Talk About Quality

Tom Harris

I’m in Software

with one comment

When somebody asks me what I do and I say, “I’m in software”, or “I’m in computers”, they usually give me a “Oh, that’s nice,” but it’s clear they aren’t any wiser than before they asked. Why is that such a conversation-stopper? If you’re a lawyer or a doctor, people think they know, and jump right in.

Maybe that’s because lawyers deal with people and justice, or at least arguing, which sounds familiar. And doctors — well, everyone’s been to the doctor. The drama of dealing with people is what gets lawyer and doctor shows on TV, and I’ll be the first to admit that my picture of what they do comes straight from there. Really that means I have no clue.

After a bit of thought, I realize that software is more like art, if that helps.

(Right — saying you’re an artist is like saying you’re in software, only poorer.)

But really, it can help.

The solution to explaining what “I’m in software” means is to realize that software, and software development, is really three very different things. To the software developer, it is code — lists of instructions to make a generic machine behave in a specific way. To people in general, it is invisible: as mobile phone users, airplane travelers, or just people turning on the faucet and getting water, the world is full of things made of plastic and metal that behave or respond more actively than a cup or a pair of scissors. And finally, software development, the activity that goes on in a hi-tech software office, includes a good deal of accounting, scheduling, and event planning.

This triple personality parallels art. When someone tells you they’re an artist, do you think of paints, chemicals, brushes, and canvas? Or paintings on the wall? Or the business of running an art gallery?

I’m pretty sure most people hear “artist” and think of paintings. But the “what the artist does all day”, whether it’s looking, thinking, or carefully mixing paints, is invisible in the painting. We see the painting and know nothing about the work life of the artist.

So being in software, like being an artist, means doing something unseen to materials and creating interactive things that everybody then takes for granted.

Probably the only way forward for more people to understand what’s “in software” is to take them into the studio — the hi-tech office — and let them try their own hand at coding a mobile phone app. Or on the other hand, attending a project meeting.

Say, why aren’t those kinds of experiences available at the local computer or science museum — not playing with the things, but making them come alive?

John Hollar and Grady Booch, are you listening?

Written by Tom Harris

October 29, 2012 at 8:35 pm

Posted in Technology and Society, Work

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One Response

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  1. I’ve always thought “I’m in software” is such a lame response (despite having been guilty myself of saying exactly that at times), because it kind of implies (I think) that you work in a coding ghetto far away from the real business of the company. That is, surely it’s a way of saying “actually, I work in a gilded cage, divorced from the grimy business of making money from my craft, a completely secondary activity to which I give little substantial thought on a day to day basis”.

    Hmmm… no wonder people move on.😐

    Nick Pelling

    May 13, 2014 at 2:28 pm


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