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Tom Harris

Archive for February 2007

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

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Usually I just write my book reviews on Amazon, but this book is important enough that I wanted to post my review here too. Dreaming in Code by Scott Rosenberg.

We’re Not in Kansas Anymore

And we haven’t been for a long time. To hear Rosenberg tell it, we briefly entered modernity in the 1950’s with computer hardware, and then quickly regressed into an ironic Greek tragedy of software, where all of us spend our time playing either Sisyphus, fixing endless “bugs”, or Tantalus, finding on-time delivery methods just beyond our reach. Ironic because in this story, Sisyphus is often happy.

Dreaming in Code is not about coding. Nor is it fiction. It is disturbing, realistic fact. An outsider’s diary of a software project, blessed with a successful visionary leader—Mitch Kapor of Lotus 1-2-3 fame—and almost no resource constraints, which nevertheless exhibits all the “usual” problems.

Rosenberg competently brings in software history and references all in the field will recognize. More important, though, he shows software to be one of those great advances that is fraught with deadly imperfections. Like, say, hospitals, or automobile travel.

To software people. You can keep your eyes closed, come to work, and enjoy dreaming in code. Or you can wake up for a day and read this book.

(An extra note, since I’ve read some of the reviews, including those on the back cover. Some miss the point. This book is not about the Chandler project, nor should members of apparently successful software projects ignore it lightly. It is also not a disguised methodology book on how to develop software. It is about our expectations from software and from ourselves, to show us ourselves in a mirror and raise questions.)

To everyone else. I haven’t the slightest idea what non-software people will think reading this book. But Rosenberg has made it accessible, using few technical terms and explaining them simply. So you owe it to yourself to look here. And we need your insight— don’t leave the field just to us.


I remember back in the 60’s and 70’s, a two-sentence conversation I often used to have with people outside of the computer (software) field, when space adventure movies (I’m thinking of Kubrick’s “2001“) were popular:

Them: Gosh, imagine what it would be like out on a spaceship, depending only on a computer for life support.

Me: You don’t have to imagine anymore. We are both on one right now.


Written by Tom Harris

February 18, 2007 at 2:06 am

Posted in Technology and Society

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The Practicing Developer

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I’ve often thought about the advantage that athletes and musicians have over software developers: time to practice—lots of it. Most time is spent in exercises and rehearsals, to produce the best peformance.

In software, everyone spends most of the time producing, with a bit of “time off” for learning new technologies. No wonder perfection seems so far off.

A friend pointed out that Dave Thomas has proposed CodeKata as a way of doing that practice. I read it, and while the ideas look good, I felt there was something missing. The “katas” (formal patterns in karate, and here, in design and coding) seemed somehow schoolwork-like and disconnected from real work. I could only imagine myself “practicing” on assignments where I needed the result, even if for something trivial like importing a bunch of e-mails into SharePoint (more about that another time).

I don’t have an answer today, but the question is much bigger than just finding time to practice in software development. So instead, have a look at these posts and presentations where people are discussing the issue, and see what you think.

Level 5 means never having to say you’re sorry (Jeff Atwood)

Big Macs vs. The Naked Chef (Joel Spolsky)

No Best Practices (James Bach)

Herding Racehorses and Racing Sheep (.ppt) (The Pragmatic Programmer)

Competence is a Habit (.ppt) (David Leach)

Written by Tom Harris

February 13, 2007 at 12:03 pm