 1-step workflow.

We wasted time because the data cartel insisted (without any factual evidence) that the users wouldn't mind the delays and complexity.

[The same DBA turned all the conversations on security into a nightmare by repeating the catch-phrase "we don't know what we don't know." That was another hostage negotiation situation: they wouldn't agree to anything until we paid for a security audit that illustrated all the shabby security practices. The OWASP list wasn't good enough.]

The Users Shouldn't Learn

Recent conversations occurred in a similarly vacuous environment.

It's not clear what's going on -- the story from the data cartel is often sketchy and missing details. But the gaps in the story indicate how uncomfortable DBA's are with people using their precious data.

It appears that a reporting data model has a number of many-to-many associations. Periodically, a new association arrives on the scene, and the DBA's create a many-to-many association table. (The DBA makes it sound like a daily occurrence.)

Someone -- it's not clear who -- claimed this was silly. The DBA claims the product owner said that incremental requirements causing incremental database changes was silly. I think the DBA is simply too lazy to create the required many-to-many association tables. It's a table with two FK references. A real nightmare of labor. But there were 3 or maybe 4 instances of this. And no end in sight.

It appears that the worst part was that the data model requirements didn't arrive all at once. Instead, these requirements had the temerity to trickle in through incremental evolution of the requirements. This incremental design became a "problem" that needed a a "solution".

Two Layers of Hated User Interaction

First, users are a problem because they're always touching the data. Some DBA's do not want to know why users are always touching the data. Users exist on the other side of some bulkhead. What the users are doing on their side is none of our concern as DBA.

Second, users are a problem because they're fickle. Learning -- and the evolution of requirements that is a consequence of learning -- is a problem that we need to solve. Someone should monitor this bulkhead, collect all of the requirements and pass them through the bulkhead just once. No more. What the users are learning on their side is none of our concern as DBA.

What's Missing?

What's missing from the above story? Use Cases.

According to the DBA, the product owner is an endless sequence of demands for data model features. Apparently, adding features incrementally is silly. Further, there's no rhyme or reason behind these requests. To the DBA they appear random.

The DBA wanted some magical OO design feature that would make it possible to avoid all the work involved in adding each new many-to-many association table.

I asked for use cases. After some back and forth, I got something that made no sense.

It turns out that the data model involves "customers" the DBA started out describing the customer-centric features of the data model. After all, the "actor" in a use case is a person and the database contains information on people. That's as far as the DBA was willing to go: repeat the data model elements that involved people.

If It Weren't For the Users

The DBA could not name a user of the application, or provide a use case for the application. They actually refused to articulate one reason why people put data in or took data out. They sent an angry email saying they could not find a reason why anyone would need these many-to-many association tables.

I responded that if there's no user putting data in or getting data out then there's no system. Nothing to build. Stop asking me for help with your design if no person will ever use it.

To the DBA, this was an exercise in pure data: there was no purpose behind it. Seriously. Why else would they tell me that there were no use cases for the application.

Just Write Down What's Supposed to Happen

So I demanded that the DBA write down some sequence of interactions between actual real-world end-user and system that created something of value to the organization. (My idea was to slide past the "use case" buzzword and get past that objection.)

The DBA wrote down a 34-step sequence of steps. 34 steps! While it's a dreadful use case, it's a start: far better than what we had before, which was nothing. We had a grudging acknowledgement that actual people actually used the database for something.

We're moving on to do simplistic noun analysis of the use case to try and determine what's really going on with the many-to-many associations. My approach is to try and step outside of "pure data" and focus on what the users are doing with all those many-to-many associations.

That didn't go well. The data cartel, it appears, doesn't like end-users.

The Final Response

Here's what the DBA said. "The ideal case is to find a person that is actually trying to do something and solve a real end user problem. Unfortunately, I don't have this situation. Instead, my situation is to describe how a system responds to inputs and the desired end state of the system."

Bottom line. No requirements for the data model. No actors. No use case. No reality. Just pure abstract data modeling.

Absent requirements, this approach will turn into endless hypothetical "what if" scenarios. New, fanciful "features" will inevitably spring out of the woodwork randomly when there are no actual requirements grounded in reality. Design exists to solve problems. But the DBA has twice refused to discuss the problem that they're trying to solve by designing additional tables.

From http://slott-softwarearchitect.blogspot.com

Published at DZone with permission of Steven Lott, author and DZone MVB.

(Note: Opinions expressed in this article and its replies are the opinions of their respective authors and not those of DZone, Inc.)

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