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20 September 2011

Bootstrapping 1: Speed and consistency

By Andrew Clifford

What happens when you write software in itself?

It always brings a smile to my face that we use the word "boot" to mean "start the computer". The word boot, or bootstrap, is a metaphor based on the nonsense of pulling yourself up by pulling up the straps of your own boots.

Nonsense though it may be, bootstrapping has come to mean any self-sustaining process which does not require external inputs.

I have been doing a lot of bootstrapping recently, and it has given me some really interesting insights into the fundamentals of IT.

To give some background, a few weeks ago we put in a new version of our Metrici Advisor software, which we call MA2. It is a web-based platform for assessment and advisory solutions, such as surveys and consultancy tools. It combines surveys, database management, expert systems, web content management, screen handling, data analysis, reporting, and integration. The requirements for assessment and advisory solutions are very variable, and so the software has to be very flexible.

To meet the requirements for functionality and flexibility, we adopted an unusual design. None of the capabilities we need are built into the underlying software. Rather, we built a flexible engine that allows these capabilities to be defined within MA2 itself. Defining new capabilities, such as a survey tool or reporting library, uses exactly the same features that are used when consuming those capabilities, such as filling in a survey or viewing a report.

When we went live, MA2 had a small set of fundamental capabilities, just enough to recreate the functionality of the earlier version. From this, we are now in the process of bootstrapping a fully-fledged product.

This bootstrapping covers lots of different things. It covers different solution types, from simple surveys to expert assessments. It covers the materials for assessments, such as standard questionnaires. It covers multiple types of analysis, reporting and charting, and new features in the user interface.

As well as bootstrapping the product itself, we are bootstrapping our own business support within MA2. We have created content management capabilities in MA2, so that we can use MA2 to publish our own website. We have also created our own internal administration, such as customer contact, and problem management, within MA2.

Doing this work, two things have struck me:

  • Consistency. Instead of using separate design tools, database tools, programming tools, web editors, content management systems and admin applications, we can do all this work in a single tool.
  • Awesome speed. We set out to make it easier to define the structure, content and interaction of assessments. The solution we created has ended up being an extremely productive mechanism for doing pretty much anything you can do with a computer.

This combination of consistency and speed is unlike anything I have seen before. But I am not saying this just to boast. Usually we plod through work slowly using multiple tools. But when you speed through lots of different work in the same tool, you get a very different perspective. Next week I will cover some of the things we have seen from this new perspective.

Next: Bootstrapping 2: Why are there so many tools?

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