Visual Basic

Progress Can Be Dangerous

Avalanches have caused about four times as many deaths worldwide in the 1990s as they did in the 1950s. Today, in spite of more advanced weather forecasting, an improved understanding of how snow behaves in different climatic conditions, and the use of sophisticated locating transmitters, many more people die on the slopes. In fact, analysis shows that the technological progress made over the last four decades has actually contributed to the problem. Skiers, snowboarders, and climbers are now able to roam into increasingly remote areas and backwoods. The wider distribution of knowledge about the mountains and the availability of sophisticated instruments have also given people increased confidence in surviving an avalanche. While many more people are practicing winter sports and many more adventurers have the opportunity to push past traditional limits, the statistics show that they have paid a heavy price.

In the same way that technological progress has ironically been accompanied by a rise in the number of avalanche-related deaths, the hot new programming tools now available to developers have proved to be a major factor in the far higher bug rates that we are experiencing today compared to five or ten years ago. Back in the olden days of Microsoft Windows programming (about 1990 or so), the only tools for producing Windows programs were intricate and difficult to learn. Only developers prepared to invest the large amounts of time required to learn complex data structures and numerous application programming interface (API) calls could hope to produce something that even looked like a normal Windows program. Missing the exact esoteric incantations and laying on of hands, software developed by those outside an elite priesthood tended to collapse in a heap when its users tried to do anything out of the ordinary-or sometimes just when they tried to run it. Getting software to work properly required developers to be hardcore in their work-to understand the details of how Windows worked and what they were doing at a very low level. In short, real Windows programming was often seriously frustrating work.

With the introduction of Microsoft Visual Basic and other visual programming tools, a huge amount of the grunt work involved in producing Windows programs has been eliminated. At last, someone who hasn't had a great deal of training and experience can think about producing applications that have previously been the province of an elite group. It is no longer necessary to learn the data structures associated with a window or the API calls necessary to draw text on the screen. A simple drag-and-drop operation with a mouse now performs the work that previously took hours.

The effect has been to reduce dramatically the knowledge levels and effort needed to write Windows programs. Almost anybody who is not a technophobe can produce something that resembles, at least superficially, a normal Windows program. Although placing these tools into the hands of so many people is great news for many computer users, it has led to a startling increase in the number of bug-ridden applications and applications canceled because of runaway bug lists. Widespread use of these development tools has not been accompanied by an equally widespread understanding of how to use them properly to produce solid code.

What is necessary to prevent many types of defects is to understand the real skills required when starting your particular project. Hiring developers who understand Visual Basic alone is asking for trouble. No matter how proficient programmers are with Visual Basic, they're going to introduce bugs into their programs unless they're equipped with at least a rudimentary understanding of how the code they write is going to interact with all the other parts of the system. In a typical corporate client/server project, the skills needed cover a broad range besides technical expertise with Visual Basic. Probably the most essential element is an understanding of how to design the application architecture properly and then be able to implement the architecture as designed. In the brave new world of objects everywhere, a good understanding of Microsoft's Component Object Model (COM) and of ActiveX is also essential. In addition, any potential developer needs to understand the conventions used in normal Windows programs. He or she must understand the client/server paradigm and its advantages and disadvantages, know an appropriate SQL dialect and how to write efficient stored procedures, and be familiar with one or more of the various database communication interfaces such as Jet, ODBC, RDO, and ADO (the VB interface to OLE DB). Other areas of necessary expertise might include knowledge about the increasingly important issue of LAN and WAN bandwidth and an understanding of 16-bit and 32-bit Windows architecture together with the various flavors of Windows APIs. As third-party ActiveX controls become more widespread and more complex, it might even be necessary to hire a developer mainly for his or her expertise in the use of a specific control.

Some final thoughts You don't hire a chainsaw expert to cut down trees-you hire a tree surgeon who is also proficient in the use of chainsaws. So to avoid the serious bugs that can result from too narrow an approach to programming, hire developers who understand client/server development and the technical requirements of your specific application, not those who only understand Visual Basic.