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Archive for the ‘Quality’ Category

Target’s Unit Pricing Looks Like a Bad Yolk on Consumers

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

I don’t often purchase dairy goods at Target.  Today was an exception.  Usually I head to Target for videos, office supplies, gift cards, Halloween decorations and so forth.  On this occasion I needed some shipping boxes, birthday napkins and eggs.  Rather than stop at two stores I decided to get the eggs at Target.

So why the posting?  Well, either my math skills are getting really poor (probably due to my relentless exposure to computers and calculators) or Target has some issue with understanding egg pricing.  Here are pictures of the price labels in the dairy section (taken at the Target in Clifton Park, NY on September 3, 2012).  Anything look askew?

Egg Unit Pricing - Target - 2012-09-03

Now, if the errors were consistent I guess I could understand.  After all converting from “12 eggs” to “price per dozen” takes some understanding of the word “dozen” along with the principle of unit pricing.  What I find interesting is that the unit pricing calculation for these eggs is somewhat cracked since it does not seem to follow a pattern.  Also, apparently no one has noticed these strange unit prices.


State Selection Lists on Website Forms – How Hard Are They to Sort?

Thursday, June 14th, 2012

This post certainly falls into the “nitpick” category, but the flaw occurs often enough to be somewhat irritating.  The problem you ask?  Drop-down lists of state names that are not ordered by the state name but instead by the state’s 2-letter postal abbreviation.  Granted, this error pales in comparison to applications containing SQL injection flaws or race conditions exposing personal information, but I’m going to complain none-the-less.

What exactly is the issue?  Well, it turns out that the two letter postal abbreviations (for example AK for Alaska and HI for Hawaii) can’t be used as the key for sorting the state names into alphabetical order.  For the most part it works, however for some states, such as Nevada through New Mexico it breaks.  As a New York resident I get tripped up by this.

Example of Incorrect State SortingThe image shown here is a web form for a college admissions site.  As you can see, Nevada follows New Hampshire, New Jersey and New Mexico but precedes New York.  In reality it should follow Nebraska and precede New Hampshire.  This order is incorrect; it is based on the state abbreviations.  If instead of state names the website were displaying the state abbreviations, the order would be NH, NJ, NM, NV, NY and all would be fine.

The developer(s) of this site are not alone in their mistaken use of the postal abbreviation as the sort key.  I’ve encountered this issue with online shopping sites, reservation systems and survey forms.  I typically do a quick “view source” of the site and invariably they are using the state abbreviation as the actual value being passed to the server.  I’m sure they are using that for sorting as well.

You might think this sort of thing doesn’t matter.  From my point of view it represents a “broken window,” using Andy Hunt’s and Dave Thomas’ language from The Pragmatic Programmer.  Little things count.  Little things left uncorrected form an environment where developers may become more and more sloppy.  After all, if I don’t need to pay attention to my sort key for state, what’s to say I won’t make a similar mistake with country or a product list or any other collection of values that is supposed to be ordered to make access easier?

Please, if you are designing an input form, make sure that sorted information displayed by your widgets is sorted by the display value, not some internal code.  It will make the use of your form easier for users and garner the respect of your fellow developers.

Have you seen this flaw on websites you’ve visited?  Do you have pet peeves with online form designs?  I’d enjoy hearing about them.

Expanding on “Code Reviews Trumps Unit Testing, But They Are Better Together”

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

Michael Delaney, a senior consulting software engineer at Blue Slate, commented on my previous posting.  As I created a reply I realized that I was expanding on my reasoning and it was becoming a bit long.  So, here is my reply as a follow-up posting.  Also, thank you to Michael for helping me think more about this topic.

I understand the desire to rely on unit testing and its ability to find issues and prevent regressions.  For TDD, I’ll need to write separately.  Fundamentally I’m a believer in white box testing.   Black box approaches, like TDD, seem to be of relatively little value to the overall quality and reliability of the code.  Meaning, I’d want to invest more effort in white box testing than in black box testing.

I’m somewhat jaded, being concerned with the code’s security, which to me is strongly correlated with its reliability.  That said, I believe that unit testing is much more constrained as compared to formal reviews.  I’m not suggesting that unit tests be skipped, rather that we understand that unit tests can catch certain types of flaws and that those types are narrow as compared to what formal reviews can identify.


Code Reviews Trump Unit Testing , But They Are Better Together

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Last week I was participating in a formal code review (a.k.a. code inspection) with one of our clients.  We have been working with this client, helping them strengthen their development practices.  Holding formal code reviews is a key component for us.  Part of the formal process we introduced includes reviewing the unit testing results, both the (successful) output report and the code coverage metrics.

At one point we were reviewing some code that had several error handling blocks that were not being covered in the unit tests.  These blocks were, arguably, unlikely or impossible to reach (such as a Java StringReader throwing an IOException).  There was some discussion by the team about the necessity of mocking enough functionality to cover these blocks.

Although we agreed that some of the more esoteric error conditions weren’t worth the programmer’s time to mock-up, it occurred to me later that we were missing an important point.  What mattered was that we were holding a formal code review and looking at those blocks of code.

Let me take a step back.  In 1986, Capers Jones published a book entitled Programming Productivity.  Although dated, the book contains many excellent points that cause you think about how to create software in an efficient way.  Here efficiency is not about lines of code per unit of time, but more importantly, lines of correct code per unit of time.  This means taking into account rework due to errors and omissions.

One if the studies presented in the book relates to identifying defects in code.  It is a study whose results seem obvious when we think about them.  However, we don’t always align our software development practices to leverage the study’s lessons and maximize our development efficiency.  Perhaps we believe that the statistics have changed due to language construct, experience, tooling and so forth.  We’d need similar studies to the ones presented by Capers Jones in order to prove that, though.

Below are a few of the actions from the book’s study of defect detection approaches.  I’ve skipped the low end and high-end numbers that Caper’s includes, simply giving the modes (averages) which are a good basis for comparison:

Defect Identification Rates Data Table
Defect Identification Rates Graph


Domain Testing at the Unit Level, Part 1: An Introduction

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

It is surprising how many times I still find myself talking to software teams about unit testing.  I’ve written before that the term “unit testing” is not definitive.  “Unit testing” simply means that tests are being defined that run at the unit level of the code (typically methods or functions).  However, the term doesn’t mean that the tests are meaningful, valuable, or quality-focused.

From what I have seen, the term is often used as a synonym for path or branch level unit testing.  Although these are good places to start, such tests do not form a complete unit test suite.  I argue that the pursuit of 100% path or branch coverage and the exclusion of other types of unit testing is a waste of time. It is better for the overall quality of the code if the unit tests achieve 80% branch coverage and include an effective mix of other unit test types, such as domain, fuzz and security tests.

For the moment I’m going to focus on domain testing.  I think this is an area ripe for improvement.  Extending the “ripe” metaphor, I’d say there is significant low-hanging fruit available to development teams which will allow them to quickly experience the benefits of domain testing.

First, for my purposes in this article what is unit-level domain testing?  Unit-level domain testing is the exercising of program code units (methods, functions) using well-chosen values based on the sets of values grouped, often, by Boolean tests in the code. (Note that the well-chosen values are not completely random.  As we will see, they are constrained by the decision points and logic in the code.)

The provided definition is not meant to be mathematically precise or even receive a passing grade on a comp-sci exam.  In future postings I’ll delve into more of the official theory and terminology.  For now I’m focused on the basic purpose and value of domain testing.

I do need to state an assumption and create two baseline definitions in order to proceed:

Assumption: We are dealing only with integer numeric values and simple Boolean tests involving a variable and a constant.


  • Domain - the set of values included (or excluded) by a Boolean test.  For example, the test, “X > 3” has its domain of matching values 4, 5, 6, … and its domain of non-matching values 3, 2, 1, …
  • Boundary – The constant used in a Boolean test forming the point between the included and excluded sets of values.  So for “X > 3” the boundary value is 3.

Now let’s look at some code.  Here is a simple Java method:

public int add(int op1, int op2) {
    return op1 + op2;

This involves one domain, the domain of all integers, sort of.  Looking closely there is an issue; the domain of possible inputs (integers) is not necessarily the domain of possible (correct) outputs.

If two large integers were added together they could produce a value longer than a Java 32-bit integer.  So the output domain is the set of values that can be derived by adding any two integers.  In Java we have the constants MIN_VALUE and MAX_VALUE in the java.lang.Integer class.  Using that vernacular, the domain of all output values for this method can be represented as: MIN_VALUE – MIN_VALUE through MAX_VALUE + MAX_VALUE.

Here is another simple method:

public int divide(int dividend, int divisor) {
    return dividend / divisor;

Again we seem to have one domain, the set of all integers.  However we all know there is a problem latent in this code.  Would path testing effectively find it?


Destination Reached: CISSP

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

CISSP logoI am happy to report that I have been awarded the Certified Information Systems Security Professional (CISSP) by the International Information Systems Security Certification Consortium [(ISC)2]a.

I started pursuing the certification in mid-2009, got serious about studying early this year (2010), took the exam in late April, was notified that I passed and had my background endorsed in May, had to update my resume for an auditor in early June and was awarded the CISSP designation at the end of June.

I felt that this certification was important both professionally and personally.

Professionally, the certification serves as a validation that I have a solid and broad understanding of information systems’ security.  People who have worked with me know that I have been focused on IS security for many years.

Whether performing security-centered code reviews, fixing flawed implementations or teaching designers and developers how to improve the security of their systems, I have been on a mission to mentor and train people to observe effective security practices and principles.  I’ve also had operational responsibility for system infrastructures.  With that experience I was able to pass GIAC’s GSEC and Red Hat’s RHCE exams several years ago.

Personally, the process of studying and passing the exam allowed me to pursue and attain a non-trivial goal.  I am enrolled and taking classes toward my master’s degree, but completing that work will require several more years of part time attendance.  Setting and achieving intermediate goals helps to keep me focused and learning.

If you are wondering what the CISSP is all about, please read on.


Encapsulation, It Isn’t Just For Your Public Interface

Tuesday, March 23rd, 2010

Encapsulation, one of Object Orientation’s (OO) “Big Three” (or four if you include composition), is the concept most often forgotten when I ask an interview candidate to define the key tenants of OO.  Giving the benefit of the doubt, perhaps it is considered “obvious” and hence not necessarily related to OO design in the person’s mind.  Once I bring it up though, there is usually agreement that it is an important aspect to achieving significant value from OO design.

Classically, encapsulation, also called information hiding, “serves to separate the contractual interface of an abstraction and its implementation.”1 The idea is that the user of the functionality only knows about the public interface (contractual interface) and has no knowledge, nor any ability to tie itself, to the implementation.  The implementation includes both data representation and, effectively, algorithm.

Many times I’ll get an alternate definition; essentially the respondent will define encapsulation as, “as an approach which allows an object’s behavior to be called without the caller having knowledge of how the behavior is implemented.”  This seems very close to the classical definition but misses the key point of “contractual interface.”

I could argue that when any method is called the caller doesn’t have knowledge of how the method is implemented; it just gets a value back.  The missing aspect, the key aspect, is the constraint regarding which methods the caller may call, e.g. the public interface.

What started me on this topic was a recent conversation with a peer regarding read-only objects.  Before I get into specifics, let me baseline the traditional encapsulation approach in a typical object.


Cut Waste, Not Costs

Monday, March 15th, 2010

As I read more and more about the Toyota debacle I’m struck by an apparently myopic management drive to cut costs.  In the case of Toyota it appears that cost cutting extended into quality cutting.  A company once known for superb quality had methodically reduced that aspect of their output.  This isn’t just conjecture; it seems that people inside the company had been aware of a decline in quality due to a focus on reducing costs.1 Is there a general lesson to consider?

I believe the failure is one of misplaced focus. The focus when Toyota began cutting costs was to remove waste.  That waste could be found throughout their manufacturing processes.  Wasted materials, productivity, tooling, and equipment were all identified as Toyota’s management and workers struck out on a journey to reduce waste and improve productivity.  They ushered in a set of practices that others would soon adopt.

Head back to the 1950′s and you’ll find Taiichi Ohno2 hard at work addressing myriad manufacturing shortcomings at Toyota.  Mr. Ohno is really the father of lean manufacturing and just-in-time inventory management.  He didn’t name them as such.  He was just trying to remove waste from the entire manufacturing process.  By the late 1990′s these concepts had become standard operating procedure at many firms.

It makes sense that a business would focus on reducing waste.  Although it may require effort to remove waste without reducing productivity, overall one would expect a leaner process to have an overall efficiency gain.  It would also seem that quality does not benefit from waste.  After many years of experience with these principles, companies have found that an approach of using only the resources that are needed when they are needed provides a sound basis for their operations.  So what happened at Toyota?  They apparently went beyond cutting waste.