Talk About Quality

Tom Harris

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I’m in Software

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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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Software Developer

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That’s right, not “development” but “developer”.

The latest issue of The Embedded Muse newsletter—#179 (pdf)—has a reference to an interesting and very different kind of book about C. It’s about the business pressures and the thought processes of C software developers. And a lot more. It’s also long—1600 pages! So download a copy and skim for what interests you:

The New C Standard: An Economic and Cultural Commentary

Some lines that caught my eye, just in the first 100 pages, skimming with the “Page Down” key:

“Software developer interaction with source code occurs over a variety of timescales [for example, those] whose timescale are measured in seconds.”

“The act of reading and writing software has an immediate personal cost.”

“Source code faults are nearly always clichés; that is, developers tend to repeat the mistakes of others and their own previous mistakes.”

“A list of possible deviations should be an integral part of any coding guideline.”

“The following are different ways of reading source code, as it might be applied during code reviews …”

Other related references from the book’s author Derek M. Jones (http://www.knosof.co.uk/):

And somehow related, from another author, Les Hatton (http://www.leshatton.org/):

Written by Tom Harris

May 7, 2009 at 10:07 am

Posted in Technology and Society, Work

Tagged with ,

Work to Learn

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Maybe the answer for how to lead people — in order to get good products out on time — is simpler than we thought.

So much energy (some even in these pages) spent on figuring out how to fix defects, train people better, and improve quality.

How about this: focus all of your people’s energies on learning (as opposed to production) as the goal of their work, and high-quality production will follow by itself.

Just look around at your best people and ask if it isn’t so.

Written by Tom Harris

July 2, 2006 at 11:47 pm

Posted in Learning, Work