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Originally published in The Smalltalk Report, May 1996.
Beware the Octopus
by Jan Steinman
We paid a visit to
MegaCorp the other day to
see how Aaron
Blake's new Smalltalk project was getting on. We didn't have much
time with Aaron before a major requirements meeting. There was some
small talk about the weather as we walked from reception to the
departmental meeting room, then
Barbara asked, "So,
everything fine with the project these days?"
"We've been attacked by octopi," he exclaimed in exasperation,
shaking his head and throwing his hands in the air. He reacted to our
puzzled looks only by saying, "few minutes, you'll see what I mean!"
as we entered the meeting room.
MegaCorp MIS Director
Andrea Saunders had just
introduced the first speaker, an owlish looking
accounting type. He put a slide on the overhead.
Figure 1: MegaCorp Accounting Requirements
"... and so in closing, I must stress that it is essential that
objectification of the central MegaCorp information function must
continue to support the Master Records Processor module and the key
report generational subsystems." Several bobbing heads snapped to
dazed attention as the lights came on.
"We will certainly keep the needs of Accounting in mind as we
proceed with the transition plan," said Andrea,
can give us an idea on legacy maintenance planning?"
"Accounting is certainly important, but it's one piece of the
picture," Jake began as he placed his opening slide on the overhead
Figure 2: MegaCorp Information Systems Requirements
"I knew I was coming on after Linus, so I highlighted accounting's
important part in this by coloring it red," Jake continued.
"Did you know the octopus turns red when it is angry?" Aaron
whispered during the presentation. "Linus and Jake are always
battling over what function is more central to MegaCorp. It started a
few years ago during down sizing, but it's continued even through the
"The bottom line is that the MIS Infrastructure's central role in
MegaCorp best enables it to be of service to all departments during
this period of transition to object oriented technology." Jake
returned to his seat as the lights once again came on.
"Well, if there are no more questions for Jake," Andrea said, "I
believe he has someone from his technical staff here to show us some
more detail -- Jake?"
Jake half rose from his seat, saying "Yes,
Denny Hicks is here today to
show us the architecture we're planning to use during transition --
take it away, Denny!"
Denny was your typical bright, but
introverted, computer nerd. He bashfully shuffled forward with his
slides in one hand and a trembling coffee mug in the other. Jake
helped him put his first slide on the screen.
Figure 3: Central Information Management Processing
"First, entry of a sale creates a sales record object," began
Denny with quavering voice, "which CIMPR" (Denny pronounced it
"simper") "sends to the weekly receivables report object and
marketing report object, and logs it against the salesman's employee
record object for commission tracking."
"Look out, dofleini
everywhere!," whispered Aaron.
"I don't know," hissed
Trigger Larsen, Aaron's best
technical whiz, "It looks pretty
vulgarus to me!" Aaron and
Trigger shared an interest in marine biology, but unfortunately
Trigger did not share Aaron's sense of polite discretion, nor was he
always able to leave things on the racquetball court. Denny had
trounced him yesterday, and he was still smarting.
"If those are objects, what kind of behavior do
they have?" Trigger piped up. Heads turned, Jake scowled, and Denny
stammered and trembled, spilling the cafeteria's inky black coffee on
"Looks like our octopus is trying to hide," murmured Trigger,
completely without remorse.
"Hush up and listen!" scolded
Aaron, "you'll be in the hot seat in a few minutes, and you'd better
be prepared for the issues these people are raising, which are just
as valid as they would be if they had a clue about objects!"
Denny actually managed to do quite well now that his slides were
ruined. The lights came on, he put his hands in his pockets, stared
at the ceiling, and briefly, simply described the transitional system
he and Jake had cooked up. The key point was that they had struggled
to decouple data from processing. The legacy systems being phased out
were mazes of spaghetti, with in line database calls scattered
"Looks good!" said Andrea, as she shot an icy glance at Trigger.
"Now Aaron is going to give us a run down on the end architecture
that we're shooting for."
A Cure For Centralitis
Aaron walked empty handed to the front of the room and turned off
the slide projector. He began in a quiet voice, and side discussions
hushed as people strained to listen.
"... are not best served by highly centralized
functions, but rather by a society of collaborating objects," Aaron
began. "Objects are specialists, and we're going to have to change
not only our technology, but our whole way of thinking about our
business functions and processes. Linus, your reports are vital to
you and the departments you serve, but we must learn to think of them
as transient artifacts -- mere side effects of the communication
"Jake, you know the PC revolution is turning things up-side down.
We will need to distribute data processing for marketing, sales,
purchasing, and accounting over a variety of platforms in different
departments. You've already taken the first step, by separating the
'what' from the 'how,' but now we're going to have to put them
together again in much smaller pieces, so MegaCorp isn't dependent on
a central MIS group. Don't worry about jobs, though -- there's going
to be plenty of work to do! But we're going to be much more effective
at doing it by using Smalltalk for distribution of 'right sized'
"How many salesmen don't have a pretty good idea what their
commission is? Denny, wouldn't it be nice if the SalesAgent object
'made' the sale, and told a MarketWatcher object about it, who would
go around gathering up similar data from other SalesAgents? Then all
you'd have to do is query the MarketWatcher whenever you wanted to,
even if the machine that runs CIMPR happens to be down!"
"We're all making good progress here -- sometimes it takes many
little steps to make a big change. But remember that the weaknesses
of centralized processes are what caused us to look at Smalltalk in
the first place!"
"Thank you, Aaron!" Andrea smiled. She was glad she put him on
last, even though everybody came to the meeting wanting to find out
what all this Smalltalk stuff was all about. Leading with the new
would have been disaster, because people view the new through old
biases, but by letting them voice their concerns early, she was able
to assure them that there was a path forward.
The meeting broke up, and
Jan, Aaron, and Trigger
headed over to the nearby Red Coach (affectionately called the "Dead
Roach" among MegaCorp cognoscente) for lunch.
"What's the special today," Aaron asked the waitress.
"Kalamari," she replied. "No thanks!" we all shouted in unison,
then burst out laughing. She looked at us as if we were from Mars,
saying "Why don't you take a few more minutes to decide; I'll be
Octopus dofleini is the giant North
Octopus vulgarus is the much smaller
Go to the previous column in the
series, or the next
column in the series.