Talk About Quality

Tom Harris

Two Parts Human, One Part Machine

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With the enormous popularity of Google, who could resist an article in the New York Times (front page, four pages long!) about how Google Keeps Tweaking Its Search Engine? Maybe we’d learn some upcoming changes (hardly) or inner secrets (definitely not). But in among the intentionally vague references to formulas and advanced mathematics, the following caught my eye:

Mr. Singhal often doesn’t rush to fix everything he hears about, because each change can affect the rankings of many sites. “You can’t just react on the first complaint,” he says. “You let things simmer.”

So he monitors complaints on his white board, prioritizing them if they keep coming back.

Singhal is responsible for nothing less than Google’s search algorithm—surely a mixture of mathematics and magic.
The article also tells us that Google has a computerized problem-reporting system where

Any of Google’s 10,000 employees can use its “Buganizer” system to report a search problem, and about 100 times a day they do — listing Mr. Singhal as the person responsible to squash them.

So why is he prioritizing his work using… a whiteboard?

Change scenes now to Yahoo’s pragprog discussion list, where experienced developers discuss their craft. (You have to sign up to see the messages.) A few days ago someone asked for recommendations on the best tool for UML. The first answer from one of the members was:

“I’ve always found a pen and a large sheet of paper rather effective myself :)”

Software development is still largely a human activity. Planning is human. Design is human. Only some of coding gets down to the machine level.

Humans like and need simple, flexible tools that don’t hold much more than people can think about at once. With planning—in its essential activity of prioritizing—if you get more than 10-15 items, the bottom of the list never gets done. No point keeping them on the list at all. For that, even better than paper, the whiteboard comes with a great accessory: the eraser. Likewise with design: the important part is the discussion, the thinking out loud. Whiteboards go great in hallways for such work.

Yes, sooner or later there’s code, and compilers, and syntax, regression test suites and repeatable builds. For those machine activities, use computerized tools and scripted automation.

But for people, stick with the whiteboard.

Written by Tom Harris

June 4, 2007 at 12:03 am

Posted in Agile

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