Talk About Quality

Tom Harris

Why We Write Software

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“Isn’t it nice to know that, when all else fails us, we have an innate decision-making tool to fall back on?”

Robert L. Glass, “Intuition’s Role in Decision Making” (IEEE Software, January/February 2008)

Yes, Glass admits, estimates that come unbidden from a manager’s subconscious seem the very opposite of quantitative or rational. But most decision-making methods have a common theme: using historical data to decide what to do next. Quantitative estimation puts everything out in the open. Rational support for a desired deadline is at least based on the facts. Intuition, at the other extreme, pulls that data, informally known as “experience”, from the subconscious. And since a good manager has experience, intuition works.

Sort of.

What’s hidden by Glass’ essay are the unstated quality standards that justify each method. Only a complete, quantitative estimate, matched by continuous measurement and adjustment, can promise high quality by the target date. Intuition, on the other hand, even coming from an experienced manager, makes quality likely, but hardly guaranteed. His successes are what keep him in his job, and his few failures are forgiven. Rightly so. He is employed to deliver good enough software, quickly, to meet modern society’s ever-growing appetite for computerized life.

So should we favor intuitive, seat-of-the-pants estimating, with its benefit of early delivery, but its cost of uncertain quality?

Digging deeper, we find that there are some very different reasons why we write software, which strongly influence how we plan our work.

  1. Profit
  2. Functionality
  3. Beauty

Anyone who gets paid for writing commercial software must acknowledge that profit pays his or her salary. Profit leads eventually to pretty good quality, via competition. In the short run, though, we experience a lot of pressure, a lot of errors, and many customer-accepted (if sometimes societally unacceptable) failures. In that context, it seems, we should estimate quickly and intuitively, but admit that quality is expendable.

In a well-funded, non-profit organization (e.g. NASA, famed for error-free software — wholly separate from failure-free flights), software can be about complete functionality. Take as much time as needed to implement everything, perfectly. After all, when the spaceship flies past Jupiter, there’s no second chance.

Where, then, is guaranteed perfection, estimated correctly and delivered quickly? The only place we see that in life is artistic performance. A pianist plays, from memory, a piece that she only decided a few months ago to perform. An hour long, no mistakes. The event starts, and finishes, on time. The customer — the audience — rises to its feet in noisy appreciation. The enabler of perfection is seeking beauty, or doing a thing for its own sake.

Many software developers write software because it’s beautiful, fun, or spiritually rewarding. And that reason engenders the highest-quality work. A quality that delivers on time, with no costly rework. Functionality. Profit too.

Somehow, in the commercial context, that reason why we write software must be harnessed and encouraged by software managers. Otherwise, dismissing a developer’s data with an intuitive estimate is not a fall-back, but falling backwards.

Written by Tom Harris

February 15, 2008 at 11:26 am

Posted in Technology and Society

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