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26 April 2014
Incremental Requirements With Requs
Requirements engineering is one of the most important disciplines in software development. Perhaps, even more important than architecture, design or coding itself.
Joy Beatty and Karl Wiegers in Software Requirements argue that the cost of mistakes made in a requirements specification is significantly higher than a bug in source code. I totally agree.
In XDSD projects we specify requirements using Requs, a controlled natural language that sounds like English, while at the same time is parseable by computers. A simple requirements document in Requs may look similar to:
Department has employee-s. Employee has name and salary. UC1 where Employee gets raise: "TBD."
This Software Requirements Specification (SRS) defines two types (
Employee) and one method
UC (aka “use case”).
Requs syntax is explained here.
The main and only goal of requirements engineering in any XDSD project is to create a complete and non-ambiguous SRS document. The person who performs this task is called the “system analyst.” This article explains his or her main tasks and discusses possible pitfalls.
We modify SRS incrementally, and our increments are very small. For instance, say we have the sample document I mentioned above, and I’m a system analyst on the project. All my tasks will be similar to “there is a bug in SRS, let’s fix it.”
Even if it is a suggestion, it will still start with a complaint about the incompleteness of the SRS. For example:
- UC1 doesn’t explain how exactly an employee receives a raise.
- Does the salary of an employee have limits? Can it be negative?
- How many employees can a department have? Can it be zero?
- Can an employee receive a decrease in salary?
All of these bugs are addressed to me. I need to fix them by improving the SRS. My workflow is the same in every task:
- Understand what is required
- Change the SRS
- Close the task
Let’s try this step by step.
As a system analyst, my job is to understand what product owners (aka “requirements providers”) want and document their wishes. In most cases, their wants and wishes are very vague and chaotic. My job is to make them complete and unambiguous. That’s why the first step is to understand what is required.
First of all, I must determine who the product owner is before I can begin. The product owner signs the SRS, so I should pay complete attention to his opinions. However, my job is not only to listen, but also to suggest. A good system analyst can provoke creative thinking in a product owner by asking the right questions.
OK, now I that know the identity of the product owner, I need to talk to him. In XDSD, we don’t do any meetings, phone calls, or any other type of informal communications. Therefore, my only mechanism for receiving the information I need is with is—tickets.
I will submit new tickets, addressing them to the product owner. As there can be many product owners in a project, I must submit tickets that clearly state in the first sentence that the ticket pertains to questions for a particular owners. The person receiving the ticket will then determine the best person to answer it.
Thus, while working with a single task, I will submit many questions and receive many interesting answers. I’ll do all this in order to improve my understanding of the product the owners are developing.
When I understand how the SRS should be fixed, it is time to make changes in the Requs files.
The SRS document is generated automatically on every
build cycle. It is compiled from pieces called
.req files, which are usually
located in the
src/main/requs directory in a project repository.
My job, as a system analyst, is to make changes to some of these files and submit a pull request for review.
GitHub Guidelines explains [how to work with GitHub. However, in short, I need to:
- Clone the repository;
- Check out its copy to my computer;
- Make changes;
- Commit my changes;
- Push them to my remote fork;
- Submit a pull request
It doesn’t really matter which files I edit because Requs automatically composes
together all files with the
req extension. I can even add new files to the
directory—they will be picked up. Likewise, I can also add sub-
directories with files.
Before submitting a pull request, I will try to validate that my changes are syntactically and grammatically valid. I will compile Requs files into the SRS document using the same method our continuous integration server uses to compile them.
Before I can compile, though, I need to install JDK7 and Maven.
Afterwards, I make the following command line call in the project directory:
mvn clean requs:compile
After entering the commands, I expect to see the
BUILD SUCCESS message. If
not, there are some errors and I should fix them. My pull request won’t be
merged and I won’t be able to close the task if Requs can’t compile the files.
Once compiled, I can open the SRS in Firefox. It is in
target/requs/index.xml. Even though it is an XML file, Firefox
can open it as a webpage. Other browsers won’t work. Well, Google Chrome
will work, but only with this
Pull Request Review
Once all changes are finished, I will submit a pull request. A project manager will the assign someone to review my pull request and I will receive feedback.
In most cases, there will be at least a few corrections requested by the reviewer. Generally speaking, my requests are reviewed by other system analysts. Therefore, I must address all comments and make sure my changes satisfy the reviewer.
I will make extra changes to the same branch locally, and push them to GitHub. The pull request will be updated automatically, so I don’t need to create a new one.
Once the pull request is clean enough for the reviewer, he will merge it into
Close and Get Paid
Finally, my pull request is merged and I get back to the task owner. I tell him that the SRS was fixed and request that he review it. His original problem should be fixed by now—the SRS should provide the information required.
He then closes the task and the project manager pays me within a few hours.
PS. Also, check this article about a custom lexer for Jekyll, which I created in order to highlight Requs syntax in this blog post.