A long comment

Last Monday I read DJ Adam’s blog post about GraphQL and how this tool might be useful to be added to the toolbox of SAP UI5 developers.
There is a lively discussion over the blog’s topics going on and most of it was around the GraphQL technology and its potential usage in UI5.
I added a comment to this and Mr Adams used this to hook me in for a blog post.
So here we are.

As someone that read through the discussion somewhat uninvolved since I am not doing any front-end development what stroke me was the narrow focus of it.
Why was there no question about how this added tool would likely make a change to the development projects and teams? Reading a bit deeper in the linked blog post from Jeff Handley a lot of the arguments are not about technology, features and implementation details but about how the tool is helping the product development teams to do their jobs better.
To me, it seems like a rather typical SAP technology discussion, where “THE TOOL”, “THE PLATFORM” or “THE SUITE” is the bit that will make the difference between successful developments and the other ones.

Now, while I am a sucker for great tools like the next person, I am in the corner of folks that believe “it’s the photographer that makes the great picture – not the camera“. Technology can help with many problems but if one does not have a clear understanding what problem needs solving simply picking up the lastest-greatest-shiniest tool likely means the wrong tool is used and/or used in a wrong way.

One example I mentioned in my comment hinged on the “declarative” nature of GraphQL. I do not know how GraphQL works specifically but I have some experience with how declarative programming works in many SAP shops.
The main declarative language present in these organisations is SQL. ABAP programs use it, SAP HANA models have it (in some way) and the analytics teams are constantly building “queries”.

My point is that this typically does not work too well.
Invariably I come across data models and queries that show the developers tried to “tell the database what to do“. And that even though the very same developers commonly do neither have a proper understanding of how the database works nor how to understand what it actually does in the first place.
Still, “that index needs to be used!” and “this hint is crucial for the performance“!

I cannot claim to know for sure why this is, but I got some suspicions:

  • often ABAP/SAP developers moved into their roles horizontally from either the “tech support” or from the “business support” team. That means great familiarity with the organisation’s landscape and processes but does not guarantee a firm grasp of the concepts implemented in the technology.
  • education and learning of abstract concepts is not a common activity in SAP development teams as there is no immediate payoff.
  • the official SAP technology documentation and training is focussed on functions and features and actively avoids concepts and broader ideas.
  • training content often focusses on simplistic examples leaving out real-world complex scenarios

This is not to say that it is the development team’s fault – but a lot of the IT technology that SAP has embraced in recent years requires a comprehension of the underlying concepts. Most of those concepts tend to be more involved than computation “mechanics” and cannot be intuitively understood correctly.
“Learning by example”, which I would bet is the most prevalent learning style in SAP environments, only goes so far if one is trying to get a hold on new non-trivial ideas.

Coming back to the GraphQL discussion to me this looks like another tool that will be “used the wrong way without error messages” if at all. Will the majority of development teams be able to realize the same benefits as the Concur team? I doubt that.
Will the choice of tool make a difference to the outcome for the organisation in a way that makes a difference to the organisation? Probably not.

If one squints now, it is pretty obvious that this is the “full-stack developer is dead” argument from some years ago.

So why would I be putting this into the ring here? Because it holds true so well – especially with SAP tech environments.
We (SAP) have tried to hammer in the idea of “push down” and “processing where the data sits” for years now, still most teams I encounter think “business logic” == “ABAP/JavaScript” and subsequentially get surprised when the DB access does not deliver the expected speed ); after all it’s the new tool, HANA, right?
Understand that this is just one example of the issue here.
It could have also been ABAP OO, SOAP architecture, or Virtual Data Models. Common with all these tools is that they are going to be used by the very same people that used to do “things the proven way” for many good years.
Common also is that the creators of those tools usually have a very different view and probably assume too much conceptual overlap with their audience. If you ever listened to one of the gurus of “Graph DBs”, “Docker” or “Haskell” you probably know that feeling of conceptual dissonance from your day to day work.

This gives a lead into another aspect of the discussion around DJ Adams’ blog post: the argument that it would “help to get more developers to SAP platforms” if GraphQL (or any other currently popular tool) would be available.
When I read claims like that I wonder if there are any organisations that use IT as part of their established infrastructure and that then go and swap out major parts of it, because some developers like the new parts better.
In my personal experience that never happens. Sure, the new marketing hero gets the reporting frontend s/he needs to be successful – but that is closely tied to tangible results.
If developers cannot show how the end result will be (very) positively affected in concrete, preferably short terms, then existing tools tend to stay in place.

Change is hard, slow and expensive and the ticket for this journey really must be worth it. And commonly the new lands look a lot nicer from a good distance.

2 thoughts on “A long comment”

  1. Hey Lars, thanks for the long comment / post. Food for thought. It’s interesting how different folks pick up on different aspects of a discussion.

    Whatever the context, I do think that discussion – whether that’s down the pub or in a formal setting, or somewhere in between – is usually of benefit, whether we end up taking action or not. For me at least, it adds a richness, and is valuable in getting other folks’ perspectives (like from you with this blog post, too).

    Talking of your perspective, I do agree that there’s technology, and there are people. And sometimes the step change in technology, especially in the early days, is too great a leap for people to immediately take. Add to that the fact that humans are largely creatures of habit and it takes explicit effort to change, and you get the situation that you describe.

    Your thoughts on declarative language are interesting, especially the references to SQL. There’s a balance between giving developers power to “override” (“use THIS index!”) and persuading them to specify only the what, not the how.

    I will need to read your post again in a while, to digest it better, but for now, thank you!

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