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Engineering LibreTexts

3.1: First Contact

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  • You are part of a team developing a software system named proDoc which supports doctors in their da [sic]. The main functional requirements concern (i) maintaining patient files and (ii) keeping track of the money to be paid by patients and health insurances. The health care legislation in Switzerland is quite complicated and changes regularly, hence there are few competitors to worry about. Nevertheless, a fresh start-up company has recently acquired considerable market-share with a competing product named XDoctor. The selling features of XDoctor are its platform independency and its integration with the internet. The system offers a built-in e-mail client and web-browser. XDoctor also exploits the internet for the transaction processing with the health insurances.

    To ensure its position in the market, your company has purchased XDoctor and now wants to recover as much as possible from the deal. In particular, they want to lift the internet functionality out of XDoctor to reuse it into proDoc. You are asked to make a first evaluation and develop a plan on how to merge the two products into one. At the outset, there is very little known about the technical details of the competing product. From the original development team of four persons, only one has joined your company. His name is Dave and he has brought a large box to your office containing lots of paper (the documentation?) and two CDs. The first is the XDoctor installation disk containing an installer for Windows, MacOS and Linux. The other contains about 500,000 lines of Java code and another 10,000 lines of C code. Looking kind of desperately at this box sitting on your desk, you’re wondering “Where on earth do I start?”


    It is surprising how often reengineering projects get started. Not only does it happen after a fusion of two companies, but we also encountered projects in which code libraries were obtained from companies that later went bankrupt, or in which complete maintenance teams quit their project leaving behind a very valuable but incomprehensible piece of code. Of course, the obvious question to ask is “Where do I start?” It turns out that this is one of the crucial questions to answer during a reengineering project, which is why we devote an entire chapter to its answer.

    All the patterns in this cluster can be applied to the very early stages of a reengineering project: you’re facing a system that is completely new for you, and within a few days you must determine whether something can be done with it and present a plan how to proceed. Making such an initial assessment is difficult, however, because you quickly need accurate results while considering the long-term effects of your decisions. To deal with the inherent conflict between quick, accurate and longer term effects, the patterns in this cluster must resolve the following forces.

    • How much a single team can manage varies with the goal of the reengineering project, the state of the original system, the experience and skills in your team and the culture in your organization. Our teams consisted of three to five persons and they could handle between 500,000 and a million lines of code. However, these figures will certainly have to be adapted for the reengineering project you are facing. As a rule of the thumb, assume that a single team can reengineer as much code as they can write from scratch. Improve your estimates during the reengineering project by keeping logs of how much your team actually reengineered.

      If you need to split the code up, stay as close as possible to current system structure and the organization of the maintenance team. Once you have a good understanding of the system structure, consider alternatives which are better suited for the project goal.

    • Time is scarce. Wasting time early on in a project has severe consequences later on. This is especially relevant during reverse engineering, because there you feel uncertain and then it is tempting to start an activity that will keep you busy for a while instead of addressing the root of the problem. Consequently, consider time as your most precious resource. Therefore, defer all time-consuming activities until later and use the first days of the project to assess the feasibility of the project’s goals. All patterns in this cluster are meant to quickly identify the opportunities and risks for your project and as such will help you set the overall direction of the project.

    • First impressions are dangerous. Making important decisions based on incomplete knowledge implies that there is a chance you will make the wrong decision. There is no way to avoid that risk during your first contact with a system, however you can minimize its impact if you always double-check your sources.

    • People have different agendas. Normally, you will join a group of people where several members will have lots of experience with the system to be reengineered. Perhaps members of the original development team are still available or maybe the reengineering team includes persons who have been maintaining the system for some time. At least there will be end users and managers who believe enough in this system to request a reengineering project. You are supposed to complement the team with your reengineering skills and expertise, hence you should know who you are dealing with.

      Typically, your new colleagues will fall into three categories. The first category are the faithful, the people who believe that reengineering is necessary and who thrust that you are able to (help them) do it. The second is the category of the skeptical, who believe this whole reengineering business is just a waste of time either because they want to protect their jobs or either because they think the whole project should start again from scratch. The third category is the category of the fence sitters, who do not have a strong opinion on whether this reengineering will pay off, so they just wait and see what happens. Consequently, in order to make the project a success, you must keep convincing the faithful, gain credit with the fence sitters and be wary of the skeptics.


    Wasting time is the largest risk when you have your first contact with a system, therefore these patterns should be applied during a short time span, say one week. After this week you should grasp the main issues and based on that knowledge plan further activities, or — when necessary — cancel the project.

    Assess the feasibility of the project during your First Contact with the system.
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Assess the feasibility of the project during your First Contact with the system.

    The patterns Chat with the Maintainers and Interview During Demo will help you get acquainted with the people involved. As a rule of the thumb, spend four days to gather information and use the last day of the week to compile all this information into a first project plan. There is no strict order in which to apply the patterns, although the order as suggested by the sequence in the book is kind of typical. Nevertheless, we have often find ourselves combining fragments of these patterns because of the necessity to double-check. For instance, during a second meeting with the maintainers we usually start with an Interview During Demo but ask questions about what we have learned from Read all the Code in One Hour and Skim the Documentation. Also, after an interview we quickly check the source code and documentation to confirm what has been said.

    In certain situations we have experienced that some patterns are not applicable due to a lack of resources. For instance, if all the maintainers have left the company you cannot Chat with the Maintainers. Also, certain systems lack an external user-interface and then it is pointless to try an Interview During Demo with an end-user. This isn’t necessarily a problem, because some of these patterns may be irrelevant for your project goal anyway. However, the absence of resources is an extra risk to the project and it should be recorded as such in the first project plan.

    What Next

    Once you have the necessary information, it is time to compile the first project plan. Such a plan is very similar to the plans you normally use when launching a project and the standard document templates used in your company should therefore be used. When necessary, bend the rules to include at least the following items.

    • Project Scope. Prepare a short (half a page) description of the project, including its context, its goals and the criteria that will be used to verify whether you reached those goals. Involve the Users and Agree on Maxims to write this part of the plan.

    • Opportunities. Identify those factors you expect will contribute to achieve the project goals. List the items that you have discovered during the first contact, such as the availability of skilled maintainers and power-users, the readability of the source code or the presence of up-to date documentation.

    • Risks. Consider elements that may cause problems during the course of the project. List those items that you did not find or where the quality was inferior, such as missing code libraries or the absence of test suites. If possible, include an assessment for the likelihood (unlikely, possible, likely) and the impact (high, moderate, low) for each risk. Special attention must be paid to the critical risks, i.e. the ones that are possible/likely and have a moderate/high impact or the ones that are likely but have a low impact.

    • Go / No-go decision. At some point you will have to decide whether the project should be continued or cancelled. Use the above opportunities and risks to argue that decision.

    • Activities. (In case of a “go” decision) Prepare a fish-eye view of the upcoming period, explaining how you intend to reach the project goal. In a fish-eye view, the short term activities are explained in considerable detail while for the later activities a rough outline is sufficient. Most likely, the short term activities will correspond to the patterns described in Initial Understanding. For the later activities check the subsequent chapters.

      The list of activities should exploit the opportunities and reduce the (critical) risks. For instance, if you list the presence of up-to date documentation as an opportunity and the absence of a test suite as a critical risk, then you should plan an activity which will build a test suite based on the documentation.


    1. During the FAMOOS project we faced systems ranging between 500,000 lines of C++ and 2.5 million lines of Ada.
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