BPM tools for developer rules and cobblers' broods

While there is much concern about creating BPM tools for end users, are we overlooking the development side? At Rules Fest 2010, rules maven Brian Jones discussed the architectural issues with rules-based systems for BPM today.

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While there is much concern about creating BPM tools for end users, are we overlooking the development side? Or, are developers overlooking ready aids? Are developers like the cobbler's children who have no shoes even though their parent is a shoemaker?

One expert thinks this is the case.

Architects and civil engineers have AutoCAD, accountants have Excel - rules-based "expert systems," if you will, built by software developers who themselves used traditional tools and techniques, like text editors, that haven't changed much since the 1960s, according to Brian Jones.

In his talk at the recent Rules Fest, he likened software developers to the cobbler's children. "The cobbler is busy making shoes for everyone else. Where is the expert system in helping us build the expert systems?"

While tools like VisualStudio are powerful, he said, you still have to manage procedural code by hand.

"You have to do things in the right order," he notes, but continues, "Why am I having to worry about the order in which I pass messages to the environment? Why am I writing XML for descriptors? Why do I have to write XML?"

Jones, co-founder of Grindwork Corp., a Las Vegas, Nev.-based consultancy and tool maker that specializes in AI technology and complex task automation, said he's been asking questions like these for a while. "It's not a technology or educational problem. Developers are smart enough, but there's a mental block that says we have to build software this way because that's how it's always done," he said. "They get upset if you ask why-it's a religious issue."

A similar quagmire impacts rules-based processes like BPM and BMPN, he said. "When you try to orchestrate business, most business processes are in the heads of business employees. As soon as you try to pull it out of their heads you step into realm of silos and partisanship." The bottom line, he said, is "humans shouldn't do repetitive tasks." A smart machine or assistant "doesn't replace humans, but makes them more efficient."

Jones credits the intentional programming movement, driven early on by Charles Simonyi at Microsoft Research, was "very much in right direction. I hoped it would make it into VisualStudio."

But Jones said developers don't need new tools, they just need to use the tools they have. "If you're using Drools, use Drools to generate descriptors for J2EE applications."

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