PSP Break-down, part 2: Learning

This is part two of my evaluation of the Personal Software Process.  This time I'll be talking about the actual process of learning the PSP.  In case you haven't figured it out yet, it's not as simple as just reading the book.

Learning the PSP

The PSP is not the easiest thing to learn on your own.  It's a very different mindset than learning a new programming language or framework.  It's more of a "meta" thing.  It's about understanding your process: focusing not on what you're doing when you work, but rather how you're doing it.  It's also significantly less cut-and-dried than purely technical topics - not because the material is unclear, but simply because what constitutes the "best" process is inherently relative.

Given that, I suspect the best way to learn the PSP is though the SEI's two-part training course.  However, I did not do that.  Why not?  Because that two-part course takes two weeks and costs $6000.  If you can get your employer to give you the time and shell out the fee, then that would probably be great.  But in my case, that just wasn't gonna happen and the SAF (spouse acceptance factor) on that was too low to be viable.

Instead, I went the "teach yourself" route using the self-study materials from the SEI's TSP/PSP page.  You have to fill out a form with your contact information, but it's otherwise free.  These are essentially the materials from the SEI course - lecture slides, assignment kits, and other supplementary information.  It's designed to go along with the book, PSP: A Self-Improvement Process for Software Engineers, which serves as the basis for the course.  Thus my learning process was simply to read through the book and do the exercises as I went.

(As a side-note, remember that this is basically a college text-book, which means that it's not cheap.  Even the Kindle version is over $40.  I recommend just getting a used hardcover copy through Amazon.  Good quality ones can be had for around $25.)

Fair warning: the PSP course requires a meaningful investment of time.  There are a total of ten exercises - eight programming projects and two written reports (yes, I did those too, even though nobody else read them).  Apparently the course is designed around each day being half lecture, half lab, so you can count on the exercises taking in the area of four hours a piece, possibly much more.  So right there you're looking at a full work-week worth of exercises in addition to the time spent reading the book.

Personally, I spent a grand total of 55 hours on the exercises: 40 on the programming ones and 15 on the two reports (for the final report I analyzed not only my PSP project data, but data for some work projects I had done using the PSP).  While the earlier exercises were fairly straight-forward, I went catastrophically over my estimates on a couple of the later ones.  This was largely due partly to my misunderstanding of the assignment, and partly to confusion regarding parts of the process, both of which could easily have been averted if I'd had access to an instructor to answer questions.


 As I mentioned in the last post, you'll almost certainly want a support tool, even when you're just learning the PSP.  Again, there's a lot of information to track, and trying to do it on spreadsheets or (God forbid) paper is going to be very tedious.  Halfway decent tool support makes it manageable.

I ended up using Process Dashboard, because that seems to be the main (only?) open-source option. In fact, I don't think I even came across any other free options in my searches.  I understand other tools exist, but apparently they're not public, no longer supported, or just plain unpopular. 

One of the nice things that Process Dashboard offers is the ability to import canned scripts based on the PSP levels in the book.  To use that, you have to register with the SEI, just like when you download the PSP materials, which is annoying but not a big deal.  (The author got permission from the SEI to use their copyrighted PSP material and apparently that was their price.)  This is really handy for the learning process because it puts all the scripts right at your fingertips and handles all of the calculations for you at each of the different levels.

In terms of capabilities, Process Dashboard is actually pretty powerful.  The UI is extremely minimal - essentially just a status bar with some buttons to access scripts, log defects, pause the timer, and change phases.  Much of the interesting stuff happens in a web browser.  Process Dashboard runs Jetty, which means that it includes a number of web-based forms and reports that do most of the heavy lifting.  This includes generating estimates, entering size data, and displaying stock and ad hoc reports.

Process Dashboard has fairly extensive customization support, which is good, because one of the basic premises of the PSP is that you're going to need to customize it.  You can customize all the process scripts and web pages, the project plan summary report, the built-in line counter settings, the defect categories, etc.  And that's all great.  The one down side is that the configuration is usually done by editing XML files rather than using a graphical tool. 

Since this is an open-source developer tool, I guess that's sort of fine.  And at least the documentation is good.  But it's important to realize that you will need to spend some time reading the documentation.  It's a powerful tool and probably has just about everything you need, but it's not always easy to use.  On the up side, it's the sort of thing that you can do once (or occasionally) and not have to worry about again.  Just don't expect that you'll be able to fire up Process Dashboard from scratch and have all the grunt work just done for you.  There's still some learning curve and some work to do.  But if you end up using the PSP, it's worth it.

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