by Leon Rosenshein

The -ilities

In software engineering there are lots of different kinds of requirements. There are the functional ones. They are the obvious ones that describe what the software is supposed to do. There are less obvious ones, that talk about what the software should do when something goes wrong. Then there are business requirements, like time to market and operational costs. And finally there’s a whole set of requirements that have nothing to do with how the software should work, or when it should be ready. Instead,  talk about how the software should be designed.

These are the non-functional requirements (NFRs). The things that you need to think about when you design the system, not just the code. The NFRs are a set of nouns that describe the quality attributes of the system. You’ll often hear them called the -ilities since many of them and that way.

It’s usually easier to build a system that meets the functional requirements if you ignore the NFRs. And if you were only going to build one version, and only build it once, that might be the right thing to do. Because most of the -ilities are talking about things in the future. Operational things like reliability, scalability, and adaptability. If you don’t have to run it, grow it, or change it to meet future needs, why bother thinking about that or being able to handle it?

You shouldn’t. On the other hand, if you only have a rough idea of the current requirements, and notion of which direction things are going to go in the future it behooves you to not box yourself in a corner. But there are lots of -lities, so how do you know which ones are important and which ones aren’t?

Well, it depends. It depends on what you know, what you don’t know, and unfortunately, on what you don’t know that you don’t know. So how do you decide? How do you architect the system so that you choose the right NFRs, and then use them to both add customer value and keep from painting yourself into a corner?

There’s no simple answer, but there are guidelines. Domain Driven Design helps you find the clear boundaries between things so that you can change one thing without needing to change everything. Test Driven Design helps you know that anything you do need to change still works the same as it did before. Working with subject matter experts on a Ubiquitous Language for your system helps ensure that you’re solving the right problems and that everyone is talking about the same thing.

And finally, having enough adaptability in your system to adjust to new learnings and requirements as they are discovered. And that means not just adaptability in the system design, but in the overall process so that you can make the changes you need without having to fight the system.